Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Game With Dromedaries

Camel Up is a clever little game from designer Steffen Bogen that combines mechanics loosely flavored around racing and wagering. It's one of the rare games that really takes the 20-30 minutes it says on the box, and one of the still rarer games that offers satisfying strategy in that brief a time.

The game board is a short race track on which five camel meeples of different colors start. They're hefty components, and designed in a way that whenever two or more are on the same space of the track together, they stack up in a "tower" (with the color on top considered to be ahead). There's one six-sided die to go with each camel, with the faces only numbered from 1-3; these are hidden away in another clever component, a fold up cardboard pyramid with a release mechanism in the top to let out just one die at a time. Whenever a die is rolled, you don't know ahead of time which color it will be, and which camel will move. In addition, if any camels are stacked on top of the color that's rolled, all those camels get a "free move" too, riding along in a stack together.

On your turn, you take one of four actions. First, you can roll a die from the pyramid, claiming 1 point for yourself. Once that die leaves the pyramid, it remains out for the rest of the "round," meaning each camel will get to move at least once.

Second, you may place a token on an empty space of the race track. Each player has one and can only place it once per round, "oasis" side up or "mirage" side up. Once placed, any camel (stack) that lands there is instead pushed forward or backward one space on the race track. (You also score points if you catch any camels this way.)

Third, you can make a short term wager on which camel you think will be leading the pack at the time the current round ends. Each color can only be bid on three times in a round -- the first person to do so gets 5 points if their chosen color is in first at the end of the round, the second 3, and the third 2. Anyone who wagered on the camel that winds up in second at the end of the round gets 1 point. Anyone who mistakenly wagers on a camel any lower than that loses 1 point.

Finally, you may make a long term wager for the end of the game, on which camel you think will finish first and which you think will finish last. Each player has one card for each of the five colors, and makes this end game wager by placing it face down on either the "first" or "last" stack. When each stack of cards is flipped over at the end of the game, you lose 1 point for each incorrect bet, but gain points if you were right. (More points come your way the earlier you are to bet correctly.)

It's a quite straightforward set of rules; while you might better understand them better seeing the pieces and playing a turn or two, I think there's no nuance I've left out of the above description. But from those simple rules arise all the classic moments of a good Eurogame. You have to hedge against a touch of randomness... but it's a constrained randomness with a reasonably limited array of outcomes you can actually process. You have to navigate the decisions of wanting to do multiple things in a limited amount of time. You have to respond to the pressure of opponents who will do the things you wanted to do before you get the chance.

It's rather impressive what Steffen Bogen has fit in a tight little design here. It's not necessarily going to be the "main dish" at a gaming night, but it makes for an excellent side course. I give it a B+.

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