Are you looking for a game that’s so easy to explain, you can play it with both your grandparents and children? Would you be interested in a game light enough that you can play as a warm-up to a six-hour session of Game of Thrones: The Board Game? Are you the kind of person who gets excited at the thought of camels mounted on top of one another? Er, don’t answer the last one!
But where are the jockeys?
Camel Up, also known as Camel (C)up by dirty communists and pun-abusers, is a game about the underappreciated sport of camel racing. You play one of several vaguely orientalist gambling enthusiasts looking to make a small fortune by guessing which camel will emerge triumphant and which will come tottering in last and be sold to a leather merchant.
The game is bright, colourful and cartoonish, perfect for catching the eye of a visiting nephew or niece. The art design of the components is wonderfully goofy – this is clearly Egypt by way of Looney Tunes.
The star of the show is the pyramid dice roller. You’ll have to put it together yourself and it can occasionally be finicky releasing a die, but it’s always fun when it comes time to roll for a camel’s movement. There’s also a childish glee to stacking camel meeples on top of each other, whatever your age. Come on – you know you do the same thing with your Agricola livestock.
It’s not inside, it’s on top
At the start of the race, five camels are placed randomly within a couple of spaces of each other. Each camel’s movement is represented by a different-coloured die, which you roll using a pyramid-shaped dice roller. Players use dice rolls to move camels along the track. Along the way, you can set oasis or mirage tiles that can help or hamper camels’ progress.
Each race takes place over several legs. During each leg, you will have a variety of options to choose from. You can bet on either the leg winner or go big and bet on the overall winner or loser. The more spot-on your wagers are, the more Egyptian Pounds you get to rake in. At the end of the game, the player with the most cash wins.
Sounds simple enough, right? There are a couple of tweaks on the game that turns it from a simple roll-and-move luck game to a cruel lesson in probability and the tenuous nature of ‘sure bets’. The first is that the dice only have 0, 1 and 2 faces, which means camels are generally within a roll or two of catching one another. The other is the camel stacking mechanism.
See, when a camel ends up on the same square as another one, it leaps on top of it like an overzealous cat. And the topmost camel is always considered in the lead. At first, this seems like a neat visual touch and a disturbing interpretation of the idea of a camel train. As you play, you realise it has the potential to throw a predictable game into chaos.
Take what happened in a recent game of mine. Orange Camel was coming in dead last for most of the race, an obvious choice for overall loser. That is, until a fluke of timing, oasis tiles and dice rolls caused allowed him to land on the frontrunner’s square and piggyback his way to a glorious come-from-behind victory. It was exciting and implausible, but felt completely organic to the game.
Getting over the humps
Camel Up works because it strikes a balance between being predictable enough to allow for rational gameplay and unpredictable enough that you the dice can turn your carefully considered strategy on its head in a second. Yes, it’s a swingy luck-based game. But because the luck revolves around the neutral camels themselves, there’s no real sense of unfairness.
The game rewards on-the-fly adaptability and good timing. The skill of the game rests in reading the race to understand when to push your luck and when to play it safe. In the words of Kenny Rogers, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.
There’s nothing too complex here – strategy comes down to playing the odds and knowing when to trust your instincts. More serious gamers who love challenging games and hate randomness would do well to bet on a different race. But if you don’t mind throwing your fate into the hands of whomever the Egyptian god of luck was (Google says Bes. Thanks, Google!), Camel Up is a great choice for a 20-minute dose of gambling fun.
Camel Up won last year’s Spiel des Jahres (German for “where does my money keep going?”) and for good reason. It’s a lightweight, well-designed racing game with just enough strategy to make it interesting. It’s perfect for family games nights or those times when you just don’t have it in you to handle a rules-heavy brain-bender.