Saturday, July 16, 2005

Working poorly as a team

An interesting session this week...

We played two new games, and they both shared a common theme: Making it look like you are cooperating while in fact pursuing your own goals.

First up, the "blockbuster" release of the summer: Shadows over Camelot by Days of Wonder. For a guy who started off unimpressed by Days of Wonder (after Ticket to Ride and Mystery of the Abbey), I've gone on to purchasing and enjoying quite a few titles! (Ticket to Ride: Europe, Memoir '44, Pirate's Cove and Shadows over Camelot). does this one live up to the hype? I say yes.

Shadows over Camelot belongs in a very small niche: cooperative boardgames. After you remove hack and slash type miniature games (Doom, Betrayal at House on the Hill, etc), the only other game of this type that I know of is Lord of the Rings by Reiner Knizia. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the game is held up against it's famous cousin as it gets reviewed. In fact, as we sat down to play Shemp commented on how he was looking forward to playing this one particularly to see if it was cooperative games he hated, or just Lord of the Rings (I don't share his opinion on LotR, as you'll see below).

The production values for the game are quite high. The boards are nicely illustrated and lots of little plastic miniatures are included. A few minor issues: The boards are unecessarily different sizes, making their layout on a table a little messy. Also, the grail quest board doesn't actually fit in the box... an odd oversight; The way the main board folds has already caused creases at the inside corners; The rules could have been better organized, making it difficult to locate certain pieces of information. In addition, certain design decisions are questionable, like listing all but one abilities of Merlin cards on the card... making it extremely likely to miss.

Game play takes a bit of explaining, but once it starts it's fairly straightforward. I'm undecided about the types of groups I'd be looking to introduce this one to... It would likely take an enthusiastic group of non-gamers to want to take this on, but it shouldn't be too difficult if they wanted to learn.

The basics are simple: Do something bad (draw and play an evil card, add a seige engine to the attack against Camelot or lose a life point) and follow it with something good (Go to a quest, play a good card, etc). That's pretty much it. What makes this game hard to win (really hard, as it turns out), is that the sheer number of quests, and the speed at which the odds stack against the players, is quite difficult to manage. To top it off, one of the players MIGHT be a traitor, purposely making bad moves and wasting resources to make it even less likely that good will triumph. The inclusion of the POSSIBILITY of a traitor in any individual session seems to be the game's defining characteristic (along with the cooperative play), and it truly does add an interesting dimension to the game.

Most quests revolve around playing "fight" cards in the requested order or combination (a straight for the saxons and picts, two pairs for the Jousting tournament, etc), with the hopes of completing the required set in time. The quests themselves are an interesting mix of solo and group quests, quests which happen once and then dissapear and those to reoccur endlessly until the game ends. A few quests lead to items which can aid the characters (such as excalibur, which makes a knights attacks more powerful). There are many difficult decisions here: The grail quest is very difficult once evil starts making progress, so initially it seemed that completing these typess of quests early made sense. However, a completed quest increases the danger of the seige assault on Camelot dramatically since any evil cards drawn which would have added to a completed quest turns into a new seige engine instead! It will take a few more games to figure out a winning strategy...

For the curious, Shemp's final analysis was that he quite enjoyed this game (as did the whole group, I think). Therefore, it was Lord of the Rings he hated, not cooperative games! Me... as much as I like Shadows over Camelot, I still prefer Lord of the Rings. The corruption track from that game remains one of the most elegant, thematic and clever mechanics in any of my games (standing a few steps away from Sauron near the end of the game creates a wonderful tension and sense of impending doom). Also, the episodic nature of the system, with various scenarios and much needed reinforcements which need to be aquired along the way make the quet truly feel epic and daunting (and fosters a unique sense of camaraderie and cooperation along the way).

As good as Shadows over Camelot is, I find it less exciting to accumulate white swords at the round table... despite the fact that it is the most important quest on the board, it is the least memorable and quite disjointed from the action going on. The quests themselves are a little underwhelming since they boil down to playing a poker hand over a series of turns (an odd mechanic which doesn't tie in very well with the theme of the game, in my opinion). Also, the fact that all hell breaks loose on all fronts at the same time means that there is no "progression" to the game... it's all one long episode. Luckily, the mix of perpetual quests vs one offs changes the feeling of the game as it goes (mostly in the sense that as the one time quests are finished, the seige engines start coming fast and furious). Also, the Traitor throws a very interesting psychological twist to the game (maybe at the expense of the group camraderie, but that's okay)

The group didn't fare too well in our first two attempts... Although I was the traitor in the first game I can't claim any responsibility for the win... the knights ran from quest to quest in a fruitless attempt to stem the tide of evil. Ultimetely, the dragon did us in. In the second game, we agreed to focus more and finish of quests early. We complete Excalibur right away, and got quite far on the grail quest... but then we realized that the price of completing a quest early is quite high: seige engines began overunning the kingdom and we could not keep up. Had a great time trying, though!

The second game of the night was a "new to us" game called Pueblo. I picked this up because two of my favorite games are by Wolfgang Kramer, and Blokus has been a big hit with just about everyone I've introduced it to. Obviously, I was hoping that the two would mesh well in this game and produce another hit. Pueblo is a much simpler game than SoC, where players are supposedly working toghether to build a Pueblo under the watchful eye of the tribe's chief. Everyone has a number of blocks of their colour, and one less neutral blocks. Each turn a block is played from the players supply. The chief is looking for signs of the builders pride (blocks of the player's colour) and will punish that player every time he sees it! the strategy, therefore, is to hide your coloured blocks behind neutral ones or other player's blocks. Pretty straightforward, and quite fun. It can be a bit of a mind bender to figure out how to place the blocks, but it's not exactly a brain burner either. Shemp demonstrated his superior grasp of spatial logic and soundly trounced us (although Luch was in the running until the Chief's final walkaround...). I played this with my mom when I first bought it and she thought is was very good as well, so I think it will have a wide appeal.

Shadows over Camelot: 8
Pueblo: 7


  1. Good summary, Easy.

    I liked Shadows over Camelot, but I felt the same feeling that I get with the Lord of the Rings game... you're fighting to not lose, rather than to win. It's a tricky distinction, but I think you know what I mean.

    Based on two plays only, I also enjoy LoTR more (which I've probably played about 8-10 times, which may make me biased), but I also feel that there is more choice in SoC, so it's a pretty close thing.

    Playing another co-op game has renewed my interest in developing "Heist" which I believe may have a better sense of choice and challenge. Both SoC and LotR have this overwhelming anxiousness of doom about them, which although motivating, I don't find particularly enjoyable, game-wise. I'm hoping "Heist" avoids that sense.

    That said, I do want to play SoC again very soon, if only to try to win.

    Oh, also, production values - manifique! Gorgeous board, cards, pieces and tokens. All around beautiful.

  2. Also... you didn't use the thread title "The Sweet, Sweet Taste of Treachery".

  3. That would have been a good title, but if it was mentioned I had forgotten it.

    Your comment about "playing not to lose" is spot on. I actually enjoy that, though (although it would be nice to see someone pull off a coop game which handled things differently). LotR, being more linear in nature, conveys the feeling of an egg timer... you can see your doom coming, you just want to get to the end before it gets you (whether we are talking about the evil events of the game board or the advance of Sauron on the track), whereas Shadows over Camelot has more of an ebb and flow about it... things look bad, then you fight back and they look better, and then they get bad again (and, off to the side, the swords pile up and the game ends in a rather disconnected fashion once a certain number show up, regardless of what is happening on the board).

    Like you said, though, my preference for LotRs is not huge. Both are very good games in my book!

  4. Also, having only played SoC twice, and LotRs many more times, it definitely be too early to draw any firm conclusions. I don't really know how I will feel after several plays, because I can't tell yet whether it will get repetitive or not (I had predicted originally that LotR would get repetitive quite quickly, but that has not been the case)

  5. I'll say again that I quite liked Shadows over Camelot, but I want to expand on what I find "not fun" about the game.

    In most well-designed games that , I feel like I'm accomplishing things; building up, fighting, winning, acquiring, etc. Even if things don't go well for me, I don't feel as if I'm struggling to stay alive.

    Both SoC and LotR have the undercurrent of someone thrusting your head under water and you fighting to keep breathing. I mean, it's exhilirating and challenging and all, but it's also somewhat frustrating. I just find it surprising that although both games are very popular, there aren't more co-operative games which offer a challenge without being quite so... I don't know... dark?

    I guess RPGs largely fit that niche, but you'd think that with so many different designers there would be a game that could be cooperative, challenging and also satisfying.

    Maybe I just need more plays at SoC. I just wanted to expand more on why I don't immediately reach for LotR when I'm thinking of a game I want to play.