In modern tabletop gaming there are two ways in which people usually judge games – the mechanics and the themes. Some games will have solid mechanics, but lack on the theme; others could be fantastically thematic yet really lightweight on the actual gameplay. Quite often, designers strike the perfect balance, and they are usually the most lauded games.
Naturally, certain themes and mechanics come with a preconception providing an idea of what the game will be like. When word broke of designer Stefan Bogen new game that featured a theme of camel racing with wagering and dice rolling mechanics, no one paid much attention. It was pretty underwhelming, a rather bland theme and mechanics that are completely focussed on luck.
Yet this uninspiring idea would do the absolute unthinkable and go on to win the coveted Spiel des Jahres in 2014, leaving many critics and game enthusiasts dumbstruck. And two years on, Camel Up (published by Pegasus Spiele) still polarises the board gaming community.
The Spiel des Jahres is the German Game of the Year that has been awarded every year since 1978 and is widely regarded as the principle award on offer for board games. Games are evaluated in four areas; game concept; rule structure; layout; and design. Previous winners include behemoths of modern gaming such as Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Alhambra, El Grande, Dominion and 7 Wonders; all of which are built on complex mechanics and rich themes. For many, Camel Up joining the iconic games is sacrilege, with many deriding it as similar to a throw away comedy film winning the Best Film Oscar.
But is that fair?
Camel Up is essentially a game of camels racing round a desert where up to eight players gamble on who will win and lose, with the end objective being to have more money than anyone else. It is beyond simple to learn and can be played in 20 minutes.
The first thing you will notice upon opening up the game box is the level of quality; the components are fantastic, great bang for your buck considering it’s readily available under £25. The wooden camels, money, player cards, betting tiles and dice are all excellent quality and the board is superbly illustrated. However, top trumping the lot is the self-assembly pyramid that is used for dice rolling – it’s ingenious!
In setting up, each player selects a character and takes their corresponding bet tokens and desert tile along with three coins – with the rest being set to the side as “the bank”. The five dice are rolled one at a time, placing the corresponding coloured camel on the numbered space directed by the die. If two camels are to be placed on the same square, they stack – something that is a key factor of the game. The leg betting and pyramid tiles are placed on their corresponding squares and all the dice are dropped into the pyramid.
Play starts with the youngest player who has a choice of four options; take a pyramid tile and roll a dice from the pyramid, moving the appropriate camel the number of spaces indicated; take a leg betting tile; bet on the overall loser or winner of the race; or place a desert tile on the track in a place of your choice, either side up. After doing one thing, play passes to the left. The leg finishes when the final camel dice is rolled from the pyramid. At this point, cashing-in is carried out with coins being awarded for the leg bets and a single coin being awarded for each pyramid tile a player has. All tiles are returned and the first player token passes to the left and the cycle repeats with a new leg. The game ends as soon as any camel crosses the finish line, at which point leg scoring is done before the final race betting.
The genius of Camel Up is the fact the camels stack and that adds a wonderful element to the game. Whichever camel is top of the stack is in front, and should a camel below them on the stack move, it carries all on top with it. The end result is a frantic back-and-forth race when the randomness of the dice rolls could see the cast-adrift loser end up at the front very swiftly.
The Super Cup expansion followed a year later and it adds four mini modules to the game, as well pushing the player limit to ten. Module one is an extended track and extra dice, allowing for two camel movements per leg. The second is the photographer module that rewards players for predicting the movement of camels. Module number three expands the race betting allowing bets to be placed on all positions, while the fourth brings in betting partnerships for games with more than six players.
Hardly deep strategic thinking, but Camel Up is an immense amount of fun. As the race progresses you feel yourself caught up in the excitement. It manages to capture the thrill of being at the races, and it is genuinely good fun with genuine moments of hilarity. Very much accessible, it will appeal to non-gamers of all ages.
But is it Spiel de Jahres worthy?
Well, when you consider some of the titles released in 2014 then it’s hard to see why this entirely luck based gambling game got the nod. Titles such as Splendor, Dead of Winter, Fiver Tribes, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Istanbul, Sheriff of Nottingham Spyfall, Roll for the Galaxy and Imperial Settlers are all stellar games from that year, possibly more worthy of the best game gong.
However, in the interest of objectivity, if we look at the criteria again:
- Game Concept (originality, playability, game value) – No doubt Camel Up is original, very replayable and provides good value for money. So ticks all the boxes.
- Rule Structure (composition, clearness, comprehensibility) – The rules are great, simple, clear, effective. A total newcomer to board games could digest the four pages and be up and running in no time at all. So again, yes.
- Layout (box, board, rules) – As mentioned, the components are exceptional, so again yes, it is worthy.
- Design (functionality, workmanship) – There is no denying it is a cleverly crafted game. The mechanics may be very luck focussed, but they work together fluidly. The stacking camels are particularly ingenious, as is the dice pyramid. So, yes it ticks all these boxes as well.
So for me, when you break it down, it is a worthy winner on the strength of the criteria. Probably wouldn’t have been my choice, but it’s still a game I really enjoy having in my collection, a game that finds its way onto the table regularly. And I’ve found that the people I introduce it to who are less familiar with modern gaming seem to enjoy it more, making it a fantastic gateway game. For me, this game is accessible to the point that is could cross into the mainstream.
It has also been superbly translated to the mobile platform, with a very good app available on all platforms. While for me it doesn’t recreate the hilarity and interaction of the tabletop game, its a good way to try the game before you buy or keep on playing if you are a huge Camel Up fan.
Putting the award winning controversy debate to one side for a minute, if you are looking for an easy-to-learn, quick-to-play engaging gambling game that will make you laugh, then Camel Up is perfect. It is perfect for parties or after dinner games. It does play better with more players and is genuine fun.
Simple fact is this is a very good game that has now drawn a much more critical eye on it because it had the audacity to win Spiel des Jahres. That should be applauded! And sure, we have opinions on what we believe should have won, but there are those who have taken their opinion to a level of disrespect and belittles the achievement of Stefan Bogen.
It is also a lesson on how we should never make assumptions on games. Cause sometimes a game with a mechanic you don’t like and a theme that doesn’t inspire you might just prove to be a little bit special.
I’m happy to list Camel Up as another Tabletop Tales recommendation.
Kickstarter Campaign of the Week
OK, for this week’s KCotW I’m drawing your attention to 5 Minute Dungeon. While the claims of “the most fun you can have in five minutes” is rather bold, presumptuous and yet to be put to the test, I’m beyond curious at a game that is designed specifically to play in as little as five minutes. It is a beautiful looking race against the clock co-op card based dungeon crawler. It’s a frantic free for all where players collectively play cards from their hands to fend off the many monsters of the dungeon; it looks like a fun little warm-up game suitable for multiple audiences.
Around 4500 backers have raised $200,000 CAD already green lighting the game and pushing us into stretch goal territory with another 16 days left to run. Pledged start at $25 CAD (about £15). Check out their pledge manager page for more details.
NEXT WEEK: I take a will be taking a look at a Star Wars game that is much more than what it seems.