As I’ve said before, I’ve wanted to play Shadows Over Camelot for quite a long time. Two and a half years, probably. This desire hit a fairly significant road block in that neither I nor anyone I knew owned the game, and the price tag on the box discouraged whim-purchase.
I thought I’d found a loophole in February when I bought it for a buddy’s birthday, but it was not to be – he and I were both interested, but the familiarity of Catan lured in all of our playmates and when he went back to NYC, he took the game with him. The nerve.
But a few weeks ago, my darling wife picked up a copy we’d put on reserve, and I basically commandeered Dave’s impromptu game day on Saturday by walking in, pulling out the box, and setting up without so much as a by your leave.
So we set up, and I read aloud through all the rules (kudos to everyone for staying awake), and we played.
The basic game works like this.
- Each player (minimum of 3, maximum of 7) plays a Knight of the Round Table – one of the named ones that you’d probably recognize.
- You begin in Camelot, around the Round Table.
- All around Camelot, forces array themselves to bring the Kingdom down. Seriously, there are more things trying drag down Camelot than there are knights to deal with them; (1) Saxons continually raid from the sea, (2) Picts raid from the forests, (3) the armies of Morgan and Mordred assemble Siege Engines to storm the castle, (4) the Black Knight challenges the might of the knights, (5) Despair of ever finding the Grail grows, (6) Excalibur is lost in the Lake, and might never be recovered, (7) Lancelot has abandoned Camelot, and will aid the King only indirectly… if confronted by a knight who can best him in combat, and (8) oh yeah, there’s a dragon.
- King Arthur goes first, unless no one’s playing him, in which case the youngest player goes first.
- On your turn, Something Bad Happens. For Something Bad, you either (1) draw from The Bad Deck (black cards) and do whatever it says (for instance, strengthen the Black Knight, Strengthen Lancelot, Grow the Pict or Saxon armies, increase Grail Despair, et cetera – or there’s some REALLY evil things that can happen, usually associated with Morgan, Mordred, or the Queen), (2) place a siege engine around Camelot (see the picture), or (3) lower your own Life by 1 to prevent anything else bad from happening.
- Once Something Bad Happens, you then do Something Heroic. These heroic things are usually things that act in direct opposition to the Bad Things: Seek the Grail, face off against the Black Knight, lead forces against the Saxons, try to get Excalibur, simply destroy siege engines around Camelot (not at all easy), and things like that.
- Once you’re done with your turn, play proceeds clockwise to the next Knight, and that simple cycle repeats.
Each of those Threats is basically a nigh-Sisyphean task. For example: you and several other knights might be working like crazy to collect White “Grail” cards to accumulate eight and finish that Grail quest, but EVERY SINGLE time a knight goes, Something Bad Happens, and if they draw a black “Despair” card, then “poof” goes the latest Grail card, and the balance swings back the way of Failure. That same teeter-totter action is happening all over the Kingdom, with slight variations.
And you can’t just place Siege Engines instead – if 12 accumulate around the Castle, then Camelot falls, and they’re damnably hard to eliminate once they’re on the board.
Winning the quests is the way to victory, but each one of those quests requires significant effort. Worse, some of those quests are perpetual (you can defeat the Black Knight, but he’ll just hold another tourney once he recovers; you can defeat the Picts and the Saxons, but they’ll just attack again next year); while others, even when won, cause the forces of Evil to redouble their efforts (once you have the Grail, any “Grail Despair” cards instead become “add another Siege Engine to the board” cards, for example).
So you can really band together to win a quest, but if you do, (a) you’re ignoring other forces attacking Camelot, and (b) once the Big Quests are won, they increase the rate of assault on Camelot.
You can spread out to handle everything at once, but then it’s a war of attrition. It’s a tricky thing to balance.
And by “Tricky” I mean to say “we played it twice and got our butts kicked both times.” Some successful tactics did present themselves, but we weren’t quite putting it all together yet.
That said, it seemed as though fun was had, and there was a strong opinion – dare I say a smoldering fire burning in the eyes of the failed knights – indicating that more play of the game lies in our future.
Then what? What happens when we finally eke out a victory and save Camelot?
Then we finally play the FULL game.
The version where one of the knights is a Traitor.