While last week’s review was on a game that’s fresh on the scene, this week’s feature game has been around for significantly longer. Shadows Over Camelot was released back in 2005, and as you might suspect, it’s centered around King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Characters can play as any of seven knights, including King Arthur himself. In addition to the legendary king, players could be Sir Gawain, Sir Galahad, Sir Kay, Sir Percival, Sir Palamedes, or Sir Tristan of Lyonesse. Sir Bedivere was offered as a promotional item early in the game’s release, and he is a standard part of the Merlin’s Company expansion, along with 6 other knights. Each knight has a special ability exclusive to that player. Together, the knights must work together to complete a number of quests before Camelot is overrun by the forces of darkness, such as Morgan le Fay.
While Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative game, players can choose to play a mode where one of the knights is a traitor who is actively working against the other players. Since this was the first time most of us had played, we decided to forego that option—and it’s a good thing we did, because we just barely won the game by the skin of our teeth. And the great news is that we only had to cheat for a few rounds toward the end to make victory possible! (More on that later.)
I have always been a fan of Arthurian legend, and a friend of mine bought me a copy of this game as a gift. For this playthrough, we had 4 players, but one had to drop out partway through. (The game allows for players to bow out and drop in after the game has started, but we opted to have one of our current players play two roles. A bit unorthodox, but we still enjoyed ourselves.) As mentioned earlier, we decided to play without a traitor this time.
Shadows Over Camelot was designed by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, who subsequently worked together on 2006’s Wicked Witches Way and 2008’s Senji. The artwork was done by Cyrille Daujean and Julien Delval, who also collaborated on classics such as Ticket to Ride, Citadels, and Mystery of the Abbey. It was published by Days of Wonder.
Full disclosure, right from the start: this is the first cooperative game I’ve actually had the opportunity to play, so my frame of reference is admittedly limited. That said, it was still a lot of fun. Each player’s turn is relatively short, which is kind of a double-edged sword. The varying special powers of each knight adds a nice variety to the game, though some definitely feel more useful than others.
The short turns make for a quick turnaround, meaning you don’t have to wait that long for it to be your turn again. But because you only get one real action each turn—whether that is moving, playing cards, healing, or something else—it makes your team’s ability to make progress feel very stunted. That’s a good thing, because the game doesn’t feel easy, but at times, it feels remarkably frustrating. In order to move to a quest and take an action to further that quest, it will take you two turns, each of which means a lot more Bad Stuff will happen. And because the Bad Stuff happens first, you always feel like you’re playing catch-up. This bugged me a lot more than it might bother others, though, so your mileage may vary.
While collaboration between knights is crucial to winning the game, players are forbidden from getting too specific in the way they discuss their plans. “My forces are ready to assault the Picts!” is allowed, but anything too specific regarding exactly which cards you have is against the rules. As the game progressed, the situation became more dire, and—let’s be honest—the players got more tired, we gradually let that rule fall by the wayside. First, we started vaguely referring to cards we had with codenames, and in the end, we gave up all premise of playing fairly and laid our hands down for all to see.
The theme of the game is, of course, Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. While the production value of the game is excellent, clearly setting the game in a fantastic world, our playthrough didn’t feel necessarily feel too tied to the theme. Perhaps that was our own fault. As previously mentioned, we eventually abandoned all pretense of roleplay in the game by openly discussing the cards in our hand. Of course, had we been playing with at least the option of a traitor in our midst, that would no longer have been an option.
I think my biggest complaint with the theme is that Arthurian Legend is so strongly tied to legendary tales of valiant knights achieving victory. The sheer difficulty of this game makes it feel like the default ending is defeat. I may have missed it, but it feels like this is billed as a game taking place during Camelot’s heyday. Perhaps it’s supposed to take place towards the fall and I missed something, in which case, the fight against the inevitable fall of Camelot makes more sense. (I also have a minor beef with using Guinevere as an active part of the “Forces of Darkness,” but that’s because while she was definitely a catalyst for the downfall of Arthur and Camelot in many legends, she wasn’t actively seeking its destruction.)
Visual/Physical Appeal (9/10)
This is one of the areas where Shadows Over Camelot really shines. The box comes with several different boards—one main one (including the Round Table, the castle exterior and borders of Camelot, and the tournament with the Black Knight), as well as one for each of the major quests for the Holy Grail, Excalibur, and Lancelot’s armor.
Daujean and Delval’s artwork really comes through, giving the game a feeling of high fantasy both on the boards and on the cards. The cards are high-quality, with a nice, linen finish. (Of course, if you sleeve your cards, that bonus is lost, but it’s still worth noting.) The large-sized Coat of Arms cards for each knight help players to remember the basic rules and remind them of their special powers. In addition to the red 8-sided die (d8) that players roll when attacking the siege engines outside of Camelot, each player also has a wooden, color-coded hit point d6 matched to the figurine representing their knight. On the back of each Coat of Arms is a generic Traitor card, indicating the new rules once the traitor has been revealed.
One of the things that impressed me most about this game was the number of plastic figurines included. In addition to the seven knights, there are also special figurines for the Grail, Excalibur, and Lancelot’s Armor, as well as 16 siege engines, 4 Pict invaders, and 4 Saxon invaders.
The weakest physical aspect of the game is the swords players put on the Round Table when they succeed or fail in a quest, but that’s honestly nitpicking. They’re made of the same thick cardboard as the extra quest boards, and the only reason I even mention them is because they’re not quite as cool as the rest of the components in the box. That said, they still hold up to the quality of tokens you’ll find in other games.
Setup Time (5-10 minutes)/Play Time (~2–3 hours)
Shadows Over Camelot can be set up rather quickly. Players need to shuffle the two decks of cards and select knights to play. With the three extra quest boards, however, the game does take up a whole lot of table space, so make sure you’ve got plenty of room to play. It took up almost my entire kitchen table, which is built to seat 6 people. It should only take about 5 minutes to get started if you’re already familiar with the game.
The box says it takes 60–90 minutes to play, but we started at around 8:30 and didn’t finish until 11:15 or so. Perhaps that’s because only one of us had played the game before, but be warned, it may take longer than you think.
Complexity (Rank 6)/Teach Time (~5–10 minutes)
While the game is difficult, the gameplay and rules are relatively simple. The rulebook is long, but it’s not that difficult to teach. Each player’s turn is essentially made up of two tasks: one Bad Thing first, and then one Good Thing second. Most of the basic rules are also printed clearly on each knight’s Coat of Arms, providing a very convenient reference. It’s relatively clear when and how the cards can be played, and the results of each quest are printed clearly on the boards.
Before the game started, two of us had read the instructions, while a third had actually played. Our initial teach (done by the one who had read the instructions most recently, and occasionally assisted by the one had played) took about 15 minutes. That could easily be dropped to about 5–10 minutes.
This is a long game, and a tough one to beat. There are a lot of options for variety, which increases its replayability. The combination of knights and the decision to include a Traitor can also create a new playing experience. There is also the option to include more cards than players when you shuffle the Loyalty cards, which means that there’s a chance that there’s a Traitor, but there’s also a good chance that all the knights are loyal. Adding that level of intrigue could make for a particularly enjoyable play experience.
There is also an expansion available, Merlin’s Company, which includes several more knights, the possibility of a second Traitor, and additional cards that could impact gameplay.
I have mixed feelings about Shadows Over Camelot, but overall, I enjoyed it. It ended up going rather long, but I’m willing to accept the possibility that it was our fault and not the game’s. The difficulty is another issue for me, because it felt like we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth every moment, and not in the good way. It felt like we were playing defense the entire time and never really had the opportunity to press the attack. We claim to have won, but we definitely flouted a rule or two. In fact, upon a later read of the rulebook, I think we cheated a couple times without intending to. Perhaps players aren’t meant to be able to win the first time, but I wasn’t under that impression before playing.
I really did enjoy myself, though. I’ve always loved Arthurian legend, and the production quality of the game really sells that feeling. I believe the game could easily be reskinned for other themes, meaning it wasn’t particularly integral to play, but the art and quality of the pieces sold the game in the end.
— The Innkeeper