Tournament at Camelavalon
Comparatively speaking, Ken Shannon, Jody Barbessi, and Karen Boginski’s Tournament at Avalon is largely identical to their earlier Tournament at Camelot. They’re both trick-taking games with an Arthurian twist, they both tend to go wild halfway through, and as a result of said wildness they both occasionally require minor clarifications. In fact, they’re so similar that it’s possible to blend them together for even less certainty and greater player counts. Most of the time, the only way to identify what belongs to which is to look for the microscopic “A” adorning the bottom corner of Avalon’s cards, like telling apart identical twins via their disparate blemishes.
Which makes it doubly strange to point out that I heartily recommend one and only reservedly appreciate the other. But before we get to that, let’s talk about what all these tournaments are for in the first place.
As I’ve already noted, Tournament at Camelot and Tournament at Avalon are trick-taking games. Once, many years ago, I sat down with a friend to play a trick-taking game and pointed out that I didn’t know what was meant by trick-taking. “Like Hearts,” he said, which was very unhelpful because I’d never played Hearts. So in case you’re as terminologically challenged as I was as a youngster, trick-taking is deceptively straightforward. One person plays a card. Its suit is the “lead suit” — in Tournament’s case, that means swords, arrows, deception, or sorcery, plus alchemy which functions as any suit you please. Everyone else is required to play a card that matches its suit, if possible. One person, usually with the high card, wins that trick and takes all the cards. “Like Uno?” you might ask, at which point the god of trick-taking would bellow “No!” and backhand you across the cheek with such force that you are turned all the way around in mid-air. One card per person, then somebody wins. That is the trick. And your task is to take it.
That’s the norm, anyway. Tournament opens by bucking that norm almost as hard as the god of trick-taking likes to buck those who call Uno a trick-taking game. Sure, you’re playing tricks: one card per person, one lead suit, and everybody tries to match that suit. But right away, this is pitched somewhat differently than most. Lowest card claims the trick, for one thing. For another, you very much don’t want to claim tricks, because each card deals wounds. Doubly so for poisoned cards. Fively so for certain special cards. Take enough wounds and you’re dead, and whoever has the most health remaining survives. These titles are about tournaments, after all.
It’s also about wacky superpowers that disrupt how the game functions at every level. For example, everybody begins with a protagonist. You might be King Arthur, with his +3 token that he can add to any swords suit, making it very difficult to beat him at fencing. Or you might be Mordred, who can use deception cards to sit out a battle entirely while still dealing wounds.
There are loads to choose from, and like most trick-taking games their efficacy is both dependent upon the draw and on how well you leverage them, with a surprising amount of strategy mixed in. While sometimes your best bet is to play your best card and hope nobody trumps it, other times your goal is to get rid of weak cards on hands that won’t deal you significant damage, or bide your time while everybody else unloads their high cards early. Sometimes you want to play a matching rank to “feint” and toss out all matches at once. Sometimes you want to play a special weapon. Sometimes you can’t play the proper suit and you’re “shamed,” taking automatic damage as you slink away to pout.
But Tournament goes one step further. Because one power isn’t enough, each player is also given a companion card that unlocks once you’ve fallen to a particular health threshold. At the very moment you’re ailing, this provides a much-needed boost. At 200 health, Arthur draws Excalibur, which lets him deal double his wounds from swords to all his opponents. Now he wants to be stuck through, because that damage will be turned around on his foes. Mordred unleashes Deceit, letting him play his card face-down. Tristan and Isolde both squirrel away cards to be used as replacements when they lose a joust.
And here’s where Tournament becomes really nutty, because it still isn’t done doling out abilities. It’s like the Lady of the Lake became addicted to distributing power-ups and now she chucks anything she can get her flippers on to passers-by.
Godsend cards are pity prizes. That’s the nice way of putting it, because I’m more likely to utter a blasphemy when they appear. At the end of each round — usually a whole twelve tricks — those who are struggling are allowed to pick from a pair of face-up Godsends or from the deck. At first only one is awarded, but that increases with each round. By the third round, at least three are claimed, and maybe more if somebody is really struggling. Between these and each player’s protagonist/companion pair, there are powers triggering left and right, sometimes so many that it’s tough to keep count. The Round Table absorbs a pile of cards for its owner’s next round. A Black Knight kidnaps somebody’s companion. Magick forces the highest card to lose instead of the lowest, but only when poison is involved. The Fisher King heals poison, and the Bleeding Lance absorbs a portion of your wounds to stick into somebody else. Back and forth it goes, magic and holy relics and helpmeets making it tough to remember what you’re playing for at this particular moment.
And to be honest, that’s the draw. Tournament at Camelot takes a genre that’s often considered too staid and straightforward — whether rightly or wrongly — and transforms it into a wackadoodle mess of triggers and special circumstances. Which is great. Its successor, Tournament at Avalon, does the same, only with a greater sense for what makes Camelot such a delightful slop.
For one thing, Avalon is a little broader on the card-play side. Alchemy cards in Camelot were always wild, but you could only play them if the lead suit wasn’t available. That’s gone in the sequel, giving you far greater latitude over when to place alchemy cards. Special weapons are also more useful. The original’s Merlin and the Apprentice were both boons when they stumbled into your hand, letting you designate their suit and rank, but they’re nowhere near as disruptive or as interesting as the special weapons in Tournament at Avalon. The first, Mists of Avalon, automatically discards and shames the lowest card in the trick, providing a nasty surprise for anyone trying to feint out of danger. And Morgan le Fay forces the highest card to lose, inverting the entire contest and robbing high hands of their previous certainty.
That’s all well and good, but the real advantage of Avalon over Camelot is its selection of protagonists and Godsends. The first includes punks like Sir Yvain and his three extra cards per joust, Lancelot’s seeming inability to be shamed, Sir Galahad’s insistence on always playing last, and Sir Percival’s love of taking arrows to the knee so he can redistribute them to his opponents. This increased emphasis on broadened flexibility and negotiated play sets the tone for the Godsends as well, with Chivalry that splits your injuries with someone else, Poisoned Blades that pass around as easily as a cold, Taunts (with its wonderfully irritating tagline, “Knaves rejoice when others fail!” which my wife Summer would not stop chanting in a jester’s screech) for healing when somebody is shamed, and a variety of traps for swapping protagonists, messing with alchemy cards, or plaguing card ranks. These are alike in that they foster a negotiated play-space, often flung at whomever is currently in the lead or propping up opportunistic allies. Tournament at Camelot already featured such dealings simmering in the background; now they’re wheeled to the forefront and given real teeth. Flippantly make enemies at your own peril.
My first tentative plays of Tournament at Camelot were pleasant distractions, appreciatively chaotic but still burdened by the usual limitations of the trick-taking genre. The difference is a smidgen, but by contrast, Tournament at Avalon permits just enough extra latitude with its card-plays and deal-wheedling that I’m rather smitten. Unsurprisingly, it’s possible to mix them together, although I worry such measures might dilute the latter’s more direct interactions. For the time being, that hasn’t proved necessary. Tournament at Avalon is plenty good on its own, with its tickling silliness and edged directness. This is how you make me appreciate trick-taking.
Complimentary copies were provided.