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Review: Camel Up

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Camel Up box cover

A day at the races! What could be more fun than breezily watching your fortune dwindle on the humps of these fine Egyptian beasts?

What’s that, you say? Fixing the race would be even more fun? And betting on every aspect?

If that’s the case, have I got the game for you.

How It Works

Camel Up is a wagering game for 2-8 players. Players bet on individual legs of the race and the race overall (and try to fix the race to their advantage). The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.

Camel Up set up. The camels are stacked and ready.
Camel Up set up. The camels are stacked and ready.

Each player receives five camel cards, each representing a different camel in the race, one oasis/desert tile, and three coins. One player places the five camels on the board, places the dice in the pyramid, and the game begins.

A player may perform one action per turn. Actions include the following:

  • Claiming a pyramid tile and moving the camel (and any camels on its back) that matches the die released by the pyramid the number shown on the die.
  • Betting on who will win the leg by claiming a betting tile.
  • Betting (secretly) on who will win or lose the overall race using a camel card.
  • Placing or moving the oasis/desert tile.

Oasis/desert tiles affect the movement of camels. If a camel stack lands on an oasis, the unit moves one space forward and on top of any camels there. If a stack lands on a desert tile, the stack moves one space backward and underneath any camels there. The player who owns an oasis/desert tile earns one coin whenever a camel stack lands on it.

Oasis/desert tiles let players manipulate the race to get their camels on top [!].
Oasis/desert tiles let players manipulate the race to get their camels on top [!].
The leg ends once all five dice have been released from the dice pyramid. Players receive money for their pyramid tiles and earn/lose money on their leg bets. All oasis/desert tiles are removed from the board, and a new leg begins.

The game ends when a camel crosses the finish line. The leg is scored immediately, and players receive money for correct bets on the winners and losers. The player with the most money wins.

Each player receives personal betting cards to bet on the overall race winner and loser, as well as one matching oasis/desert tile.
Each player receives personal betting cards to bet on the overall race winner and loser, as well as one matching oasis/desert tile.

Race to the Top?

Camel Up won the 2014 Spiel des Jahres, arguably the most important hobby gaming award in the world, beating gamer darling Splendor in the process. While I was pulling for (and betting on) Splendor to win, Camel Up is a worthy choice for a family game award winner.

I like Camel Up because I like gambling. I don’t like gambling when real money is on the line (I’m far too risk-averse for that), but I love it when gambling shows up in games, usually in push-your-luck favorites like Can’t Stop or Pickomino. It’s fun to roar with excitement when you get a big payout or loudly blame the dice when they don’t fall your way. It’s fun to troll other players for making what turns out to be a poor bet and to have them gloat in your face when their risky gambit pays off.

DICE. These drive the action in Camel Up, and the dice pyramid highlights the tension of rolling them.
DICE. These drive the action in Camel Up, and the dice pyramid highlights the tension of rolling them.

There’s a lot of that in Camel Up, although the push-your-luck mechanics are more subtle here than in some other, more raucous push-your-luck games. In Camel Up, pushing your luck is related to timing. Players will usually know which camel will win a leg or the overall race at some point; the trick is that players can only perform one action per turn, and by the time certainty arrives, all chances to bet may be gone. And bets in Camel Up are arranged in descending payouts, so the earlier you bet correctly, the more money you’ll get. Players have to weigh the potential benefits of betting early against the possibility of betting incorrectly. Betting incorrectly always incurs a penalty (usually the loss of a coin), but in betting on the race’s overall winner or loser, each player has only one card of each camel. Betting on blue for the win means a player can’t bet on blue to lose, and overall winner and loser pays out the best. (Also, it’s incredible how often it matters that you only have one card for each camel.)

It may not look like it, but really, it's any camel's game at this point.
It may not look like it, but really, it’s any camel’s game at this point.

While sometimes it’s easy to see which camels have a better shot at winning, there are plenty of ways that players can attempt to “fix” the race, and there’s usually enough uncertainty to keep things interesting. The oasis/desert tiles are an ingenious way to maneuver camels the way you want them, and since the dice feature 1-3 twice (rather than 1-6), even a dark horse (camel?) can come back for the win. You can look at the board and think, It’s only possible for white to take the lead if white’s die shows a 1 when it comes out of the pyramid. This may seem like steep odds, but truly, it’s a one in three chance. But that it seems like steep odds is what keeps Camel Up compelling. You get the thrill of the longshot bet with the calculated risk that keeps you invested in the game.

There are three leg betting tiles available in each leg for each camel.
There are three leg betting tiles available in each leg for each camel.

The components in Camel Up are great. The cardboard is sturdy, the cards are nice, and the wooden camels are chunky and stack well. The artwork is charming, and putting the frequently used pieces on tiles instead of cards is a nice touch. The game looks great on the table. This is a game that brings others over to comment–it has table presence. And, of course, the game comes with a completely superfluous dice pyramid, which releases only one die and adds to the game by facilitating the dramatic revelation of what has been rolled.

@Futurewolfie and I were discussing theme over Twitter recently, and he said that theme-ambivalent players (like me) often accuse him of being lured in by good art and components rather than theme. He said, essentially, “Who cares? Good components are part of the experience.” Much like the chips in Splendor, the dice pyramid in Camel Up makes the game. Would it still be fun without it? Yes, I suppose, but the thing that makes me take notice of the game–and really, the thing that gets people to turn their heads toward it in a crowded lunch room in the first place–is the sound of dice tumbling around in a cardboard pyramid, the slow placement of the pyramid on the table, and the dramatic reveal (and the groans and whoops that accompany it). The dice pyramid is more than a gimmick: it is an essential piece of the experience.

The dice pyramid makes the game. Seriously.
The dice pyramid makes the game. Seriously.

That being said, Camel Up isn’t for everyone. And, unfortunately, it’s not for many of the groups I’ve played it with. My lunch games group–who usually favors meatier fare–thought it was a little simple, and while they seemed to enjoy it while we played, they haven’t requested it since. I brought the game to my family Christmas, and while they all found it diverting for the few games we played, they were itching to play something else (namely, Splendor) after two games. My wife enjoyed our games of it, but I was a little cooler on it as a two-player outing.

These stacking camel pieces are lovely.
These stacking camel pieces are lovely.

Looking back on my experiences, I think I’ve recognized reasons for some of the coolness. While the box advertises a two to eight player game, the range here is much less forgiving. Three players, to my mind, is the minimum I’d play with again, and five is probably the maximum. The game already has some inherent luck built into it–dice determine what happens! (more or less)–and a lot of the game is about timing. Seating order matters a great deal because players are betting based on the information available to them. I said earlier that by the end of the race, most players know what’s going to happen. The real game is betting before you know what’s going to happen, or trying to structure the game around what you want to happen. If you have to wait too long to get back to your turn, you have little control over what happens. You either miss out on the timing altogether or a windfall comes to you when another player reveals a new piece of the race (by rolling a die) just in time for you to make an informed bet. While I don’t think this is as big of a problem as some make it out to be, it does sour the experience somewhat. In one game, my sister–who was protesting because she didn’t really want to play–chose the pyramid action each turn. She was across the table from me, so I had little to no chance at winning the game. While this is an extreme circumstance and not at all part of the normal flow, it does illustrate why the game is better at a narrower range than listed on the box. There are also some little rules that make a big difference, yet these rules are buried in the rulebook. (For example, oasis/desert tiles are removed from the board at the end of each leg, and per BGG forums, you may not simply flip a desert/oasis tile.) If you are responsible for teaching the game, take heed: read very carefully.

Who's right? Perhaps both, but if so, the man with the green turban will get the bigger prize for betting on the loser.
Who’s right? Perhaps both, but if so, the man with the green turban will get the bigger prize for betting on the loser.

Camel Up is a good family game and a great wagering game. It has table presence, a fun gimmick, and an interesting premise that draws people to the table and keeps players (or at least me) engaged throughout the game. It’s not a brain burner; it’s not an exercise in bookkeeping. And this is its strength. The streamlined rules are easy to teach so that even new players are betting like sharks. The game moves quickly, and you probably won’t want to occupy an entire night with it, but Camel Up is a worthy winner of the Spiel des Jahres award. I’m not sure it has legs (!), but for now, I’m enjoying my time at the races with Camel Up.

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  • Rating 8.0
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Summary

Pros:

  • Fun theme and great components
  • Slick rules allow all players to accurately read the game state
  • Fun wagering game where potential winners and losers can change quickly
  • Player actions can mitigate some of the luck present in the game

Cons:

  • The game has dice that decide much of the action
  • Seating order can have a huge impact on the game
  • The game doesn't work very well at the higher player counts
8.0 Very good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion3 Comments

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