Camel Up won the 2014 Spiel des Jahres. I don't really follow the SdJ closely now, since I am not their target audience, but being a boardgame hobbyist means I can't avoid knowing it, since this is such an important award. If I get a chance to try an SdJ game, I am usually willing to play, out of curiosity to see what the fuss is all about. So I tried Camel Up when I visited Meeples Cafe earlier this year.
You are punters at a camel race. Your objective is to win the most money from betting on camels. The game lasts one race, i.e. the camels completing one circuit around the pyramid. The race is broken down into legs, each leg being every camel having moved once. You can bet on the outcome of each leg - which camel will be leading at the end of the leg, and you can bet on the overall result too - which camel will win and which will come last. You make money by betting on the right camels, but you can also lose money for betting wrong.
In addition to making bets, another action you can do on your turn is to place or move an oasis. Everyone gets a double-sided oasis tile at the start of the game. When placed on the race track, these can affect the movements of the camels. A camel which enters an oasis space moves an extra step. However if instead of placing the oasis with the normal side up, you decide to place it with the mirage side up, then a camel which lands on the mirage must move backwards one step.
The last type of action you can take is to move a camel. You don't get to decide which one to move. You shake the pyramid and release a die from it. The colour and the value of the die (range is 1 to 3) decides which camel moves, and how far it moves. The die is then set aside, and only returns to the pyramid at the end of the current leg.
What is special about the camel movement is that they can ride atop one another. When a camel lands on the same space as another, it climbs atop the waiting camel. If a camel carrying other camels moves, it carries all these other camels with it, i.e. giving them a free move. Moreover, when camels are stacked, the one on top is considered being furthest ahead. Due to this mechanism, the outcome of the race and of each leg can be quite unpredictable.
To bet on the leading camel for a particular leg, you need to claim a betting tile like this one. The tiles are limited so you need to grab them before others claim them all. This tile in the photo means you are betting that the green camel will be the leading camel at the end of the leg. If you are right, you win $5. If the green camel comes second, you still win $1. Otherwise, you lose $1.
The dice belonging to the camels which have moved in the current leg are placed here to remind you that these camels will no longer move in the current leg. At a glance you can tell that the remaining dice in the pyramid are blue and white.
Playing Camel Up is all about knowing the right time to place your bets. You need to be constantly evaluating which camel will be leading at the end of the current leg, which will likely win the overall race, and which will likely come last. Whenever you feel confident enough, you'll want to place your bet immediately, because the earlier you bet (and bet right), the higher the reward. You need to balance between waiting for enough information to help you gauge your chances, and deciding early enough to be able to win the biggest prizes. There is a penalty when you bet wrong, but usually you have to take some risk. Often you can't afford to wait till you are 100% sure. In fact sometimes you cannot be 100% sure. Due to how the movement works, sometimes the sequence of the dice appearing and their numbers can combine to yield very unexpected results.
Taking the "move camel" action is probably the poorest choice, so much so that there is a $1 compensation for anyone who takes it. When you move a camel, you are giving more information to the next player. Everyone else will have a chance to act on this additional information before your turn comes around again.
The children tended to choose the camel movement action more than Michelle and I. They didn't realise the danger of doing that. They were less alert about the opportunities to place bets, and often we had to remind them. Maybe they just enjoyed shaking the pyramid and dropping a die. Also they might have been seeing the game more as a race game than a gambling game. This game is a gambling game, just that it is gambling on a race. It's all about assessing risk and reward.
Orange and Yellow were too far behind and had no chance of winning. White, Green and Blue all stood a chance to win. I don't remember whether at this point the white die had been drawn. Let's assume it had, which means all three leading camels had to wait for the next leg before they could move again. In the next leg, if the first die to be drawn was the white one, White would win because it would cross the finish line. If the blue die was drawn first, and the value was a 2 or a 3, then Green would win, because Blue would be carrying Green when it crossed the finish line, and Green being on top meant it was considered to be ahead of Blue. If Green moved one step first, getting off Blue's back and climbing atop White instead, and then Blue moved 2 or 3 steps, then Blue would be the champion.
Camel Up works very well as a family game. It is not complex. The components are very attractive. There's some strategy, but also a healthy dose of luck. Parents won't feel bored when playing it with their children, because there is some strategy in the betting and in placing oases. Yet they won't always win because sometimes the dice surprise you. Camel Up works well as a party game too.