Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative game for 3-7 players. Each player controls one of the Arthurian knights of the round table and it's everyone's collective goal to defend Camelot from the many dangers which threaten it.
Component-wise there's a lot to Shadows Over Camelot (four boards, two card decks, a handful of plastic miniatures, seven player cards and dice) but the game is really quite simple at heart and is driven by the two decks—the white and the black. The white deck represents the strengths and abilities of the knights and is largely made up of "fight" cards which are numbered 1 through 5. The black deck represents the challenges and troubles besetting Camelot and the majority of these are played on a specific quest (the Pict/Saxon wars, the Quest for Excalibur, etc.) It's these quests that are the main concern in the game because it's only through their successful completion that the players can win. Each quest has a bonus/penalty for its completion/failure (the loss or gain of lives or cards, etc.) but most important is whether good (white) or black (evil) swords are added to the round table. The game ends once at least 12 swords have been placed and unless most of them are white, the knights have failed and Camelot falls to evil. Making things even harder is the fact that there are two other ways that the game can be lost—all the knights dying or 12 siege engines attacking Camelot.
Play itself is quite simple and involves a player performing one "evil" action; placing a siege engine, sacrificing one of their life points or drawing and playing a black card. Having done so, he may then perform one good action; moving to a quest, drawing cards, playing cards on a quest, etc. Each character also has a special ability and learning how best to use it will go a long way to achieving victory.
There is one big wrinkle in all this and that's the fact that it's possible that one of the players is actually a traitor and is secretly working against the others. Not every game will have a traitor (you secretly draw cards at the start to determine your loyalty) but the mere possibility tends to cloud your perceptions of what the other players are really up to. Your hand of cards will dictate your actions to a large degree but you are limited in what you can tell your fellow players. This often means that they'll get suspicious when you fail to take what seems to them to be the best action. This psychological element adds much to the game, so much so that it would be significantly less interesting without it. This is mainly due to the fact that the real challenge in Shadows Over Camelot is not the quests but coordinating your actions with your fellow knights. The fact that you can't always trust them adds layers of interest to the game.
While the traitor is a very novel feature, it is not without its problems. Foremost is the fact that the game is much more difficult with a traitor than without. As such, you really do want a traitor in every game but it would actually be less interesting if it this was always the case. This may seem counter intuitive but it does make sense. If you know there's a traitor, it's simply a case of figuring out who it is. It's much more interesting when you are plagued with suspicion and angst. There is a variant included that increases the possibility of a traitor (especially with fewer players) and I suspect that it will become a standard for experienced players.
It's natural to compare this game with Knizia's cooperative Lord of the Rings. I enjoy both but where I think Shadows Over Camelot has the upper hand is its element of story-telling, I found it far easier to visualize the events in Camelot than in Middle Earth. In Lord of the Rings I feel as though I'm playing cards; in Shadows Over Camelot, I'm fighting Lancelot! For whatever reason, the mechanisms feel less abstract and it's easier to throw yourself into the narrative that the game is creating. I think this aspect is more important in a cooperative game than a competitive one and it works pretty well here. This is somewhat surprising to me because when it comes right down to it, your moves in both games are pretty similar (and very abstract). Since I'm a much bigger fan of Tolkien than Malory it cannot be that I feel closer to a favoured setting. So, I can offer little in the way of justifying why I think the narrative of Shadows Over Camelot works better, I can only state that that's been my experience.
Another important aspect of any "story-telling" game is how well it increases tension as it nears its climax. Thus far, Shadows Over Camelot has worked very well in this regard; having three ways to lose the game goes a long way to ensuring this. For example, in one game we were doing very well with swords (10 white, 0 black) but very nearly lost the game due to siege engines. This did present an odd situation (one which has been repeated several times) in which we were desperate to fail a quest so that the game would end in victory. Despite the thematic problems with this, these games were quite satisfying and provided an excellent story.
So far I've really enjoyed the games I've played and on the strength of these, I'd recommend it whole-heartedly. However, I do have a nagging worry that it will suffer with extended plays. Why is this so? Well, I think the game is more enjoyable when it's difficult—the best times were had when we were really up against the wall. The (very few) times in which we had it easy were rather anti-climatic. As I mentioned earlier, the most difficult task is learning how to coordinate your moves with your fellow players and I think this will improve greatly with experience. Normally this would be a good thing but I'm not sure that that's the case here. Once your group discovers efficient ways to play, the simple (and rather random) nature of the mechanisms becomes much more apparent. In many ways this mimics a computer game in which a player is at first challenged by the artificial intelligence but learns to exploit and overcome a system that is unable to adapt. Unfortunately this may also mean that Shadows Over Camelot suffers the same "lifecycle" of a computer game—challenging as you learn how best to play but boring once you've attained a certain level of mastery. The fact that it's multi-player helps a bit (the inclusion of "poor" players creates a challenge for those with more experience) as does the possibility of a traitor.
The graphic design and presentation is up to Days of Wonder's standard which is to say, sumptuous. The illustrations on the board and cards are excellent and evocative. The plastic figures are well detailed and nicely cast. There is one area where the graphic design does fail though and that's with the pre-printed "slots" for cards on the board. These spaces very closely match the cards so it is difficult to differentiate between an empty and a filled slot (see picture above). It would have been much better if the slots were printed in a more muted colour or style. The Grail quest works much better in this regard as the cards played there are very easy to distinguish. In any case it's a minor problem and those seeking a good looking game will be most pleased.
Despite my concerns about the longevity of the game, it has been very well received by those with whom I have played. Being a cooperative game means that you're happiest not with a victory but when the game has produced memorable events or a pleasing storyline. Shadows Over Camelot has thus far done an excellent job of this and so it must be counted as a success.
- Greg Aleknevicus