Friday, October 27, 2006

Suspicion, Blather, and a Sense of Growing Menace

We had seven gamers present the other night at our gaming group. Seven is a difficult number with games. Many of the best middle and heavy weight strategy games play at most five or six players. We ended up playing Shadows over Camelot. This was my first time with this cooperative game.

For those unfamiliar with the game, let me just say that the most important mechanism in the game is the possibility that one of the players is a secret traitor who is trying to sabotage the work of the other players. The greater the number of players, the greater the chance that there will be a traitor in the game.

Camelot draws some extreme reactions from our crowd. Ted thoroughly dislikes it. He claims that each turn fails to provide players with interesting decisions, that the best moves are often obvious. And he claims that the game takes too long and moves too slowly, and that the game’s pace is usually hampered by the enormous amount of find-the-traitor blather that inevitably occurs.

James feels that the find-the-traitor blather is whole the point of the game. He seems to believe that the only way to keep the pace of the game from bogging down completely is to make each player’s turn quick and simple which then allows players to devote most of their time and energy to looking for signs of treason in others. This creates a constant flow of semi-facetious comments whenever a player makes any move that doesn’t immediately benefit the group as a whole.

“That’s the best you could do—traitor!” is a typical remark.

“Hey, I didn’t see you finish that quest on your turn,” the player might reply. “Some might regard your delay as…oh, treason!”

My reaction to the game embraced both Ted and James’s feelings. They are both right.

I agree with Ted that the optimum move in Camelot is often obvious. There frequently aren’t a lot of interesting strategic decisions. And you can spend an awful lot of time waiting for slower players to take their turns while listening to a lot of less-than-witty banter about what each and every player is up to. I can see why a serious gamer could long for meatier fare while playing Camelot.

But even while I was hoping the game moved faster, part of me was intrigued. Playing spot-the-traitor is interesting, particularly because any decent player will give the other players very few clues to work with. The clues are seldom conclusive, and paranoia makes any sub-optimal move seem suspicious. By the end of the game, Ted correctly identified the traitor in our midst, but I was surprised that he could be so certain.

And the whole cooperative thing generates some serious suspense for me. I don’t know why, but the creeping doom mechanisms at the heart of Camelot and Lord of the Rings (the other most famous cooperative game) keep me riveted. Maybe its because we see evil progressing almost every turn, and the games make this progress quite concrete. It’s hard not to feel a sense of menace watching the enemy catapults increase around Camelot, or watching the heavy Sauron marker advance toward the Hobbit heroes in Lord of the Rings.

Maybe the thing to do would be to play Camelot with fewer players. My turn would come around a bit faster, and there would be fewer players participating in the trash talk.

The cooperative genre is one of the more undeveloped genres in gaming. I know that Vanished Planet is a cooperative game (I haven’t played it), and that Republic of Rome blends both cooperative and competitive mechanisms, but I don’t think there are too many other popular mainstream games of this type.

Let’s hope some clever game designers tinker with this genre. Give us some interesting strategic decisions along with the sense of growing menace and the result could be a very popular game.

9 comments:

adam said...

Arkham Horror is another cooperative game. Out of print unfortunately, and I haven't played it.

Chris Farrell said...

Given that the "spot the traitor" part of Shadows is really the one interesting thing in the game in my opinion, I think Shadows would have been better and more fun as a Paranoia (the RPG) themed game. The sort of banter you quote could have been taken right out of a Paranoia session. On the other hand, and correct me if I'm wrong on this, the core feel of the Arthurian myth is not one of suspicion and paranoia. But King Arthur is always a good theme, and there are no liscensing fees.

I got totally turned off of Shadows playing with 6+ players, because I felt like I was making an interesting decision like, every 30 minutes or something, and I didn't feel like I had a stake in the game. I've since been told that the game improves significantly with fewer players, which makes the ludicrous amount of downtime (including turns in which you make no meaningful decision) tolerable. I'd like to try it with 4 sometime.

Coldfoot said...

Downtime is a problem with Shadows? Glad I'm not part of that group. Not that I particularly care for the game, but downtime has never been an issue.

Chris Farrell said...

Thus the parenthetical comment "(including turns in which you make no meaningful decision)". If my turn involves no or virtually decisions, I consider that downtime. If you go on the Grail Quest with 4-ish Grail cards in hand, most likely that's the last decision you'll make for 20 minutes.

huzonfirst said...

The core of the Arthurian legends may not have involved suspicion. But there WAS a traitor and he DID bring down the King. Sounds like pretty good theming to me. And a Paranoia themed game would have sold about three copies in Europe.

I'm with Brian; once we got familiar with the design (takes about one game), downtime wasn't a problem. Sure, there are some obvious decisions, but this is a game where you have to pay attention to what the other players are doing. First of all, if you get into the theme, it's a fun thing to do. Second, the players should be discussing how the knights should be positioning themselves. Finally, you need to pay attention to try to root out the traitor (if one exists).

My concern about Shadows isn't downtime, but replayability. It got a good amount of play from us when it first came out, but then seemed to fade pretty rapidly and hasn't been seen since. For some reason, a similar thing happened with LotR with us, so maybe cooperative games just have a limited shelf life with our group. I have no explanation of why Shadows' appeal would fade quickly, but that's what seems to have happened. I still admire the design, though.

Coldfoot said...

Bingo. Replayability is the main issue. As a group we are all so involved discussing our next move that the game seems to flow well.

If you are on the grail quest with several grail cards, should King Arthur be passing his cards to you? Within the realm and spirit of the rules that might need to be discussed. Are you needed at Camelot to fend off the enemy? Should you take a life to play an extra card if you are able? Should you move to another quest to gain lives if yours are running short? Is it too early in the game to find the grail? Finding the grail early can be one of the best ways for a traitor to screw the group.

There are no shortage of options for players. The ones mentioned are just questions that might come up if you are on the grail quest with several grail cards. Every turn a black card is revealed that may require group discussion.

And the theme. The theme matches the game very well, much better than say.... Beowulf ;-) The theme draws players in very well.

Players can and should offer advise within the rules, based upon their hand of cards. Of course the presence of a traitor makes the decisions more interesting.

smatt said...

My own take on Shadows Over Camelot took place over several plays, spread out over several months:

First time - Didn't like it. Felt like the traitor would always win.

Second time - Liked it. Realized that group work is hard and that the whole game felt like play-acting in a way.

Third time - Felt the same way.

Fourth, fifth, and subsequent times - Still liked it, though somehow less so. I just prefer strategy games, and if I'm going to spend time playing a game with a heavy psychological component, though, I'd rather play Werewolves (Mafia) or Killer. These are fast and get to the heart of having an enemy in the group. Shadows is not a game in the same way that defines so many other games that I like (Louis XIV, Power Grid, cribbage, chess). It is its own beast, and usually a two-hour one at that. It has replayability, but only every three to six months or so.

Bottom line: if I had to choose a camp, I would go with a straight up strategy game, hands down.

Shannon Appelcline said...

I just played a game of SoC today where everyone played very fast, and it was entirely delightful. It's amazing how much fast players can make a game and how much slow players can ruin it.

As for AH, if it's still out of print, it's a very short-term thing. I think the third printing of the FFG edition was due before Halloween.

Jeff said...

We generally play using Brian Bankler's variant (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/fileinfo.php?fileid=16492) which makes it a bit tougher to root out the traitor and adds to the difficulty of individual decisions on each player's turn. In fact, you're unlikely to ever catch me playing SoC without Brian's variant ever again.