In honor of opening day at Saratoga Race Course I wanted to talk about horse racing games. But I have a confession to make; I have never played a horse racing game. I realize this is a gap in my board gaming ways, and I intend to correct it before this year’s track season is over. However, there is a game I adore that captures all of the unpredictability of horse racing but with twice the sand and infinitely more pyramids. That game is Camel Up, 2014’s Spiel des Jahres winner.
It won for good reason. Camel Up takes the format of other racing games and throws it out the window. Instead of each player controlling a single camel and vying independently to win the race, the game focuses on the more fun part of a day at the track, the betting. Each camel is represented by a corresponding colored die with either a one, two or three on each side. When a die is rolled that colored camel moves that many spaces. Simple, right? Except there are two twists that make all the difference.
For one thing, you don’t just roll the dice as in other games, instead, all the dice are placed in a cardboard pyramid at the beginning of each round or leg, of the race. The pyramid has special door on top so that when it is placed upside down it only releases a single die onto the table.This is brilliant because an extra layer of unpredictability to each die roll. Not only do players not know what number will be rolled, but no one can predict which die will be rolled.
The second thing is the stacking of the camels. Unlike a lovely day at Saratoga, with horses running side by side, these camels stack on top of each other. And once multiple camels are on top of each other, if the bottom camel moves, the others get a free ride. This means that despite the fact that each camel can only move 1-3 spaces each round, predicting where any camel will end up after all the stacking and free rides is a difficult feat.
With these two elements, the stage is set to focus on the gambling. Players can take bets on any camel for any given round, predicting which camel will be in first after all the dice have been rolled. The earlier you take a bet, the more that bet is worth, but because of the many unknowns, it’s much more risky to bet on a leg early. Any bets where the camel was in 3rd or worst place lose money, but the loss is minimal to encourage some freewheeling silliness. However, multiple bad bets in a round won’t get you ahead of the other players.
Players can also play one of their 5 cards, one for each camel to bet on the overall race loser, and overall winner. This is a much more long term bet, but if you are the first player to guess right on either, there is a big reward. And to add just a bit more chaos to the mix, players can also place hazardous sand traps, and boosting oasis tiles on the track each round, to tweak the odds in their favor, and earn a few bucks each time any camels land on these tiles.
This all comes together to make for a fantastic half hour of hilarity and fun. This is certainly not a deep strategy game to ponder, and there is certainly a large dose of luck, but just like the track, when you put a lot of faith in one camel pulling ahead, and that investment pays off, it’s a blast. And when things go completely sideways, it can be just as fun, as you never quite know what’s around the bend, and what die is coming out of the pyramid.
One recommendation if you do seek this title out, is to make sure to name the camels. You’d be surprised how the narratives write themselves, and you start to think that Mossy Humps, the green camel, really is cursed to end up in last every time. Or who knows, out of your box, and under a different name, that camel could be a guaranteed winner.