The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

A theory of semi-cooperative games, applied to Shadows over Camelot

Since we’ve seen a published paper on cooperative games, and I’ve been playing some “semi-cooperatives” recently, I’m thinking about how to make one that just glows. Obviously, I don’t know exactly what to do, but here’s what I’ve got:

  1. The “Cooperate/Compete” decision should be a spectrum, not just binary. Sabotuer gets this right. All of the “good” dwarves want to find gold, but they don’t want to enable the next player to be the finder (then they get the least gold).
  2. Parts of the “good” group can win without the full group.
  3. Players must have strong incentives to act differently. These incentives should not be obvious to other players.

Let’s apply these criticisms to Shadows over Camelot. The decision is binary. Either you are a traitor, or you aren’t. In fact, loyal knights win even if dead. The players, via their special abilities, do have reason to act differently. But this doesn’t help the traitor or add tension, because everyone knows why. Sir Kay should go to the fight-total quests, etc.

OK, let’s imagine a variant. Each player is dealt a “loyalty” card as before, but also a “motivation” card. The motivation what your victory conditions are. (Motivation cards may not be shown). For simplicity, we’ll assume that the traitor ignores his motivation card. For a loyal knight to win, camelot must survive (as per the normal game) and they must fulfill their card. These may not be balanced. (I’m literally making these up as I type).

  • “Warrior” — You crave the fight. You only win if there are 8 or more siege engines in play at game end.
  • “Collector” — You seek an artifact. You only win if you are in possession of Excaliber, Lancelot’s Armor, or the Holy Grail at game end. (You may be dead and still win, assuming you had the item when you died).
  • “Judge” — You punish the guilty. You lose if the traitor was not revealed during the game. (No effect if there was no traitor).
  • “Power-Monger” — You crave leadership. You only win if you have 15+ fighting in your hand at the end of the game.
  • “Champion” — You must prove your worth. You only win if you have personally defeated the Black Knight at least once during the game.
  • “Apprentice” — You want mystic knowledge. You only win if you have two (or more) Merlin cards in your hand at the end of the game.
  • “Flawed Knight” — You are just ornery. You only win if have been accused of being the traitor. You may not make an accusation during the game.
  • ??? — You have a healthy sense of self-preservation. You only win if you end the game with three or more life.
  • ??? — You think there are too many knights. You must be alive to win, and you only win if one (or more) loyal knights died during the course of the game.
  • “Druid” — You seek balance between good and evil. You only win if there are 3 or more black swords on the round table.

You could easily have 15 or more roles (for real variety), but I’m out of time. Adding these makes the game harder; perhaps you should start each player with an extra card. The Judge and Flawed Knight can really add pressure to the game, but all of these gives players some incentive to snipe on each other and give the traitor room to manuever.

Now, there’s a (valid) accusation that these rules constrain the players. But that’s the point. The players don’t have enough individual constraints that aren’t obvious to other players.

Perhaps I’ll print these out and try them soon. Others are welcome to, as well. And add roles/names in the comments.

Update 3/12 — I’ve uploaded a rules file and a list of the cards (to be cut out). I upped the motivations to 16. Who knows if they are balanced?

I’ve also added a rule — the super taunt. Simply, a revealed traitor may guess someone’s motivation. If they are wrong, the knight loses nothing (not even the card). But if the traitor is correct, the knight loses a random card and a life. So, Knights will be loathe to reveal their motivations. I may also allow a traitor to ask for a card in hand instead of a random card, but that has issues with the Dragon/Picts/Saxons. In any case, I don’t need to write up rules on what can and can’t be revealed, as there is an in-game cost to openness. I wish the rules on other communication had some way to make a traitor punish knights, instead of a blanket declaration of “No naming cards” (Especially one that is easy to circumvent).

Perhaps the traitor should be allowed to self-reveal (without the “Fate” card) just to allow them access to the super-taunt. Off the top of my head, I think I’d allow it, as long as it was their sole action that turn (no accusation, then reveal). Actually, on second thought, no. The knights who want to keep X cards in their hand somewhat want the traitor hidden (since he may knock a needed card out of their hand). That’s enough reason to keep the traitor from being able to reveal without a card.

I just realized that the “Keep X cards” in hand knights also have an unwritten condition … stay alive. Since you discard your hand. Perhaps I need to allow them to win if they had the cards in hand when they died. But the basic idea is still sound.

Written by taogaming

March 11, 2006 at 2:11 pm

13 Responses

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  1. I think this is a really cool idea, actually. Shadows is definitely one idea short (at least), and this might be it, or a piece of it anyway.

    Champion is too easy, though, and doesn’t put him enough at odds with the other players I think. I’d also suggest that the “too many knights guy” doesn’t have enough control over his own destiny. And I think the Druid is too easy. The Druid could be cool with a thinner margin, though, like if the good guys win by only one sword.

    The Judge sounds cool, and I’d include him just for that reason, but I’ll predict right now that he will win even less often than the Renegade does in Bang! :).

    How about a Grail Knight – who wins only if someone (not necessarily him) recovers the Holy Grail.

    Loyal Companion – If the knight on your left wins, you win also (whether he is loyal or the traitor).

    Chris Farrell

    March 11, 2006 at 4:17 pm

  2. I originally thought about making the Champion have to have the Dragon defeated at least once (he may or may not have to personally do that). That seems too hard.

    The Judge really is hard. This guy is going to be suspicious, casting doubt, etc. He’ll almost certainly accuse someone, and try to accuse more. On the other hand, the traitor doesn’t have to be accused, and may self reveal. [I was actually tempted to have some of the people flip swords at the end game, so that nobody is sure who won until it’s counted. But, baby steps. I mean, the judge being in the game seems like it will alsmost certainly flip one sword to black…should be some compensation.

    A grail night seems good, but most games have teh grail recovered. I was thinking about a xenophobe, who had to defeat the picts/saxons. Those quests get ignored. (And I’m trying to avoid arguements as to “I did that during the game”).

    Loyal companion is a good idea.


    March 11, 2006 at 7:58 pm

  3. And regarding the druid (et al), the margins probably need to be played with. I think that ideally each of these should be able to win most of the time without evoking too much suspicion. If they won 80-90% of the time (that the loyal side won), then odds are that at least one player will be in danger of losing and flailing around a bit, which gives the traitor room to manuever.


    March 11, 2006 at 8:01 pm

  4. Ooh . . . very intriguing ideas. Can’t wait to hear them once you refine them.


    March 12, 2006 at 2:11 am

  5. A grail night seems good, but most games have teh grail recovered.

    Funny, in my half-dozen games, I’ve never seen the Grail recovered! I thought having something which made one Knight actually care about the Grail might be nice 🙂

    Chris Farrell

    March 12, 2006 at 2:12 am

  6. A grail night seems good, but most games have teh grail recovered.

    Funny, in my half-dozen games, I’ve never seen the Grail recovered! I thought having something which made one Knight actually care about the Grail might be nice 🙂

    Chris Farrell

    March 12, 2006 at 2:12 am

  7. in my half-dozen games, I’ve never seen the Grail recovered!

    Some groups are loathe to hit the grail early, because it wonks up your siege engines. But I find that the extra cards and life (4 for the Grail + ~4 for the knights there) means that you can spend 8 or so turns just losing life (or not wasting it drawing cards). And of course, the sweet sweet swords.


    March 12, 2006 at 11:28 am

  8. Brian, you’re trying to get players to act differently by giving them different objectives, but I’m not sure it’s completely necessary. Maybe in your games, the loyal players all act in lockstep, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. Players, to paraphrase Art Linkletter, do the darndest things. These differences of opinion (resulting in some plays that clearly appear to be suboptimal to everyone but the player doing them) make players appear to act differently and cause many a loyal player to seem to be traitorous. To me, the genius of Shadows is that the mere possibility of having a traitor in a game colors everyone’s opinion about what might be the most innocent actions.

    That said, I’m not opposed to spicing the game up some (it seems to have a limited shelf life for many groups). Your ideas are all interesting, but I wonder if they will have the desired effect. I’d think that everyone will just work toward their own winning conditions, and then work for the common good. For example, the Power Monger makes sure he gets his 15 fighting in his hand (or close enough to get there at the end) and then concentrates on the forces of evil. I’m not sure you’re accomplishing anything other than making it harder for the good players to win, since you’re encouraging suboptimal behavior. Of course, you’re also making it easy for the traitor to behave badly without suspicion, since everyone will assume that he’s just following his motivation card. The key is that while everyone may not know what their opponents’ motivation card is, they do know that they have one, so “poor” play is just taken in stride.

    To truly add something to the game, the motivations have to be at cross purposes to each other, so that in addition to the Warrior, there’s a role that wins only if there are fewer than 8 siege engines in play at the end. But then you risk the Railroad Tycoon problem: depending on the mix of motivation cards, some players will have a much harder time of winning than others. It’s hard for me to imagine a set of cards that change the game sufficiently to make them worthwhile, while at the same time don’t throw the game’s fairness out of whack.

    The idea is an interesting one and I don’t mean to dismiss it. Maybe we’re just looking for different ways to change the Shadows Over Camelot experience (ha! different motivations!). But I’m also not sure I agree with your basic premise, that semi-cooperatives need to have a spectrum of cooperation. I think Shadows’ full cooperation, spiced with the possibility of one player working outside the rest, makes for a satisfying game experience all by itself.

    Larry Levy

    March 12, 2006 at 11:33 am

  9. OK, Ive uploaded some rules/cards. (This means that Larry may not have seen them for his post).

    I’ve certainly seen suboptimal play. (I think I complained about it here). Shadows is going to be a hard game if the players do have different views. But if you are playing with the same group, they’ll probably come up with a ‘typical strategy.’

    Part of my reason for giving the traitor more room to maneuver is that I’ve seen roughly 1/2 of my games where the traitor couldn’t do anything in particular. And the last one had Lancelot’s armor!

    My theory (binary vs. spectrum) may be wrong, but it’s based on the cooperative theory (which I agree) that players have to have different points of view (and information), so that there is tension in a cooperative game. I stipulate as axiomatic that inter-player tension in a semi-cooperative game should be even higher.

    From my games, at least, that tension hasn’t been there (with good gamers). Perhaps if I played with you and Chris it would be there, since different groups have different ideas.

    I was really excited about SoC, but my rating has settled down to the 5 or 6. Sometimes the game works out really tense, but often it isn’t (win or lose). I’m just offering up some tabasco.

    It may very well be that my variant is too freeform, though.

    Also, I thought about having people with exactly opposite goals (like you mentioned), but I was worried about the Railroad Tycoon effect. I’d like it to be possible (albiet difficult) for all the knights to win on any deal of the motivation cards. I think I’ve done that (except that Chris’s Loyal Companion idea, which I stole, if his Lord is the traitor. But that should be rare).


    March 12, 2006 at 12:32 pm

  10. I agree that Saboteur gets this right. There is alot of tension for the ‘good team’ to work together, yet not too hard.

    Trying to get the balance right, especially with more players, makes it a great game to play…


    March 12, 2006 at 5:43 pm

  11. A note on Sabotuer. The payout in gold cards are distributed counter clockwise instead of clockwise. This means that the player setting up the “assist” is rewarded with the second most gold.

    Nice article.


    March 12, 2006 at 7:34 pm

  12. This is a tough design problem. I’ve tried for it in several games. The problem with “simple” motivation cards is that the “voting problem” can emerge, where essentially being dealt a motivation card that runs counter to two or three other players’ motivation card means that you’re “swimming against the tide” the entire game. One way around this is to design a matrix of co-operation versus competition, this is essentially what I ended up doing for Time Agent (where I did linear optimization using a spreadsheet to help design the “weights” for the various events).

    I’ll be curious to see what you end up with here.

    Tom Lehmann

    March 15, 2006 at 7:14 pm

  13. Well, my first cut is posted. Fortunately, having recently played Railroad Tycoon, that problem was foremost in my mind. I didn’t make any of the cards directly contradict. The closest is “Player A wants to complete X” quest cards. These are probably a bit more likely to get squashed if other playres have “complete Y” cards and others have “Hold X cards” motivations.

    Honestly, if they are all roughly equivalent I’d be happy. I don’t expect any of them to be too hard, but who knows?


    March 15, 2006 at 8:57 pm

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