Dale Yu: Review of Caravan

Caravan

  • Designer: Joe Huber
  • Publisher: Rio Grande Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Times played: 5, with review copy provided by Rio Grande Games

Caravan is a game that I heard everyone talk about after returning from the Gathering of Friends this year, and it had become one of my most anticipated games for this summer.  Designed by a good friend (and fellow OG writer), Joe Huber – the game was described to me as an old-school sort of game, with rules that can be explained in a few minutes but still providing great depth in actual play.

In the game, the Western Africa desert is abstractly depicted on a 7×7 grid.  8 desert cities are found on the board (not in geographically true orientation), each of which desires a single commodity – the common goods being wanted in central locations with the rare goods more on the periphery.  There are also 8 sites where goods will magically pop up. Each player has 5 camels which will make up his caravan. Each player also gets one theft marker. At the start of the game, the 8 colors of goods cubes are mixed in the bag and then one good is drawn out and placed on each of the 8 numbered spaces on the board.  Demand markers are placed on the outer spaces (1, 2, 7 and 8).

The start of the game is a little unique in that the first player takes 1 action on their turn, and then the next will take 2 actions, followed by a turn of 3 actions and then the next player will take 4 actions on their turn.  This increasing count of actions happens regardless of player count. Once a player has taken 4 actions, all turns for the rest of the game will have 4 actions.

On a turn, players can spend their allotted actions amongst 5 choices. They can be done in any order, and there is no limit to how many times an action can be chosen.  A player can pass if he does not want to use all of his actions on a particular turn. The options:

(1 action) Place a camel on an empty space.  You can only move empty camels (i.e. not carrying a good). If all your camels are not yet on the board, you can simply place one from the supply.

(2 actions) Place a camel on a space with camel(s) already on it. You can only move empty camels (i.e. not carrying a good). If all your camels are not yet on the board, you can simply place one from the supply.

(1 action) Pick up a good.  If you have an empty camel in a space with an unclaimed good, you can pick up the good and place it on the camel’s back.  Once you pick up a good, you can not let it go unless you deliver it to its destination (the city of matching color). You may not have all 5 of your camels carrying goods.

(0 action) Refill the board – this is a special action, and it MUST happen anytime there are only 4 goods left unclaimed on the board.  All players should watch the board situation carefully to see when this happens. Whenever there are only 4 cubes on the board, the game is paused and one demand marker is added to each of the four spaces where a good cube remains.  Then, a random good is placed on each open good spawning space, in numerical order. Again, note that this refill action is not a choice, and it immediately interrupts the game after a good is picked up.

(1 action) Steal a good, but only if you have a theft marker, which must be given to the opponent from whom you steal from.  You must have an empty camel in the same space as an opponent’s camel with a good on its back. You can then steal this good – and you place it between your camel’s legs.  This still means that your camel is carrying the stolen good, but until your camel moves to a different space, the good cannot be stolen from you. Once you move this camel, the good will be placed in the usual spot on the back of the camel.  If you do not have a theft marker, you cannot steal a good.

(1 action) Move a good and deliver it if it is at the destination city.  A good can be passed along a chain of your camels so long as they are all orthogonally adjacent.  The good can stop at any empty camel along the line; it does not have to travel all the way to the end of the chain.  If the good ends up on a camel which happens to be standing in a city of matching color, you can choose to deliver that good.  Take the good off the camel and place it on your player board where you will keep it for scoring purposes at the end of the game.  The camels in the caravan can be holding cubes, only the destination camel needs to be free of cubes.

Players take turns clockwise around the board choosing how to use their 4 actions each turn.  The game end is triggered when the final four goods are removed from the bag and placed on the board.  The game will then end immediately when the next good is delivered by any player. The game then is scored.

As seen on the player board, players score:

6 points per rare good collected

3 points per common good collected

1 point per demand marker collected

There is additionally a small penalty for undelivered cubes – 0/1/3/6 point penalty for 0-1/2/3/4 goods left on your camels at the end of the game.

The player with the most points wins. There is no tie-breaker, and in true RGG fashion, the tied players should rejoice in their shared victory.

My thoughts on the game

Caravan pretty much delivered on all of the hype (at least in my book).  There are a lot of interesting decisions to be made in the game, and though the rules are simple, there is a lot to think about as you play.  Given the 7×7 size of the board, a string of 5 camels can almost make it across the entire desert – but if you try to move all over the place, you’ll end up spending a lot of actions trying to get your camels in the right places and not enough time picking up and moving goods!

There is often a fierce battle for cubes – whether a race to pick them up OR a fight to be the one who gets to steal a valuable cube first.  Oftentimes, it’s best to not pick up a cube but rather steal it from someone because then that cube is protected until it (or its camel) moves.  The theft token economy is closed – so that the players should have an equal opportunity to steal from each other – but the timing of it is tricky and challenging.

And, man, 5 camels often doesn’t feel like enough.  Though you can get nearly across the whole board, there are so many times in the game that you really do wish that you had just one more camel to make a final connections…. and in fact, the rules do offer rules for novice players to give them a sixth camel.  Though I haven’t tried it, the sixth camel might also be an interesting way to generate a handicap system for better players.

There is a little bit of luck in the game, because just like in real life, sometimes the right colored cube just happens to pop out of the ground near the end of your camel train that just happens to be connected to the right color city.  Though, it’s not all luck. The spaces where new goods will spawn is open knowledge, and there is certainly a strategy of getting your camels in the right place to be ready for a cube spawn. It may not be the right color cube, but you can put yourself in the best position to decide if you want to grab it or not.

Component-wise, I do love the camels.  Their backs are just right for holding a good, and the double hump certainly seems to portend expansion abilities where maybe a camel can hold 2 cubes?  Also, the way that the stolen goods cube can nestle into the underbelly space of the camel is nice. The artwork is functional and plain – but not in a bad way – more in a way reminiscent of classic games from the past.  The delivery cities are clearly marked and the numbers for the spawning squares are huge and easy to read. It may not win any awards for beauty, but I really love the fact that the game is easy to play and the art style does not obscure anything important.  My only quibble, and it’s a little one, is that there wasn’t any space devoted on the player board for the cube penalty in scoring at the end of the game. The player board is pretty big, and there seems like there could have easily been a single line of text added somewhere to give the players ALL of the information they need for the whole game.

Overall, this game hits a sweet spot for me.  It’s simple enough to teach in a few minutes, but yet, there is a lot going on in the game. There are moments when you really have to take a step back to look at the board and figure out how you’re going to get a cube to its destination city – you may be in a battle with someone else to pick up a cube, or maybe you’re just trying to figure out how to not have the cube stolen from you.  Caravan is one of those games that doesn’t add anything novel in the mechanism or frankly in the theme department, but everything just works together and provides a great game experience. There is a deceiving amount of depth in Caravan, and this is a game that will surely keep hitting the table this fall. The complexity might be just higher than what I’d choose for a gateway game, but the simplicity of rules will keep this as a contender for that category going forward.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

 Lorna (5 plays): This game is right up my alley. I little puzzle-y and quick to play. The components are attractive and the simple rules make a nice game to pull out for game night before the meaty game. I’ve taught a few groups now and it’s been liked by all. 

The only downsides it’s hard to keep track of when to refill the board and sometimes some of the goods colors and their cities can be difficult to distinguish for some people. 

James Nathan (1 play): I don’t have much to add, but just want to reiterate what Dale and Lorna have said above. The classic feel of a 15-20 year old German game. Simple rules and puzzle-y game play. A just-right play time. Several times recently since my play I’ve been at a game night and thought “What do I want to play?  Caravan! AAhhh, why haven’t I bought that yet!” Soon!

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, James Nathan
  • I like it. Lorna 
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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3 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Caravan

  1. Pingback: Dale Yu: Review of Caravan – Herman Watts

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