Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Spiel winner Camel Up is deeper than it looks

There was a lot of noise when the 2014 Spiel des Jahres awards were handed out. The Spiel are the German Game of the Year awards and are generally considered the most prestigious award in the board game industry. There are three different categories in this competition. The Speil des Jahres: game of the year. The Kennerspiel des Jahres: heavy/complex game of the year and the Kinderspiel des Jahres: kids game of the year.

So what was with all the noise last year? Well a very silly looking game called Camel  Up from Steffen Bogen won the Spiel des Jahres. Not the Kinderspiel but the main Speil award. People were rather upset because Camel Up looks like a simple roll and move kids game. I have to admit even I dismissed it at first.

I first got to try Camel Up at our 2014 Extra-Life event and boy was I wrong in my first impression. Camel Up is a perfect example of making sure you don't judge a game by it's cover (and components). 

Camel Up is still a pretty quick, filler style, game, but there's a lot more depth there than you would initially think. It's a betting game for up to 8 players who are betting on the overall winner, overall loser and who will be in the lead each leg of the race. What makes the game great is the way the camels work. If they end up on the same space they stack. If a camel in a stack moves all of the camels on top of it move with it. 

How to play Camel Up:

Set up for Camel Up is pretty quick. Each player picks a colour and grabs a set of cards in their colour. There is one card for each of the 6 camel colours. They also grab a desert/oasis tile and 3 coins.

The board is put in the middle of the table. Dice, one in each of the 6 camel colours are placed in the neat pyramid bit. This pyramid is one of the neat things about the game. Besides looking kind of cool, it's used to make sure that you only get one die at a time. To get a die you shake the pyramid, turn it upside down and press a slider on one side of the pyramid that opens up a hole on the top. One die should drop out and you lift the pyramid to see what you rolled. Each die has 1-3 on it with an equal chance of each. You roll each camel's die to figure out their starting position. If a camel rolls a number where there is already a camel, it goes on top of that first camel.

Once all of the camels have been placed all the dice go back into the pyramid and you are ready to start the game proper. Each turn a player chooses between 3 actions. Move a camel, place an oasis/desert or place a bet. After the player's action if all camels have moved you score the leg. At any time if a camel passes the finish line the race ends.

Moving camels: The player moving the camel takes a move card (it reminds them that they will get 1 coin at the end of the leg) and they roll a die from the pyramid. They then move the appropriate camel forward as many spaces as shown on the die. Now the cool part: if there are any camels stacked on top of the camel moving, they move with it.

Placing a desert/oasis: Each player has one of these tiles. They can place it on an open spot on the board that is not next to an already placed tile. When placing the tile the player decides if it should be desert or oasis side up. Once a tile is in play, any time a camel lands on it the owner of the tile gets 1 coin. In addition the camel(s) that land there either move forward one more square if the tile is oasis side up or go back one square if the tile is desert side up. For camels moving backwards, they end up at the bottom of the camel stack if there are already camels on the space they get moved back to (we screwed this rule up the first 10 or so times we played the game)

Placing a bet: there are three types of bets players can make during their turn. They can bet on the winner or looser of the overall race and they can bet on the lead camel in each leg of the race.

To bet on the overall race a player puts one of their camel cards face down on the appropriate spot on the board. At the end of the game these piles are flipped over and scored in FIFO order. Coins are rewarded for players who get it right with the most coins (8) going to the first player to get the bet correct and less points rewarded for each correct bet after that. Incorrect bets cost the player 1 coin. 

When betting on the individual leg of the race players are picking the camel that they think will be in first place at the end of the round. They do this by taking tiles that are on the game board. For each camel there are tiles worth 5, 3, and 2 coins. The first player to bet on a camel takes the 5, the next the 3, etc. At the end of each leg these all score. All that matters in this case is the camel in 1st and 2nd. 1st place pays the amount on the betting tile and 2nd pays 1 coin. Any wrong bets cost their players 1 coin.

After all camels have moved once, it's the end of a leg. All leg bets are scored as described above and everyone who moved a camel gets 1 coin from the supply. All of the dice are returned to the pyramid and all betting tiles are returned to the board. Then a new leg starts.

The game ends as soon as any camel moves over the finish line. The final leg is scored as normal and then end of gaming scoring happens. The pile of bets for overall winner and looser are gone through and coins are awarded as appropriate. Once  this is done the player with the most money wins.

I really dig Camel Up

I have to admit that looking at this game I wasn't really interested. It looks like a simple roll and move kids game and I had to be talked into playing it for the first time. Once I did finally play it I bought a copy that same night. Camel Up is a great game with a lot more going on than it looks like.

Sure the components look a bit bright and kiddy, but they are really nice. Wooden camels, nice art, everything is very easy to read and see at a glance. Now that I've played I can't think of a way I would want to change the look of the game.

What really makes this game though is the way the stacking camels affects the game. The fact that each camel will only move once and you know it will move either one, two or three spaces means that you can predict the odds of what will happen every turn. Players playing desert/oasis tiles mess with these odds in fun ways. The way the camels move also usually means that no camel is out of the race. We've played games where a camel is 7 spaces behind the leader and ends up winning the race just because of the order the dice came out and the number rolled. 

It's not often you find a good game that plays up to 8 players. This, combined with the striking look of the game, makes it great for public play events. I can't think of the last time Camel Up was brought out at a WGR event and it didn't gather some onlookers.

One last thing that makes this a winner for me is the fact that there's no reading required. This makes Camel Up great for kids. Kids seem to really love the theme and even young kids pick up on the basic strategy of the game quickly.

It's not often I recommend a game this strongly, but I can't think of many people who aren't going to enjoy a game of Camel Up now and then. Even heavy Euro players need a break now and then or something to play while waiting for the other players to show up. I suggest everyone give this game a try at least once. It's much deeper and more fun than it first appears.

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