Friday, May 18, 2007

Shadows over Camelot

A couple of weekends ago at the Games Club of Maryland Game Days, I had a memorable time playing Shadows Over Camelot (SOC) with a group of friends. SOC is the rare "cooperative" game where the players team up to beat the game itself. (The other notable cooperative game is Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings, where up to five players play against the corrupting influence of the One Ring in their bid to defeat Sauron.)

The goal in SOC is for the Knights of the Round Table to acquire seven White Swords by accomplishing various quests like finding the Holy Grail or defeating the Black Knight. Each player represents a different Knight, each with a unique ability. I was Sir Percival, whose special power is to peek at the top card of the Black deck every turn. To my left, my daughter, Rachel, was King Arthur. All told, we had the full complement of seven players (Bob, Rachel, Carol, Eric Haas, Eric Reinhold, Laura Reinhold, and David Raley) which, in my opinion, is the optimal number to make SOC especially fun.

At the start of each turn, a player must help the "progression of evil" by taking one of three actions that hurts the Knights: drawing a Black card with bad effects, removing one of their own life points, or adding a siege engine to besiege Camelot. If all the Knights die, 12 siege engines assail the walls, or a certain number of Black Swords appear on the Round Table, the forces of good (the players) lose. Once they've done the progression, a Knight will go forth on a quest which takes several turns of cardplay to complete. Successful quests heap rewards and White Swords on the Knights while defeat adds Black Swords and brings the Kingdom ever closer to ruin.

What makes SOC work as a game is that one of the players may secretly be a traitor, working against the rest of the Knights. This player wins a solo victory if the Kingdom falls to darkness. A traitor isn't a certainty, though, so a group of all loyal knights can be torn apart by mere suspicions. This uncertainty makes the game a blast to play.

I had played SOC probably seven or eight times previously and never been the Traitor. This time, however, when I peaked at my allegiance card I was thrilled to see that I was at long last a disloyal rat. Huzzah! What's more, as Sir Percival, I would know when drawing a Black card would be the most devastating. Excellent (Burns' voice).

The trick to playing the traitor is to undermine the group without them figuring out that you're working against them. If they unmask you, it adds a white sword and curtails your ability to screw with them. If you're undetected, there are all kinds of nasty tricks you can pull. It's a delicate balance.

First up for me was joining a group of Knights searching for the Holy Grail. After playing only one card on this quest, the group decided that someone needed to address the growing threat of a Saxon invasion. I volunteered and transferred to the new quest, wasting a turn doing so. After playing one card against the Saxons, I could play no more and once again had to transfer to a new quest, wasting more time. I pretty much maneuvered ineffectively this way the entire game.

What helped me early on was my wife, Carol, misremembering a rule that threw suspicion of being the Traitor on her. At one point I almost (falsely, of course) accused her, which would have added a Black Sword to the table. I decided to hold back for fear she would accuse me right back, especially since Carol has a knack for making accurate accusations in this game. Fortunately for me, suspicions then fell on David Raley and Eric Haas so no one ever uncovered my duplicity.

Another help for me was the Knights' early success in finding the Holy Grail. While finding the Grail is generally a big positive for the group, if it happens too early it can be problematic as all Despair cards subsequently drawn add a siege engine. Indeed, it became clear fairly early that if I were to be victorious, it wouldn't be through killing all the Knights or adding Black Swords to the table; twelve siege engines would be required.

As the Saxon menace grew, the Loyal Knights were hard-pressed. The number of siege engines had swelled to ten. One additional Saxon card would mean their victory and add two more siege engines! Alas, Carol valiantly wiped out the Saxons while others pounded a couple of siege engines to splinters, dashing my immediate hopes. The White Swords were accumulating quickly and, for a while, it was looking pretty good for the Knights. Fortunately for me, the Knights were getting weak, many down to just one life point.

Finally, with the number of siege engines again at ten, it was my turn. I opted to draw a card which added the eleventh engine. My excuse was that were I to remove a life point, half of the players at the table would die if a particular card was drawn. We would surely lose if half our number were deceased. Rachel's turn was next and her card draw also added a siege engine, the twelfth. No one could do anything about it and the Knights of Camelot were finished. I loudly and triumphantly revealed my status as Traitor and proclaimed victory. Huzzah! Huzzah!

Played with the right group of people, SOC is great fun. In this particular game, everyone played well, with spirit and humor, there was much back and forth of fortunes, and a good deal of intrigue over who was the Traitor. I daresay it was the most fun I've ever had playing Shadows Over Camelot.