Full disclosure: A review copy of Summer Camp was provided by Buffalo Games.
Well, it’s basically the end of the summer, now, so might as well reminisce about the bygone days of summer stuff and play games that are summer-themed before we get to the autumn. Summer Camp seems like the right move? Deckbuilder. Summer. Merit Badges. All things I like. Actually, being honest, I don’t love the summer. Probably my least favorite season? It’s too hot in California. Oh well. Let’s dive in and see what Buffalo Games has to offer in this deckbuilder.
In Summer Camp, you’ve decided to go away for the week and try to earn a few merit badges. This is a pretty good camp, so they’ve got stuff on rotating offer. Outdoors, Water Sports, Cooking, Friendship, Games; every badge an up-and-coming whatever scouting-type thing you are could need. Does 4H do badges? FBLA? Let’s say yes, for the purposes of this write-up? Your other scouts aren’t going to make it easy, though, so you’ll need to advance on the tracks quickly if you want to be the Best Camper, which is something everyone wants. Do you have what it takes to make this a summer to remember?
First, set up the lake board:
Shuffle the nine path boards and place them in a 3×3 grid below the lake board:
Place the Participation and Camp All-Star Badges on the spaces on the lake board, depending on your player count:
Pick three of the seven available activities, next!
They each come with their own cards:
And their own merit badges!
Place a set of merit badges for each activity on the right side of the board, at the end of a path. The chosen path doesn’t matter, but each activity should exclusively belong to one path. The merit badges should be stacked from highest-value to lowest-value, based on player count:
- Two players: 10 / 6
- Three players: 10 / 8 / 6
- Four players: 12 / 10 / 8 / 6
Each activity has a “Move 1 Space” card, give each player one of those:
The remaining cards should be shuffled (separately, based on activity) and placed in a face-down draw pile to the left of the path corresponding to that activity’s merit badge. Then, reveal two cards and place them face-up beside the draw pile. Take the base cards’s Lights Out!, Smores, Scavenger Hunt, and Free Time cards:
Give each player 7 Lights Out! cards, removing the rest from the game. Set the Free Time, Scavenger Hunt, and Smores cards to the right of each set of Merit Badges to form the full display. Give each player a player board:
And a Snack Bar token:
And you should be about ready to start! Place your campers on the starting spaces indicated by your player count:
And shuffle your starting deck, drawing a certain number of cards based on your player order:
- Start player: Draw 3 cards.
- Second player: Draw 4 cards.
- Third player: Draw 5 cards.
- Fourth player: Draw 6 cards.
These are starting hands — after the first turn, all players will have hands of 5 cards moving forward. You should be ready to start!
Over the course of Summer Camp, you’ll do activities, gain merit badges, and potentially make some amazing friends along the way! Or points. Points might be good.
On your turn, you can play cards or buy cards. That’s essentially all you do!
Generally speaking, you can play a card to either perform an action if it has one or to gain 1 Energy. You can spend energy to buy cards; more on that later.
If a card moves you on a path, move to the right that many spaces on the indicated path. Any number of player tokens can occupy the same space, but if you ever land on a space with a bonus icon, you can gain that benefit immediately. These benefits are either drawing a card, gaining a snack bar token, or moving any of your pawns one space forward on their path. If that pawn lands on a bonus space, they get to use that bonus as well.
If you reach the end of a pathway, you gain the topmost merit badge! You can place that on your player board. Similarly, if all three of your player tokens cross the first bridge or the second bridge, you gain the topmost Participation Badge or Camp All-Star Badge (respectively). If there aren’t anymore, then, well, you don’t get them. Bummer.
Any time during your turn, you may buy a face-up card from the display and add it to your discard pile. You can buy any number of cards, provided you have the energy to do so. The cost of the card is on the bottom-left. If you don’t have enough energy from discarding cards, you may spend a snack bar token to gain 1 Energy. You can hold a maximum of 6.
End of Turn
At the end of your turn, discard all remaining cards in your hand, as well as any cards you’ve played. Then, draw 5 cards from your deck. If you run out of cards in your deck, shuffle your discard pile and treat that as a new deck. Then, check to see if you’ve earned any merit badges (and gain them if you have).
End of Game
Once any player has collected all three merit badges, play until all players have had an equal number of turns. Then, the game ends! Players score points equal to the total of a few things:
- Total points from merit badges
- Total points from cards in deck and discard pile
- Points from player tokens that didn’t make the final bridge: They score 0 – 5 points depending on what space they’re on.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
The major differences are going to be that as player counts increase, specialization becomes more important. The challenge is that at four players, there will be at least one player who does not come in first for any merit badge. And that makes the Participation and Camp All-Star badges so much more important, in my opinion. They’re missable, now, in that the last player across all three bridges just straight-up doesn’t get anything. Rough times. Higher player counts may also help fix some of the market-stalling you might see at lower player counts. Everyone’s buying something, usually, so there should be a decent amount of churn. If the market stalls poorly, however, then you might see the game drag on even longer, as there will be fewer Free Time and Smores cards per player (since it’s being split among four rather than between two). While I enjoy the tension at four, I’m probably most likely to play Summer Camp at two and three players. I like having a bit finer-grained control over the market progression, and while I enjoy the racing element, having to manage where four people are is more hectic than I’m usually looking for at this weight.
- You’re going to potentially want to avoid buying certain market cards if you’re worried that you’ll end up revealing a more beneficial one to your opponent. This is unfortunately how the market stalls out, though: multiple people don’t buy cards so that their opponent won’t get a lucky flip. This is why I don’t love random markets. But that is strategically sound; there’s no reason for you to buy a not-great card, and no guarantee the card that gets flipped next won’t be better. If that’s the case, maybe hold off and see if your opponent gets it instead.
- Sometimes it’s worth trying to save up to get a big 8-energy card early. If you can get it while your deck is still pretty small, you’ll be moving at a rapid pace along whatever path you end up picking, which is nice. Even getting it later in the game can be good, if you have other cards to help you manage the deck. They’re just big movement cards, so getting them and integrating them into your strategy can be useful.
- You need to try and move along the paths at a decent (but equal) pace if you want the bonus badges. Especially at four, the Participation and Camp All-Star badges are things you’re going to have to work for
- Certain cards are likely must-buys. There are some extremely good sifting cards, cards that let you pull from your discard pile, and cards that let you draw extra cards without any caveats. If these pop up when you’re looking at the Display, pick them up quickly! They likely won’t stick around that long, otherwise. There are a variety of strategies in this game in terms of how you focus, but a lot of these cards are generally helpful across multiple different types of strategies.
- Scavenger Hunt can be a great card, especially as your deck gets more dense. Yeah, if you can’t get your hands on the Bird Watching card, Scavenger Hunt is a decent substitute. It lets you discard up to three cards and then draw the same number, which is a nice way to get rid of the Lights Out cards you start with and an even better way to get rid of cards that become less useful as the game progresses.
- While I am mindful of the Tortoise and the Hare, crossing the finish line when you’re way ahead may not necessarily be worth it. Once you cross the finish line (especially at lower player counts), a bit of the tension of “who will get the merit badge first?” is gone, which means your opponents may start using those cards for other things. You want them to keep wasting time chasing after you before you slip across the finish, since it’ll be a worse use of their cards and their turns. Otherwise, they can just go after you on the other two tracks that you might have neglected. Just make sure you don’t wait so long that they sneak in front of you!
- Getting and hoarding Snack Bars can be pretty clutch. They’re basically just delayed money, so hoarding a few (fewer than six, of course) will allow you to make up the difference on big purchases without sacrificing cards that you’d otherwise want to play. And here, that’s pretty key! It can be hard to get to 8 Energy without a few Snack Bars, so you’ll need them to make sure the market doesn’t stall out.
- Hitting various bonus spaces on the track can be pretty important, too. The three bonus spaces give you extra cards, extra steps, or extra Snack Bars, and hitting them as often as you can is really important to potentially helping you chain together a big play. Skipping over them can be useful if you’re having a big turn, but more often than not it’s better to try and jump from one to another for the extra bonuses, even if you move a bit slower.
- Towards the end of the game, just buying cards for the points is a legitimate strategy. Most cards are worth some VP if they’re in your deck at the end of the game, so just buy some, if you can afford them. It might be the difference in score that you need.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I love this theme. It’s just really fun? Upbeat, pleasant, expandable, and I like all of those things. Having each module be its own merit badge is a nice way to tie it all together, and it works! Different camps offer different merit badges, so that all makes sense. It would have been a fun bit of flavor to name some camps after recommended combinations, but, oh well.
- I love that the game has merit badges! Reminds me of my summers at Scout Camp. I just really like it when games have explicit badges. I loved it in Trails, also. I think it’s that a lot of my childhood was hard-wired to “getting badge good”, so, now we’re back at it again.
- Modular deckbuilders are excellent. I particularly like this one in that it seems to be significantly simpler than my next closest comparison, the Dale of Merchants series. While Dale of Merchants is a fairly lightweight deckbuilder, it mostly focuses around mechanics for its modularity, where this incorporates more concepts into its modules. It has the benefit of making them feel distinct, and deckbuilders are a fairly crowded arena, as-is, so that distinction can be critical.
- I think where this game succeeds is a very similar place to Dale of Merchants, in that making the progression explicit (moving campers along a path) helps new players understand how far along in the game they are in a way that “add VP cards to your deck” doesn’t necessarily accomplish. One place that I found newcomers struggling with, say, Dominion, is that the VP cards in their deck as a catch-up mechanism and a progression tactic often can be confusing. I can’t necessarily tell that this Colony is a different Colony than the last one I saw, so I may not have a good sense of which cards are where. Notably, the apps fix this by just telling you how many VP you have at any given time. Here, while it may not be clear who is in the overall lead, moving down a track is a very explicit sense of progression that can help new players see what they need to do next. Are they falling behind on the Outdoors track? Then they need to move up.
- The art style is quite pleasant. It reminds me of some sort of travel brochure? Not sure. I like the lack of outline on the shapes and I love the color scheme. It’s very pleasant and warm and inviting, and I think Adam Grason did excellent work on this one.
- The paths being modular (a 3×3 grid that can be randomized) is a subtle but brilliant add. I wouldn’t necessarily say it adds “replayability” (a loaded word), but I appreciate that it forces players to think every time about what cards they’re playing and how they want to progress along the path. Having each path be the same per game would be okay, but having them be completely 3×3 modular is a nice little shake-up that is interesting! I wouldn’t necessarily say it overrules the “play your highest-value movement card as often as you can” idea, but it does force you to think about ordering and when you want to use certain benefits.
- I was pleasantly surprised that there’s a Friendship badge and it’s all about doing nice things for other players that also benefit you. I just really like friendship. Like, as a concept.
- Hoping that we’ll see more merit badges. Given the modularity of this, I could imagine some variants that add new types of cards, new path tiles, and generally new effects without messing too much with what I like about this game, which is its core simplicity.
- I appreciate the catch-up mechanic of “completing a merit badge means all of the ‘advance X spaces’ cards of that type become useless trash”. It’s an interesting one, for sure; I hadn’t thought too much about it before I played, but I like that if you can’t trash cards, highly-situational cards become inherently less useful. The circle of life, or something.
- As with most random markets, you can get a lucky or unlucky flip that can be a bit frustrating. We had thought that some synergies didn’t work together because the market stalled out and we couldn’t get additional energy or snack bars, but it turns out most sets have some method for collecting those. We just didn’t see them come up because they were all buried at the bottom of the random market, which was kind of a bummer. Even when you ARE able to buy the cards you want, you risk revealing a card that can be super helpful for your opponent and having no way to remove it from the market before they can swoop it up. This is part of my Larger Irritation About Random Markets, where there can be incredibly beneficial card flops (and similarly unlucky ones), but that’s probably something I can save for an Ascension review, if that ever happens.
- While I think eschewing cards that allow you to trash other cards is wise for an introductory deckbuilder, your deck will inevitably get pretty significantly bloated over the course of the game, which both can be annoying and also rewards players buying cards that allow them to sift. Getting those early-game Scavenger Hunts can be critical, both for getting around the many Lights Out cards you start with and also for eventually sifting through those cards that can no longer be used since you’ve already got the merit badge. It can just be frustrating that there’s no way to remove those cards from your deck permanently, as someone who enjoys keeping a tight deck in deckbuilders. I suppose that they can’t allow trashing in an introductory deckbuilder since that would mean that players could trash their only ways to make progress on tracks, which could potentially lead to a bad time. Still, it’s a bit vexing, and I’d love to see a Conservation Merit Badge that adds recycling and trashing, in the future.
- The market can stall out with certain configurations, which can really slow the game down. It happened to us, the dreaded six 8s. All of our market cards were 8s and none of us really had the deck setups required to get to 8 Energy without some form of Scavenger Hunt miracle (we were about halfway through the game). No cards gave us more than 2 Energy and we had no cards that gave us Snack Bars, either. It was pretty rough, and that slowdown was frustrating. I think for most random market games there needs to be some way to empty a row in the market when it’s becoming too much of a problem, at some cost, and that would have been ideal for Summer Camp. Without it, we were just stuck.
- The card quality is pretty low, which is concerning for a deckbuilder. The cards are extremely flimsy, which I worry about. You’d hope that the cards used can stand up to multiple consecutive shuffles, but I’m always worried that I’m going to accidentally tear one of these apart. Yeah, for a game where you’re handling a lot of cards pretty much constantly, I’m surprised the cards themselves are so weak, but I imagine that it was likely a cost-saving measure.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think Summer Camp is pretty great! It’s a very good introductory deckbuilder, with a great theme and solid art that evokes a simpler time where I learned archery and saw several spiders as big as my fist. I hated that part, but thankfully they added no Spiders merit badges to the final game, here. Summer Camp does a good job of presenting progression to players via the path boards, so that everyone in the game has a pretty good sense of where they are and where they need to be. That’s good! Other deckbuilders can struggle on this front, at times. This isn’t to say that Summer Camp doesn’t have its own issues. My general frustration with randomized markets definitely rears its head, here; we had an entire game slow to a crawl because no player could afford to buy any of the 8 Energy cards, which meant that nobody could buy anything. If you’re going to have a randomized market, you need to also have a way to clear it out once players have gotten stuck. It adds some unwanted complexity to the game, but, it can be critical if players are refusing to pull low-value cards or they can’t afford high-cost cards. On the subject of cards, the cards also feel pretty cheap, which worries me. Deckbuilders, as a genre, are absolutely punishing on cards. I’ve already accidentally bent the cards a little bit just over the course of play, so I’m hoping the core cards can survive the multiple shuffles that are going to be required with folks playing this game a bunch. Additionally, while I understand trashing as a mechanic is fairly complicated and maybe a bit out of the introductory game’s scope, having no way to remove useless cards from your deck means that in every game your deck always gets bloated, making cards you buy later in the game less likely to show up. I’d love to see more from Summer Camp, though, because I think that it’s starting in a good place and can eventually become excellent, with some additional content. If you’re looking for a great introductory deckbuilder, you just want to reminisce about your youth, or you’re just here for something that’s thematically similar to Trails or Parks, I think Summer Camp might be right up your alley! I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to play it.
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