I’ve said before that I’m a big big fan of hidden loyalty games. One of the older examples is Shadows over Camelot. In Shadows, the players take on the roles of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. There, they work cooperatively to complete various quests and bring honor to the round table. Of course, there may be a traitor in their midst who is actually working alongside the forces of evil.
The Basics. Each player is given a knight and sets up shop at the round table. At the beginning of each player’s turn, the agents of evil move. The player can decide to add a siege engine to Camelot (Camelot falls after the 12th siege engine), draw a black card all of which provide negative effects, or choose to lose a life point. Once the evils have acted, the player can do a single heroic action. This could mean playing cards for a quest or even just moving out of Camelot to a quest location.
Quests are completed either by the players using appropriate cards, or by the agents of evil (usually through the play of black cards). If the quest is successful, white swords are added to the round table to show the success. Players on the quest often also get life or additional cards. But if the quest fails, one or more black swords will be added to the round table. The players can win only when there are twelve swords on the table and more than half are white.
The catch is that not all the knights are working for the good. There are eight loyalty cards – one of which is a traitor. They are passed out to the players of the game. Because there are eight cards, even in a seven player game (the max number) there is the slim chance that no one is the traitor. Unlike the rest of the knights, the traitor wins when everyone else loses. The other players can attempt to accuse one of their fellows of being a traitor. An accurate guess results in the traitor being revealed. An inaccurate guess results in black swords. And, if the traitor isn’t revealed by game end, two white swords are turned to black.
The Feel. Although it is far from the newest title, Shadows does a good job of providing for suspicion and paranoia. No one can accuse the traitor until about the midway point of the game (six siege engines or six swords on the table). As a result, it gives just enough time for the players to feel one another out a bit and develop their own suspicions.
Despite the cooperative nature of the game, it can still be hard to detect a clever traitor. Many cards are placed face down so that no one knows if the player using them was telling the truth. Sometimes a player might run out of the cards they need to complete a quest. But, did that happen because of unforeseen events, or was it their plan all along to fail the quest?
If Shadows were played as a pure co-op, there wouldn’t be much in the way of difficulty. Sure, there is an initial learning curve that makes the game seem more difficult. But after a few games, a group could learn to defeat it pretty regularly. The thing that keeps this game entertaining is the traitor. Loyal knights have to be constantly on the lookout. Failing to call out the traitor can result in a game going from victory to defeat. But, they also have to be sure to call out the right person. If they get it wrong, it will only increase the number of black swords. And, of course, there’s always the chance there there is no traitor at all.
Although it has a lot of good things going for it, Shadows unfortunately shows its age a bit. Many of the design decisions hearken back to older models of gaming. For example, players just don’t get to do a whole lot on their turns. Simply moving to a quest is typically the player’s entire turn, and from then on it may just be playing a single card. Sure, players will discuss who they think the traitor is, but turn to turn you don’t get the feeling you are doing a whole lot.
And, in a game about completing the epic quests of Arthurian legend, that can be a big turn off. You never really feel like you are doing what is necessary to acquire the grail or defeat the dragon. Instead, each turn you get to play down one card. Big whoop. Players are relegated to incremental achievements until those increments build up large enough to result in victory. So the excitement factor can be quite muted.
Components: 4 of 5. Coming from Days of Wonder, the excellent components shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Great artwork. Multiple boards for various quests. Specific details for each quest. Models for siege engines, Lancelot’s armor, the Grail, and Excalibur. And minis for the knights, picts, and saxons. Any of those items could have been cardboard tokens, but Days of Wonder goes the extra mile here.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. If players elect to use the black cards for the forces of evil, the game can sometimes feel a little swingy. Maybe you thought the Saxons weren’t a threat, but then three black cards in a row aided the Saxons. Better get there quick to make sure you can defeat them – which, of course, also disrupts other plans. But, overall, the game allows players to collaborate on a variety of strategies and focus their aim on the most important (as they see it) quests.
Mechanics: 3.5 of 5. Technically, the game includes player elimination. From a practical standpoint, though, I’ve never seen anyone actually eliminated. It’s very avoidable and players can even heal if they need to (which uses their heroic action). The main problem is that the limit of one heroic action – and the fact that such action includes simply moving around the board. It can feel very limiting and un-epic for the players.
Replayability: 4 of 5. The inclusion of the traitor really adds longevity to this game. What would otherwise be a relatively straightforward co-op suddenly becomes a tutorial in suspicion and ferreting out the evil. The nice part is that the game forces you to play a bit before accusations go flying willy-nilly. It gives players a chance to see how their fellows act and react.
Spite: 1 of 5. The traitor will actively do things to sink the game, but it tends not to be targeted at one player. So the spite content is very low. The remaining players have no spite actions and play purely cooperatively.
Overall: 3.5 of 5. Shadows over Camelot does show its age a bit. There are better ways to keep everyone involved and to make it feel more epic. Still, Shadows is very playable and, if the focus is kept on the traitor and the resultant paranoia, it is a wonderful game. There’s nothing like trying to find the traitor in your midst while knowing all the while that there might not be any such person.
(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist for all reviews - updated Friday)
It is also a great cooperative
game to introduce to new gamers!