by Demian Katz
Published by Dead Ant Games
Designed by Jason Sinclair Long
Illustrated by Bryce Somerville
111 cards plus rule sheet (1 six-sided die required but not included)
The American card game market has become flooded over the last few years with products that follow a simple formula: combine a humorous concept with a simple but interesting game mechanic, then design cards that interact in various ways to add a little extra excitement. The important thing is that most of the complexity is in the cards, not the rules, and with the right level of humor, the players will be willing to overlook any gameplay flaws which may exist. This is by no means a new formula – Flying Buffalo’s Nuclear War, which has been around since the sixties, fits the model to some extent, as does Mayfair Games’ ever-popular Family Business.
Over the past decade, though, there’s been a dramatic increase in this sort of humorous, simple game. This is probably due to several factors. Since the collectible card game explosion caused by Magic: The Gathering, more game designers have been examining the numerous ways in which game cards can interact. Meanwhile, the success of games like Looney Labs’ Fluxx have proved the viability of stand-alone games built around interesting card interactions. Finally, the ironic, post-modern tone of the Cheapass Games and similar offerings has helped to reveal a brand of gamer humor that adds value to almost any product. Mix all of this together, and you have a good recipe for an introductory product.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, Summer Camp, the debut offering from Dead Ant Games, follows the formula that I have just described. The object of the game is to assemble the coolest cabin at the summer camp; needless to say, most of the game’s jokes revolve around pointing out things that are cool (make-out parties, illicit substances, worm-eating and pranks involving toilet paper) or uncool (asthma inhalers, hamsters, parental concern and, of course, gaming). Clearly, this is not a game designed to instill moral values in our youth – there’s a reason it has a “Keep Out of Reach of Children” warning on the back. While there’s nothing astoundingly offensive on display here, this game happily embraces the sensibilities of R-rated eighties comedies, and anyone put off by this should probably look elsewhere for their entertainment.
The primary “simple-but-interesting” game mechanic on display here is the Campfire. There are several types of cards in the game, but the most important are Character cards, which represent both Campers and Counselors. On each player’s turn, he or she may move one of his or her Character cards into one of the six numbered “seats” around the draw and discard piles which represent the Campfire. The die is then rolled; if the number rolled matches an empty seat, nothing happens; otherwise, the Character indicated by the roll is moved into the Cabin of the player’s choice. Cabins are simply the space on the table where players keep their in-play cards. Players generally want to move cool characters into their own Cabins and uncool characters into the Cabins of their opponents. There is a catch, however – once the first Character card has been moved, the die is rolled again. If a non-empty seat is rolled, the Character sitting there follows the earlier Character into the cabin and the die is rolled again until an empty seat is rolled. This means that, when the Campfire is crowded, there is always a risk that a player will either end up with unwanted uncool Characters or will end up rewarding an opponent when an uncool Character is followed by multiple cool ones. Of course, getting an uncool Character is not the end of the world – it can always be moved out to the Campfire on a subsequent turn in place of playing a new Character from the hand.
While much of the game revolves around moving Character cards to and from the Campfire, there is more to the game than that. In addition to their positive or negative cool values, some Character cards feature a number of Give points. These are added up each turn and can be spent to play Event and Item cards which bring lots of different effects to the game, mostly involving adjusting the coolness of Characters or Cabins, but also performing special actions like moving things around or allowing the draw or discard piles to be searched for particular cards. There are also a very small number of Anarchy cards, which can be played free of charge at any time, even on another player’s turn. These are mostly designed to counter or interrupt an opponent’s action, but some are simply random events which affect scores. None of the Event, Item or Anarchy cards feature groundbreaking gameplay ideas, but they do offer a good range of actions for players to work with, and some of the interactions and requirements (like, for example, the fact that “Eat a Worm” is more valuable when combined with “Liquor”) help to strengthen the game’s theme and sense of humor. In any case, after about twenty to ninety minutes of drawing cards (players keep five-card hands throughout the game), moving Characters around and making strategic use of Events, Items and Anarchy, somebody will manage to meet the game-winning goal of scoring fifteen cool points while having at least three Campers and one Counselor in his or her Cabin.
I expected this game to be fairly humorous, but I didn’t expect the gameplay to be especially interesting; to my surprise, reality turned out to be somewhat the opposite of my expectations here. The gameplay is more interesting than anticipated, but the humor is nothing to write home about (if you’ll forgive the pun). The Campfire mechanic is definitely the star here – while strategy purists could complain that it amounts to a whole lot of randomness, it’s nonetheless an effective core for the game. Players need to work out the odds before deciding which way to move a Camper, and when the seats get crowded, players’ fortunes can fluctuate rapidly. Some of the effectiveness of this mechanism can probably be credited to James Ernest of Cheapass fame, who is acknowledged in the rules for helping out; while the end result isn’t as clever as most of Ernest’s Cheapass designs, it does make the game a bit more memorable than much of the competition. Unfortunately, bringing up Cheapass also leads to a less favorable comparison. Cheapass Games have really set a high standard for humor – in their better offerings, it is impossible to play without laughing a lot, and in some cases, even the box descriptions are hilarious. Summer Camp doesn’t come close to meeting this standard; while a couple cards may inspire a chuckle, most of the humor is pretty predictable and repetitive – campers are horny and like to misbehave, and there’s not much more to it. The artwork, though of acceptable quality, didn’t do much to increase my amusement. Players who had exciting summer camp adventures during their childhood (or watched them on cable TV) might relate to the material a little more than I did, but I doubt it.
This is a middle-of-the-road product, and the price at which it is sold makes it harder to recommend. At $17.95, the game hits a price point common to humorous card games produced by small companies. Unfortunately, this amount is nearly twice as much as the average imported German card game of equivalent size, and it’s considerably more than the cost of most Cheapass products. While the glossy, full-color cards are certainly sturdier than what Cheapass can offer, they don’t compare in quality to most German offerings; economies of scale are clearly at play here. While discussing value for money, it’s worth mentioning that several of the game’s 111 cards are actually score sheets designed for use with a counter of some sort. Score sheets are a good idea, since cabins can get crowded, making scorekeeping rather convoluted. The problem is the number provided -- the game supports up to seven players, but there are only five score sheets; it seems like it shouldn’t have been too hard to include another two lousy cards. At the same time, though, since the score sheets are somewhat confusing to use (mainly because they lack a “zero” spot between the positive and negative numbers), it might have been a better idea to simply to forget about them, encourage pencil-and-paper scorekeeping, and include five more cards to play with instead.
Regardless, while I found the game to be a fun distraction built around an interesting mechanic, I can give it a mid-level recommendation – there are simply better ways to spend the money. However, if you have a particular interest in the theme and don’t mind paying a bit of a premium, you probably won’t be disappointed and should get a few good plays out of the game.