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Subject: Shadows for Roleplayers, Improvisers, and other scary folks rss

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Anyone who's read the forums for Shadows Over Camelot (or SOC from now on) knows that it's a love-it-or-hate-it game for most people on BGG. I've played SOC with several different groups, I think I've finally found the perfect niche for this game: real ultimate nerds.

This review will be in two parts: a general description of the game, and a review specifically covering why improvisers, roleplayers, and similar folks will probably love the game, and who else may or may not enjoy it.

How the Game Works

As the SOC game mechanics and bits have been thoroughly covered here, I won't go over them in any great detail, but here is a brief introduction for those curious souls reading this review.

Shadows Over Camelot takes you to the realm of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Each player is a knight seeking to aid his fellows in their defense of Camelot against the forces of eeeeeevil -- although one player may secretly be a traitor, trying to subtly undermine the knights. The knights undertake various quests, individually or in groups, for honor, glory, and goodies.

Mechanics: Players take a specific knight's character, including a special power. The game is cooperative (more on this later), in that everyone is trying to beat the game itself. On a player's turn, that knight must do two things: an evil action, and a heroic action. The evil actions generally bring the game closer to its end. These include losing health, adding a siege engine to the siege of Camelot, or playing a card which causes various bad (or worse) things to happen. The heroic actions depend on what quest the knight is undertaking -- most involve playing numbered cards in a specific order or arrangement. Cards can normally be placed only one per turn. If the knights successfully place enough cards in the arrangement dictated by a particular quest, they win a variety of good things: more health, additional cards, some advancement towards winning the game, and perhaps an artifact which grants a player special powers. The Knights win by successfully completing enough quests before any of the (many) other bad endings are forced. Winning is, as you may guess, very difficult.

The Traitor: One of the unique aspects of SOC is the Traitor. At the beginning of the game, each knight receives a "loyalty card". One knight's card may make them the Traitor, in which case their goal is to subtly undermine the knights. The possible (but not guaranteed) presence of a Traitor adds a wonderful edge of paranoia to the game, and keeps everyone on their toes. The Traitor, of course, wins only if the loyal knights lose. In my opinion, playing the traitor carefully is one of the especially enjoyable bits of strategy in SOC.

Bits: SOC is nothing if not beautiful. The artwork on the boards, character sheets, and cards is gorgeous. The boards are thick and tough, about average for a good quality boardgame. The cards are standard glossy cards -- bendable but not flimsy. The various plastic figurines representing the knights and some of their opponents are nice, but not particularly special -- they're plastic grey, except for a colored base to indicate which knight is which. The overall effect really helps the theme.

Roleplayers, Improvisers, and their Ilk

The real point of this review is to cover who will probably love Shadows Over Camelot, and who will run away screaming. I've played SOC with several groups -- some have loved it, some have hated it. Those who loved it have a few important things in common:

Who Will Like Shadows Over Camelot

Roleplayers: My current gaming group is mostly roleplayers (Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire, Shadowrun, etc.), and they love SOC. I've never seen them get into a boardgame so much as this one. We've had 4 plays in two days and they're still begging for more -- and they want to try other cooperative games now too. There are several major reasons for this:

1. Cooperation: Roleplayers are used to cooperating to achieve goals. Several posters here have complained about the lack of cooperation rules or details in the SOC rulebook. We actually laughed at how much the rulebook said about it -- it's clearly aimed at those used to competing against other players, and keeps repeating the same admonitions about working with others and not trying to beat them. Roleplayers (at least the non-munchkinly type) will be able to get right past the cooperation idea and immediately into deeper strategy and resource-allocation questions, which are much more fun. But, beware the mini-maxer and rules lawyer -- see below.

2. Theme: Roleplayers are used to working with theme and characters. This group has played most games in character and had great fun making jokes and even taunting (as the Traitor) in character. Theme also directs your energies. Several threads point out "broken" strategies. Remembering that you are Knights of the Round Table removes most "broken" strategies -- the Knights were not a group known for sitting back and letting a dragon pillage the countryside if they had anything to say about it, even if it might actually be better to let the dragon win and end the game. Yes, the game lets you deliberately lose quests or sit in Camelot, but is that good roleplaying? Definitely not.

Improvisers and maybe actors in general: Two groups (including the roleplayers) have also been improvisers (think Whose Line Is It Anyway if you're not sure, although that's not always the best example.) There's a big overlap here: improvisers are also used to working together to create a reality. As a result, they quickly get into the spirit of cooperation -- and perhaps more importantly, nobody is a star. Each knight must be willing to sacrifice for the good of his fellows, and anyone unwilling to do so will probably help lose the game.

Anyone Who Lives For Theme: If you pay more attention to theme that game mechanic details, you'll be well prepared to play SOC. As I mentioned, there are things which the rules let you do, which would go against the theme. Stick with the theme and you'll be happy.

People Who Shy From Competition: I have several friend who don't like confrontation. These are the types of folks who will avoid building where someone else wants to build in Settlers of Catan, or will leave the last Small Market for someone else to have in Puerto Rico. SOC will let these players feel that they are accomplishing something without having to be "mean". In many ways, SOC could be a good "gateway" game if introduced well.

Who Will Run Away Screaming

People who want to compete with other players: There is no individual win in SOC, except (sort of) as the Traitor. Anyone who needs to compete with fellow players is both dooming everyone to lose (anything less than full cooperation is likely to tip the game in favor of evil) and probably making himself unwelcome at future SOC games. A Traitor who falls into this category may work out a bit better, but even a Traitor is best played subtly and unrevealed.

People who prefer abstracts to theme: SOC is all about theme. It's been called an "overproduced card game" and there is some truth to it -- but a card game SOC would lose the atmosphere and therefore much of the fun. What really makes a lot of the turn-to-turn fun in the game is the in-character player interactions and decisions -- we even made King Arthur (whose special ability is to trade a card with another player) address his trading partner in the form of a letter, complete with archaic greeting and closing, if they aren't on the same quest.

Those who need structure, mini-maxers and rules lawyers: SOC has been criticized for having subjective collaboration rules. Each group needs to decide what is OK and what isn't. Some players will find the vague rules about what you can and can't say to be extremely frustrating. Is pointing at the Saxon quest, where a 1 and 2 have been played and the 3 is conspicuously empty, and saying "My resolve is weakening, can anyone help me continue my quest?" allowed? It's up to your group. For roleplayers, beware of the mini-maxer or rules lawyer, who need definite rules to look up and follow (or bend)! SOC will make their heads explode -- maybe you won't mind that, though.

Suggestions for playing with new groups

For those thinking of playing SOC with a group which hasn't seen it before, here are some suggestions for making it work.

Know your group: My suggestions here are just that -- suggestions. But I'm pretty certain that if your group has members who fall into the "run away screaming" category, they will hate SOC. Otherwise, give it a try.

Set the stage: Introduce the game in terms of its theme, and explain it keeping the theme close at hand. Emphasize that the knights should do what makes sense for a Knight of the Round Table to do, not necessarily the most brilliant strategic decision within the rules.

Be in character: If your group has any hams in it, make a mini-game out of taking on and maintaining a character. This will help emphasize the theme and thematic decisions, and probably provide a lot of entertainment along the way. If your group doesn't have people who might enjoy this, don't force it. That could be especially unpleasant.

Finally, read this excellent review about explaining SOC: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/165161

... and enjoy!
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Fernando Lopez
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Re: Shadows for Roleplayers, Improvisers, and other scary fo
Great review! (Ofcourse being a roleplayer I was the perfect fit for it) You've definitely swayed me from the pointy part of the fence to the greener pastures of owner-dom
 
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Jacob Lee
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Re: Shadows for Roleplayers, Improvisers, and other scary fo
I'm impressed with how you've nailed down SoC lovers. However, I don't think I fit that niche, but I quite like the game.
 
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Davido
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just played this for the first time yesterday. We drew role cards and I got the Traitor. For whatever reason after 'demoing' we put back in, and yup, the Traitor chose me again. I managed to hang in there until late in the game before being "outed" by an experienced player. Obviously, "traitor" play will be tough for a new player-e.g. "shaving points" without being obvious. Being Sir Tristan (free move out of Camelot) didn't help as it was too easy to get around and too suspicious to just hang out. good game, though.
 
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Re: Shadows for Roleplayers, Improvisers, and other scary fo
Thanks, all!

Davido: yes, I've somehow ended up being the Traitor an abnormal number of times too. There are lots of strategy articles here about how to play it, but the best advice I can give is: just be loyal for a while, until something becomes an obvious problem (too many seige engines, quest about to fail, etc.) and then just mess than one up.
 
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Re: Shadows for Roleplayers, Improvisers, and other scary fo
EmperorJacob wrote:
I'm impressed with how you've nailed down SoC lovers. However, I don't think I fit that niche, but I quite like the game.


Actually, I'm a pretty thorough eurogamer myself, as is one of my housemates who loves SOC. But, we still love SOC (and even things like Apples to Apples with a big group). Some people just refuse to be classified, dang them.
 
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James Thompson
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Nice review. I also really liked your stategy article on this game.
 
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