Chriss Jackson

Camel Up by Steffen Bogen – a board game review

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Mar 172015
 

I recently sat down to learn and play the latest winner of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award for 2014, Camel Up. I began not sure what to think, but not often have I been disappointed with the Spiel winners over the years. So what did I think of Camel Up after a few games with it? Let’s see.

When I got my hands on the box I found that someone else had already punched out the money tokens and assembled the cardboard pyramid. I was terribly disappointed- I missed out on that glorious new game smell. Nevertheless, the components themselves are really beautiful. The in-game money is  split up into 1’s and 5’s which are punched out cardboard tokens and the more aesthetically pleasing 10’s and 20’s which are printed on mini-deck playing cards. The publishers could have opted for cardboard 10’s and 20’s, but in what I assume is an attempt to emulate real money, they opted to print the higher denominations in paper fashion rather than coin. The dice have a really good feel. I’ve always appreciated a nice set of wooden dice, and these are no different. The board is pretty to look at with lots of nice extraneous details that add to the experience. Never mind that I mistook what appeared to me to be the loser camel being drawn and quartered. The camel pieces themselves feel great. They each stack on each other perfectly and are quite fun to play with. And the pyramid dice cup, although a bit gimmicky, is a really nice way to only reveal one die at a time while remaining tied to the theme of the game. There aren’t any hand-painted miniatures or detailed terrains here, but there really doesn’t need to be either. This is a simple game and the components match that to a tee.

The rules to Camel Up are simple. Each player takes one action from a list of four different possibilities. Bet on the current leg, bet on the race, place a desert tile, or reveal a die from the pyramid. There are some subtle rules about how you bet or where you can place a tile on the board, but in three pages, all the nuances to this game are explained thoroughly and I found no reason to be confused with anything. Honest to goodness, I haven’t opened up the rules a single time to check anything because it truly is that simple. When you bet on a leg of a race, you are choosing which camel you think will be in the lead once all the dice have been rolled (you only roll each die once per leg). This can be tricky and tends to reward the gutsy, but the punishment for being wrong is so miniscule that, comparatively, it’s easy to get multiple bets wrong and still come out on top. Someone who is keen on calculating probabilities will find themselves challenged due to the rule that allows camels to carry their competitors on their backs. Thematically, this doesn’t make much sense, but it does add a lot of variety to the game. No camel is usually too far from a fluke carry to victory. That being said, gamers who are looking for a deep strategy experience may not find it here. That isn’t to say it’s devoid of strategy, but there is a lot of luck involved in this game. Then again, it is a betting game, and what else would you expect.

Betting on the race allows you to hedge your bet on the winner and loser of the race. Again, risk is rewarded greatly while the penalization for a wrong guess is nowhere near as drastic. In addition to the betting, you place tiles on the board, and I think this is where the meat of the game really lies. This allows the players to influence how the camels will move about the board. Everything still rests on the roll of the die, but if a camel lands on a desert tile, that could move the camel forward into the lead or push the camel back into last place. Nevertheless, the game is still more about luck than strategy and sometimes the only thing left to do is to roll the die and make plans about your next turn that probably won’t matter when it finally gets back around to you.

Ultimately, Camel Up really is a family game. This is particularly interesting considering that the main mechanic of the game is gambling, albeit lightheartedly. I did enjoyed this game quite a bit. It’s gorgeous to look at and it’s fun to play even when you can’t seem to catch a break. But that’s what you should expect from a game about gambling on a camel race. There will be families that won’t want to get this game because of its strong gambling theme, and that is okay. But ironically the amount of luck that is inherent in Camel Up actually works really well for the younger crowds.

What is really interesting is that playing this game with three to four players is a completely different experience than playing it with six to eight players. With a smaller gathering, the game becomes tight and manipulative. Not aggressive, but each move makes a smaller impact that could be used with a greater goal in mind. Playing with the full complement of players, however, usually means you will see your turn maybe once before each leg is up. Every decision has to be the right decision and sometimes the right decision just isn’t available anymore. The game is quick enough to negate all but the weariest of worriers about down time, even with eight players. Especially, since you can become really invested, so to speak, in every little happening in the game.

I’m not saying everyone will like this game, but it is a fun in-betweener that gives you a lot of the excitement of gambling without all the hassle of a loan shark. I’m giving Camel Up a 7 out of 10.

Hanabi by Antoine Bauza – a board game review

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Mar 172015
 

The 2013 winner of the Spiel des Jahres is Hanabi, a cooperative game in which 2 to 5 players work together to create stunning firework demonstrations. Does Hanabi shine in the nighttime sky or does it fizzle? Let’s see.

In Hanabi, players hold cards away from themselves in a manner that allows everyone else to see your cards, but not you. The goal of Hanabi is to play cards 1 through 5 in succession in each of the five suits, represented as colors. To do this each player will, in turn, have the opportunity to perform one of three actions: give information, play a card, or discard a card. If at any time players play three cards out of order or run out of cards, the game is over. The neat thing about Hanabi is that rather than the binary win/lose scenario of most games, Hanabi scores players based on how many cards you can play to the table. This is nice because this game is so unforgiving. Each suit contains exactly three 1s, two 2s, 3s, and 4s, and only one 5. This means if any player discards a five, that suit will never be completed. Also, information is a very limited commodity. At the start of the game, players will have access to eight information tokens and they will disappear quickly. The only way to get them back is to discard cards. More than once have I been in a situation when I had no idea about my hand and there were no tokens left on the table and I’ve been forced to discard a card blindly. This brings me to what I think is best about Hanabi.

For what is essentially an abstract game, there are some seriously tense moments in Hanabi. Quarterbacking, which is often a problem in cooperative games, is nonexistent here. Part of that is due to the strict communication rules in the game and part is due to the lack of information you are always dealing with. In my initial play-throughs we relaxed the communication rules of the game often offering a “what do you know about your hand” or “why would I tell you that that card is a two”, but now when we play we are dead silent. There are moments when someone plays or discards the wrong card and your heart breaks, but then there are moments when you lay the right card down on a hunch and jump right out of your seat and celebrate. The scoring method allows you to record how you are improving in the game and once you master the standard game there are several variants that may ratchet the difficulty back up.

What may be a downside is that the team as a whole is only as good as the worst player. Where most cooperative games allow players to come to conclusions together and can avoid some rather foolish decisions, Hanabi places your fate in the hands of each player one at a time. Everybody at the table needs to be up to and beyond par in order to accomplish the impossible 25 points. To me, this is fine. I’m mostly confident in the abilities of my fellow players and I’m far from impeachable when it comes to discarding a “5.” For the most part, everybody is going to come away from the game feeling like they contributed.

As far as the components, there isn’t much to talk about. The cards are of good quality and the tokens are solid cardboard punch-outs. They serve their purpose and don’t detract from the game. The artwork on the cards is simple, yet nice to look at.

I recommend you give Hanabi a try and I recommend you do so immediately because this game is spectacular. I’m giving Hanabi a 9.5 out of 10.