The Spiel des Jahres is far and away the most prestigious award in the board gaming world. Whilst there are three categories overall, the real one everyone watches out for is overall game of the year. These tend to be a little bit lighter and more accessible, yet there’s something about them which draws gamer and non-gamer alike together. Codenames, the 2016 winner, is one of my favourite games of all time, and whilst 2015 winner Colt Express doesn’t share the same prestige, I have a lot of praise for that piece of art as well. But we’re not here for either of those today; instead, we’re going back one more year. A year where a silly game about camels racing around in a desert won the award and started an eternal debate amongst gamers; is it Camel Up or Camel Cup? (spoiler, box says it’s Up, but it clearly should be Cup). What do I think of this winner? Is it deserving of its spot? Let’s jump in and find out!
Camel Up is a very component light game, with only some money, some dice, a few nice and thick cardboard cards, various coloured camels….and a PYRAMID DICE ROLLER CONTRAPTION THING! Before the game even begins for the first time, you have to embrace your inner builder and construct this amazing little tool. Everything is more than functional for what it does, and there are no complaints at all with anything function wise. The only functional issues sometimes come from the dice pyramid, but they’re minor and won’t take more than a few seconds to fix.
The art is very family friendly and fun, with caricatured people and camels greeting you on all of the cards. Everything’s nice, bright and colourful, making it a very attractive game to play. And who doesn’t love camels that stack on top of one another? It’s no Animal Upon Animal, but these camels do certainly spend a lot of time bouncing on and off one another, and the grooves in their humps hold the other camels perfectly.
As far as accessibility goes, Camel Up is language independent but not colourblind friendly. A few symbols to differentiate the camels between one another are a bit missed, but the simplistic gameplay has completely removed the need for card text. Got some friends who don’t speak English? No problem (as long as they can see colours!).
+Very family friendly, non-hostile cartoon art. Wide appeal.
+AWESOME DICE PYRAMID THING (seriously, it’s so fun to play with).
+Language independent: play with young kids or non-English speakers without issue.
-Lack of colourblind assistance which could have easily been implemented.
In Camel Up, the players take on the role of various denizens of the desert who have come to watch a camel race (as one does in the desert). Their objective? To have the most money (points) as soon as the first camel crosses the finish line and final payouts are awarded. Throughout the game, players will alternate taking one of four actions, trying to gain the edge on the competition. These are all quite simple and generally all award you money in some way or another (or, if things don’t pan out, they may even cost you!).
The first action you can do, and the primary way the game moves forward, is to move the camels. To do this, you take a pyramid card (effectively one money for you), shake that pyramid up, and reveal a dice. The colour of the dice dictates which camel moves, and the number how many spaces they travel. Simple, right? Well, there’s a bit more than that. You see, these camels like to hop on top of one another, and that leads to all kinds of chaos. When a camel moves, it also carries all camels that are on top of it. If a camel lands in the same space as another, it jumps on top of that, ready to be carried to victory by the poor beast beneath. There have been times where a band of four camels has gone stampeding around the track!
Players may wish to influence how the camels move, however. The second action allows them such minor control by placing either a mirage (bad) or oasis (good) on the board. Should a camel land on that space, they will move either a space backward (for mirages) or forward (for oases) one space. In addition, the player who layed the tile down will also receive a money each time the tile is triggered. There are some minor placement rules with these tiles so as to prevent odd game situations, but they’re simple enough to use yet add a minor control element to the race. Oh, and if camels go backwards and land on the same space as another camel, that camel jumps on top of them! This causes even more unpredictability and crazy outcomes in the race.
Of course, the main way to gain money is to pick a winner. The game is broken down into legs, with each leg consisting of one round of camel movements (that is, each camel moving once). The third action a player can take is to back the winner of the current leg; that is, the camel that will be in lead position once all camels have moved in the round. They do this by taking the highest value tile corresponding to the camel they wish to back. If that camel is the winner, they receive the large payout (5, 3 or 2). If they’re in second, they receive one. However, if the camel is anywhere else, the player must pay a money instead. With only three backing tiles per camel, you need to get in quick, but not too quick or you may be backing a loser.
The final action players can take is to back the overall winner and/or loser. Each player has a hand of cards showing each of the five colours. As an action, the player can place one of those cards face down onto either the winner area or loser area. Like leg backing, backing the overall winner/loser earlier offers a bigger payout, but get it wrong and you lose money. You can, of course, add more cards to each one, but you’ve then guaranteed that you’re losing at least one money with your incorrect guess. Do you risk it early and hope, or play it safe and get a smaller payout? The choice is yours.
Camel Up is a deceptively math-y game; knowing some basic probability will take you a long way and probably lead to you performing a little better than wild betting. That being said, there are many wild things that can happen, and at it’s core, it’s all about balancing playing it safe and risking it all. And boy is it a heap of fun! For such an unassuming little game, picking up that pyramid and seeing what comes out has caused me a lot of stress (the exciting kind, where you find out if you’re a genius and lord of the desert or just throwing your money into the sandy wastes). The game never feels too long or too short, and plays well at all player counts (though I’d say four or five is a sweet spot). And whilst some deeper thought may cause you to do better on average, Camel Up is really anyone’s game, and that’s what’s caused it to be a success with everyone I’ve played with.
+Game is very well balanced; each action you take has positives and negatives, it’s not always an easy choice.
+Turns are quick, and everyone is always involved. Very little downtime.
+Some wild things can happen; rolling the dice is a very tense and exciting moment.
+Good at all player counts, ends at just the right time every time.
You may have already guessed from the no negatives, but Camel Up has been nothing short of a beautiful success story of a game. In the short time I’ve owned it, it’s seen more table time than games I’ve owned for much longer (and caused many more laughs and smiles too!). With a lighthearted theme, simple mechanics, language independence and short play time, Camel Up has everything you want in a filler game and more. For the Aficionado, this is now my go to filler and gateway game, and I think it’s more than worthy of the prestigious award it’s earned. If you haven’t tried this game, I can’t think of many family games I’d recommend more highly at the moment than the silly fun that Camel Up delivers without fail.
The Aficionado LOVES this game.
Does Camel Up sound like a game up your alley? Grab it or any other games mentioned in this article below!