camel(s) of the day 23-12-2019

We’re coming to you today, or at least our featured dromedaries are, from Doha…

The fort in the background is Al Koot, also simply known as Doha Fort.  The photographer, Diego Delso, has a pretty spectacular site of CC-BY-SA licensed images (like this one) here.  Sadly, however, he doesn’t seem to look closer at either camels or the history of the area where this photo was taken.  The first omission is obviously a shame for us camel-lovers, whilst the second is a shame from the point of view of The Great Camel Race game.

I mentioned this game here back in late November.  But you deserve a little more info than I gave you back then.

The Great Camel Race - The Historical Setting

The game takes place, roughly, through the year CE 1908.  It is set in Arabia and the lands (and seas and oceans) surrounding it.

It is built on an elaborate – but plausible – historical counterfactual.  This is that the Sharif of Mecca has come to believe in the idea of an Arab nation, and seeks to raise the banner of rebellion against all the imperial powers at the conclusion of the next Hajj.  He has sent messages to his most promising and trusted warriors, merchants and generals (etc etc) that their forces will be tested in competition (the titular “race”) roughly a year hence, once they have presented themselves for inspection before him in Mecca.

The game structure that results, if played in full, is a complex two-phase game that’s designed to be played across a long night or a weekend.  It portrays what anthropologists might label a “thick description” of the Arab world(s) at the time, or what literary types might call magical realism – or at least as close to that as will be readily playable for people without prior historical or linguistic knowledge. We’ve avoided strict historical accuracy or blatant pedagogy, but real historical figures and events do feature, and there’s plenty to intrigue and provoke players into learning more.

The Board

… will look a lot like this, though there’s been a few minor modifications since this version was made.  Since you ask, each side’s around 22 inches.  That’s 56 centimetres, for those of you in the less “Imperial” parts of the world.

The Pieces

The camel pieces – each of which can represent any number of camels travelling together, along with their luggage and their associated humans – look like this:

Each player can have up to three camel pieces on the board at any one time. Players also have one boat piece. 

nb. We’ve not yet designed / sourced the boat pieces – so if you can recommend a supplier who makes beautiful and hardwearing model ships of the right size (around 3/4 in, 1.5 cm or the size of a 1p piece) and era, give us a shout.

The Cards

If The Great Camel Race has a particular claim to originality (and I’m not 100% sure it does, btw) it’s that it’s been designed to share with more abstract board games such as chess, draughts, Go and Kensington the qualities of openness and absolute rule consistency.  Unlike these pure board games though, it achieves this with the use of cards. 

The possibilities open to each player are entirely dependent upon the cards they hold, and all players can see each others’ cards at all times.

Sadly for our puritan mindset, we couldn’t work out how to make this principle stick in its entirety.  So the exception to the rule of openness is in upcoming cards – whilst all cards are always face up, it is possible to draw more than one new card from the new deck in a turn.  It’s also possible, as a reward for some succesful actions, to look down into the pack and see what cards are approaching.

Cards are used to represent camels, people, boat captains and resources.  For today, we’ll just look at a basic version of one of the camel cards.  These are what determine the attributes of the camel pieces – what they can carry, and how far.


Let’s look at the symbols along the top, from left to right:

Dromedary or Bactrian?

As you can see, this camel’s got just one hump.  You’ll know by now that means it’s a dromedary. As you probably also remember, dromedaries are quicker – which is why all our elite racing camels are dromedaries.

Resource carrying capacity

This camel can carry one lightweight resource along with its rider.  A bag of pearls from Doha, perhaps, if it were one of the camels pictured at the top?


Our elite racing camel can move four spaces in a turn – assuming that she or he is not slowed down by any other camels (or people) they’re travelling with.

It's a race, but speed isn't everything

Each turn in the first phase (the bit we’ve been looking at) represents one month.  Players are aiming to fulfil as many missions as possible in order to collect the right camels, resources, captains and people to win in the second phase of the game – and then get them all to Mecca (or Jiddah) by the end of the year.  Or, conversely, to judiciously use theft, murder, religion, diplomacy, medicine, magic, seduction and railways to achieve that in less purely speed-based ways.

We’ll look another time soon at how some of these things work.  And we’ll see then just how the sleeping pearling town of Doha, in our game as in life, can become the setting of mighty human – and camelid – drama.