Type: Co-Op / Traitor

Time to play: < 60 minutes (Teaching: 5 minutes)

Best played with: 3-7 players (Best with 6)

(Picture from kingarthur.fandom.com photo stock – as they painted the minis!!)

Shadows over Camelot is another classic in my collection, and I am really glad to still own it. When someone asks for a game to introduce people to a surprising mechanic or something different, I always have this in mind. That’s because Shadows over Camelot is the first game where I experienced the idea of a traitor mechanic – someone in the group who is secretly working against the group.

For me Dead of Winter and other game might do this in a more interesting way, but for someone who has never encountered it this game is very easy to learn and play, with only the traitor mechanic adding the difficulty.

The core mechanics of this game are that you are all knights of the round table (or Arthur himself) and you must go on quests around the area to get enough white swords to prevent the collapse of Camelot. Okay, thematically for me the white swords are a bit difficult to justify but basically it’s a power struggle between the automatic actions of the game (which drive to defeat), the actions of the traitor (which may drive to defeat) and the actions of the group (which drive to victory).

One interesting point for me is that this game can be played at a low player count as a co-operative only game. The game is challenging enough in it’s “auto-defeat” that I think this has merit. I think experienced players will always win (there’s more skill than luck) but it can be a challenge and interesting. This is important for the higher player count and traitors because it means the balance of the game will swing to the players while the traitor co-operates. However, the impact of the traitor helping the game is huge! It nudges it back in the favour of the automated actions.

The other interesting thing about this is that poor play is as bad as deliberately negative play. The traitor for the first half of the game for example doesn’t need to “betray” the team, he just shouldn’t play to his full ability. Move a bit more than he needs to, be willing to jump to the other players requests even if you can only help for a turn, or simply hold back a card for a little while.

That said, you don’t want to give away that you are the traitor. Be helpful, play to support the other players, but may be avoid being the player leading the charge in any one area. You don’t want it to be obvious that you are not helping, or doing everything you can. In fact, some traitors in this game will tell you that you should play to the best of your abilities for the first 5 turns regardless just to bluff the opponents into thinking it will be someone else.

This table talk really builds up what is otherwise a mechanically simple game. Ultimately you are moving and/or playing a card. The cards will come from a hand of choices that you build up during the game, but they will have different uses. The cards required for each quest are different and again this helps makes each player useful, each player have potential. However, you cannot waste too much time moving around the board and at times you have to take calculated risks to build for a win.

The way each quest works is also simple – most of them are poker conditions. Runs, three of a kind / full house, all have new meanings here. Manipulating these cards can allow the players to get ahead. Some of the manipulations are in public (easier for the players to drive a victory), whilst some are in secret and allow the traitor to play.

At the start of each turn there is the automated potential negative card – driving to tough decisions for the players. There’s an interesting balance to these as well – completing quests might lead to more “default” options which mean more siege engines at the gates of Camelot. The boost you get from the quests are balanced by this additional build up against the main area of the board – another way that you can end up with an early game end and a loss.

Unlike the negative effects of Pandemic, they are seemingly more random and they are less mitigated (in Pandemic you can know what’s likely after a epidemic). This for me is generally negative but it helps here because it adds to the confusion and noise of the game which hides the traitor. In a pure co-op version of the game this is the most frustrating issue.

Also, I think this is a game which can be a lot of fun at the risk of becoming old quickly. There are expansions that I have not tried, but the game otherwise plays out in a similar manner. Especially when the agreed thought of a group is that the traitor plays positively at first, it can feel like a very repetitive first half.

Last notes:

  • If you like a traitor game, this is an archetype
  • If you hate random card draws, this may effect it for you
  • If you win at this game, try a different knight and go again