The Amazing (Camel) Race: A Camel Up Review
3-8 Players, 30 Minutes, Low Complexity, Low Strategy, Ages 8+.
Disclaimer: Not distributed by Outset Media
Some games are battles of intellectual prowess. Cerebral competitions where every move is calculated, and the shrewdest strategist is victorious. Camel Up is not one of these games. Camel Up is a game where you bet tiny plastic coins on tiny plastic camels that are racing around a tiny plastic pyramid. And honestly? I couldn’t be more excited to recommend it to you. Stick with me here, this is a weird one.
The presentation is phenomenal- it’s enough on its own to draw in most players.
Camel Up has a simple premise. On the surface, it’s a game about a camel race, but players don’t actually participate in the race at all- they compete to make the most money off the race. Players spend their turn taking one of a variety of actions, which basically amount to different kinds of bets. You can bet which camel will win or lose the race, or which camel will be in the lead at the end of the leg, when the camels have finished moving for the turn. All these bets pay off more if you make them earlier, and you can lose coins if you’re wrong. It’s easier to make these bets if you wait, but if you wait too long, someone else will scoop them up, so every turn presents interesting risk-reward scenarios.
To be honest, the gambling aspects of the game are fine, they work, but they’re really there to facilitate the race itself, which is undeniably the main attraction. The most important action players can take is to roll a dice and move a camel- which is done by picking up the plastic pyramid in the middle of the racetrack and pushing a button. The pyramid is filled with different coloured dice that correspond to different coloured camels- if the red die drops, the red camel moves, etc. Each die only has the numbers one through three on it, so camels can’t move very far on their own, but they can still cover some serious distance when they need to. This is a whacky camel race, and camels can’t just land in the same space, they land on top of each other. They stack up, and when a camel moves, it carries all the camels on its back with it. The camel on top is considered to be in the lead, which means that depending on which order the dice come out of the pyramid, a last place camel can easily catapult forward into the lead, sometimes covering half the racetrack in a single leg. These sort of underdog upsets are made all the more likely by the black and white camels, which aren’t part of the race but are still running the course- in reverse. They can carry camels backwards along the track, and they will absolutely mess up all your plans. You get a single coin when you roll a die, which makes it easy money compared to other bets, but you give up something very important when you do- information. Every other player will get to act again before your next turn, which can be devastating if your die roll turns out to be a game changer. All the good bets will be taken before it makes it back to your turn!
A colourful cast of competitive characters have shown up for the race
Sometimes, everything plays out as you expect and you have a very normal, somewhat tedious game of Camel Up- but more often, incredible, impossible things will happen. Camels will rocket across the board, and you’ll watch in horror as sure bets crumble away into lost coins. These upsets are made all the more likely by the final player action, a double-sided token that can be placed on the board to either cheer on camels that land there, moving them an extra space, or boo the camels that land there one space backwards. This gives players a tiny bit of control over the race. It keeps slow camels competitive and stops fast camels from running away with it, but it also introduces a host of new variables. Not only do you get an extra coin for every camel that lands on the token, but since these tokens only go on empty spaces and they can’t go next to each other, there’s not a lot of places to put them. With the cramped racetrack, this almost invariably leads to camels piling up into huge stacks- which leads to camels carrying each other, which leads to more chaos, unpredictability, and fun.
Blue is probably a safe bet, so long as it moves before the white camel carries it backwards. But if yellow moves before red, and blue or green get a three- well then last place red could easily take this round. The probability is intuitive, but it’s enough to make your head spin.
It is hard to have a conversation about Camel Up without talking about its table presence. Some games command a table, they invite players, make them curious, and draw them in. Camel Up is one of those games. The components are top-notch. I believe the camels are made of rubber- they have a nice weight to them that makes them perfect for stacking, and there’s something electric about picking up the pyramid to roll a die and having every player at the table go silent, lean in, and hold their breath in anticipation. Plastic coins are never my favourite, but the heaps of “Egyptian Pounds” included in the game are among the nicest I’ve seen. Every player gets special cards so they can place bets on the overall winner or loser in secret, and there are stacks of cardboard tokens you can grab to place bets on which camel will lead at the end of the round- with the more valuable bets on top of the stack. Having different components for each kind of bet makes them easy to distinguish and makes the game easier to teach. The board is beautiful, with clear sections for everyone and a delightful little cardboard palm tree unfolding in the middle of the board like a pop-up book.
It bears repeating- this game has table presence. It easily commands a room.
Camel Up can be a tough sell on the surface, it can come across as somewhat juvenile compared to the high-minded strategic puzzles present in other games, but never in my life have I heard a table full of grown men yell so passionately about tiny pieces of plastic. It is the perfect game for so many occasions because it’s surprisingly versatile- it only takes half-an-hour to play (although you might want to plan for rematches) and it can play up to eight players with only minor rule adjustments. It’s ridiculously silly and surprisingly competitive, but it’s also just plain fun while being simple enough for kids and complex enough for adults. This is one of my favourite games ever, and if you’re looking for a quick casual game with a high player count, I don’t think you could do any better.
Disclaimer: Not distributed by Outset Media