I was very pleased to have the editor, James Lowder, ask me to participate. I mean, any day when you get to write an essay for a book introduced by Reiner Knizia is a pretty good one. We talked a bit about what I'd write an essay on and we agreed upon King Arthur Pendragon, an Arthurian roleplaying game that's one of my favorites because of the veracity with which it represents the Malorian legends.
I highly encourage you all to check out the book via the link above. In the meantime, in honor of its publication, I've decided to dedicate this column to its publication by looking at the board game side of what I covered there: the Matter of Britain.
Generally the Arthurian legends were a big obsession for me throughout the 1990s. I gathered up whatever modern books I could find, from Jack Whyte to Bernard Cornwell. I struggled through the classics such as Mallory and The Vulgate. And, of course, I sought out board and card games about the legends.
Herein I'm going to talk about a handful of my favorites, a few of them classics that you haven't heard of. And then I'll list all the rest I've played.
A Few Top Arthurian GamesExcalibur (Wotan Games). This is an old game, long out of print. I think that the odds are high that I'll never play it again because it's a lengthy 1980s era wargame, but nonetheless if I did play this sort of thing, Excalibur would be one of my top choices.
The reason I like it is because the wargame system is overlaid with a serious economic system. Beehives, foresters, river reeves, and water mills can all increase income, which is further modified by who's at a manor and who collects taxes. There's also a written order system, a relatively rarity.
The Arthurian theming of the game is actually very poor. There are no real Arthurian elements here, except in the rules which say you're one of Arthur's knights. However the game offers up a great model of Middle Ages England, which is definitely an element of the Arthurian stories. (Wotan did at least one other Arthurian game which wasn't very good, but this one was a gem.)
King Arthur's Knights (Chaosium). This is a game truly from the dawn of the era of hobbyist games. You wander Britain on a beautiful full color map and have various encounters shown through a number of decks of cards. There's a lot of randomness in the game, but nonetheless it was colorful and felt Arthurian.
(The author, Greg Stafford, was also the author of the aforementioned King Arthur Pendragon RPG.)
On the modern market the components are terrible since most of them are hand-cut cardstock cards, so this is a game that I dearly wish someone would revise, redevelop, and reprint.
Grade: B-, but could be a B+ with modern components.
Shadows of Camelot (Days of Wonder). This is my favorite of the Arthurian games. It combines great components, great mechanics, and great theming. The game's all about collaborative play, and that creates a generally interesting gameplay element, even absent the possibility that one member of the Round Table is a traitor.
However, beyond that Shadows Over Camelot really feels like questing to me, as players sally forth from Camelot to defeat their foes, win prizes, and generally do knightly things.
Grade: A. Review.
Other Games in BriefOther Arthurian games that I've played include:
Camelot Legends (Z-Man Games). Has the best color of any of these games, with tons of elements from Arthurian legends all printed with beautiful art. However I found some of the gameplay slow and/or methodical. Grade: B-. Review.
Im Auftrag des Konigs (Adlung Spiele). Another questing game, but this one with choices and variability minimized by a small deck. Overall, pretty successful, even if the theming is weaker than some others. Grade: B. Review.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (Wotan Games). First you quest, then you fight. It seems to have the right elements, but the game was tedious. Grade: C-.
Quest for the Grail (Stone Ring Games). An Arthurian CCG that made no lasting impression on me, other than the fact that I vaguely recall the cards being nice. Grade: C.
Quests of the Round Table (Gamewright). Tedious, interminable, and almost unplayable card game. I even hated it before I discovered the quick elegance of Eurogames. I think that this is the only Arthurian board or card game that I've actively expunged from my collection. Grade: F.
Tom Jolly's Camelot (Wingnut Games). Very lightly themed, since you have 4 Arthurs trying to recover Excalibur. Its main notable element is that its a speed game, with players moving as fast as they can, and here it succeeds very well. Grade: B-.
Final ThoughtsIn writing this up, I came to think about what makes a good Arthurian game. I think the two biggest elements are a system of quests that you conquer and great color from the legends. A number of these game qualify on one or both of these elements, but still don't totally win me over because they miss a third criteria: great, deep mechanics.
Thus far Shadows Over Camelot is the closest, but I still hope that something more will someday arrive, combining the good points of a game like Shadows with a deeper and more meaningful look at the legends.
But hey, we've already waited 1500 years since Arthur pulled that sword out of that stone. What are a few more?