Shadows Over Camelot

July 7, 2009

Yesterday, I had the chance to play one of the games I considered as possible influences for my own cooperative board game concept, Shadows Over Camelot. In this game, the players take on the roles of the Knights of the Round Table, and together, they try to defeat the board itself. By default, there is a chance that one player may secretly be a traitor (though this is not guaranteed) trying to make sure everyone else loses, but that option was not exercised because we were still trying to learn how the game is played.

Each player’s turn consists of two parts. In the first part, titled Progression of Evil, the players must choose one of three bad things to happen. They can draw from a black deck of cards, which causes a random bad event to happen. They can choose to sacrifice one of their points of life. If they run out of these, they are eliminated from the game, though there is a way to save them. The last is to place one siege engine on the board. I’ll address the siege engines later.

In the second part of a player’s turn, and this is a very simple explanation of the mechanics, the players can take on a quest, perform an action related to a quest, try to restore their life points, or destroy a siege engine. If a quest is successfully completed, the players can restore their health and place white swords on the Round Table in Camelot, and sometimes other effects occur.. Black cards that are drawn create complications for quests, whether the players are there or not. If a quest is ignored for too long, the quest may be lost, anyone on the quest loses a life point, and black swords are placed upon the Round Table in addition to other possible effects. When there are at least sixteen swords on the Round Table, the game ends.

There are three loss conditions in the game and a single win condition. If all of the knights lose all of their life points, the forces of evil win. If the game ends with 6 or more black swords on the table, the forces of evil win. If twelve siege engines are placed on the board, the forces of evil win. If the game ends and none of these three events occur, then the forces of good win.

As a cooperative game, several elements stand out. The presence of a traitor aside, victory and defeat are both shared. Players are not in competition with each other for victory, a vital, if obvious, observation. Another is that the game still has conflict, as it well should. A game without conflict or some sort of challenge to overcome would be boring, and player actions would have no meaning. In most board games, the conflict comes from other players, but here the conflict comes from the game itself. Unless there is a traitor, or someone falsely suspects someone else of being a traitor, players acting rationally will not try to oppose or otherwise hinder each other. The players must cooperate to beat the game, and here lies the challenge and meaning of the game.

Effective play of Shadows over Camelot requires the players to not simply work together, but to work together effectively. If beating the game were only as simple as choosing to cooperate, any choice after stating an intention to work together would be meaningless. As stated above, the conflict comes from the board itself. More specifically, the conflict comes from dealing with the consequences of the “Progression of Evil” phase. Every action taken there threatens the players with the approach of a loss condition. Choosing to place a siege engine on the board brings the game closer to having a fatal number of siege engines, and it takes serious player effort to remove one. Choosing to draw a black card will most often cause one of the several quests on the table to slip closer to a loss condition, which would put black swords on the Round Table. Two specific quests even cause more siege engines to be placed on the board. Lastly, a player may choose to sacrifice a point of life.

In many games, choosing to sacrifice a point of life would be questionable, even unthinkable. After all, if you lose all your life points, you are eliminated from the game. However, a number of factors make this the most reasonable course of action. With the exception of a single specific black card, you choose to enter situations when you may lose a point of life. It is unlikely that you would take damage from a completely unexpected source, so there is little reason to build up a buffer of life points. The alternatives are also worse in most cases. A black card or a siege engine hurts everyone, not just the player.

This brings us to a theme of the game that did not become apparent to me when reading the manual, and only became apparent during actual play, as is common in game systems design, and helps me to illustrate a set of three important terms in the discipline of game rules systems design. A mechanic is a rule within the game. The ability to choose to sacrifice a point of life is a mechanic. This creates a dynamic, a player behavior that tends to manifest in a reaction when players interact with the mechanic. In this case, the dynamic would be a player looking at the three options, evaluating them in the context of the current playing field, and making the decision to sacrifice that point of life, believing that to be the option that will stall defeat. This gives rise to an aesthetic, a player emotional response to the game. In this case, the dynamic of choosing to sacrifice of the self for the betterment of the whole gives rise to an understanding that this is a game where defeat is likely, and personal sacrifices must be made if there is to be any hope of victory, creating a feeling of tension and willingness to work with the group. The mechanics of the game as a whole interact with the players, who adopt certain dynamics in reaction as they try to discover a way to win, and these behaviors and perceived expectations create emotional responses in the players.

Playing Shadows Over Camelot contributed significantly to my ongoing research into cooperative gaming. A number of dynamics were discovered that simply reading the mechanics of the game without putting them into play could not have revealed. A single shared goal is vital to the success of players. While they can be given different abilities that might help them reach that goal, victory must be done as a group. A player’s avatar might die, eliminating the player from the game, but as far as the game is concerned, the player will still win if the rest of the group wins, and in some cases, a player might even elect to lose their last life point and be removed from the board if it will make a difference between winning and losing. A number of cards, both negative and positive, present the players with the option to take a penalty or reward completely for themselves, or to distribute it among the group, and prioritizing this is an important part of gameplay. Another important element seen here is that for every player, one “bad thing” happens. This creates a threat that scales itself in proportion to the number of players in the game. Though I have not experimented with different numbers of players, in theory, this would allow for the same level of challenge in the game whether you have three players or seven.

I hope to next examine the Lord of the Rings board game, which is also focused on cooperation, though this has no possible “traitor”. Arkham Horror is another game I hope to take a look at, but because it has similarities to Shadows Over Camelot, I feel it would be better to look at a game with similar themes that approaches it in a very different way.

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