Shadows over Camelot, Arkham Horror, and why my partner won't play Arkham with me EVER AGAIN.
Let's start with Shadows over Camelot. Shadows is one of those games I can look at and say are very well designed and good games while not being for me. I like pure cooperative games – when I play, I care more about playing better than I did the last time than winning. I'm always in competition, but it's always with myself. Sure, winning is a nice indicator that I did well. But I've been pleased as punch at coming in second or third in a game where I feel I developed a better grasp of the mechanics or better strategy than last time. As well as utterly bummed out by winning a game I felt like I made a lot of massive mistakes during but got rewarded by randomness or other folks' bigger mistakes into a win.
Right, Shadows over Camelot.
First, Shadows forbids telling other players information about your hand directly. But they totally encourage putting on 'ye olde' speech patterns to exchange information. Because it's totally cool if you're speaking like the Hollywood stereotype of a knight. As cranky as that last sentence sounds, I actually did like that rule, it got me to exercise some linguistic trickery.
Second, the betrayer mechanic to Shadows is much more subtle than Dead of Winter's. Dead of Winter encouraged the betrayer revealing themselves in a sudden burst of destruction designed to wipe the other players out and win the game in one move. Shadows over Camelot encourages the betrayer to try to work the long-game, to survive undetected until the end – if they aren't found out, two out of twelve of the win mechanic are flipped from winning to loosing, so really big incentive there. The game is rather un-winnable unless everyone contributes everything they have and plays near perfectly every turn, so the best strategy my group developed as the traitor was to play just sub-optimally enough that entropy was winning, but still enough that it looked like you were giving everything you had. Not my desired play experience, but a well done game if that's what you want.
Believe it or not, this game was my first introduction to the Cthulhu mythos. Slightly ironic given how much Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green actual play podcast episodes I listen to (and play in) now, but I've never read H.P.Lovecraft's originals. Also, I have no plans to – I don't feel the need to subject myself to the racism, xenophobia, and sexism that were apparently a little much even for Lovecraft's day but spawned a mythology which still survives. I'm not going to get on anyone's case for making a different choice – time, place, and historical context after all – I'm just choosing not to imbibe from that particular fount myself.
Any rate. Arhkam Horror, the board game, is a purely cooperative board game. One of the Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time and space is trying to break into our reality and do whatever it is Great Old Ones do, inevitably spelling doom for humanity. You are investigators running around a little town called Arkham, in Massachusetts, trying to collect enough clues to close the tears in space and time to send the Great Old One back beyond time and space or build up enough weapons to induce a terminal case of kinetic lead poisoning. Because while they can tear your brain into a gibbering, weeping mess merely from looking at them, Great Old Ones will die to bullets. Who knew?
The game is hard, folks. During the first couple of months playing the base set when it came out in 2005, my group was winning by the skin of our teeth about 50% of the time and getting curb-stomped the other 50%. Time and movement are your most precious resources. Having the character who can deal with the problem that just popped up be stuck behind a monster on the other end of the board can spell your entire party's doom. But here's the thing – the game rewarded learning how to play, cooperating, and thinking about strategy. We really liked the game and played it pretty frequently. And started winning about 80% of the time. So we took out our preferred win condition. Our win ratio dropped back to 50/50. And then we started to creep back up to 80%. And figured out two mechanical hacks around Azethoth's three 'game over, you loose!' mechanics. By which point, the first expansion had come out and was promptly purchased.
You could play it like an RPG where your characters know what they know and don't have cell phones to coordinate with the other folks on the board. But my group always played like we had TacNet – think augmented reality tactical situation overlays where folks can share information back and forth, including getting a smart-link target lock for the person around the corner, in the other room. I use that comparison rather than the cell phones because the college gaming group I played with developed something of a hive mind about this game. Three of us could set up the entire game – base set, all three big box expansions, and all 4 little box card adders – in 15 minutes... That probably sounds more impressive to folks who've already played the game. But trust me, Arkham Horror takes a stupidly long time to set up.
So, we acted like a hive mind. 'Hey I think you should do X', without having to explain the rationale behind why, because as soon as it was pointed out, the other person saw the logic. Talking in short hand. Knowing which characters worked well off each other, which were under powered, and who's plot line you immediately went for and who's you ignored.
Then we tried to play a game with my partner, newly back from the Peace Corps. And forgot to slow down and explain what the heck we were doing. Didn't explain any of our strategy in order to teach what we had learned. More or less turning their character into a pawn we were moving on the board...
So yeah, partner will NEVER play Arkham with us again. Whoops... Don't be like us folk, remember to be inclusive of the new players. And go kill today's Great Old One, Arkham Horror's a lot of fun with folks who like cooperative games.