Thursday, March 8, 2012

Family Gaming Retrospective: Shadows Over Camelot and Inching Along

My son, Alex, is five years old, and he loves to play board games with us. I have written before about some of the games we like to play together, his memory for box art, and how games revealed his ability to subtract. I want to take a moment now to share an odd juxtaposition of gameplay experiences: playing Shadows Over Camelot followed a few days later by Inching Along.

The Games

Shadows Over Camelot

Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative board game, famous for its use of a traitor mechanic within an Arthurian setting. It was released in 2005 by Days of Wonder and designed by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget. I bought a copy for my VBC seminar, specifically for the traitor mechanic. Some of the students tried it, but I had not played it at all until bringing it home over Spring break this week. It supports 3–7 players, and I was hesitant to suggest it for family play with Alex given the publisher's minimum recommended age of 10 (also 10 at BGG). However, once Alex saw the box, he asked if it was something he could try. The boy does love swords and shields. Having reviewed the rulebook, I figured there'd be little harm in it, so the next day we set it up to play—Alex, my wife, and I.

The main gameplay of Shadows Over Camelot involves collecting Fight cards, which range in numeric value from one to five. Different quests require different combinations of cards: two pair, a five-card straight, full house, etc. To prepare Alex to play the game, I asked if he knew what a "pair" or "three-of-a-kind" meant. He was unsure, so I taught him a simplified version of five-card draw. A few days later—after having tried Shadows Over Camelot—he suggested we play poker again, so it seems that also caught his interest.

Alex is just learning to read, and so he needs help interpreting many of the special, non-Fight cards. After three games, he was able to recognize a few words, such as "Pict" and "Mercenaries." These are good words to know in any context, to be sure.

Moving between quests is an expensive proposition in Shadows Over Camelot since it requires spending a whole turn, and that's a turn during which the knights are not making measurable progress towards victory. As a result, at least with our three-player games, we found that it was often more advantageous for an individual with the right cards to jump on a quest opportunity rather than go in squads. Alex picked up on this rather quickly. We had a few disagreements about what strategies were best, and sometimes he listened to our advice, while other times he went his own way. This was a strength of the game, that the rules of the game encourage discussion while each player retains agency.

Our third game of Shadows Over Camelot
We won our first game, though we had accidentally bent the rules in our favor. The second game was a rather quick loss, as our early acquisition of the Holy Grail, Lancelot's Armor, and Excalibur led to the accumulation of twelve siege engines outside Camelot—a loss condition. The third game was very close, and it looked like we were heading to loss even after sacrificing Excalibur. Then we realized that we had one chance at victory, and that was for Sir Percival (Alex) to sacrifice himself, dropping his health to zero to prevent loss by siege engines, after which I, as Sir Gawain, could play the final Fight card to complete a quest and win the game. We explained this to Alex, and he was happy to do so. We congratulated him on his self-sacrifice that allowed our side to collectively win the game. Indeed, the rules clearly state that everyone shared the victory, even the departed knights. At this point, my younger son awoke, and Alex ran upstairs, nearly shouting to his brother, "Guess what? We won the game, because my guy defeated himself! Isn't that strange? How can a guy defeat himself?" So, I am not completely sure what he learned from the experience, but he definitely seemed to grasp that he had given his side a chance to win by making a difficult decision.

Inching Along

That leads us to Inching Along, a board game by Kathy Harding published by Educational Insights. Since the game has no entry on Board Game Geek, I will take a moment to explain it. It is a competitive board game in which each player has a character that is moved along a track that is numbered 1 to 75. There are also eight straight lines scattered across the board, labeled "A" through "H". On your turn, you flip over a card, which will tell you how far to move forward or backward. These are expressed in terms of the lengths of the lines, so if you flipped over "Move Ahead A + D", then you would measure line "A" and line "D", add those values together, and move forward that many spaces.

Inching Along
Playing this game involves no decision-making. It plays very much like Candy Land except with a ruler and arithmetic instead of colors. Without having had the experience of playing it, I would have dismissed it as homework dressed up to look like a game. However, the fact remains that Alex seems to really like it. Unlike my wife and me, he has not decoded the mechanics to realize that there's no challenge here. It's much like Raph Koster's example of tic-tac-toe in Theory of Fun for Game Design: it's fun until you figure it out, and then it isn't. The mechanics of the game are not dressed up at all: flip a card, measure, move. There is no narrative and no pretension. This makes it less painful to play than The Tick: Hip Deep in Evil, which Alex frequently asks to play, but which similarly provides no meaningful decisions.

Detail from the Inching Along box
The box for Inching Along proudly proclaims that it was "invented by a 1st grade teacher." The publisher is in the business of making resources for teaching, so this is an important bit of marketing for them. I can't help but wonder what other games would look like if the designer's professional background was prominently displayed on the box. Every Reiner Knizia game should say, "Invented by a former banking analyst!"

The Metagame

I enjoyed Shadows Over Camelot as a cooperative board game, and I certainly prefer it over Inching Along. Reflecting on the experience of playing both of them with my son, I realize that both provided the opportunity to play an interesting metagame: the game of teaching the game. To help Alex make sense out of Shadows Over Camelot, I introduced poker. That is, I used the game of poker explicitly as a learning tool, knowing that by playing poker, a player learns certain patterns. If my memory is correct, I learned to play card games like poker, blackjack, and cribbage long before I played any interesting board games. When faced with the immediate challenge of teaching Alex about these patterns, I fell back on the game I used to learn them. One might argue that learning these patterns for Shadows Over Camelot might have been more effectively done by simply using the Shadows Over Camelot cards, and one would probably be right!

We have been trying to find ways to motivate Alex toward reading, and it appears that playing Shadows Over Camelot reinforced the utility of literacy. By the third game, he was able to mostly keep his cards secret, although he often would announce what he drew when he drew it. The pride in his voice as he recognized the cards was worth sacrificing the secrecy of his cards. When it comes to matters of cooperation and sacrifice for the greater good, I dare not make any grand claims, but I will say that it has already given us  a spike in the ground when talking about such complex issues.

The metagame of Inching Along is thinking of clever ways to embed mathematical lessons into the gameplay. At five years old, Alex has shown some facility for mental arithmetic with small numbers, but being asked to move forward the sum of 11 and 12 is more than he can manage in his mind. In the foreground of the photo above are some blue glass beads that we use as manipulatives to illustrate addition and subtraction. We had tried an abacus as a simple way to move beads around. I personally found this much more difficult due to  the arrangement of beads on rows, when I wanted to cluster them in more intentional ways not afforded by the rack structure.

We also had a pad of paper where we showed how two-digit numbers can be added by adding their digits separately. I don't think this algorithm stuck with him, but it did provide practice at talking about rows and columns while practicing properly holding a pencil and drawing digits. Even just the practice of using a ruler was certainly good for him, since from time to time he would try to count from the "12" end instead of "0".

Parting thoughts

At about this point in the post, I feel compelled to add a "Conclusions and Future Work" section, for which I can blame the brainwashing of my profession. I'm eager to try Shadows Over Camelot with some people who are a bit older than my own kids so that I can see the traitor mechanic in action. With three players, there is very little room for mistakes, and I suspect (and have heard) that the traitor is very powerful. I have also heard that Battlestar Galactica has an even better implementation of a traitor mechanic, but I feel like I should not play that until I've watched the series for fear of spoilers. Along these lines, I have been seriously wondering whether I should withhold my various Lord of the Rings games from my kids until they read the books.

I have no great desire to play Inching Along again until my younger son is old enough to measure, but I am glad to know that I can talk to my elder son about adding, subtracting, and measuring... but I can't shake the feeling that it's cooler to be able to talk about Picts and mercenaries.


  1. Hey there Dr. Gestwicki. It's Trevor Frohberg. I was one of your students from Spring 2006, I think that was the semester. It was one of the last C++ classes for the CS120 class. Anyway, just thinking about getting back into programming and I stumbled across your blog.

    Well, a small group of my friends and I love playing board games and we picked up Shadows Over Camelot to play since it's a game where we can get most people in. Just let me say the larger the group dynamic, the more ridiculous it gets. We tend to have lots of yelling and lots of arguments, but all in good fun... for the most part. One couple bought the expansion for it which adds some pretty difficult cards into play, but makes it more challenging.

    I haven't read through your blog so excuse me if you have already looked into or have these games. But if you are looking into some more cooperative games, I would suggest Pandemic and Red November. Pandemic puts you in a virus outbreak throughout the world and you play the roles of characters that each have their own ability to gain information, travel further, fight disease, or whatever it may be. Fun game, very difficult if you play it by strict rules. Red November is a fun miniature sized game. You play as dwarfs on a submarine that is always breaking down. Your goal is to repair the ship, put out fires, fight the kraken, and so on, without taking too much damage.

    Anyway, thought I'd chime in. I think I'm going to take a stab at either Java or some web based languages and see where it takes me. Take care!

    Trevor Frohberg

    1. Great to hear from you, Trevor! I remember our C++ adventures well. Since then, when teaching CS120, I've been able to do it in Java with more media examples (visual and audio), which I think most people find more interesting. Still, sometimes I miss the Mounds State Park text adventure assignment!

      I got to play 5-player Shadows over Camelot recently, and we had a great time. Several people had never played before, so we did not use the traitor. I hope to do another game with this group soon with the traitor in play, to see how that goes.

      My wife and I play Pandemic from time to time. The base game is good, and the expansion really adds a lot. My wife is generally against expansions, but this is one that adds a lot to the core gameplay. There's a great Google Tech Talk by the designer, Matt Leacock, at Highly recommended!

      I've heard of Red November but never played it. I'll keep my eyes out for it! I have quite a few designer board games in my collection, and some that I keep coming back to recently are Race for the Galaxy, Eminent Domain, and Ascension.

      I hope you're doing well!