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.