Pathfinder Adventure Cardgame

For a guy who ostensibly thinks dungeon-crawling is stupid, I sure have played a lot of games in that genre of late. The latest is Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game from Paizo Publishing, and it’s not bad.

The game is a quite faithful port of the Pathfinder/D&D3 roleplaying experience, minus the actual roleplaying (which is traditionally optional anyway). You’ve got a character with strength, dexterity, wisdom, and so on, each rated as a die size (d4, d6, d8, etc., but ironically not a d20). Encounters (which can be monsters, barriers, allies, treasures) have a target number which you need to beat to successfully navigate. You can play cards from your character’s personalized deck and use your inherent special powers to boost your skills, and occasionally your allies can help you. Track down and kill the episode’s Villain, usually cutting a swathe through his or her Henchpeople on the way, and you win. After the game, you can rebuild your character’s deck using cards you’ve acquired during the adventure to make him or her more potent next time.

The mechanics of this are simple and nicely done, but not particularly noteworthy. What I think is interesting is looking at how the game approaches the question of how to balance narrative scripting against gameplay variability.

Cooperative games usually need to provide some kind of narrative experience to be successful; they can’t just be intellectual puzzles. There are obviously a lot of ways to do this, but the general idea is to give the series of challenges the players must overcome (and rewards they receive for doing so) some sort of structure designed to engage them. This can be entirely narrative, with the challenges having some attached title or flavor text which is read aloud with the story becoming emergent as the texts are read (as long as they are coherent enough that players can improvise logical connections). Or the structure can be much more constructed and explicit, with challenges and rewards designed and ordered to produce an intended overall emotional story arc.

Examples of games which use the first idea are easy to find; successful examples include Robinson Crusoe, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Ghost Stories (or Arkham Horror, Shadows over Camelot, or Defenders of the Realm, if you consider those games good). You have a huge supply of little storylets, which are pulled out more or less randomly and translated into game-mechanics form. A windstorm hits (reducing your shelter level), your lack of Courtly Graces offends the nobility (and you become Scorned), or whatever. As they are read they form a timeline you can create a story out of.

This has the gameplay advantage of making the tasks you are facing varied and unpredictable, and differ greatly from game to game. It also allows the players to do their own storytelling when the events remain within the bounds of the somewhat plausible. The huge disadvantage, as anyone who has a basic understanding of literature or music will tell you, is that we have a pretty good understanding of how compelling narratives are built, and this is most definitely not it. Stories have build-up, carefully managed cycles of tension and resolution, anticipation, and suspense. None of which you can reliably do if you’re just pulling random storylets.

Still, I think there is nothing inherently wrong with this way of doing things. For example, while Nuclear War or Fluxx aren’t particular good games by 2014 standards, they do have delightful anti-establishment or satirical aesthetics that are both completely coherent and tied up with their total randomness (and, it bears mentioning, their brevity). Or a game like Once Upon a Time, where the players’ attempts to create signal out of noise and find ways to creatively link events is what the game is. So clearly it’s possible to do great work this way. But it’s also an easy and unfortunate default pattern when a designer is unskilled, or when a game doesn’t have a strong creative vision or anything particular to say. If you look at a big and intricate game like Battlestar Galactica, where the fictional world it’s designed to emulate has a clear authorial style, it’s hard to see the merit in having the players interact with a simple, random, unstructured throughline.

The opposite end of the spectrum is Knizia’s highly structured Lord of the Rings. Here, the story events and the challenges associated with them are laid out in a strict order. You’re going through Rivendell to Moria to Rohan, and that’s all there is to it. You face the same challenges (and narrative elements) in the same order each game. There is this still quite a lot of randomness in the timing of the events and resource flows, as random draws from a bag of tiles trigger various game elements, but the story events that drive the narrative are scripted.

This strong structure gives the gameplay itself the ebb and flow required to make the story engaging. The designer can directly tweak and manage the flow of challenges and rewards to manipulate the moment-to-moment game tension, hopefully giving us both high-tension action scenes and rewarding us with moments of rest and refresh after we get through. This can, when well executed, give us a far more visceral engagement with the game because it goes after our emotions very directly. Pandemic does the same thing: the structured way the decks are manipulated (pre-stacking the player deck, the stacking and re-stacking of the infection deck) alternates high-risk and high-tension periods where you are firefighting crises with lower-risk infrastructure-building and research-gathering periods.

Even though for all these reasons I think of the structured narrative as “the right way” and the random event firehose as “the wrong way”, in truth it’s a continuum and structure is certainly not an end in and of itself. The goal is to modulate the players’ sense or risk, to feed the dread of anticipation and allow the relief and accomplishment of a challenge faced down, and that requires both a degree of predictability as well as significant risk and therefore uncertainty. Clearly you can go too far in trying to organize your narrative – making the story predictable and boring – just as you can make a game too random and disjointed. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that Britannia, for example, is too well-organized and that it needs more uncertainty to maintain tension. My experience though is that cooperative or narrative-driven games almost never err on the side of being too structured.

The interesting thing about Pathfinder is that from the long view it resembles classic, unstructured, firehose-driven games. You have a box containing a very large number of cards that the characters can encounter, and you randomly pull some of them out and deal them into piles at different locations to explore. When you explore, you just draw a card from a location deck and do what it says, with perhaps minor assistance from the other players. The Villain is dealt into one of these piles at random and you just need to plow through the decks to hunt him down. If your goal is hunting the bad guy, there are no percentages in going to the Apothecary before you hit the Treacherous Cave; the Villain is equally likely to be anywhere. It’s eerily similar to Arkham Horror’s “go to a location and random stuff happens for no particular reason”.

But Pathfinder combines straightforward gameplay with just enough structure to make decision-making and task allocation interesting and have a real but measured sense of risk. Each location has a clearly specified mix of cards that go into the deck: monsters, barriers, weapons, armor, spells, items, and allies. The mix is listed on the top of the location card, where you can always look at it and know what you’re getting in to. So unlike in Arkham Horror, when you go to a location you have a pretty clear idea of what you might get out of it and which character is best suited for the challenges it might present (the Thief for the location with the barriers, the Fighter for the place with the monsters, the Sorcerer for the place with the allies). Still, while the Fighter may be the best person to take on the monsters in the Desecrated Vault, there is still usually the possibility that he’ll run into a barrier or trap that’ll hose him, so there is almost always still some risk. And there are balancing factors; maybe you really need to find a better a weapon, so a trip to the Garrison is worth the risk of facing monsters. More likely, you don’t have a character who is ideally suited to exploring a location, but someone has to do it, so you need to figure out who is going to sign up for the increased risk (because you always have to face the card you draw, teaming up is actually not particularly useful). Additionally, once locations have been cleared of Henchpeople, they need to be “closed”, secured against the Villain’s return. This involves another test, and the character best suited to exploring the location may well not be ideally suited to closing it. Opportunities to close a location are infrequent and valuable and you want someone who is able to do it there when the opportunity presents itself, which is another matter of risk management. This all adds up to a significant amount of nuance and randomness, but because the general contours are spelled out and what needs to be done is clear, it’s interestingly tractable. You always know what you need to do to make forward progress, and you can make judgements about risk and reward that can pay off or not.

However, what this structure doesn’t do is give you any overall sense of pacing or drive. Some locations are more dangerous than others (sometimes significantly so, often not), but the game never modulates its moment-to-moment tension. You’re never forced to run the gauntlet before you want to or go into panic defense mode, nor are you given a moment of respite to recover and gear up after facing something particularly dangerous. Pathfinder’s time pressure is just a 30-turn clock you need to beat – an arbitrary, inorganic limit. Compare to Pandemic, with its beautifully organic ebbing and flowing threat and pressure, where you need to win before the diseases do. By comparison, Pathfinder just has a time limit because if it didn’t there would be no game. Given Pathfinder’s source material this is fine, time just isn’t a dimension of traditional D&D stories; for structural reasons D&D-style RPGs in general have a difficult time managing time as a storytelling pressure. But this is a boardgame, not an RPG, and there is no need to be bound by a stricture of the original format.

Interestingly for a game that lacks any kind of strong overarching narrative, Pathfinder eschews any sort of explicit textual elements. Cards have illustrations and more or less descriptive titles but no flavor text. There are no “event” cards which add dramatic twists or change the rules or environment. The only real explanation of what you’re trying to accomplish comes up front, when you select the adventure to go on and get a few perfunctory sentences of flavor on the card that also outlines the locations, Villains, and Henchpeople involved (location cards also have some static descriptions, but they are in practice invisible because they’re on the back of the card). This makes the experience somewhat generic. The box says it’s the “Rise of the Runelords Base Set”, with the “Rise of the Runelords” being the long-form adventure arc which wends its way through the base game and 5 expansions. But there is no sense that this is taking place in anything other than just a generic D&D fantasy world. If the premise of the story is that there are Runelords and they are rising, the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to fill you in on what’s up with that.

What this long arc does capture, though, is very distinctively D&D: the slow, grinding out of improvements to your character and his or her equipment. You wade through monsters and challenges and maybe you’ll find a longsword to replace your short sword. The upgrades to your character and availability of new cards to add your deck are sporadic; after four games, you may have a better weapon or one more spell, or you may have basically the same deck you started with and one minor skill improvement. After you make it all the way through all the adventures your character will have accomplished quite a bit in the end, but that will be a lot of hours of gaming and the rewards for risking death each time out are very incremental. That’s fine, it’s the D&D tradition, but in the context of a boardgame it feels wrong. If this is the route we’re going to go, I’d like more intense pacing. Personally, I’d much rather have multiple, complete 6-episode arcs which have a quick pace and you can play a character through and then move on to the next story with a fresh character. The 36-episode monster arc just seems like a huge time sink. This feels to me like a back-port from MMORPGs, and not really appropriate for a boardgames.

Still, when all is taken into account I do like Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords well enough. The pacing of the long adventure arc is probably too slack to keep me interested for that long, but the individual adventures are playable, quick, simple, and are structured well enough to provide both meaningful decisions and some tension. It’s certainly not in the same league as Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, or Lord of the Rings, but you can’t play those games all the time and some of them require a significant energy investment while Pathfinder is more lightweight. Besides, D&D is more than a game now, it’s become something of a cultural touchstone. While the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game may not exactly be a work of game design brilliance, it is a workmanlike game that has a huge weight of tradition behind it.

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Battlestar Galactica

I’m a little late to this particular party, but I finally had a chance to play the new Battlestar Galactica a few days ago. I was conflicted going into the game: the reviews had been good (they usually are), but Fantasy Flight Games’ track record isn’t always, and I love Lord of the Rings but hate Shadows over Camelot. I also wanted to like the television show, but couldn’t.

So I was some combination of surprised and relieved when BSG was pretty fun.

The game actually makes a bit of a bad first impression, unfortunately. It beats you over the head with a lot of complexity, from the traditional overwrought FFG rulebook to critical references that should be in an easy-to-see place on the board but aren’t (it’s not like there isn’t plenty of dead space) to a lot of critical rules detail that can only be found in tiny type on the board and simply cannot be seen if you lack a high-power spotlight, are viewing at a distance of greater than one foot, or are over the age of 30.

But, if you get past this, there are good ideas here. The foci of the game are the hyperjumps the Galactica has to make as they plot their course to Kobol. These are checkpoints where the board is periodically cleared of threats and the game timer resets, and it is a great way to segment the game and manage tension and ensure a semi-regular restart so the players don’t get into a death spiral the way they do in Shadows over Camelot. The hidden loyalties are well-executed for the most part – dealing them out in two batches, at the beginning and mid-game, similarly ratchets up the uncertainty and tension and avoids some problems (and is true to the show).

Where BSG struggles, though, is with pacing. The game is just too long and gets too repetitive, is too much of a kitchen-sink type game and so has too many moving parts, and is too much at the mercy of the draw deck for its tension. Some stages will be terrific as Cylon raiders pile into the Galactica in waves while food shortages develop in the fleet and morale collapses. Some not so much, as you spend half an hour dealing with relatively uninteresting crises that never develop while waiting to jump. The system of crisis cards, where each turn the players draw a crisis from the show which they must resolve using skill cards, is clever but is simply not enough to reliably deliver tough and interesting decisions on its own. Things only really get fun when you have bad guys swarming and interesting crises going on at the same time, and for this to happen, you need things to come out in the right proportions, which they too often don’t.

In general, there are just too many moving parts which are not tight enough. To be grossly general, to the extent that we’re willing to call games art, they are the art of decisions. Music generates feelings and emotions through sound. Literature is the art of words. Painting is visual art. Games create their impressions, feelings, and emotions through the decisions they ask you to make. Every complaint people make about games ultimately boils down to a problem with the decision-making (i.e., too much luck = my decisions don’t make enough of a difference; too much downtime = I make decisions too infrequently; brain-burner = the decisions are too hard; the theme is a paste-up = the decisions I make don’t seem authentic; and so on).

In Battlestar Galactica, the players manage many more resources than they do in Lord of the Rings. BSG has food, people, morale, fuel, fighters, transports, dual-use skill/action cards, cylon fighters, cylon mother-ships, cylon boarding ships, cylon boarders, nuclear weapons, and political cards. Plus every player has a once-per-game special power. In Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, the players “only” have skill cards, action cards, ring tokens, life tokens, shields, and corruption. And despite the fact that BSG goes on for 3-4 times as long as Lord of the Rings, and even though it has so many more resource types, it still seems to manage to generate fewer interesting, really tough decisions than Lord of the Rings.

Now, part of this is because the players are secretly split into loyal Human players and Cylons, and much of the tension in the game is figuring out who is who. And that more or less requires a fair number of small decisions for the players to look at, so loyalties can be revealed over time. To the extent that the game succeeds – which is not insignificant – it does so in this aspect of it, as each decision is scrutinized for signs of treachery, and players banter around accusations, threats, and general paranoia. Not unlike in the show. But you simply can’t create an interesting game out of a lot of uninteresting decisions, and here the decisions – whether how to resolve crises, or figuring out who the traitor is – are not reliably interesting, compelling, narrative, or evocative. At the end of the day, I can’t help but think this game could be much improved if it were the euro that in its heart of hearts it really is, and wasn’t trying to be the overwrought super-themey sort of thing FFG specializes in – stuff that always delivers a boatload of rules but doesn’t always deliver a plausible theme or a plausible game. Usually less is more, and this applies to theme as much as anything else. Here as much as anywhere, a tighter, tenser game would be thematically far stronger than this kind of kitchen sink game.

As long as we’re talking about BSG the game, I can’t resist putting in my .02 on the show. One of the reasons that the new Sci-Fi Battlestar Galactica ultimately turned me off was it really only had one tone: grim. It completely lacked any emotional range. Real people are sometimes funny and crack jokes when they’re under stress. BSG characters always take themselves so excruciatingly, painfully seriously. This was especially funny in context of playing the boardgame, where each character from the show is brutally, and totally effectively, boiled down to three traits, a characteristic, a special ability, and a flaw. When you put it like that, BSG the boardgame becomes a rich mine of humorous possibilities, and if only the show had been able to capture some of the humor we found in the game, maybe it wouldn’t suck.

Shadows over Camelot

At its core, Shadows over Camelot is a very close sibling to Lord of the Rings (if you haven’t played or know nothing about Lord of the Rings, this review will ultimately make more sense if you read that piece at some point). Each player is a different Knight of the Round Table (Arthur, Galahad, Kay, Gawain, even Bedeviere if you download him from the Days of Wonder site … but, shockingly, no Lancelot, depriving us of some of the best jokes). You have a hand of cards, which you spend to accomplish quests. These can be numeric fight cards, useful for defeating the Black Knight, Picts, Saxons, finding Sir Lancelot (where is he anyway? Only his armor shows up), or defeating the Dragon. There are also Grail cards, which – shockingly – help in finding the Holy Grail. The grail in the game looks more like the sort of cup that would get you disintegrated if you drank from it; if you should ever run into the sort of situation in which this kind of knowledge would be useful, remember to choose more wisely. Maybe that’s why they had such a hard time finding it. And there are also special cards, which allow various sorts of actions.

The Knights all begin at Camelot. But rather than all progressing together through linear adventures, as is the case in Lord of the Rings, they now are able to split up and pursue quests as individuals or smaller teams. Some may choose to stay in Camelot gathering more cards. One may go to face off with the Black Knight in a tournament. Or one or more Knights take on a larger quest, heading off in search of the Holy Grail or Excalibur. Once you’ve made your way to your quest, each turn you may play a card: if it’s a fighting quest, you play a numbered fight card to try to get high scores in various patterns (the Black Knight requests two pair, the quest for Lancelot a full house, the Picts and Saxons a straight). For the Grail quest, each Grail card simply advances a track. Once you run out of useful cards to play on a quest, you may move about amongst these available quests, although if you abandon an individual quest, you have to lose one of the played cards for your faintheartedness.

While you are doing this, each turn you (generally) draw one card from a black deck. These will usually make one quest harder, by canceling progress, upping the target total of fight cards required, or by counting down a clock.

As each quest ends, either because the Knights played enough cards, the bad guys maxed out their strength, or the clock counted down, you figure out who won. Some quests – the Saxons, Picts, the Grail, Excalibur – end in failure as soon as the clock counts down, or success if the good guys play all the required cards first. Combat quests, like the Black Knight, involve counting up the total card values played when the quests ends one way or another. Regardless, the major side effect of ended quests is Swords, which can be black or white, which are victory points. If, at the end of the game, there are more White than Black swords, the good guys win. If not, they lose.

If this was all there was to the game, I could write its obituary right now and save a lot of time: “A less thematic, less challenging, less well-balanced, and less interesting Lord of the Rings that has noticeably more down time. The only thing it has more of is, arguably, complexity. Oh, and the endgame can be tedious”. Fortunately, there is one more detail which really makes the game: the Traitor. The Traitor plays as a normal Knight, but with different goals: he is trying to both a) keep his identity concealed and b) make sure the loyal Knights lose. You can throw around accusations of treason, which will score a white sword if accurate or convert white swords to black swords if not (very nasty). If the traitor is still unrevealed at the end of the game, two white swords will be converted, which will make it harder for the good guys to win (whether this will actually be hard is still an open question in my mind). The doubt and suspicion engendered by there being a traitor in the player’s midst is fun, and amusingly out of proportion to the traitor’s actual ability to slow the other players down, which is not that considerable. At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt a loyalty card – either Loyal or Traitor. I recommend in the strongest possible terms the optional rule which includes as many Loyal cards as there are players, plus the Traitor, instead of always including all 7 Loyal cards. As I say, the Traitor makes the game; if the odds of having one are too low, the game loses substantially in flavor, challenge, and interest. This variant will ensure that there is usually a traitor, but keep open the small but entertaining possibility that there isn’t.

Although we are still a little ways from the end of this piece, I will now give you my bottom line. I enjoyed Shadows over Camelot. There are more cooperative games out there than you might think, but almost none are in this somewhat heavier weight class, or at the level of sophistication and professionalism of good German games. It’s certainly not on the same level as Lord of the Rings, but the Traitor adds a very nice twist, with each player’s moves being analyzed for possible disloyalty (hmmm … I can sense some sort of comedic, Soviet-era spinoff coming. Maybe Paranoia: The Board Game). If this is the analysis you want to hear, you might want to stop reading now.

Because even with those strengths, and even though I’m ultimately giving it a thumbs up, Shadows over Camelot has a number of problems, some potentially rather significant. The two most obviously problematic are a) a suspect endgame, and b) clear replayability questions. Another has to do with game balance. To take them in order, then …

The Endgame: Games should, cooperative or not, ratchet up tension towards a climax. This is why many Battle of the Bulge games end at the German high-water mark rather than after the Allied counterattacks despite the appeal of symmetry. Once the Germans have succeeded or failed in reaching their objectives, most of the tension has drained out of the game. In Lord of the Rings, you have the agonizing struggle over the last board to the final goal of Mount Doom as your resources dwindle to almost nothing. In Shadows over Camelot things are not driven to conclusion adequately and there is sometimes not a clear finish line to strive for, and the game does not carry its own momentum to the end. The Knights sometimes seem to get into a holding pattern, where they are trying to not lose the major quests like the Holy Grail while they wait for some minor quest, like the Black Knight, to fill up so they can lose it, thus filling up the Round Table with swords, ending the game, and winning (because there are ultimately more White than Black swords). If there is a Traitor out there it can add a little tension, but I found the endgame ultimately unsatisfying. There is also a mechanic of Catapults outside Camelot: once 12 show up, the good guys lose. Unlike Sauron’s implacable advance, though, Knights can dedicate their turn to the elimination of catapults. So as the threat grows, more and more Knights are just sitting around rolling dice to blow up catapults, which is a drag and not fun … so the game actually develops more inertia and becomes more plodding towards the end, just when it should be accelerating, cranking the tension up to painful levels.

Replayability: A game tends to be replayable if it has decent variability, which is usually tied up in a well-done theme. Even though Lord of the Rings is linear, the challenges presented by the wide variety of different events, rewards, and penalties are hugely varied, as is the flavor of the game depending on the rate at which event tiles come out. This gives it thematic depth as well as guaranteeing no two games will be alike. Shadows over Camelot is clearly a far less rich game. You’re just trying to rack up various poker hands (what is it with poker these days?), and the event cards on both sides of the table are limited in numbers and fairly bland. There is some pacing with the different quests, but the rewards and penalties are very abstract, homogenous, and not not very thrilling either thematically or in terms of generating compelling choices or game play. Also, the special powers of the various Knights are neat, but with the exception of the clever card-trading power of King Arthur, and perhaps Gawain and Galahad, most are not so different that playing different ones would lead to a significantly different game experience. A couple Knights will, in fact, never use their special powers. Virtually without fail in the eurogame genre, a lack of fundamental variability translates into a lack of replay value.

Balance: One of the great strengths of Lord of the Rings is that Knizia understood that players were going to start from a low baseline, and then learn and improve fairly quickly. So the 15-level game is interesting for newbies, but provisions are included to take you up to the 10-level game, which is a finely-balanced game where players will almost always be challenged. It is not clear that the same level of attention to detail in terms of balance has been put into Shadows over Camelot. My first early games had comfortable and relatively non-challenging wins for the Knights (even with a Traitor), which was worrisome. The reports I had heard indicated a substantial win edge for the Knights. For this game to work, I feel that the pressure really has to be on the cooperative side. If the good guys win too easily, or are not feeling constant pressure, the game lacks interest and staying power. I’ve heard that in the Sauron expansion for Lord of the Rings, Knizia aimed for a 50/50 win split between Sauron and the good guys, and this feels right to me – not in terms of fairness necessarily, but in terms of keeping the game compelling.

Subsequently, I started hearing of a few Traitor wins, and witnessed one myself. However, my worries in this respect have not really been mitigated. The Traitor win I saw was explicable mainly in terms of bad luck. There is enormous variance in the power of the black cards – several Morgan cards are extremely nasty (with all Knights losing cards, life, or forcing the immediate draw of three new black cards), so seeing these early and often (after a reshuffle) will really whack the Knights. So my perception has shifted a bit … the question is still “is the game balanced?”, but not so much in terms of win/loss but whether or not player skill will dominate the chaos of the game.

Regardless, I find it hard to imagine that any serious, minimally-cooperative group will be significantly challenged by the basic game, that is, playing without a Traitor – even on their first game. Given average luck, I really don’t think the Traitor is going to win anywhere close to half the games of Shadows over Camelot, although it’s also true that I think the game could work with a lower ratio. My games have been enjoyable, but I (as a Knight) simply have not felt under the gun to nearly the degree that we do in Lord of the Rings, with dire things closing in from all sides and – critically – feeling like I have the options to deal with them. In Lord of the Rings, when things start to get tense, you still have a lot of options, and even when things start to snowball, you can aim for a respectable score (or at least not having to enter one of the lowest scores on the high-score sheet) or cut your losses on the current board and try to better on the next one. In Shadows over Camelot, it seems like once things start to snowball your options become extremely constrained for the rest of the game (and so it feels more like you just got hosed by the cards) and you can’t even play for an honorable loss because there is no scoring, so you have to play longer with no real hope “winning”, and nothing else to shoot for.

It is also worrisome that the designers have not clearly staked out a path from inexperience to experience in the rules, with just some various wishy-washy suggestions about how to increase the difficulty, which indicates to me that they haven’t thought that much about this important detail or paid enough attention to the overall game balance, instead hoping that the players will work it out for themselves, or “solving” the problem with a big chunk of randomness (and I should mention that one of the difficulty options, the Squire’s Game, where players start without a Knight card and must earn one is almost totally uninteresting to me since the special power of your Knight card is a decent chunk of what flavor the game has). This is the difference (or one of the differences, anyway) between Knizia and the rest; Knizia has the attention to detail to identify and nail down these things.

This leads in to my ultimate frustration with Shadows over Camelot, I think, even though I like the game well enough in the short run. That is that Knizia has clearly shown the way on this. Lord of the Rings will not be for everyone, but given what it is trying to be and the theme and the inherent limitations of the genre, I feel it is an example of a game that has almost achieved perfection, a game that after dozens of plays it’s hard to imagine any significant way in which it could be improved. Shadows over Camelot is highly derivative from Lord of the Rings (you could argue – perhaps not entirely successfully, but still – that Shadows is little more than a Lord of the Rings where you have to spend a turn moving between the quest lines, and with a Traitor), and yet it simply seems not to have grasped the important fundamental lessons illuminated by the prior game: the importance of randomness and variability, pacing, short-, medium-, and long-term planning, balance, player experience, flavor, and tension, and how these challenges can be successfully tackled. With more attention to detail, Shadows over Camelot could have been a top-tier game. As it is, it’s a decent game, and it’ll be fun for a while, but its unlikely to be one I’ll be playing in six months – never mind 5 years hence.