The Cardboard Hoard: Initial Thoughts on Camp Pinetop
As recently as Origins 2019, publisher Talon Strikes was promoting its upcoming small-box game Scouts, themed around troops of cute anthropomorphic animal campers racing to get their merit badges. However, due to the word “scout” being trademarked by the Boy Scouts of America -- along with the term “merit badge” -- the publisher was forced to pivot and change the game’s name to Camp Pinetop. Similarly, badges became patches, and now everyone involved in the project can sleep at night knowing the upcoming Kickstarter won’t be sabotaged by BSA trademark lawyers.
As for the game itself, it’s managed to earn a bit of recognition last weekend by winning the BostonFIG Tabletop Showcase award for Best Family Game. I recently had a chance to play it with Talon Strikes developer Eric Alvarado, who showed me a prototype copy of the game.
The final version will be a bit different than the prototype I played, but the components we used were perfectly functional and featured finished artwork. That artwork -- done by the Camp Pinetop designer Stephen Davies -- is reminiscent of the Wes Anderson film Fantastic Mr. Fox, and perfectly fits the wholesome, family-friendly theme of the game.
The game board is made up of twelve location cards, each with three sets of iconography that describe which badges you can earn at that location, what the cost is for those patches, and finally, the cost for placing campers from your reserve to that location. My only graphic design complaint is that I wish the icons were a bit larger and more easily distinguished, so they can be easily recognized from across the table.
Each player gets four meeples, which represent their troop’s campers, and cubes to denote when they’ve earned bonuses. I’m told that custom meeples for the campers will be a stretch goal for the Kickstarter campaign. There were also a bunch of cards in the game -- supply cards, bonus cards, and cards that represented the patches that campers earned. However, in the final version, the patch cards will not be cards, but will instead be cardboard tokens which will be applied to a redesigned player board that resembles a sash, to help with the game's thematic immersion.
All of this, including an extra booklet with a "Letters Home from Camp” solo story mode featuring eight scenarios, will fit in a small rectangular box. There will also be a nature expansion add-on for an additional few dollars as part of Kickstarter campaign.
Camp Pinetop’s gameplay is a mix of set collecting the supply cards, which come in four different colors, and spatial movement on the location cards. The supply cards, which are spent to earn badges, are acquired through a card row offering similar to Ticket to Ride. The twist in Camp Pinetop is that the deck sits in between two face-up cards on each side, and players are only allowed to draw from one side of the deck on any turn. That is unless they have the Resourcefulness badge, which allows them to break that rule. Which leads me to...
One of the most fun aspects of the game is that the patches you earn either give you a powerful one-time bonus or a special power that allows you to break one of the game’s rules for the rest of the game, accelerating your momentum and the arc of the game. This acceleration is particularly important because the win condition is a race to be the first player to reach the fifth level, Badger. Once someone reaches Badger, which requires acquiring certain combinations of ten different patches, the game immediately ends.
Moving your campers to different locations and spending the required supply cards is how you earn patches. Each card is associated with one of the three patch levels. Possum Point, for example, is one location where the four easiest patches can be earned. The direction you enter the location cards matter, as each direction allows you to earn a different patch. Of course, many of the patches’ game-breaking abilities allow you to manipulate the campers, as well as the board, to mitigate this limitation later in the game.
There is also a small area influence aspect, in that players will have to pay you a card in order to earn a badge in a location occupied by one of your campers. This is not much of an issue at the beginning of the game, when each player only has one camper, but becomes more of a factor as more campers are added to the board.
I’ve only played Camp Pinetop once, so I certainly cannot speak to its replayability -- although there will be an expansion available at launch to increase variability -- but my first impression is quite positive. I love how well the wholesome, nostalgic theme plays to its intended audience, and how smoothly it integrates with the game’s mechanisms.
I think Camp Pinetop's strengths will allow it to overcome its last-minute rebrand, as well as an exceedingly crowded Kickstarter market. Its off-beat theme and inviting artwork, combined with its simple-to-grasp but satisfying gameplay -- which creates an interesting blend of spatial puzzle and tense race -- is the perfect combination to create a sleeper hit for its creators.
Talon Strikes always impresses me with how much they are able to fit in their game boxes, and the amount Camp Pinetop squeezes into its small footprint is no exception. With a price point is only $20, this game is a no-brainer for the family-friendly gaming crowd.