Carrying goods across the desert is not as easy as it looks. Despite the bird’s-eye view of sand for miles, the desert can be pretty crowded–especially in the places where you need to go–and there are thieves about too. And camels don’t really like to move once they’ve been burdened with goods. But the people in the cities need what you’re selling, and they’re willing to pay you a decent wage…more, even, if they’ve been waiting a while or if you have to trek them across the desert. So get your camels in a row. It’s time to move your caravan.
How It Works
Caravan is a network-building/pick-up-and-deliver game for two to four players. Players are caravan leaders collecting and delivering goods using their camel network. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
To begin, the board is placed in the center of the table, and one good is drawn from the bag and placed on each of the eight collection spaces on the board. One demand marker is placed on each of the four corner spaces. Each player receives a player board, a thief marker, and five (normal game) or six (easy game) camels in their color. A start player is chosen and play begins.
The start player takes one action, and each player takes one more action than the last until one player takes four actions. Thereafter, each player gets four actions per turn.
Actions include placing or moving camels (anywhere on the board–not just adjacent spaces–and moving to an occupied space costs two actions), picking up a goods cube (if in same space as your camel), stealing a goods cube from an opposing camel in the same space, or moving a goods cube to an empty camel along a line of your orthogonally connected camels.
Whenever a good is picked up, the player also receives any demand counters in that space. Once a camel is carrying a good, that camel may no longer be moved. To steal a good, a player must have a camel in the same space as another camel and a thief marker. The player then gives their thief marker to the player from whom they stole the good. A good cube is delivered whenever it moves to an empty camel standing on a city of a matching color; the cube is then placed on that player’s player board for scoring at the end of the game. (Rare goods are worth 6 points each; common goods are worth 3 points each.)
Whenever there are only four goods on goods spaces (not camels’ backs), the game pauses. One demand counter is added to each of the spaces on the board where there is a good present, and four new goods are drawn from the bag and placed on the empty goods spaces. Play continues.
Once the last four cubes are placed on the board, the game ends immediately when the next cube is delivered. Players score points for the cubes they’ve delivered and the demand markers they’ve picked up and lose points for goods their camels are still carrying at the end of the game. Whoever has the most points wins.
I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends
If you’ve read my reviews with any regularity, you know I’m a sucker for classic Euro games–ones with simple rules that allow players to interact in fun and interesting ways, mostly without direct player conflict. Caravan falls squarely into this category. Fans of this genre–and especially those who like tactical “themed abstracts” with clever gameplay–will find a lot to enjoy here.
To begin with, let’s talk about the rulebook–or, rather, the rules sheet. Caravan’s rules fit on one piece of paper front and back. The game is simple to understand and digest, and the included examples clear up any questions you might have (as in a two-player game, do you still alternate turns until one player takes four actions? Answer: yes). It’s been a while since I’ve read a rulebook this simple that wasn’t packaged with a small card game.
But just because the rules are slim doesn’t mean the game is lacking choices. Each turn players are trying to use their four actions for the largest reward. Goods come in two values depending on their scarcity, and there are also demand markers scattered around the board. Players are balancing several different factors. Obviously, you want to deliver the goods that will be worth the most points, but you have to weigh the benefits of points versus opportunity. Some goods spawn far away from their destination cities. If it will take you three turns to deliver a 6-point good, are you better off delivering several 3-point goods in that same time frame? What if there are several goods of the same color near each other that you might be able to deliver together? Further, you have to consider whether your camels need to move around and whether you will get in the other players’ way. Moving to an occupied space costs extra actions and could result in stolen goods.
Caravan is definitely a game of tactics and opportunism. Like the sands of the desert, opportunities are constantly shifting as players pick up and deliver goods. The four central cities are a good hedge for players–it’s easy to connect to one or maybe even two of these cities, and you might not need to move many of your camels to react to newly spawned goods on the map–but because of this, the four central cities are also very congested, making it cost more actions for your camels to move around. I like that Caravan keeps players on their toes by constantly forcing them to read and respond to the state of the game and their fellow players.
I think the most interesting aspect of Caravan’s design is the subtle way it changes typical network-building games. In games like Steam or Ticket to Ride, players build a static network: once your train tracks are on the board, they’re on the board for good, and you have a permanent channel connecting destinations. Even in Through the Desert, another network-building game about camels, a camel laid is a camel played. What is novel about Caravan is its dynamic network building. Players are trying to connect their laden camels with matching cities, but just because you’re connected to the blue city now doesn’t mean you’ll be connected later. With only five or six camels at your disposal, players are trying to move their networks into position to be as efficient is possible. If you can deliver two goods along the same caravan, wonderful. Three? Even better. I once delivered four red cubes in a single turn, and I felt like a rock star. But because laden camels can’t move, you are constantly trying to maneuver your camels into position while efficiently taking advantage of the opportunities you find.
Let me pause for a moment to talk about the camels at your disposal. The game comes with six camels per player, and the rules recommend learning the game with six camels. I heartily agree with this. But the six-camel game is playing with training wheels; the real game is played with five, and for good reason. With six, you can be a little more lax in your planning, a little more cavalier in picking up goods. You can easily link spawning places and one or even two cities at a time. With five, your logistical network is constantly in danger of falling apart. It takes more planning to get anything delivered, and it forces you to be more choosy in where you place your camels. It encourages you to grab more goods, even if they’re out of the way, just to make it worth your while when you do eventually connect to cities. The six-camel game is looser–which some players may prefer, and which is definitely a less punishing way to learn the game–but the five-camel game is where it’s at. Your network has to be more dynamic, and players have to be more nimble in their thinking. The six-camel game is good; the five camel game is excellent.
Another of the clever bits in this game is the demand markers. Whenever half the goods are removed from their spawning spaces, all the goods remaining on the board receive demand markers, making those goods more enticing to pick up. This is a necessary feature, because goods that are across the board from where they need to go will take more turns to get there, more effort from the players, and will incur more risk of being stolen. And once you load up a good, you can’t abandon it, and that camel won’t move, so picking up a good is tantamount to making a formal agreement to deliver it. The demand markers almost act as a reverse Dutch auction–when will the worth of the piled-up markers outweigh the difficulty of the task? Who will bite first? It’s a game of chicken as players allow them to stack up. And because players are penalized at the end of the game for undelivered goods, and because each camel is precious, players need to make plans to deliver what they pick up. I love games that tempt players to work against their good sense (like No Thanks! or Mogul–“Look at all those chips!”), and the demand markers add some spice to Caravan in just this way. They also add another decision point as players squat on goods, waiting as long as they can to pick them up in case they can get some extra points out of the deal.
Caravan plays very differently at each count, but it doesn’t play badly at any of them. The two-player game is a little more relaxed and open than the three- and four-player game, but there are still opportunities to block and get in each other’s way. The three-player game is crowded, and it takes more actions to get things done, and it also increases the likelihood that stealing will happen. The four-player game is crowded and interactive–even if players aren’t deliberately getting in each other’s way, there are just so many camels on the board. And because players are frequently crossing paths and there are fewer goods to go around, stealing is a little more prevalent. I wouldn’t turn down Caravan at any count, but I think three-player is my favorite, followed by four.
Beyond the player count, there are also options you can introduce to make the game shorter or longer, simpler or harder. As I already mentioned, the normal game has players using five camels, which involves more logistical and tactical planning. The introductory game gives players six camels to work with, which might not seem like much but makes a huge difference in being able to take advantage of opportunities (and there’s also less stealing). You can remove goods from the bag to make the game shorter (and the rules suggest this for all two- and three-player games). None of these changes alter the basic rules, but they do help to tighten or loosen the game as players see fit. Players looking for a more cutthroat experience have it; players who want a friendlier game can tailor it to their tastes too.
I’m a fan of Caravan, but there are a couple of aspects to be aware of, as some players (even within the target audience) might not be so keen on them.
The first is the thieving. Isn’t a mark of classic Euros no direct player conflict? Why is there stealing in an otherwise conflict-free design? And while it’s true that some players won’t like this feature, to me, the addition of stealing makes sense. First of all, the action isn’t usually abused. In order to steal from another player’s camel, you have to be in the same space, which means to place a camel where you aren’t already will cost two actions instead of one. It’s simply more work to take someone else’s good rather than collecting your own from one of the spaces on the board. So the opportunity has to be ripe. The thief action is less about a take-that free-for-all and more about offering richer decisions. It’s a bad idea to have your goods in the same space as another player because that other player might take it. This allows players to “threaten” one another, placing their camels on the board in such a way as to limit the effective spaces where their opponents can safely transport goods. It also keeps players from squatting on valuable goods they don’t intend to deliver. (Again, there are more ripe opportunities for stealing when you play the normal, five-camel game and when you play with more players, as it takes more logistical maneuvering to get goods where they’re going–they’re in transit longer.)
The thief action also helps balance the luck of opportunity in Caravan. Goods spawn randomly on the board, and sometimes a player whose camel is already on the space will be handed a windfall–in some cases, a rare, 6-point good. The thief action allows other players to even out the luck by stealing that opportunity for themselves. Sure, it can cost an extra action, but for the right opportunity, it might be worth it.
Finally, the thief action is also fair. Everyone has the ability to steal once at the start of the game. After that initial steal, only players who have been stolen from can steal. Because you surrender your thief marker to another player when you steal, you are effectively granting them permission to return the favor later in the game. So even though attacks are targeted and don’t affect all players equally, they feel less contentious than they might be otherwise. Caravan is highly interactive, possibly cutthroat, but even with the thieving, it doesn’t feel mean or spiteful.
So I don’t mind the thief action all that much. What may be more of a sticking point is that while games of Caravan are quick and fun and provide opportunities for clever play, the game still feels a little like an abstract. Despite the fitting thematic ties, in practice it still feels like a tactical game of move and response, and despite the plodding of camels across the desert, as you’re playing, the cubes are just cubes, and the cities are just colors that match the cubes. I liken Caravan to Azul, which, as I wrote in my review of that game, is good but isn’t likely to produce the kind of memories that will go down in your gaming annals as the gambit that came off as you wanted or the spectacular defeat that is retold each game night. In fact, Azul is a great comparison here: both games are quick, simple, and full of great interaction; they’re easy to teach and therefore easy to share; they both look great on the table. But neither of them is likely to be the centerpiece of a game night. That being said, Caravan is a consistently solid game that provides a great experience each time it comes out, and it’s simple enough that you should be able to introduce it to just about anyone. So while it might not be the stuff memories are made of, there’s a place for a game that is consistently interesting for a wide range of audiences.
In recent years, the components section of a Rio Grande game review is where I would say, in effect, “The components aren’t great, but the game is still good.” With Caravan, thankfully, there is a return to classic Euro game standards. I’m not sure what the reason is–whether it’s the addition of a new production manager or a return to printing games in Germany–but there’s not a lot to fault with the production here. Granted, if you like garish colors or busy artwork or lots of miniatures, you won’t find them in this box. (My bias is showing.) But the included components are several steps above “serviceable” and are, better still, thoughtful.
The most important place you will see this thoughtfulness is in the wooden camels. You might think, Haven’t we seen all the possible designs for Euro game camels already? But the camels in Caravan are new and very functional for this game. It’s easy to see when they are carrying a good because the goods cubes fit right between their humps. You can even fit stolen contraband goods under their feet–a necessary distinction in the game. The camels are also the right size for the large game board.
And the game board isn’t busy but still has fun, doodly illustrations in the background, and the colors and spaces are clear. I did mistake the pink city for the purple city in my first game, but that was my fault–had I been paying closer attention, there’s a clear distinction in the colors. The player boards probably aren’t necessary, but they give players a handy reference of which actions are available (although these are second nature after a few turns) and also a useful place to store their goods and demand markers to get a sense of which players are in the lead. Caravan looks good on the table, and while it doesn’t have the over-the-top bling that is common in the age of Kickstarter, it does have rich gameplay–it’s the kind of game you can play again and again because the interaction between players is strong. And, again, it looks like the Euro games of yore, not a bad thing in my book. Even the camel sticking out its neck to be the R in “Caravan” on the cover has a certain charm that has grown on me.
Caravan is an attractive game, both in its presentation and in its gameplay. It feels at home next to lightly themed Euro abstracts like Through the Desert, Azul, and Splendor and isn’t diminished by the comparison. If you like short, simple, tight, interactive, and clever games of tactics and opportunism, and you don’t mind those traits manifested in a pick-up-and-deliver package, Caravan will be right in your wheelhouse. It’s right in mine.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Rio Grande Games for providing us with a copy of Caravan for review.