Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is it Getting a Little Too Cool in the Shadows?

So, Shadows Over Camelot.

At first this one was a big hit with our group and we were playing it any chance we got. If we only had three players we wondered "Is the game really that bad with three? Surely we can make it work!" If we had a group of eight we would wrack our brains to figure out how we could still get it to the table with an extra player.

Really, this was just shy of obsession!

Lately, however, Shadows Over Camelot has started to lose steam due to two seemingly related problems:

1. Our group must have a pretty good handle on strategy in the game, as most recent games have been landslide victories for the loyal knights.
There is little worry of defeat and therefore no tension in the game. Our last play we implemented the squire rule (wherein each knight starts with no special power, each only earning one after the successful completion of a quest), and the game did seem to get slightly more difficult, but not as much as I would like. However, adding difficulty to Shadows Over Camelot by taking away special abilities would seem to have the side effect of making the game less interesting and fun for the loyalists, so I'm not convinced that is the way to go at all.

I have recently purchased Merlin's Company, which may boost the difficultly of Shadows enough to make it engaging, but since the expansion adds both new difficulties and new abilities, I feel the net result will be too close to a wash to effectively add enough challenge to the game. The concept of the second traitor in Merlin's Company does have some potential, however, and perhaps adding that aspect could swing the game in a good (rather, evil) direction.

2. It has become increasingly clear that the traitor, while hidden, can only have a very minor negative influence on the game. Since I personally feel that the hidden traitor is the mechanic that makes Shadows an interesting gaming experience, if that role becomes irrelevant I can't see maintaining an interest in the game. Part of this is that there are few decisions a traitor can make that hurt the loyalists without being readily apparent to everyone at the table. For the most part the traitor either does something helpful, and stays undetected, or does something dastardly, and immediately gets accused of being the traitor.

Occasionally the traitor can draw a mercenary card and manage to fail a Saxon or Pict quest undetected, or play a really nasty Lancelot face down, shrugging it off as weak and ultimately sending the quest to defeat, or manage to gain control of Lancelot's Armor or the Grail, thereby depriving the knights of those artifacts' powers. These opportunities don't really seem to come up that often, however, and oftentimes a hidden traitor must be satisfied with holding a few useful grail or special white cards in their hand unused, and simply remaining undetected until game's end when he can flip two white swords to black.

Some Thoughts and Questions

*I'm aware that many consider optimal traitor strategy to be to clearly disloyal from the outset by simply placing siege engines every turn. Though this is certainly a valid strategy and quite powerful, I find having the traitor revealed early to be counter to what makes this game interesting in the first place--the probable existence of a *hidden* traitor.

*I would also like to note that typically we play Shadows Over Camelot with six or seven players, which may very well be one of the primary reasons the game seems so easy for the loyal knights.

*Obviously playing Merlin's Company, especially with the possibility of two traitors, could be helpful in fixing this game for our group, but I'm not sure if it will be enough. Certainly we will have to try this soon and see how it impacts play. Would simply taking the second traitor possibility and adding only it to a game make the traitor role more interesting?

*Is it possible that simply finding ways to make the game harder (squire rule, no Merlin special white cards to start, fewer white cards in opening hand, etc.) will increase the relevance of the traitor role? Certainly any way to make the game more difficult for the loyalists will make a traitor victory more likely, but will it make his decisions more interesting and meaningful during the game?

*Recently I've thought of a way to possibly make the game both more difficult for the loyalists and more meaningful for the traitor. I began by thinking about how useful it is for the traitor to have Lancelot's Armor even before he is revealed as the traitor. Being able to choose the worse of the top two cards and pretend that it was the better of them certainly gives the traitor an opportunity to impact the game. What if everyone had to do something of this sort every turn, thus ensuring that the traitor has a chance to do so? This led me to think of the progression of evil phase in general--it is pretty clear that unless an important quest is on the brink of defeat it is almost always the proper decision to take a black card rather than add a siege engine, lose a life point, or take a punch to the family jewels (the other three choices during progression of evil, obviously ;)

What if each player that chooses to draw from the black deck must draw three cards and either 1)play one special black card from the three and place the other two cards on the bottom of the deck, or 2)play exactly two standard black cards from the three and place the third on the bottom of the deck. To me, this solution is very attractive in so many ways:

-choosing to place a siege engine even early in the game may not be seen as obvious traitor behavior as drawing black cards is more dangerous than usual,
-more black cards come into play making the quests more difficult to complete victoriously but with some choice involved to allow loyal knights to temporarily avoid the worst situations, and
-the traitor is given more choices and a greater ability to cause damage to the loyal cause without clearly outing himself.

The three biggest possible downsides to this house rule that immediately come to mind are 1)all players must make more decisions and thus the game duration will increase, 2)some other parts of the game may have to be edited somewhat to be consistent, for example Sir Percival's peek at the top card special power may be too weak when he must draw three/play two instead of just drawing and playing the peeked at card, and finally 3)this rule *may* make the game more difficult than desired.

Ultimately we'll just have to try this house rule out a few times if it appeals to others in my group, but I would love to hear some feedback on what others think about it. Does the game simply work great right out of the box for you? Have you house ruled in other ways to make Shadows play better?

It is possible, of course, that this is just not the game for our group. The Resistance implements the hidden enemy/team idea very, very well, and I still have high hopes for Battlestar Galactica which I own but have yet to play. I hope that we can find a way to keep Shadows Over Camelot in regular rotation, however, because I do love the theme and the basic idea behind the mechanics.