The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Archive for the ‘Shadows over Camelot’ Category

(Semi-)Cooperative games and optimal play

Chris Farrel posted a comment on my BSG variant thread.

The thing is, just from a tactical perspective, simply being total deadweight [as an unrevealed Cylon] is actually pretty tricky to achieve and in many groups it alone would be clearly enough to get you convicted …

This point brings up something that has been brought up often. If everyone has the same information, then (strong) players will be able to agree on the best course of information (after enough plays). Most games give each player their own hand of cards, but the hands don’t differentiate that much. In this respect, Shadows over Camelot is best. Some of the most important spaces take specific cards, whereas most BSG actions don’t. Also, BSG doesn’t have unique event cards that may make people evaluate things differently.

Just a thought.

Written by taogaming

January 10, 2009 at 8:36 pm

More thoughts about Semi-cooperative games

I listed some theories about semi-cooperative games before. In particular, I listed some ‘ideals’:

  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.

Now, those are my ideals, not a platonic ideal. Unless I’ve grasped the essence of SCGs. Really an SCG could just be a hidden team game. I’ve started thinking about an idealized SCG. Based on my thought that The Thing makes a good setting, I’ve been idly thinking about mechanics. I had another game of Battlestar last night that prompted a new player to comment “This is supposed to be hard, right?” The issue was that no cylon could have done anything for about 45 minutes. Not good.

BSG and Shadows suffer from “attention surplus.” When you make an action, it is instantly scrutinized by others looking for deceit. Players see most of your actions. Some characters have special abilities that hide a bit more (like Roslin’s picking of two event cards), but even then the outcome is fairly constrained and often immediate. Players can quickly judge you.

BSG’s skill checks are a step towards removing that surplus. It arguably doesn’t go far enough, since players track what cards you could hold.

What happens in the movie (and in any real-life situation where loyalties are uncertain) is that people can only focus on people sometime. The difficulty (for the ‘loyal’ team) is that you can’t spend too many resources hunting out traitors. The difficulty (for the ‘traitors’) is that you have to do things that endanger you without getting caught, and you know the loyal team is checking up on you. But do you know when?

To make things concrete, imagine a game where the players are all spies for MI-5. They move around Europe (or just London, say) and do spy things. They all know each other and cooperate on missions. Each spy can win (or lose) as an individual, but it’s entirely possible they can all win.
Unless there’s a mole. A mole will reveal them to the KGB (say) and get them all killed, given enough time. If the players spend too much time hunting for a mole, then they’ll fail at the spy stuff (and get killed in a mission).

But if the players are convinced there is a mole, then it’s reasonable to drop everything to hunt him down. (I assume real spy agencies work the same way … normally doing routine stuff, but then seriously escalating to deal with potential traitors).

(Now that I’ve played a dozen times, BSGs real flaw is that the players know exactly how many cylons to expect. Once teams are revealed, the tension level drops. Shadows does that right).

So, in an ideal SCG:

  • Players should not be able to make instant decisions about each other’s play.
  • However, with the expenditure of resources players should be able to discover past plays. (“Tracking down evidence.”)
  • Once teams have been ‘proven’, the game resolves quickly.

To my mind, this suggests:

  1. Simultaneous play and fast turns, for the most part. (My ideal game would be 60-90 minutes, instead of BSGs 120).
  2. Limited communication during the early part of the game, and a mechanism to limit communication to specific other players. (I’m thinking of “Gunboat” BSG or SoC).

I’m kicking around ideas, but just in my head for now…

Written by taogaming

December 30, 2008 at 9:22 pm

In the company of warlocks and other jerks

I managed to play the Shadows over Camelot expansion. Twice, but with wrong rules. Here they are:

  • A second traitor card, to be used with 7 or 8 players.
  • A bunch of new cards, and new characters (with special abilities).
  • The travel deck and a merlin figure.

Whenever you move, you draw a travel card. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes you get ambushed and lose a turn (or card). Sometimes Merlin shows up. Sometimes you get a funny look and go rushing off to the grail instead.

If Merlin is present, he gives each knight a card each turn, and (if the quest is completed and he stays there) stops any black cards that get converted to siege engines (this is only at the grail or excalibur).

It’s more of the same. I still like the game. If you didn’t like it, this changes nothing. I can’t say if it makes it tougher or easier, but having the potential for two traitors in a big game is probably necessary … I don’t think we’ve lost a 7+ player game with competent players.

We (yet again) had the problem with endgame tension in one game. With 8 players (and two traitors) the knights just rolled and got into a position where they wanted to lose a quest or two just to end the game. Having re-read the various comments, I’m going to insist we play with the “Game only ends on a successful quest” variant.

The 7 player, single traitor game was actually quite close, mainly due to a few mistakes the loyal knights (in particular, the one new player) made. I (as the traitor) actually allowed a take back because a play was so obviously wrong (and would have made my backstab unstoppable. As it was, I was surprised they recovered … two of the new cards in the white deck crushed my dreams).

I keep playing this, and lamenting that it needs a nudge to be a great game, instead of a not-quite-slightly-off game that remains fun.

Written by taogaming

September 11, 2008 at 5:49 pm

More Shadows over Camelot

We played an 8 player game (using Sir Bediviere, the ‘expansion’ knight) and my variant.

First things first … 8 players does something weird where the player’s deck often has a handful of cards. This does weird things because players can toss Merlins wily-nily, and then just draw them back instantly. By the rules, this reshuffles both decks, which can make the evil deck unbalanced.

I think if you are going to play with 7 or 8, playing with the squire rule is helpful.

Anyway, as our game progressed, Arthur was in a position to finish a quest, traded, then announced he didn’t have the card he needed. After shock around the table, he ‘found’ the card. I considered this too blatantly stupid, but everyone else considered it a smoking gun. And they were right.

I keep trying to find the right combination of rules to nudge Camelot into greatness. But, since I don’t care for Werewolf, I doubt I’ll find it. But other people in my group like it quite well.

Written by taogaming

July 29, 2006 at 11:54 am


Played a lot of games last night, and the write up is already done. But I got to try my Shadows Over Camelot variant.

We played with 5 players, with 7 cards (one traitor). To make things interesting, I was the Judge. [I lose if the traitor is not revealed before the end game]. I thought that the game went wonderfully. One player got the armor, which always arouses suspicion. After the armored player dropped a nasty event, I was tempted to accuse, but really wanted someone else to accuse. Meanwhile, the knight who can play special cards for free is holding onto them (we know he got passed some via messenger). We aren’t in too much trouble, yet, but it’s tight. And I decided to announce that I was the Judge. I figured I was going to make an accusation sooner rather than later, so may as well get it out in the open.

Well, several turns later the traitor reveals (via Fate). At this point I’m toast, as he can super taunt (and I have two life). We’ve lost the dragon once, and the grail came perilously close to failure (despite my playing four early grails as my first five plays), and I’m still leading it. I get super taunted (card + life) sucking out a grail, but then the traitor decides not to kill me next turn. With all of the knights available, we manage to finish off the grail for our 12th sword while there are 11 siege engines. But one knight doesn’t have a victory condition unless he gets 7 points of fighting in the card payout. And with seven cards, exactly seven fighting show up. So all the knights win.

I thought it added tension and provided some room to manuever, but the traitor didn’t agree. Perhaps the game is just too easy. I certainly felt we were in trouble, but I expected to die.

We also played Antike and I’m pretty much done. I’ll play it again, but I think I’d rather just pull out Vinci or Mare Nostrum (or try Tempus, or …)

Our game did have combat (trading a few cities, three temples sacked), and took a mere 80 minutes or so. I think that if we played it slower, there’d be more calculation and it could be quite good. But that would slow the game down and I hate that. Still, it’s a limited edition game, so someone will be willing to take it off my hands … right?

And all of the little filler games were lovely, so I have nothing to say about them.

Written by taogaming

March 21, 2006 at 5:18 pm

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

Session Report

It’s a rare week when I play four new games, but Saboteur rounds out the quadfecta. It’s another ‘semi-cooperative’ game, and part of Z-Man’s line of cute filler card games. The players are dwarves digging for gold, but a few of them are Saboteurs. These roles are dealt out ala Shadows over Camelot. There’s a start card and three goal cards. One is sweet, sweet gold. Two are lumps.

It’s the standard “Play a card, draw a card.” Most cards fill in the dig, which is an empty grid. You need to walk at least seven cards to get to a goal, so it will take a while. Cards can also hinder your opponents (broken tools), repair breaks, discard a previously played card on the grid, or peek at one goal card.

If the dwarves exhaust the deck (and cards in hand), then the saboteurs win, and each get a flat amount (based on the number of saboteurs). If the dwarves find gold, the ‘good’ dwarves draft a number of gold cards … with the finder getting first pick, and usually an extra pick. You draw gold equal to players, but skip over any saboteurs, so a few players will get gold.

The last part is clever, in that it encourages you to aim for the gold, but in such a way as you don’t get last pick. This blurst the line between betrayal and simple greed. In fact, I don’t think anyone really caught onto it until after a round or two, so the dwarves always found gold. This made the game fall a bit flat, but I’d like to try again.

We also played Shadows over Camelot. Unlike last time, we did have a traitor, who managed to get lancelot’s armor without arousing much suspicion, but he outed himself in the endgame, when things looked desperate. Another loyalist win.

Now that I’ve played a half-dozen times, I have to say that Camelot works well in theory, but in practice it’s a bit off. The game just isn’t as tense as expected. I had suspicions about the traitor, but they were wrong. In any case, I think this game is “OK.” It’s a change of pace,
certainly better than Arkham Horror. I should pull out Lord of the Rings.

Also hitting the table:

Update: I’ve been informed that the gold is distributed counter-clockwise, which changes things.

Written by taogaming

March 11, 2006 at 1:24 pm

Late July Gaming

Earlier this week, several of my childhood friends arrived into San Antonio, which meant getting together, eating, reminiscing and gaming. I played:

  • Ticket to Ride
  • Ticket to Ride Europe
  • Around the World in Eighty Days (twice)
  • Ra
  • Fast Food Franchise
  • Apples to Apples
  • Shadows Over Camelot
  • Can’t Stop

I also taught Puerto Rico (but sat out). We tried to play Battlestations, but it was too complicated and long and was quickly abandoned. It didn’t help that we started after a day of gaming, and I didn’t have all the rules down pat. I still want to try it again (in fact, I’ve already decided to order the expansion).

Shadows Over Camelot had the knight’s victorious (Six player game, a traitor, no accusations). I had my suspicions about one player (my wife) but decided not to accuse. [And yes, there were non-game reasons for that]. In the mid game I had decided that there had to be a traitor (since we’d gone through the white deck several times and never seen a few key white events played, I guessed that they were being held) but the endgame had us far enough ahead that I never accused, and by the end game I had convinced myself there was no traitor. The traitorous knight said he felt constrained and never saw a way to get an advantage.

Written by taogaming

July 28, 2005 at 5:25 pm

Shadows over Camelot 3 player game and thoughts

Once more valiant knights set forth. Unlike previous ill-fated adventures, we only had three players.

We played with the “three player” errata (you don’t deal out the loyalty cards until 6 siege engines or swords are played) and used all 8 loyalty cards. Everyone had played before (and was sane).

We quickly got lancelot’s armor, then grabbed the grail. After a regrouping, excalibur came quickly (and heroically). At this point, things look good except for siege engines, which weren’t horrific. I did wonder about the other knights (I was loyal). The player with lancelot’s armor seemed to draw lots of siege engine cards (a touch too many, if you get my drift). Arthur’s trading was erratic. We lost a few swords then the mists of avalon came out, helping us, as one more failed quest won. [We weren’t playing the “12th sword must be white to end for loyalist victory” variant]. The dragon filled up and we won. (All loyal).

Ok, I’ve now played four times. To recap:

  • Easy victory

  • Hopeless loss

  • Tight loss (inexplicable play)

  • Easy victory

Let me reference Chris Farrel’s review, which I assume you’ve read.

Only one game (out of four) was tense. I think I’ll lobby for the “End with white sword” variant among experienced players. It may make the game harder, but that’s fine. [Part of the reason the last game was easier is that I’ve finally figured out the Merlin cards … did you know they can remove picts or saxons? It’s not on the card …]

Once you’ve played a few times, the game is all about management. I mean, I don’t think that there are differing grand plans you can take. In that sense, it’s like Puerto Rico. (I realize that my thoughts on this issue are not in the mainstream).

You’ve got plenty of options. Making an accusation or two just to prove someone loyal (so that you can safely let them have the armor) vs. not. But these are management issues.

What keeps this from being solitaire is that you can have reasonable disagreements, and these are caused by hidden information.

Shadows over Camelot, it’s fair to say, has more hidden information than Lord of the Rings. There are more types of cards (even ‘rare’ cards that are only in the deck). And, of course, the traitor represents a huge amount of information. Knowing that the traitor isn’t in the game would make it a pointless exercise.

But the randomness tends to detract from tension. Lord of the Rings has episodic buildup (each board) and the inevitable march towards (or through) Mordor. Shadows over Camelot has lots of simultaneous quests, any one of which may be nearing completion, but it just feels less compelling. (Personally, at least).

Because the events aren’t simply ordered and tied to a suit (again, as Chris noted), the randomness looms large. Imagine a black event “You lose unless this is cancelled.” If that hit early, you are down three Merlins. If something bad happens you can choose to risk never drawing it. Very anti-climatic. On the other hand, knowing that the card existed, but was on the bottom 10% of the deck would provide dramatic impetus. But that’s basically what “The Ring is Mine!” does.

Apart from randomness and tension, there are two other complaints. (Not just repeating what others have said, I think!). Shadows feels like a a fixed fun game. I certainly had more control and did more in the three player game than in any of my seven player games. Now, there’s an arguement that adding players increases the fun, because you have more back-and-forth deducing the traitor.

The other problem is that the special powers (and basic moves) do give the traitor some leeway, but sometimes provide (via randomness) the convincing illusion of treasonous behaviour. On the other hand, outright treasonous behaviour (or it’s imitation) is easy to spot. So your stuck trying to guess if you are seeing evil, or a sigma or two of bad luck. So, instead of a psychological game, I’m weighing odds.

Nothing wrong with that, but I didn’t buy Camelot to argue with everyone else about the differences of our particular evaluation of the situation. In short, I wonder if the traitor’s too constrained and the randomness can put you on or off his trail. The threat of a traitor constrains you, but the traitor fears implementing a strategy.

And let’s face it: One easy outcome is a fluke. Three games out of four is a distressing pattern. The win ratio is right, but I’m looking for compelling wins and losses. I’m still playing a few more times, but I’m souring.

Written by taogaming

July 13, 2005 at 9:21 pm

Shadows Over Camelot 2nd Play & Too Much Time

After a few rounds of Shadowfist, I played SoC again last night with the full complement of seven (five new players). A cut-throat group, and I was convinced we had several traitors. I played Tristan (I think? The “Move to a quest for free” knight) and almost had the perfect full house for Lancelot’s armor, so I opened by drawing cards. By the time I had the full house, the quest was occupied. Two players went to the grail, one went to Excalibur. But Guinevere pulled everyone back.

In short order, the grail was locked in a tie (two early desolations hurt), the Picts (backed by Morgana) were threatening to over-run, and we had five siege engines. More impressively, several players, perhaps not clear on the concept, were acting … funny. The lead player on the grail quest discards three grails to heal! [Mistakenly showing his discards]. I almost took a siege engine to accuse at that point (We were playing the variant where if there are no white swords, a false accusation adds a black sword). But I’m waiting for more evidence …

I defeated the Black Knight, but the grail and excalibur were locked. A group defeats the Saxons (who had gotten to three people) and lancelot’s armor is won. The grail discarder accuses the lead-excalibur hunter. Loyal. The bearer of lancelot’s armor accuses the grail-discarder. Loyal. Arthur accuses me. Loyal. At this point I have no idea (Arthur’s play up until that point had seem exemplary), we have five blackswords, eight seige engines, the picts almost over-running.

It took a bit to sort out, but no miracle escapes this time. Amusingly enough, no traitor. During the first accusation, the following exchange occurred:

“I accuse you!”

“See, I’m loyal”

“and incompetent.”

That pretty muched summed it up nicely.

I enjoyed it, in a frustrating way. The early game had some setbacks; just when I think we had a chance, the group self destructs. Ah well. I’ve heard of games where the knights spread out wily-nily and everyone lost early. That seems to have happened here.

Sharing the store: the local historical miniatures group, whom I admire in a “these people have too much time on their hands” way. WWI dogfight game, with miniature planes on telescoping rods. No big deal … except the hex map sat on a gigantic diorama showing trenches, tanks, barbed wire, smoke and men ‘going over the top.’ The scene was probably 6′ by 8′ (and deep enough for the terrain and miniatures) covered by plexiglass. I’ve got to remember to bring my camera.

Written by taogaming

July 6, 2005 at 6:02 pm