- Designer: Steffen Bogen
- Players: 2-8
- Ages: 8+
- Time: 30 minutes
- Times Played: 4 (2 at Gathering of Friends, 2 with review copy provided by Z-Man Games)
Camel Up has slowly made its way to the North American market. I was first introduced to the game back in April at the Gathering of Friends. I was lukewarm on the game at that time, but fellow OG writers (namely W. Eric Martin and Ben McJunkin) were raving about it. As it turns out, they were more in tune than me – as Camel Up went on to win the 2014 Spiel des Jahres.
Back in April, there wasn’t an EN version of the game, and I was unable to have a copy brought over at that time. Since then, Z-man has signed on for the English language version, and it is supposed to be available around the second week of October (i.e. very soon). So what is the game all about?
In the game, players take on the role of rich desert inhabitants – using their money to bet on a camel race. There are 5 camels racing around a square board, and there are plenty of chances to bet on the results or influence how the race goes. The camels are given a starting position on the course – by rolling the die corresponding to each colored camel and then starting 1, 2, or 3 spaces from the start/finish line. The spaces are pretty narrow in the desert, so if there are multiple camels on a particular space, they have to sit on top of each other. Luckily for you, the wooden camels are built to stack.
The race is run in a number of legs – each leg lasting long enough for each camel to move once. Camel movement is driving by special dice (values vary from 1 to 3 on those dice). Once a camel makes it to the end of the race course – which is 16 spaces long – the game immediately ends and final scores are tallied. But before we get to the end, let’s talk about each leg.
On your turn, you have a number of options. You can: 1) take a betting tile, 2) take a pyramid tile and roll a die, 3) play your desert tile, or 4) make a bet on the overall winner and loser of the race.
Take a betting tile – there are 3 betting tiles for each color camel, valued 5, 3, and 2. You can choose to take any of the tiles (though it really only makes sense to take the highest valued tile) for the camel that you think will win the leg. The camel that wins the leg is the one furthest ahead on the track after all the camels have moved. If there are multiple camels in that space, it’s the camel on top that wins the leg. In addition to the varied first place bonuses, all betting cards award one coin for second place. Finally, all betting cards come with a one coin PENALTY if the chosen camel is not in first or second place.
Play your desert tile – each player has a desert tile, one side has +1 movement on it, the other has -1 movement on it. The tile must be played on an empty space, but not one adjacent to another desert tile. If a camel ever ends its movement on a desert tile, that camel will either finish its movement +1 or -1 spaces from the desert tile. If it moves forward, it lands on top on any camels in the final space. If it moves backwards, it goes UNDERNEATH all the camels in that space. In addition, the owner of the desert tile is awarded one coin.
Take a pyramid tile – this is how you move the camels. See – the gimmick in the game is a cardboard pyramid. The dice are all kept in this pyramid and there is a rubber-band mechanism that allows only one die to escape when the pyramid is held upside down. So, you choose to activate the pyramid by drawing one of the pyramid cards, and then you upend it and press in the release latch to release a die. This also acts as the rolling – as you use whatever number comes up on the die you reveal. Camels move a number of spaces equal to the number on the die. If there are any other camels that are sitting on top of the one that moves, all of those camels move along with one which matches the color of the die. Additionally, remember that a camel on top is always considered ahead of a camel underneath it.
Make a bet on the final result – each player has a set of betting cards, one for each camel. On your turn, you could choose to place a bet on the eventual first place camel or last place camel. To make your bet, you place you card face down on the appropriate pile (first or last place). The bets remain secret until the end of the game.
The leg continues until all 5 pyramid cards have been chosen and each die has been revealed once (and all the camels have moved according to the rules). After the fifth die has been exposed, it’s time to score the leg.
- For each betting card for the winning camel – you get 5, 3, or 2 coins
- For each betting card for the second place camel – you get one coin
- For all other betting cards – you give BACK one coin
- For each pyramid card you have – you get one coin
After the leg is scored, all the betting cards go back to the board, the dice are placed back in the pyramid and the desert tiles are removed from the board. The game continues with another leg.
The game will end immediately when a camel crosses the finish line – you do not wait until all the dice have been chosen from the pyramid. Before you move to end game scoring, you first score a regular leg-end scoring as outlined above. Then you must score the overall winner and loser bets. Someone takes the entire stack of cards for the winner and flips them over – therefore, the now visible card on top would be the first one played in the course of the game. If it is the right color camel that matches the first place camel, coins are awarded 8/5/3/2/1/1 for the 1st/2nd/3rd/4th/5th/6th correct card. Thus, the earlier you make the bet, the more coins you win. If an incorrect camel is shown, that player must pay one coin back to the bank. The same process is done for the last place camel stack.
The player with the most coins at the end of the game is the winner.
My thoughts on the game
Camel Up is a light game with plenty of twists and turns. The visual gimmick as well as the main randomizing factor is the pyramid shaped dice cup – it is a beautifully thematic addition to the Egyptian themed game – and it’s a lot of fun to play with.
The multiple legs in the game allow for plenty of opportunities to earn coins, and many chances to come back in the game. The game is won with a combination of good timing as well as some good fortune with the dice rolls. You want to think that you have control over how the camels will move, but in the end, the best you can do is manage the odds as you see which dice come out in which order.
The movement rules lead to all sorts of unpredictable twists and turns – with the right combination of dice and desert tile effect, it is not unheard of for the last place camel at the start of a leg end up in the front of the race by the end of a leg.
The rules are simple to teach, and I have not had a problem teaching the game to non-gamers. It has been enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike. Of course, this is why the game likely won the Spiel des Jahres – it is the sort of game that can be enjoyed by just about anyone.
Opinions from the Other Opinionated Gamers
Dan Blum (1 play): I think this is a really sloppy design which I am astonished won SdJ. I’m fine with it being light and chaotic, but it has problems. The main problem is that rolling a die is usually a bad idea; it will often cause people to want to bet, so by the time it’s your turn again the betting tiles that look good will all be gone. It’s even worse if the roll makes people want to bet on the final outcome, in which case your only hope is that they’re all wrong. That can happen, of course, but this is still not good design: actually moving the game forwards should not be the sucker move you take when you don’t know any better or you have no other options.
Nathan Beeler: I’m with Dan in that I think this design is flawed. Like the vast majority of games, Camel Cup has a few drops of pleasure wetting the rim, though it’s not enough to slake my thirsts. Plays seem either fairly obvious or fairly equivalent, and I was glad when the whole affair was over so we could play a truly interesting game. Where Dan and I differ, however, is that I am not the slightest bit astonished that the game won the SdJ. Remember, this is the same jury that felt Villa Paletti was a better design than Puerto Rico. They clearly know what they’re doing.
Joe Huber (3 plays): Unlike Dan and Nathan, I don’t find Camel Up to be a flawed game. I agree that rolling the dice gives away some information, but it’s not nearly so much as to make it a horrible choice, usually. And it’s the only sure income in the game. That said, I might have given a little more cash to the first person to roll. Still, I don’t find that it gets in the way of the game. On the whole, it’s a pleasant game – something, as Dale notes, that can be played with anyone. I don’t need to play it, but I won’t be upset if others wish to.
Greg Schloesser: Sometimes the gadget makes the game. Sometimes, however, it is just a gadget, and the game itself doesn’t measure up to the niftiness of the clever gadget. I am afraid that the latter is the case with Camel Up.
As a family game, Camel Up is, in the damning words of my good friend and fellow gamer Jim McDanold, “fine.” Aside from the nifty pyramid gadget, there really isn’t much here to set the game apart. Children will certainly enjoy stacking the camels and delight when their favorite gets carried an extra space or two, but adults will likely find the game rather mundane. The betting is done with a bit of knowledge, but the ultimate results are beyond the control of the players. Children likely won’t mind this absence of control, but adults and even teenagers will likely find it frustrating.
I am frankly surprised that the game won the Spiel des Jahres. I understand that the SdJ jury primarily seeks to promote family games with their central award, but there seems to be so many better family games they could have recognized. Abluxxen (Linko), Cuatro and even Kashgar are all excellent games that are perfectly suited for families, and all of them offer a superior gaming experience than Camel Up. The game seems more suitable for the Children’s category, but perhaps the betting aspect was a bit too “adult” for that award.
So what we have is a game that doesn’t offer much to appeal to adult gamers, but may have an aspect (the betting) that is a bit too mature for young children. The result is a game that falls into a sort of gaming limbo. I suspect that the SdJ award will help its appeal amongst families, and perhaps the typical German family is a bit more accepting of betting as an activity appropriate for young children than the average American family. If so, that just may be the market for the game, which is no doubt what the SdJ jury had in mind.
Joe Huber (redux) – Greg, I have to say – I’d suggest Camel Up as a family game long before I’d consider Cuatro.
Mary Prasad (1 Play): The best part of the game was Rick T. reading the rules (plus commentary). The colors and production were nice (although I do wonder how the pyramid will hold up over time) but the game itself was not fun. I agree with Greg – “game limbo.” Not sure how it won SdJ.
Larry (1 play): The SdJ winner looks like some silliness wrapped in a betting game (including having the camels pile on top of each other as they run the race), but there’s actually a little bit of judgment that can be brought to bear. In the end, though, you will profit far more if you are fortunate than if you are skillful. Moreover, the appearance of control can lead the players to take longer to make their decisions than they should, which can cause the game to outstay its welcome. It’s a harmless piece of fluff and my one game was entertaining enough, but I really don’t need to play it again.
Ted Alspach (2 plays): Camel Up! is this decade’s Niagara. A game built around some funky mechanism where the mechanism carries the game.
Ben McJunkin (3 plays): It’s a betting game. I’m a gambler. This alone made Camel Up a natural fit for me. But it’s also quick, simple, colorful, and (with the right group and an appropriate amount of sleep deprivation) a rollicking good time. The game’s cleverness lies in the way that stacking impacts the movement of the camels. It creates a natural catch-up mechanism that has led to a tight race in each of my three sessions. The betting is simple probability calculation, but rewards early wagers (based on less information), producing the sort of straightfoward anticipatory tension that suits both families and drunkards. I am a little surprised that it won SdJ, but it’s a game I like and would happily play just for silly, simple fun.
Jonathan Franklin (4 plays): I enjoyed the Knizia game Schildkrötenrennen (known in the US as Ribbit) quite a bit. It was fun to play in classrooms, with kids, or a mix of kids and adults. My favorite part of Camel Up! is the camel movement system which echoes Ribbit. In Camel Up!, the hidden ownership of a color becomes a betting game. I cannot say I am fond of betting or hidden ownership, but I feel even less sense of achievement if I win a betting game. If someone wanted me to teach Camel Up!, I would, but I might beg off playing. The closest similar game I can think of is Royal Turf. Camel Up! has the advantage of having end game scoring, rather than the clumsy double the values of the final round.
I think the key is the people you play with. If they play Royal Turf by shouting “Go, Caramello” and pretending to be drinking mint juleps, then you will likely have fun with them with Camel Up! If they are dour mathy types, then pass, as the game is made by the people, not the game itself. As an aside, I do enjoy the discussion of Camel Up! vs. Camel Cup! – not sure which one is better, but the graphic ambiguity is a Rorschach test. Note to self: If you want to contend for the SdJ, don’t just have five dice in a bag where you draw one and roll it.
Jennifer Geske (12+ plays): Like many other OGers I first played Camel Up at the GoF this year, and my one play there was of course with wrong rules. I hosted several SdJ showcases at local game stores so ended up teaching and playing the game a bunch (it also got played quite a bit at my group, which was a surprise to me since they usually prefer heavier games). I expected the game to be popular with the casual gamers, but I’ve found the analytical types like it too as you can calculate odds for each potential move. I guess there are casual gamblers who play for mostly fun and entertainment and the professional gamblers who actually try to win and make a living. The best part of the game to me is the desert tiles. You can really mess with the leg/final outcome. I don’t see dice rolling design flaw. At later part of a leg, if everything being equal (i.e., you earn a guarantee dollar either way), it is actually better to roll the dice as you take a turn away from other players. In my plays with 6+ random people, there always seem to be at least one person who will NOT gamble without some information so they end up being the first roller (unless there are open desert tile spots available). It is easy to teach/play (the biggest problem is operating the pyramid in my well-loved copy), and has different ‘hooks’ for different types of players. I can definitely see why it won the coveted SdJ award.
Eric Martin (4 plays): So much hate, so much…like? I don’t recall exactly raving about Camel Up when I taught it to a few groups at the Gathering of Friends. I had played exactly once at that point with two players and liked the game well enough, especially since I hadn’t thought such a game would pan out with only two players.
I played twice at GoF, once in a rollicking late-night session with seven players in which certain people got screwed out of moves and scoring again and again, making the experience hilarious for everyone else, and I played it the following morning in a somber five-player game that included a still lukewarm Dale Yu. You could almost see some of the other players calculating the odds as they stared at the pyramid, wondering whether to shake it or smash it against the ground to protest its pointless existence.
By the time that I posted a video overview of the game — coincidentally the day before it won Spiel des Jahres — I had come to recognize its true nature: Camel Up is a party game. If you come to it looking to play a strategy game, as I imagine Greg, Dan and others did, you’ll be disappointed because many of the action options have the same payoff or a certain choice seems obvious based on what others have done; if you instead come to the game just looking to hang out and spend time with others, then you’ll be much better off. As with other party games, Camel Up is a play facilitator, something to grease the wheels at family gatherings and events when you need to interact with people but aren’t sure how. You play, stuff happens, someone wins, then you have dessert. Seems like a quintessential Spiel des Jahres winner in my eyes…
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Dale Y
- I like it. John P, Ben McJunkin, Jennifer Geske, W. Eric Martin
- Neutral. Nathan Beeler, Joe Huber, Larry, Jonathan
- Not for me… Dan Blum, Greg Schloesser, Mary Prasad, Ted Alspach