iPad users got a pleasant surprise in late September when a new app version of the Spiel des Jahres-winning family game Camel Up (which I reviewed here) last year) appeared with little or no advance warning. The app, available for iOS and Android devices, implements the game simply and elegantly but is very light on instructions, and I’m not sure I understand what the highest-level AI opponents are trying to do.
Camel Up is a very light betting game where two to eight players place small and large bets on the outcome of a race involving five camels moving around a sixteen-space track one to three spaces at a time. The race itself is divided into “legs,” which last until each of the five camels has moved by the roll of each of the five dice associated with the camels. Players place bets on the outcome of the current leg (first place) or of the race as a whole (first or last place), and a player can put special tiles on the track to advance camels by a space or force them to retreat by one, earning an extra coin for each time a camel lands on his/her tile.
The app takes the graphics directly from the game and benefits from bright, clear presentation that makes it immediately clear what’s going on in almost all cases. (The one exception is when a player uses his/her turn to bet on the results of the entire race, which could be much clearer.) There is no tutorial, however, and the instructions in the app are much shorter than those that come with the physical game, so if you have never played it before, you would have no way of knowing what those special player tiles do, or that players can bet on more than one camel to win the race, or what the payouts and penalties are for correct or incorrect bets. You have to know the rules already to get anything from the app.
Then there are the AI players, which, cranked up to the top “pro” setting, seem to become not smarter but more risk-loving, placing bets earlier in each leg, which not only is a low-probability move but also gives other players the chance to try to monkey with the results by placing a tile on the track. The mid-level AI player is very predictable—it places those special tiles all over the track, even on places where the probability of any camel landing on the tile in that particular leg is effectively nil. Of course, you can still lose to these AI players because there is so much randomness involved in the game, but I think they could be made “smarter” without a lot of additional effort.
The scoring at the end of the game is very clear, while the scoring at the end of each leg is opaque; in the latter, scores just change without any chance for an explanation, while in the former, you have the option to go through the two piles of bets on the overall winner and loser and see how many points each player won (8 for the first person to get the winner/loser right, then 5, 3, 2, and 1 for the rest) or if a player lost a point for an incorrect bet. Experienced players don’t need that elaboration on the leg scoring but new players would likely benefit from it.
The app is attractive and stable, necessary qualities for a successful boardgame app, but it feels like those may have been the primary focus for the developers at a cost of relatively simple fixes like adding a tutorial, expanding the instructions, or enhancing the AI’s capabilities. Right now Camel Up is a pass-and-play app for me, but compared to other boardgame apps with stronger AI players, this one just doesn’t get over the hump.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.