Camel Up is not a new game. In fact, by today’s fast-moving standards, this 2014 title is practically a crossword-solving, duck-feeding octogenarian of a game. Now, however, four years since its original publication, publisher Plan B has picked the game up and given what should only be called the “True Plan B Treatment.” Since acquiring Eggertspiele Games, Plan B has put out a string of medium-to-heavy-weight games (both originals and reprints) under the brand in absolutely stunning fashion—commissioning new art, adding new elements of gameplay, and dialing the overall quality of production up to eleven if not higher. While the new edition of Camel Up definitely falls on the lighter end of their games, it has received no less care and attention.
What Is Camel Up?
Retailing for $39.99, Camel Up is a 3-8 player game of camel racing in the desert, although unlike most other racing games you might be familiar with, in this one you won’t be controlling a single camel or, in fact, even have much sway over which camels do well or poorly. It plays in a brisk 30 minutes and, despite your relative lack of agency, is one of the most captivating games I played in the latter half of 2018.
What’s in the Box?
This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time that I wax effusive about the work Plan B has done in remastering this game. Do you remember how it felt the first time you loaded up a Blu-ray on a high-def TV compared to your old DVDs on the box TV growing up? That’s roughly how it feels to pry the sturdy, textured lid off of Camel Up and see the wonders inside. The items found within include:
- 20 Betting tickets
- 5 Pyramid tickets
- 80 Egyptian currency tokens (in 1s and 5s)
- 40 Finish cards
- 8 Spectator tiles
- 8 Partnership cards
- 5 Racing camels
- 5 Racing
- 2 Crazy camels
- 1 Crazy die
- 1 Starting player marker
- 1 Dice pyramid
- 1 Game board
There’s so much sparkle and joy in this box that I don’t know where to start, so instead let me mention two specific things before moving on to the actual play of the game. First, as pictured below, is the pop-up palm tree that unfurls itself in spectacular fashion as you unfold the board. It’s an utterly superfluous adornment that still instantly makes you feel more immersed in the game while never drawing any undue attention away from the heart of Camel Up. And second is the wonderful plastic pyramid which forms a dice tower of sorts. All the dice can be loaded into the top, shaken, and then when a lever is pushed on the side a single die is emitted from the base of the pyramid onto the table.
Like the savvy tabletop veterans that they are, the publishers of this new edition of Camel Up have ensured that you’ll be itching to play the game before you even know anything about it.
How to Play Camel Up
So, let’s address the elephant—er, camel—in the room. Camel Up is a racing game in which players don’t do any of the actual racing. This isn’t a bad thing (in fact, I find it quite refreshing) but I mention it merely to dispel any notion that this is some Formula D-esque epic of speeding your camel through the desert faster than your opponents.
Instead, Camel Up is a madcap game of betting on the outcome of the afore-mentioned camel races.
First, place the board on the table and take a moment to admire the palm tree. When you’ve had your fill, you’ll want to do the following:
- Stack the betting tickets by color with the highest values on top of the lower values.
- Place the 5 pyramid tickets on the board.
- Give each player 3 coins.
- Give each player 5 finish cards for their character (1 in the color of each camel) and their matching spectator tile.
- Roll the 5 colored dice and place the camels in starting positions based on the numbers (1-3) rolled.
- In turn, roll the crazy die twice, each time placing the crazy camels accordingly, but inverse to the regular camels (these camels face and race backward).
- Reload all the dice into the pyramid, choose a starting player, and you’re ready to play.
Taking a Turn
At the heart of the game is trying to determine which camel is going to win the race and then betting accordingly. Unlike most reputable racetracks, though, here you can place your bets anytime before the first nose crosses the finish line. Your turn itself presents you with four simple options, of which you will choose one.
- Take a betting ticket: Select the top betting ticket from any of the available stacks on the board. The higher tickets are worth more, so the earlier you bet the more winnings you stand to gain if the chosen camel does lead the pack at the end of this leg of the race. But wait too long and someone else will swoop in and grab the most valuable tickets. Even a second place finish pays out a little, but if the camel finishes out of the top two then you will lose money. You can grab as many betting tickets as you want and there will be multiple legs of the race, and between each, the tickets are counted, paid out, and returned to the stacks.
- Place your spectator tile: Perhaps the oddest addition from the original game, the spectator tiles have two sides: cheering and booing. They can only be placed in empty spaces on the track and cannot be within one space of another spectator tile. (If yours is already on the board, you can take this action to pick it up and place it again.). Whenever a camel lands on that tile, it moves either one space forward or backward depending on which side is facing up (cheering/booing respectively) and the owner of that tile receives one coin.
- Take a pyramid ticket: Each pyramid ticket is worth one coin and allows you to pop a die out of the pyramid and move the corresponding camel however many spaces the die shows (the dice go from 1 to 3). Note: when the fifth pyramid ticket is taken, that leg of the race ends, meaning that not every camel will move every round since there are, including the crazy die, six dice in the pyramid. After each die is rolled, it is placed to the side on the board for the rest of the leg.
- Bet on final race results: Place one of your prediction cards (you have one for each camel) on the board, face-down, in the “Winner” or “Loser” spot. These bets are for the overall winners and losers of the race. Correct guesses pay out in descending value based on who placed their bets earlier, while incorrect guesses result in a penalty to your points (coins).
You probably have a pretty good idea how the game is played just by reading through your turn options. Each “leg” continues until all the pyramid tickets are gone, then players score their betting tickets, take coins for their pyramid tickets, take their spectator tiles off the board, and re-set the dice for the next round. The game officially ends when the first of the five colored camels rounds the board and reaches the finish line. I say “colored camels” because there are a couple of wrinkles I haven’t touched on yet, but now’s as good a time as any.
Crazy Camels and Stacking!
Two things make Camel Up such a screwball comedy of a game. One relies on the other, so let’s start with stacking.
It may surprise you to learn that the camels in this game are some of the most acrobatic in the world. Unsatisfied with merely “occupying” the same space as another camel, these beasts will always stack with their fellow racers if they end up on the same space. So a red camel moving into a space occupied by a green one will land on top of that green camel, remaining there until such a time as the red camel moves again. Yes, you read that correctly, even if the green camel moves next, they will actually carry the red camel with them. (For scoring purposes, the camel on top of the stack is always considered farther ahead than those below… just like in real life.)
And, mind you, there’s not stack limit on camels. Under the right circumstances, you can wind up with all six camels piled on top of each other like an Egyptian Barnum and Bailey act. So, while you’re furiously trying to calculate the odds that any given camel will finish ahead of another, here they come hopping on top of each other and throwing your calculations to the wind. They’re not ruined, per se, but it adds another aspect to consider and leads to a lot of moments where, after thinking yourself into a corner, you find yourself just going with your first gut instinct. Which, really, makes it feel a lot like actually betting on a race.
Now, the second element that adds to the insanity is the crazy camels, which I mentioned earlier. There is a black and a white one, both running around the track in the opposite direction to the actual racers. Neither of these can actually win the race, but they can and will destroy everything you ever counted on. Because, in keeping with the stacking rules above, these two jokers can sweep right through your race carrying your beloved front-runner to the back of the pack in an instant. And, if you don’t get the die you want soon, they could be carried even farther back!
End of the Game
As mentioned above, the game plays in “legs” until the first racing camel crosses the finish line, at which point the game immediately ends and players score for the leg and then add in final bets to the score before determining the winner.
Is Camel Up as Good as It Is Pretty?
There’s something you should know about me, and that’s that I hate luck. I hate chance. I hate games that can pivot on the roll of a die or shuffle of a deck. I prefer my games with as much personal agency as possible, allowing me to study and improve and control as much of my destiny as possible. And, much to my surprise, I feel like Camel Up falls well inside that category.
While you have almost no control over the camels running the race, that is just fine because your fate isn’t tied to any one of them. To quote Terminator 2, there’s “no fate but what we make.” At the end of the day, Camel Up is a push your luck game. If you pull the trigger and bet too early, you stand to have your plans shattered. If you wait until you have nearly-complete information then another, bolder player will have already snatched up the betting tickets you want or laid their finisher cards down ahead of you.
Camel Up isn’t a game of being certain, it’s a game of playing hunches, listening to your gut, and being just-certain-enough. And you don’t have to beat the game, you just have to beat the other players, who are all on the exact same shaky footing as you are, which is what makes this game so much more a joy to play than many other games that force you to make decisions only to destroy them with a dice roll.
It is worth noting that the additions to the original game are hit-or-miss. When they affect the game, they become a fascinating sub-plot to an already twist-filled drama. Other times, however, your spectator tile will go untouched and the crazy camels will pass through the race without effecting anything, and in those instances, the mechanics feel like a sad, fiddly waste of time. They aren’t, but I would have liked to have seen a little more modification to the game to integrate them more into its framework instead of adding them on the way they were in such a way that they sometimes feel like afterthoughts.
That said, I do love their potential, and when they come into play and all pistons of the game are firing it is not only hilarious but also a delightful puzzle and you consider which dice remain in the pyramid, what the odds are for each camel, and whether or not you should place a bet for yourself or roll a die, potentially making an easier decision for whatever player goes next.
Overall, if any of what I said above sounds appealing to you, then this is a nice a version of it as you’re bound to see. Now I can’t wait to see what Plan B reprints next!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.