The life of a mercenary soldier in medieval times might have been harsh and tough, but even before the publication of Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485 the mythos of knights in shining armor has been a part of our culture. You know what I mean, the noble King Arthur, his lovely Queen Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain, Sir Galahad, the evil Morgan le Fay, the kingdom of Camelot, and on and on. These courtly armored knights quested for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ himself drank and the magical sword Excalibur that identified Arthur as the true King of England. A mythos rich for gaming and the Days of Wonder co-op board game Shadows Over Camelot has long been a favorite of mine (when I can get enough people together to tackle all the challenges).
The board game is big and requires some substantial setup and lots of table space, so it’s logical that Days of Wonder sought to boil the essence of the popular game down (undoubtedly in a small cauldron borrowed from Merlin) into Shadows Over Camelot: The Card Game. And as a multiplayer game, it’s not too bad. But the game advertises that it’s for 1-7 players, so I thought I’d give the solo mode a try.
And solo mode just isn’t very good. In fact, it’s so dull and unengaging that odds are good I’ll never try to play it again without other people.
Indeed, I’m writing this review to highlight that if you’re looking for a solo game, skip this one. If you’re looking for a game themed to King Arthur, then the big Shadows Over Camelot game is really excellent and terrific fun (and hard to beat!).
The Card Game itself is basically a memory game. You are a Knight of the Round Table and are going to be attempting to succeed at various quests. Each quest you achieve gains you 1-3 white swords and each quest you fail at produces an equal number of black swords. Get 7 white swords and you’ve won! Huzzah! But if 7 black swords appear first, then you’ve all lost. Well, not everyone because there’s also a potential traitor in the multiplayer game too; someone who seeks to have the black swords of failure trigger the end game and thereby win.
Here’s this aspect of the game in a single photo:
The square card deck is known as the “rumor” deck and each card is either an element of a quest (shown is the Quest for the Holy Grail) or a threat such as Merlin or Morgan. In fact, Morgan is the bane of every player’s existence. In the above, notice that the Grail quest card shows three white swords: Achieve the goal and that’s worth 3/7 of the entire game, so it’s a big one! On the opposing corners is a question mark. That denotes the point value of this card and in this instance each of these “?” cards is worth the total number of “?” cards queued up for that quest. In other words, if you have two “?” cards, each will be worth 2 points for a total of four. Put a third one on the stack, however, and that four points jumps to nine!
A few more quest cards illustrate how this all works:
Leftmost are the Saxons, in the center is another Holy Grail quest card, and on the right are the Picts. In the board game, the Saxons and Picts are hostile forces you have to fight off, but in the Card Game they’re essentially just another quest. On the above, Saxons and Picts are worth a single white sword and left to right, the cards are worth “?” points, 4 point and 2 points.
So what is it with all these points? Well, that’s where the memory part comes into play. Each turn in solo play you flip over a quest card and put it on top of the revealed deck so that all previous cards are hidden. Again, go back to that first photo and you’ll see that the exposed Holy Grail quest card covers up quite a few previous cards in the pile.
The essence of the solo card game is that you need to count cards. In your head, you want to be able to keep track of the accumulated points for each of the five quests and when you believe the top quest has reached a point value of 11, 12 or 13, go boldly on that quest! This is known as the Main Quest. Now you spread out all the cards in the reveal deck, organize them by quest, and count point values for each:
The dragon quest is 5 points (4 points + 1 “?” card), the Holy Grail quest is (10 points (9 + 1 “?”), the Saxons quest is 6 points and the Holy Grail quest, praise be, is 12 points! My main quest, alas, was the Holy Grail and by not getting to that 11-13 value, I have failed and put 1 black sword on the table. The others don’t count as long as they don’t exceed 14 points. So this quest produced… 1 black sword. That’s it for this round, every card from every quest, successful or otherwise, now goes into the discard pile and the next Rumor card is revealed.
Note that if the main quest had proven to have a point value higher than 13 then the number of black swords would match the white swords on the quest card. In other words, failing on the Holy Grail would then produce three more black swords. Since we know it’s at 10 points, revealing another 4 pointer means I’d have 4 black swords. Hit 7 and it’s game over.
That’s the entire solo game. Like I said, if you’re good at keeping track of multiple sets in your head, you might enjoy this as a somewhat meditative card game, but otherwise, it’s just an exercise in frustration: Guess too low on the main quest and you get black swords. Get too many points on the main quest and you get multiple black swords. Get a good count value (say, 11) but then get a big point value card randomly from the deck and your quest is a fail. More black swords.
There are other elements in the multiplayer game, including actual knights:
But just like the loyalty cards, these aren’t used in solo mode so essentially you lose the majority of the interesting gameplay. And the resultant card counting puzzle is just rather boring. It’s so bad that I would encourage Days of Wonder to just get rid of the one paragraph “solo mode” info in the instruction book and just be done with it. 2-7 players, no solo mode, the end.
Which is a huge disappointment because the Shadows Over Camelot board game is easily one of my favorite co-ops and a favorite with my gaming circle as well. But Shadows Over Camelot: The Card Game for solo play? Run away, good sir knight, just… run away.