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A Gnome's Ponderings

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How Battlestar Galactica taught me to appreciate Shadows over Camelot

Lowell Kempf
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I should explain, before I go any further, that I am really not much of a cooperative gamer. I have tried very hard to like them. After all, isn’t the social model of a cooperative one that we should all strive for, the power of friendship and working together? But, no, I prefer straight up competition for my fun.

That said, I’ll play anything at least once and I am a social gamer whose enjoyment in games comes at least partially from the people I’m playing with.

Up until Shadows over Camelot, the only cooperative I had played was Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. While it was pretty scripted, it was also a brutal game that was tough for us to beat. It might have felt more like a puzzle than a game to me but it was a tough nut to crack and challenged us.

Shadows was flashy and had the Werewolf-like traitor mechanism. However, I felt that, as a puzzle, it was a lot easier to solve than Lord of the Rings. Beating Lord of the Rings felt like an accomplishment. Beating Shadows felt more like living up to expectations, even with the traitor fighting against you. On the off-chance no one drew the traitor card, beating the game often felt trivially easy.

That being said, while I never got my own copy of Shadows over Camelot, I still got a lot of plays in. And for all the disdain my snobbish self had for Shadows over Camelot, I have to admit that I regularly had fun with it, as did everyone else.

When Battlestar Galactica game out, I played it and I felt like it was the game that I thought I had wanted Shadows over Camelot to be. It was a much more difficult game to beat with a lot more intrinsic tension built in. It was much harder to call someone out as the traitor so the social interaction was filled a lot more tension and uncertainty.

And, in its defense, I have to say that the board game captures the feel of the first two seasons of the television show very well with an almost overwhelming sense of paranoia and desperation. Players have to choose their fights carefully since they can’t win every challenge. Battlestar Galactica is a game of trying to control your losses since it is often very hard to measure how much ground you may have gained.

I admired the design but, after a few plays, I noticed something.

I wasn’t having much fun.

Part of the problem was that every turn had a similar feeling of rinse and repeat. The game started to feel repetitive, particularly because your sense of accomplishment was limited. Only the admiral got to draw cards to see how far you went with every jump and even that gave me a muted sense of getting anything done.

In comparison, each quest in Shadows has its own feel, even if they all come down to ‘play a card’. As cards get laid down and as swords, both black and white, get placed on the table and catapults go out, Shadows over Camelot has a strong, dynamic sense of going forward, even if that movement is towards total defeat.

However, I think the real problem was how the traitor/cylon mechanism works in Battlestar Galactica. First of all, proving someone is a cylon is very difficult. This created an environment where people made constant accusations and no one wanted to work together. In a game like Diplomacy, not trusting each other is the name of the game. In a game where being divided pretty much spells the end of humanity, it just wasn’t much fun.

Yes, it fits the theme of the game like a glove. It makes sense and it works for what it is supposed to do. However, virtually every game of Battlestar Galactica I’ve been in has ended with people cranky and upset.

On top of that, when the cylons did get revealed and were able to revel in their options, they tended to crush the humans. For better or worse, we found that the best strategy to win the game was to draw the cylon card. In our plays, it took very strong human play to overcome even mediocre cylon play.

You could argue that me and my friends are just the wrong people for the game. And that’s a fair argument. After all, there are clearly folks who do enjoy the game. We just weren’t those people.

In the end, as much as I wanted to like Battlestar Galactica at least as much as I liked Shadows over Camelot, the simple truth of the matter is that every time we played Shadows, everyone had fun. On the other hand, every time we played Battlestar Galactica, at least half the table did not have fun. In the end, that has to be the deciding factor for me.
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