Still Better than Camp Mill Hollow
Where do you wanna go?
Hey Mom, I wanna go,
Gee Mom, I wanna go,
to Mill Hollow.
With a hundred other kids crammed into a semicircle on our elementary school stage, I belted out that song. I blasted my lungs out, eyes damp and smile earnest but hopeful. It was basically a fundraiser dressed up as a play, the weight of parental guilt over their children’s dreams pinned on paying the fee that would let their kids spend three days and two nights at a camp in the High Uintas Wilderness.
Many of us boarded that bus to Camp Mill Hollow. And I’m living proof that at least some of us returned.
Since I can’t speak about my experiences at Camp Mill Hollow without collapsing the mental dam I’ve spent years painstakingly erecting, I’ll talk about Camp Grizzly instead.
If nothing else, this is a game that understands the oft-unintentional hilarity that underlies so many slasher films. It isn’t based on the ones that actually scare people. Instead, it’s set within one of those gems that make you shout advice to the characters on the screen, the very same sexually adventurous and astoundingly foolish (“Let’s split up!”) youths who invariably wrestle free of their underpants for a bout of giggle-giggle even though there’s a man with a hook hand on the loose. Or in Camp Grizzly’s case, a man with a bear fetish and the same idea about how to use a hand cultivator that your parents had disavowed you of by the age of eight.
It’s a simple game, using a familiar move-then-draw formula. As you search for the items that will permit your escape — gas cans, car batteries, keys — each character runs between cabins as the bear-faced Otis stalks after them. Occasionally, the best move is to risk one of the camp’s many nature trails, a prospect that’s just as likely to deposit your hapless camp counselor in the woods as it is to lead them to their intended destination. The twist is that your movement is based on how injured you are, so while you can trot along like a normal person at first, by the time you’ve had a few cultivator tines embedded in your kidney, it gets a little tougher to run from place to place. Get injured enough and your survival instinct really kicks in, letting you move quickly again.
And really, the whole game is packed to the gills with fun little ideas like that. Most of them appear when you draw Cabin cards. Some of these represent opportunities, whether finding a baseball bat or handy rotary phone to let you fight back, a kid camper you have to drag around (though some of the kids are helpfully plucky), plot twists like finding a body stuffed in the outhouse or having Otis turn out the lights. You can find a camera to blind Otis during a fight, a bear trap to lay in his path. Or maybe he’ll just jump out and maul you.
Okay, two quick examples of things I love about Camp Grizzly.
First up, it understands that you can’t have a slasher film without some foolin’ around. On occasion, the scent of the spring air will arouse a pair of counselors’ baser instincts. Maybe they’ll be in the mood for some skinny dipping. If they’re going to die anyway, why not? At that point, the Foolin’ Around card will move them to the appropriate location (the swimming area, in this case), and then they’re forced to TEMPT FATE by drawing a few times from the Cabin deck and praying they don’t draw one of those ghastly Otis Strikes! cards.
Often, nothing happens when you TEMPT FATE. Other times, Otis shows up to deal out puritanical retribution. And if you were skinny dipping, it’s just too bad that you left all your weapons on the shore.
Then again, it’s also possible that you were lucky enough to draw the Virgin card. In this case, Otis is much less interested in turning your esophagus into violin strings, and you gain all sorts of benefits that might help you wriggle out of danger at the last second. You’re even resistant to foolin’ around… unless you roll poorly, which makes you — ahem — discard the Virginity.
If you hadn’t sussed it out by now, Camp Grizzly contains enough gore and suggestive material that probably wouldn’t rate as appropriate for the young’uns. Perhaps worse, depending on your disposition, it also contains a whole lot of luck. But more on that in a minute.
Second example. Every so often, you might encounter a “cameo.” These represent the folks who show up in slasher films with the sole purpose of adding a splash of red across the wall. So you’re running around, minding your own business, when suddenly the local Sheriff shows up, and gee golly if he ain’t got an idea how to put an end to this nonsense. Or maybe Old Man Ruthus will appear out of nowhere, shouting, “Doomed! Doomed!” over and over again, then lingering way too long around the girls’ showers.
In one game, we were on the verge of escape. We’d gathered everything we needed to begin the barn finale (keys, gasoline, and rope) and were on the verge of gathering there. Then one of the female counselors gasped in surprise when — gasp again! — her boyfriend Eddie stepped out of the darkness! This might have seemed useful, but turns out that Eddie is a colossal prick. Instead of helping us fight off Otis or get away, he slugged Kevin in the belly, swiped the keys, and escaped through the barn on his own, leaving us completely stranded.
And really, that last example highlights both what works and what’s wrong with Camp Grizzly.
Because it was awesome. At that precise moment, we had a full six counselors working in tandem. Things were going smoothly. We had the items we needed. We had a plan. And then a jock named Eddie came along and ruined everything, just as it happens all the time in real life. In the end, three of us were killed before we finally fought back and defeated Otis in a showdown around the campfire.
But for every game we’ve had like that, we’ve had a game play out a little too smoothly. You can get lost on nature trails and wander through the woods… or you might not. You can find dead bodies and Otis lying in wait when you reach those question-mark tokens… or you might find everything you need to escape very quickly. You can draw cool cards that punch you in the tummy and steal your keys… or you might just find lots of weapons. You can have tense fights as you try to escape Otis… or you might always flub it — or worse, always win.
This extreme element of chance is what makes the game work. Every single turn is loaded with tension, with the fear that Otis is going to leap out of nowhere and bury his hand cultivator in your backside. But for some people, all these slasher references and silly self-referential gags won’t be enough to make Camp Grizzly fun. Doubly so when you begin to wonder how much life the game has when the majority of the Cabin deck can be drawn in a single game.
For what it’s worth, however, I’ve had some very memorable plays of Camp Grizzly, enough so that I find it difficult to feel too negatively about its shortcomings. Close calls, betrayals, abandonment, being rescued at the last minute but then having your acoustic guitar stolen by another player. It’s enough to remind me of all those repressed memories of Camp Mill Hollow. Though perhaps in a good way this time.