Authors: Serge Laget &
Publisher: DAYS OF WONDER
Click here for the Merlin's Company Expansion Set!
Over the years, there always are some instances where just the waiting for the release of a new boardgame turns into a very difficult task, and as a reviewer one simply cannot wait to hold the new game in your hands and start playtesting. This does not happen too often, but for me it was just what happened when I heard about the forthcoming new Schatten über Camelot game by DAYS OF WONDER. Due to a very clever merchandising campaign on the DAYS OF WONDER website with bits of the game and its artwork becoming available in well-portioned sneack-previews, my eagerness to get and review the new game certainly was kindled. Thus, you might imagine that I started playtesting immediately upon its delivery to my doorstep, and now - after a short but appropriate - testing period, I have to come forward to present you my findings about the new game.
As the title suggest, the game takes a group of 3 to 7 players back to the times of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In fact, the players will take up the roles of Knights which have sworn to defend Camelot and the forces of the Light against the forces of Chaos wrecking havoc in many parts of Britannia. Each of the players thus will choose a reknown Knight (or even King Arthur himself) as his gaming character, and together the players will try to master all the forces of evil which will be managed by the playing mechanism itself. So, the first striking point I have to point out about the game is that it is of the rare species of cooperative games, thus uniting all the players to fight for the common goal of ultimate victory. As usual for a G@mebox review, I will now delve deeper into the details of the rules, but I need to point out that it might get a bit confusing due to the simple richness of the rules. Although they are quite simple to handle once they have been mastered, retelling their most important parts within the condensed form of a review seems to be a quest worthy of a Knight on its own.
As indicated, at the beginning of the game each player will chose a Knight the figure of which he will place at the matching coloured seat at the Round Table on the main gameboard. Furthermore, each player receives a character sheet for his Knight which displays the special attribute the Knight possesses and which will be used for keeping track of a Knight's lifepoints. Apart from this, the character sheets mainly concentrate in giving a short but helpful overview of the main phases of the game and functions of the three holy relics (Excalibur, Holy Grail, Lancelot's Armour) which may be discovered during the course of the game. Now the rest of the gaming components will be prepared: The main gameboard and the three additional questing gameboards (Excalibur Quest, Holy Grail Quest, Lancelot/Dragon Quest(s)) will be placed openly on the table. Next come the playing cards, and in this game exist two major types of playing cards - the white cards of Good and the black cards of Evil. Each player receives "Merlin"-card and five randomly drawn cards from the deck of Good, and then each deck is separately shuffled and faced placed down at the appropriate spaces on the main gameboard. To finish preparations, all other playing materials are put at hand for later use (black and white swords which will be placed on the Round Table, Catapults, miniatures of Saxons and Picts, the three Holy Relics and an eight-sided combat dice.) With everything prepared, the game may start and I may turn to a description of the basic outline of a player's turn.
Basically, the turn of each player is divided into two phases - the advancement of Evil and a Knight's deed. Thus, before a player can act with his Knight, he first must find out in how far the forces of Evil act this turn, and for this a player must chose one of the following actions:
The most dangerous action which a player may chose is the drawing of a black card. All of these cards bring about some kind of trouble which is going to harass the players. So, some of these cards will be added to the different quests available in the game, making it harder for the players to succeed in these quests. Other cards are special cards which are going to cause a special event which will have some direct influence on the players' fate. As said, a player can prevent to draw an event card by either playing a Catapult at Camelot or by losing one of his lifepoints, but both of these options are limited since each Knight only starts out with 4 lifepoints and the game would be lost when a total of 12 Catapults would besiege Camelot.
After the advancement of Evil but still before the Knight's deed phase the active player now must check whether any of the victory conditions for the forces of Evil now has become fulfilled. Thus, the game will be lost for all players if at this instance either Camelot is besieged by 12 Catapults or if there are at least seven black swords at the round table or if all faithful Knights have been killed. If this should not be the case, the game continues with the second phase - a Knight's deed.
During this phase it will be the player'S task to take the fate of Britannia and the preservation of the forces of White in his own hands. It is the ultimate goal of the players to put white swords onto the Round Table at Camelot, and the Knights will have won the game when a total of 12 black and white swords lies on the round table with the majority of these swords being white. As might be guessed, the colour of the swords on the Round Table represents the success and failure of the Knights on their quests, and whenever a quest comes to its end it will be evaluated whether white or black sword(s) will be placed on the Round Table. Considering this background, a player can chose between the following types of action for his turn:
As can be seen, the travelling between the different locations is seen as being an action of its own, and thus even the simple change of locations first requires a player to go through the advancement of Evil phase. However, when a player has arrived at a quest he then may spend his next turn to perform a questing action at this quest. However, to understand the meaning of a questing action let us first turn to the nature of the quests themselves.
In total, there is a number of seven quests available in the game, but since the Lancelot/Dragon quests are printed on different sides of the same gameboard the game starts with the Lancelot quest being the sixth quest and which will be turned over to the Dragon side once the quest either has been won or lost. The other quests available in the game are the search for the Holy Grail, the capture of Excalibur, the battles against the Saxons and the Picts and the tournament against the Black Knight. Apart from the Grail and Excalibut quests, all other quests are combat quests which require the players to play suitable white combat cards into the quests. These cards exist with values ranging from "1" to "5" in the deck of white cards which is to approx. 80 percent composed of such combat cards. A Knight who is located at such a combat quest may play a combat card into this questas his questing action, but he may not simply chose from the cards he has at hand but the card he wants to play must meet certain prerequisitions. Thus, the battles against the Saxons and the Picts require the players to play cards with values from "1" to "5" into these quests in rising order. The Black Knight Quest requires the player to play two pairs of cards, the Lancelot quest to play a "Full House" and the Dragon quest to play three triplets. However, there also are the black cards of Evil which must be taken into consideration, since these cards slowly will fill up the quests and make it harder for the Knights to prevail. Thus, most of the Evil cards discovered in the game will be assigned to one of these quests, and by these cards the quest will get more difficult to be won. In effect, the battles against the Saxons and the Picts will receive troop miniatures by these cards, and if a total of four miniatures has been reached in either of these battles before the quest has been completed by the Knights the quest will be lost. Likewise, the opponents in the Black Knight and Lancelot/Dragon quests will receive strength cards which make these opponents more tough, and the players only will be able to win these quests if the total value of their combat cards in such a quest exceeds the value of the Evil cards which have been placed in such a quest. Very important to notice is also the fact that the Black Knight and the Lancelot quest are solo quests. Thus, at all times only one player may occupy such a quest, and if he is forced to leave this quest before it is finished in either way all white cards which had been placed at that quest will need to be discarded without any use.
Somewhat different rules are followed in the Grail and Excalibur quests. The powerful sword of Excalibur lies in the hand of the Lady of the Lake in the lands of Avalon, and it is the task of the Knights to make sacrifices which will allow them to pull the sword asore on their side of the lake. Thus, any Knight who is located at the Excalibur quest and who choses to perform a questing action must discard one card from his hand and then he will be allowed to move Excalibur for one space towards his side of the lake. Although this might sound like being an easy quest, the players constantly are under a moderate time pressure due to the fact that on average in two out of three turns new black cards of Evil will be revealed in the advancement of Evil phase. This often forces the players to attend other - more urging quests - and thus it may often happen that black Excalibur cards will be revealed which will cause Excalibut to be moved one space away from the players' shore and closer to final extinction. In similar manner, the quest for the Holy Grail requires the players to play a total of seven white Grail cards into the quest, but here it is quite unlikely that such a number of Grail cards will rest in the hands ofjust one or two players. Thus, it seems unavoidable that several Knights will have to travel to the Grail quest and play Grail cards as their questing action, but apart from the already outlined timing pressures of more urging quests the necessary presence of multiple players also will cause several additional advancement of Evil phases. During the advancement of evil phases, black Grail cards may be discovered which eliminate already placed white Grail cards and which - if ultimately a total of seven black Grail cards should be in this quest - ultimately lead to the failure of the whole Grail quest.
Once a quest comes to its end, it needs to be seen whether either the Knights or the forces of Evil will have won the quest. Depending on the importance of the quest, this will cause a number of white or black swords to be placed at the Round Table at Camelot. Furthermore, if lost some quests will cause all participating Knights to lose a lifepoint and they may even force the players to place one or two Catapults to the sieging orce at Camelot. However, if won the players will receive additional benefits from the quest: they will gain lifepoints and additional white cards, and as a further bonus the three relics of the Holy Grail, Excalibur and Lancelot's Armour may be won. Each of this relics is highly beneficial for the Knight who owns it and thus for the players' cause. Excalibur will give its owner additional fighting strength, the Holy Grail can be used to prevent the Death of a player and Lancelot's Armour will give its owner a special power to prevent certain black cards of Evil. After the ending of the quest has been resolved, the Knights will be allowed to return to Camelot and proceed with the game. The Grail, Excalibur and Lancelot/Dragon quests each are unique quests which can only be won or lost once in the game. While the Lancelot quest is turned over to the side of the Dragon quest, all other of these quests will be considered to be finished. If - in later turns - further black cards of Evil appear for these quests these cards cannot be placed at the quest anymore but instead each such card will cause the placement of a Catapult at Camelot. The battles against the Saxons and the Picts and the tournament against the Black Knight on the other hand are recurring quests - once they have been solved they start over and once again black and white cards can be played into these quests. As indicated earlier, the players always are under a certain time pressure to work at winning as many quests as possible. Especially due to the fact that some of the quests are unique it is crucial for the players to keep constant watch over the number of black cards which already have been placed in such a quest. With enough black cards, a quest may even be lost without any Knight having tried to solve it, and together with such a quest not only a holy relic will be lost but also grave consequences like the placement of black swords or Catapults at Camelot may be caused.
Two kinds of special quests are available for players who decide to spend their turn at Camelot. A Knight who stays there either has the possibility to re-fill his hand of cards by drawing two white cards from the stack of Good or to go through the gates of Camelot and attack one of the siege Catapults mounted there. To battle a Catapult, the player has to play some white combat cards from his and and then roll the eight-sided combat dice. Is the sum of the played cards higher than the result of the dice-roll, the combat is won and a Catapult is discarded together with the used combat cards. However, if the roll was equal or higher than the roll of the cards, the combat is considered to be lost and the cards just have to be discarded. Furthermore, the involved Knight will lose a lifepoint.
Another action a Kinght may resort to is the playing of a white event card. There are only a few such event cards in the deck of cards of the Good, but when played these cards tend to be rather helpful. Thus, the Lady of the Lake may rush to the side of the Knights and assist in the rescue of Excalibur, Reinforcements will allow the drawing of additional cards, a Heroic Deed allows the collection of an additional white sword for the Round Table etc. Quite powerful also are the cards displaying Merlin the Wizard, since these can be use to remove either a Catapult or a Saxon or a Pict or to cancel the effect of some less powerful Evil cards. However, there is also the possibility that the Knights combine their forces to play three Merlin cards together, and if they do so they may cancel the effect of one of the more powerful Evil special event cards.
Finally, a player also may resort to accuse another Knight of treachery, and here we turn to a portion of the rules which I have not outlined yet. At the beginning of the game, each player secretly will receive an Alignment card which will identify his character either as a true Knight or as a traitor to the cause of Camelot. Each player knows the alignment of his character, but all the other players will not know what alignment the other characters have. There only exists one traitor card in the whole deck of alignement cards, so it might well happen that no traitor participates in an ongoing game. However, if a traitor should be present, this player actually will try to prevent the other players from winning while at the same time he tries to remain undiscovered. You now may ask on how a traitor can operate to harass the progress of the others, but there are several twists in the rules which allow the traitor some freedom concerning his actions without actually being discovered. Thus, a player may always decide to place an Evil card face down into a combat quest. Although this may earn him some suspicious looks from his fellow Knights, the player always may justify himself by pointing out that this action is beneficial since it allows him to draw an additional white card. Before this quest is resolve, all cards in this quest will be turned face down an shuffled, so that, if there had been more than one face down card, the players will not know exactly which Knight has placed which card in that quest. Another point is that all cards in the game will be placed face down on the discard piles, so that the other players never will know exactly what cards are discarded by the others. Taking these points into consideration, the traitor has some options to act for the detriment of the other Knights and ultimately to prevent their victory. To demask the traitor, each Knight once in the game has the possibility to accuse one other player of being the traitor. Then the alignment card of the accused will be revealed. If the traitor should be found, a white sword is placed at Camelot and the traitor has to remove his Knight from play. From now on he will operate from the shadows, just resorting to playing one black Evil card per turn instead of performing his normal actions as a Knight. However, if an innocent Knight was accused, one white sword at Camelot will be turned to its black side, thus sowing further mistrust in the rows of the Knights.
As said, the game continues until at least 12 swords have been placed at Camelot. If the majority of these swords is white, the Knights will have won. Otherwise, the victory will go to the forces of Evil (and the traitor). The Evil side also will win the game if an early end of the game should happen, and this is the case if either 12 Catapults have joined the Siege force at Camelot or if all Knights are dead or if at least 7 black swords have been placed at the Round Table.
I will stop at the point with my outline of the rules. There are a few more turns and twists which could be mentioned like the special powers of each Knight, the possibility for a double action by spending a lifepoint, optional rules for starting as a squire etc, but what I have told you so far should be sufficient to give you a well-informed impression of the whole game. I now will turn to give you my evaluation of the game, and here the first thing I need to point out is that - although the rules as described here might sound a bit overwhelming - they are rather easy to handle and quick to learn. A very enjoyable fact is that just one experienced player is needed to start the game rather quickly, and the rules can be learned quite well on the go.
To my mind the most interesting element of the game are the cooperation rules which will unite the players to fight together for the force of the Good. Such cooperative games are rather rare to find, and although one might at first be reminded of the Lord of the Rings boardgame by Rainer Knizia which was released by KOSMOS several years ago, it is rather easy to discover some major differences between these two games. Most prominent in this context stand the traitor rules, since they effectively undermine the cooperative spirit of the game and give the players reason to mistrust each other to a certain degree. Although playing a traitor without getting discovered by no means is an easy task, there are still possibilities for the traitor to turn the tide in some quests in favour of the fate of Evil just at a crucial moment. This may prove to be rather disaterous to the other players, especially since an accusation of treachery should not be made lightheadedly due to the grave consequence of having to turn a white sword to its black side on a wrongly made accusation.
Another very important point about the cooperative rules is that the players explicitly are reminded not to give away clear details on facts the other players cannot know at the point of the game. Thus, the players are instructed to resort to statements like "My Lord, I can send a strong contingent of troops to this battle!" instead of giving any concise information about a player's hand of cards. If played in this way, these rules of communication will cause additional playing fun just be the way the dialogues between the players are going to happen. Finally, the players ultimately should not subejct to the counsel given by the others. In the end each Knight should decide his actions on his own will, even if such a course of action should not be approved by the other players.
Looking at the rules of the game from an observer's point of view, I found the game during playtesting to be rather well balanced regardless of the number of players. A game where no traitor is present seemingly is a bit easier to win than a game with a traitor, but in both cases the chances to win or loose still are about equal. Especially well constructed are the rules for the discovery and the placement of the black cards of Evil, since the way most of these cards are used for filling up the quests differnces the game pretty much from many other games where random event cards are discovered. Apart from the special events, the black cards usually do not cause an immediate event but instead they build up tension and stepwise put more pressure on the players to deal with a quest which threatens to be lost. Thus, the players will have to develop a strategy in which order to deal with the most urgent quests, and especially this factor of strategy is a rather beneficial feature which helps Schatten über Camelot to outdistance many other event-based games which tend to be much more luck-based.
As a side note before drawing to an end, I would also like to add that I also playtested the game with just two players. In this variant the rules for the traitor remain unused and the game gets a bit stronger luck-based, but it still is playable although it gets harder to beat the playing mechanism and a very good timing is needed on side of the Knights. Also, a careful choice of the Knights based on their different special abilities is important to keep the game at least partly balanced, but if tried the two-player-version for me did pose a rather tempting and difficult challenge.
To sum it up, Schatten über Camelot is one of the most outstanding and recommendable games which I have seen for several years. The game unites very well-constructed cooperative rules with stunning artwork, a great background story and a nearly unbeatable degree of playing fun so that I simply cannot refrain from giving the highest evaluation which I haven given in years. I would make this game a very strong candidate for a SPIEL DES JAHRES awards had not the 2004 awards been given to DAYS OF WONDER to their great family game Zug um Zug. Due to the behaviour of the awards committee in previous years I am doubtful whether they would make the rather unusual move to award the same producer the SPIEL DES JAHRES in two consecutive years. However, the DEUTSCHER SPIELE PREIS is much more impartial and I am hopeful that this beautiful game will receive the top rank on this awards poll. Having said this, you all will understand that I chose to award one of the rarely used GAMEBOX STARS to Schatten über Camelot!
Finally, some of my more constant readers may discover that I have not been short in giving praise for this game - a fact rather unusual if you consider my careful portioning of praise in many of the reviews I have written over the years. For me, this game has been one of the rare instances where I could find a product at the peak of perfection. All my criteria and expectations for ranking games have been totally fulfilled in this game, and thus I have the pleasure to present you a real gaming gem which should not miss in any games collection.
I still remember quite well the hard time I had to spend while waiting for the upcoming Schatten über Camelot, and once I could get my hands on the game it fastly had become one of my all-time favourites. Thus, you can imagine that I was rather eager to obtain a copy of the new Merlin's Macht expansion set when it became available, and now I am happy to present you the new events which will challenge Arthur's Knights in the new set.
As a matter of fact, the gameboards and playing materials of the basic game already take up a good sized table, and thus it seems comprehensible that the game's authors refrained from adding new boards and quests with the expansion set. Instead, the main part of the expansion is formed by quite a few new playing cards. Some of these cards are new white cards of Good and black cards of Evil, and these cards are shuffled into their respective decks. To make it harder for the players to differentiate between old cards from the basic game and new expansion cards (depending how much the basic game has been used), some of the new cards feature the same contents as some of the older cards. Thus, a player cannot rely on what kind of card he will find even if he knows that a card is either a new or an old card. While not a necessity, this nice trick quells an urge to calculate which card might appear next right from the beginning.
As said, the forces of Evil receive some new assistance, and thus Morgaine the Fey is joined by seven Witches of varying powers which form an additional challenge for the players. Depending on which Witch is revealed, the gaming effects of such a card vary from a reshuffling of the decks of cards to the loss of a Life-point for Knights without a Grail-card or permanent changes of the rules. Here, some of the effects may be that a wrong accusation of treason now will be more costly or that some positive cards will be removed permanently from the game once they have been played. On the other hand, some new white cards which can be played in favour of the players have been introduced as well, and here the benefits range between a temporary peace with the Saxons or Pikts (resulting in a removal of all cards and figures from the respective battlefield) to Divine Aid which will decide the next draw in the course of the game in favour of the forces of Good.
In total, 7 new black special cards and 8 new white special cards have been added, and these new cards may result in the game taking some new, unexpected turn of events. Also worth to mention are the three new "joker" combat cards which were added to the deck of white cards, since the player who uses such a card in combat now may use it freely for any value between "1" and "5".
However, the task of the players is hampered additionally by the newly introduced stack of Travel-cards, and as a new rule a player now has to draw a travel card whenever he decides to travel to a new quest. Some of these cards just show uneventful travels and allow the player to continue with his turn as normal, but more often it will be the case that some kind of event will happen. The player may be ambushed (forcing him to win a combat or to place a catapult at Camelot), he may be challenged (fighting the duel with combat cards) or he may even be captured so that he may not act anymore unless an other player discards a white special card to free him. All of these events pose additional challenges to the players, since they strain their resources in order to avoid negative consequences which would work in favour of the forces of Evil.
Still, apart from the cards with uneventful travels there are also five positive cards in the deck of Travel-cards, and these cards introduce a new, independent character to the game which is the central figure of the whole expansion - Merlin the Wizard. A figure for Merlin is included, and when such a Merlin-card is found the active player travels to his chosen quest and now may place the Merlin figure next to his Knight's figure. While Merlin is at a quest with one or more Knights, each of the Knights present receives an additional allowance to draw one white card during his turn, thus representing Merlin's valuable counsel. However, once a quest has been solved it may be possible that Merlin stands at a finished quest, and such a quest cannot be visited by Knights anymore. Here the advantage of the Merlin figure is different, since now he will prevent the positioning of a Catapult at Camelot whenever a black card for the finished quest is drawn. Such a card then is discarded without any effect.
Finally, a whole new set of Knight playing sheets is included with this expansion, and while the graphic layout of the characters has remained the same the Knights have received new names and new special abilities. Thus, the players now have a broader choice of Knights at the beginning of the game, and in addition the participation of an eighth player has become possible since the card, dice and figure for the promotional Sir Bedivere have been included as well. However, to keep the game balanced, an eight player game now will be played with two possible traitors, making it even more difficult for the others to differentiate between friends and foes.
While not an absolute must-buy, this new expansion certainly adds spice to Schatten über Camelot - especially because of Merlin and the new rules for travels. Travelling becomes dangerous, and a further dimension is added by the players trying to speculate whether it will be more worthwhile to move or whether to remain stationary in order to prevent a possible move of Merlin because he participates at crucial quest. If used together with the rules for accolade from the basic game, the complexity of the game increases moderately while at the same time the whole playing atmosphere takes a good leap forwards because of the different aspects from a Questing Knight's life which now have been included. Also, hunting for a second traitor is a rather interesting challenge, and a whole lot of new situations now may arise due to the presence of more than one saboteur in the ranks of the Knights.
However, some final critical comments also need to be made, and here the current price of this expansion should be mentioned. The richly equipped basic game sells at the moment for 35 to 40 Euros, and thus it seems a bit overpriced if this expansion is sold for an average of 20 Euros. That's a good deal of money for two figures, a dice, some Knight sheets and a deck of cards. Also, it seems that somebody of the design staff has been overly eager to create a "fitting" atmosphere, and thus the three cards for uneventful travels feature quotes from the movie "Monty Python & the Holy Grail". While not harmful concerning gameplay, these quotes seem to be somewhat unfitting because they ridicule a rather convincing, attractive game
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Copyright © 2005 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Trier, Germany