“I bleed and take another action.”

There is a kind of magic in sacrifice.

No, I don’t mean literal magical sacrifices with babies and goats and stuff like that.[1] I’m talking about taking one for the team to bring said team that much closer to victory. That kind of thing earns mad respect, right?

You see this in all kinds of media — the guy who grimly deals with all the horrible stuff happening to him and voluntarily takes on more pain because it’s the only way to win — in film, Harrison Ford basically made a career out of it; Bruce Willis too, for that matter. In fiction, you’ve got your Frodos and Sams, your Celanawes.[2] In gaming, you’ve the Grey Wardens (Dragon Age), the Mouse Guard (Mouse Guard), or the game I stole this post title from, Shadows Over Camelot.

I’ve talked about Shadows Over Camelot before, so I’m not going to rehash the gameplay, and really this isn’t about the gameplay except for one small part of it.

SOC is a game where you work with the other players cooperatively against the game itself (yes, there’s a chance that there’s a traitor in your midst, but that doesn’t change the basic framework). During each person’s turn, something bad happens, and then you do something good. Something heroic. Just one thing.

However, if you choose to, you can take an additional action on your turn.

All you gotta do is bleed.

You’ve got a few life points (default is 4) and if you take a hit to that score (which, at our table, is referred to as “bleeding”), you can take another action.

We played this game this weekend, and I observed something during play that I’ve seen every single other time we’ve played — a grunt of acknowledgement and appreciation when someone chooses to do this. A respectful primate chest-thumping, if you will.

Strategically, there are good and bad times to do this — it’s pointless just to get around the board more quickly, but if you can join a quest and then ‘bleed’ to save said quest from failure (good) or complete it (better), well… you’re awesome. That particular game is, to me, very much about those kinds of sacrifices and hard choices — where do I fight when there are seven fronts in the assault on Camelot? Whom do I help? What should I save?

And you know what? Something else I’ve noticed is that some people really don’t like that game.

Now, I like games where I can lose. It would be really easy to make a cooperative game like Shadows Over Camelot that is, once you grok the rules, easy to win — I’ve heard there are games like that on the market. I wouldn’t consider that a good investment of either time or money, frankly, because in the time it takes to play a game like that, I could play something else where the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion.

So part of the dislike is the fact that the game can be lost by everyone at the table – that no one might win? Maybe.

However, more than games I can lose, I like games where I have to bleed to win – where I have to weaken myself to strengthen The Cause. In the most recent SoC game, I was the traitor, and I still found myself bleeding (ostensibly) for the cause, simply because I find that compelling as a player.

I wonder if that’s part of the thing people don’t like about such games, because there ARE people who don’t like such games. Or movies. Or stories. Mouse Guard is a very heroic game to me, but it’s not heroic in a “super” sense where you’re all shiny and victorious and never really get touched by the dirt of the world; it’s heroic because the characters suffer — get hurt, get tired, get angry, get pneumonia — and keep struggling toward their goal anyway — they are little mice in a Great Big World That Will Eat Them, and still they battle on.

"This ends in death."

Just writing that gives me goosebumps — that’s how much I like it. When you can play a game like that and win? Oh man, the grin on my face (while my character cradles his broken arm and hobbles along on a crutch).

But I’ve played with no small number of people who find the whole Mouse Guard-like experience terribly frustrating — that you might win the day and be worse off, personally, than if you’d just stayed out of it? Grrrrrrr.

For me, it’s magical, that they struggle on in the face of such adversity.

That the knights continue to strive for Camelot even though Camelot is (we know) ultimately doomed (and, sometimes, doomed within the scope of the game we’re playing).

That the Wardens do what they do, knowing the price they pay.

That kind of stuff is pure magic. For me. It’s something I’m always pleased to find in a story, or movie, or game.

So much so that I have a hard time seeing when it’s not fun for someone else.

Or even, after the fact, figuring out why.


[1] Seriously, though: why goats? Who cares? Why not sacrifice a finger? If I were a blood-craving deity, I’d give mad props to the priest that needed my attention so badly he voluntarily went Frodo Of The Nine Fingers for me.

[2] You know, I was trying to think of an example of this kind of behavior in the most recent book I read – Until They are Hanged – and it’s not there to be found. The series is kind of noir fantasy, and that kind of self-sacrificing behavior just… wouldn’t quite fit. Which isn’t to say that people don’t bleed for a cause – they totally do – but they don’t manfully say “I’ll take this hit to save the lot of you,” because, well, it’s noir. People don’t want to get hit if they can help it, and in that setting there’s no guarantee that such a noble sacrifice would mean victory — it might just be a meaningless death, and who wants that?  People who act like that in the story (and there are a few) usually die. Quickly. And unmourned.

We got our butts kicked by Shadows over Camelot, and it was excellent.

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.

shdowsoc_tabellone
Our version of the game looked something like this, except there were a lot fewer swords accumulated on the Round Table (far right), and the Deck of Evil Events (black deck) does not appear to be dampened with Manly Tears of Regret and Suffering. YMMV on that one, apparently.

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.