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Review – Tournament at Camelot

Review – Tournament at Camelot

This is a review of Tournament at Camelot designed by Karen Boginski, Jody Boginski-Barbessi, and Kenneth C. Shannon. It plays 3 – 6 players. Realistcally, I’d estimate the playtime at 45 minutes.

Trick-taking games are a distinct sort of animal…insomuch as they orbit around a completely non-unique premise from others in the genre. These games are their own breed, spawned from one central and traditional concept of small wins, culminating in one large victory. If you’ve never played a trick-taking game, allow me to introduce this classic mechanic…

In your typical trick-taking game, players endeavor to win small rounds, typically by playing some permutation of the high card or suit. One player begins by playing into the pot, then play typically continues around the table, each player throwing in. Often, players are required to follow the suit matching the first card in the run, though there may be a “trump” suit, which players can lean on in certain circumstances. All cards in the trick are evaluated, and one player typically takes the pot. Do this over and over until the appropriate end game condition is met.

Tournament at Camelot reverses one main mechanic in that you do not want to be the one receiving cards, so your aim is simply to not be the lowest card. As a trick (or “melee”, as it’s called in Tournament at Camelot) unfolds, players are still required to follow suit, with one suit being wild, or they must discard a card and suffer immediate point loss. Tournament at Camelot does not utilize a “trump” suit, as you might see in other trick-taking games.

After the tourney round (a series of 12 melees) concludes, players tally up the hit-points taken from tricks lost and deduct health points, which start at 400. You may find yourself taking as little as 15 to 30 points of damage, but it’s entirely possible (and devastatingly frequent) to take triple digit damage! This continues in the same way until a single player is reduced to zero, at which point the “healthiest” player is declared the victor.

The truly unique aspect of this, comes in subsequent rounds, though. Each player inhabits the role of their Arthurian protagonist, paired with an appropriate companion. In general, this companion is not available for use until the player’s health drops below a certain threshold and this is where things get interesting…

While damage at the hands of projectiles, black magick, and blades brings one closer to a loss, it also grants the player certain benefits. Players who are closer to death with be given more Godsend cards – cards with outrageously overpowered benefits to level the playing field in the favor of the more battered and bruised heroes in the group. Similarly, falling below the aforementioned threshold will “unlock” a players companion, granting fabulous new abilities, similar to the Godsends.

Tournament at Camelot falls quickly off the rails at this point, however… The game descends into a chaotic brawl with rules bent so far beyond structured, players struggle to control the action. Nonsense reigns supreme as players helplessly pitch cards into the brawl with little tactical wiggle room or payoff.

There are some glaringly obvious flaws in this game. For starters, the player who loses a melee leads the following, putting them at a general disadvantage, especially when playing at lower player counts. This issue seems also obnoxiously apparent to the designers, as they included a Godsend card that “fixes” that. Actually, quite a few of the special powers and Godsend abilities fix a frustrating problem with the game that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Second, it’s almost always beneficial to be in the situation where you can’t follow suit. Discarding a card and taking 5 points of damage is always preferable to taking all the weapon cards in the trick. Being able to knock yourself out of the melee in this way is actually beneficial. Some might argue that this is a strategy, but it’s simply not in the spirit of the rest of the game.

Technically, Tournament at Camelot is a game, but its lack of tactical consequence pushes the thing so far beyond playability that the game struggles to even be satisfying.

Rare is it to find a trick-taking game with any sort of solid theme, let alone one that is enhancing the game much at all. Tournament at Camelot is no exception to that and the Arthurian brawl is tenuously connected to the core mechanics. What’s more, characters are inexplicably pitted against one another – why is King Arthur hurling poison arrows at…his wife…? Chivalry is truly dead.

To be frank, and I may lean on this fairly often, the theme doesn’t much matter to me either way in Tournament at Camelot. Trick taking games aren’t thematically gratifying experiences and may never be – which is fine, really. Excusably, the theme has spawned some fantastic art for this game.

I love the art in Tournament at Camelot and it was a big draw for me. Visually, this game connects with me hard and I could even see framing these cards or using them as some decorative piece (especially given how much I disliked the actual gameplay). Personally, I find the period art really evocative. The art in Troyes comes to mind as another game, with similar art, where I could stare at the visuals all day.

The tarot sized cards feel good…until you have to shuffle 80-some weapons… For a game that requires this much shuffling, the tarot cards will put cramps in your hands and that is a disappointing concession to have to even suggest. I love these cards and they feel great…unless you’re shuffling.

Oddly, though, some of the colors on the cards appear to be off. Laying out an entire suit reveals quite a few discrepancies in color and shade – almost as if the cards were printing in different places. Some colors are so far off that it’s initially a bit disorienting. Coincidentally, I can’t seem to dig up a promo photo that demonstrates this, so they must have noticed…

Tricks move quickly enough, but I can attribute that, disappointingly, to the general lack of strategy that seems to be involved here. Your choices are too frequently made for you and while this carries the turns along smoothly, you begin to pine for your character’s grim finale. Tournament at Camelot quickly becomes tedious (especially at lower player counts) and you may find yourself strategically tanking your game, purely to put everyone out of their misery.

I can’t imagine I paid more than $20 for this. I’ll admit that the low cost was a selling point for me on Tournament at Camelot, but you might have to pay me to get me to play this game any more than I have already… Any value comparison I can give is skewed, as I’m not sure I know who this game is even intended to please.

Perhaps if you like lovely, Arthurian-myth themed art, this game could possibly be worth it to you, just to hold the admire the cards and art?

Stacked up to other trick-taking games, Tournament at Camelot is fairly easy to learn. The game ramps in subsequent rounds, with Godsends and special abilities coming to play. This allows players to really understand what is happening before the rules begin to morph out of shape. On subsequent plays, you could experiment with dealing Godsends into the first hand, but this would certainly make things confusing for any newcomers.

The longevity is getting some hard dings for me on my own preference, which may or may not be fair. I typically try to understand who might like a particular game, even if I don’t care for it, but I am sort of at a loss on this one… The art is wonderful and I think the theme is likely going to be the big selling point here. I also praise this game on its accessibility and how smoothly it ramps up to more stimulating play after players understand what is happening. Still, while this shakes the trick-taking concept up a bit, it does not do enough that is satisfying or even really logical that would entice players to want to get this out again. Our group unanimously disliked this game.

Final Thoughts
Overall, Tournament at Camelot feels like it was barely playtested. The mechanics are a mess and fanning the flames of frustration and chaos with randomly-selected, overpowered abilities is a recipe for disaster.

Edit – 8/30/17

Ken, one of the designers of this game, contacted me with some potential variants that were fun to try out.

The first is to draft 3 cards to your left at the beginning of the tourney round. Then 3 cards to your right on the next tourney round, switching each round. Draw up the regular 12, draft 3, and play as normal.

The drafting was fun and a way to sort of focus your hand a bit more in preparation for the round. Obviously, didn’t always work out when you got something you didn’t want, BUT the ability to focus your hand in that way made the round feel a bit more focused and less chaotic.

The second suggestion was to be able to play alchemy cards whenever you want, not just if you can’t follow suit.

Being allowed to play alchemy cards was a big improvement for us. It added more overarching strategy to the entire melee and gave us fewer instances where it was *obvious* what needed to be played. Made us think a bit more and that was nice.

These two changes added some of the tactical strategies we were hoping for.