The Middle East has an incredible history that has been the inspiration for artists and designers for thousands of years. Take Egypt: I’ve never been there, if fact, the closest I have got is Filey on the Yorkshire coast. Like Egypt, it boasts the most fantastic sands, and a turbulent political climate.*
1930s Egypt is a popular setting with film-makers, perhaps because the deserts and pyramids are an easy shorthand for romance and mystery. Why not piggyback on all that mystique and pitch a board game set in Egypt? Having said that, why piggyback when you can camel-back? Why go for mystique and romance when you can aim for fun?
Camel Cup is published by Pegasus Spiele and plays 2-8 players in 30 minutes
Is it Camel Up, or Camel Cup? The official line is Camel Up, I prefer to call it Camel Cup because there is a race and a camel wins a cup.
Opening up the box, you are going to find 5 nicely coloured wooden camels, dice, cards, tiles, a board and a flat packed pyramid. You’re going to have to build that pyramid yourself and the first page of the rules tells you how. All the card and tile components are a little on the small side. I think that could have been a design decision to keep it playable for 8 on a coffee table.
Set-up is simple, (fortunately the pyramid only needs to be made once), players have betting cards, oasis tiles and a starting pot of Egyptian pounds. On the board the betting tiles are laid out, the pyramid placed and dice are used to resolve the grid positions of the camels. Grid position is, apparently, not as critical in camel racing as Formula 1.
Top tip: avoid both ends of a camel
A game of Camel Cup involves one lap of the pyramid for the five camels. It finishes when a camel passes the winning post. Each lap is split into a number of legs which finish when all five dice/camels have resolved. Winning the game is a matter of having the most money at the end of the race.
Don’t touch the stack, we’ll be right back
The game revolves around the clever mechanic of camel stacking. A camel moves when a player takes the ‘pick a dice’ action on their turn. The pyramid holds all the dice and drops them out one at a time. The colour of the dice matches a camel and it moves the number of spaces indicated on the dice, (between 1 & 3). Here’s the thing: camels stack, and camels carry other camels. If you’re moving a camel at the bottom of a stack all the camels above it move too. Camel racing regulations also state that the camel at the top is in the lead. This can produce some amazing reverses, where the leader finds itself buried under a stack and left in the dust.
It’s an elegant way of injecting unpredictability into the race. Each dice draw makes the end of the leg results more predictable, but even then you will be doing the sort of maths in your head that you normally reserve for splitting the bill on curry night.
So, those actions in full:
- Dice drawing, which gets you a pound for your trouble and moves the camels around the track.
- Placing an oasis/mirage tile. A camel, (and stack), who drops on this moves forwards or back a space and gains you another pound.
- Pick up a betting tile to wager on the result of the first leg. You could win £5 at best, or at worst lose a pound.
- Place a bet on the overall winner or loser of the race. This could net you up to £8 small if you were the first to bet on the winner.
When all the dice have been pulled, that’s the end of the leg. At this point, betting results and dice draw payments are sorted out and a new leg starts with the dice returned to the pyramid. The first camel across the finish line triggers a leg-end and final betting payouts. Money is added up and the winner declared, or not, as ties are not resolved beyond shared glory.
Playing with Three
Playing with three is perfectly fine, but my feeling is that its better with four or five.
How easy is it to teach the game?
The rules are pretty simple: its a case of saying, “These are the actions, this is how the camels work.” and “Why not have a go with the pyramid?” Half-way through the first leg, things will start to make sense to everyone and working out what to do transforms into working out how to win.
Can complexity be scaled?
It’s a family game. I don’t think there is a need to hold back.
Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?
There’s no need to handicap anyone here, the dice do a pretty good job of that anyway.
How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?
It would take a tired and grumpy child to get upset at this one. If they are in that sort of mood, perhaps now is not the best time to be laying out another game.
Beyond the game
I saw a suggestion to play the game with the soundtrack of real camel races from Youtube. Genius!
What do I think?
I picked up Camel Cup in a swap, mainly because I was unsure whether this was a game for me. It turns out that it is a game for me, and those folks in Germany who vote for games of the year were right again.
Playing the game leaves me with a feeling of joy, whatever the result may be. That is a rare trait in a game, and I think I know what it is: it’s the topsy turvy nature of the camel race itself. The dice come out, the camels stack and they confound your expectations. The last becomes first, or all the camels cross the line in a single stack: something will happen. It helps that you aren’t tied to one camel, (because they smell), you can spread your bets and change tack as you see fit.
That doesn’t mean that the game isn’t without fault. Being next up after a dice has been drawn is an advantage, because you are the first to act with new information. If a player likes drawing dice, you could well expect their neighbour to win.
Camel Cup is going to stay in my collection. It’s the perfect game to bring out when relatives come around for tea. A clever successor to the card games of Newmarket and knock-out whist that came out at my grandparents’ houses after the pork pie and trifle remains had been tidied away.
*This may be a slight exaggeration.