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Subject: Jambo: Fun for Two in the Jungle rss

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Geeky McGeekface
United States
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Best hobby, with the best people in the world. Gaming is the best!
[This review originally appeared on the Gamers Alliance website]

JAMBO (Kosmos/Rio Grande, 2 players, 40 minutes, $20)

Remember that commercial for peanut butter cups that aired a while back? The tag line was something like, “two great tastes in one candy!”. That was the kind of anticipation I felt when Jambo was announced. Not only was the game going to be part of one of my favorite series, Kosmos’ storied “Spiele für Zwei” line, but the designer was Rüdiger Dorn, who’s really been turning my head lately (with games like Traders of Genoa and last year’s brilliant Goa). A combination like that made this a must buy. And I’m happy to say that this pairing worked just as well as expected. In fact, Jambo has been a big hit and is threatening to become one of my all-time favorite two-player games.

It’s easy to say how much I like the game, but it’s a little harder to say what kind of game Jambo is. The base mechanic is trading, but this is all done with the bank, so it’s nothing like the wheeler-dealer trading that goes on in Chinatown, for example. And even though the object is to acquire money, it isn’t anything like classic financial games such as Tycoon or, God help us, Monopoly. No, since the essence of the game is cleverly using card combinations, maybe the closest comparison would be to Magic: The Gathering. There’s no collectable or deck-building aspects, but there is a similar give-and-take interplay between the two players, with a trading mechanic substituting for the attacking.

Ah, it’s just easier to describe the game. “Jambo” means “hello” in Swahili and was the traditional greeting uttered by the merchants who worked at the many Central African marketplaces before the days of colonization. At least, that’s what the rulebook says and I’m sure the good folks at Kosmos would never resort to telling a fib! All this establishes the theme of the game, which is played with a deck of cards and six different kinds of wares. Wares are the items being traded and include things like silk, tea, and salt. There are six cardboard counters provided for each type of ware. Naturally, you need a place to display the wares you have, so each player begins the game with a Large Market Stand card, which has room for six wares. The players also begin with five randomly dealt cards and 20 gold (the unit of currency in the game). The object is to have the most gold at the end of the game.

Players have five Action Points they can spend on each turn. The game uses a nice system to keep track of how many actions remain. Five Action Markers are placed in the center of the table. When a player uses an action, his opponent picks up one of the counters. Thus, the player can easily see how many actions he has remaining during his turn. This system also keeps the non-active player involved during her opponent’s turn, although since the game has little downtime, that isn’t that big an issue.

There are two parts to each player turn: drawing cards and playing cards. During the first part, the player adds a card to his hand. He does so by taking a card from the face down deck (at the cost of an action) and either keeping it, or discarding it and taking another card (which costs another action). He can keep at this until he finally finds a card he likes or he runs out of actions. But he can only add one card per turn and only the last one he picked. This is a good system for mitigating against the luck of the draw in a game without an open display. It also gives players an interesting selection problem at the beginning of every turn—do I keep this nice, but not great card I just picked, or go fishing for something better, at the cost of extra actions?

The player then has his remaining actions to spend during the second part of his turn. For the most part, every card played costs the player an action. There are other ways he can spend actions in this part of the turn, but to explain this, it’s necessary to look at what cards are in the game.

The most common type of card are the Ware cards. These show three of the wares—sometimes three different ones, sometimes two or all three of them the same. (There’s also a few Ware cards that show six different wares.) In addition, there are two values at the bottom. When you play these cards, they can be used in one of two ways. If you want to buy the wares, you pay the bank the lower value in gold and then add the wares to your market by taking them from the supply. All of the wares must be available and you must have room to display them all. Alternatively, if your market already contains the ware counters listed on the card, you can sell them by putting these wares back into the supply and taking the higher value on the card from the bank. For example, there’s a card that lets you buy three hides for 3 gold, but the same card lets you sell the same items for 10 gold. Yes, it’s rather surprising that triple markups were standard practice in the Congo back then, but it’s a good thing they were, since this is the principal way for the players to add to their gold supply.

Now you might get lucky and draw duplicate Ware cards, allowing you to first buy and then sell at a sweet profit. But more typically, there’s a major discrepancy between the wares you have and the wares you’d like to have in order to make a sale. That’s where most of the other cards come in.

One way to do things is just to keep buying and then to sell when you pick up a Ware card with an order you can handle. Fans of this maneuver will find the Small Market Stand cards come in handy. These increase your display capacity by three wares apiece. The first to be purchased costs 6 gold; each subsequent one (for either player) costs 3 gold. This price discrepancy keeps a player lucky enough to draw one early on from gaining too much of a lead on her opponent. It also means that the decision to buy the first Small Market is usually an interesting one, particularly if you suspect your opponent may have one as well. (Early reviewers of Jambo opined that the player drawing the most Small Market cards has a huge advantage. Maybe they got a little too much of the African sun, because I haven’t found that to be the case at all.)

By the way, every time a player fills the sixth space on his Large Market Stand, he has to pay two gold to the bank for the privilege. This can eat into your profits in a hurry. It’s one more reason for picking up at least one Small Market Stand—the extra capacity means it’s much less likely you’ll have to fully occupy your Large Market.

Then there are the Utility cards. These are all inanimate objects, such as a kettle or drums. When you play these, they have no immediate effect, but instead are placed in front of you. You can have up to three Utility cards in play at once. Once in play, a Utility card can be activated up to once a turn, at the cost of one action. This allows the player to use the ability printed on the card. For example, the Boat allows you to discard a card and take the ware of your choice from the supply. The Throne lets you take the ware of your choice from your opponent, in exchange for one of your wares. And the Well lets you pay a gold and draw a card. Whether or not you activate a Utility card on your turn, you get to keep them, allowing you to form something of a long-term strategy. With ten different types of Utility cards, there’s lots of different kinds of combinations you can employ in order to further your goal. Utilizing the Utility cards in clever ways is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game.

Next are People cards. These are one-time only cards—you play them at the cost of an action, they take effect, and then they are discarded. These have effects like the Shaman, which allows you to trade all of one kind of ware from your market for another kind of ware from the supply, or the Dancer, whose gyrations are sufficiently distracting that you can use any three wares to satisfy the requirements of a Ware card when selling (hmm, sounds like the Enron executives could have used her talents in their trial!). These cards tend to have more powerful effects than the Utility cards, but they’re strictly fire and forget. There are 13 different types of People cards, so again, there’s a great deal of variety.

Finally, come the Animal cards. These are one-time use cards, just like the People cards. They differ in only two ways. First, they are all “take that!” cards which hurt your opponent. For example, the pesky Parrot, which lets you steal one of your opponent’s wares, or the dreaded Crocodile, which lets you discard one of your opponent’s Utility cards in play (and even lets you use the card once before trashing it!). There is a second difference, which helps lessen the power of the Animals. The most common People card is the Guard, which can be played during your opponent’s turn whenever she plays an Animal card against you. Both cards are discarded. An Animal card played at the right time can be devastating, so it’s always nice to have a Guard in your hand, assuming you can find one. There are eight different types of Animal cards in the game, proving once again that the jungle is a dangerous place.

The players alternate turns, using their five actions by drawing, playing, and activating cards. If a player has two or more unused actions at the end of his turn, he takes one gold from the bank. This is more or less a consolation prize, as the actions are usually more valuable than that, but at least a player who is temporarily stymied can make a little profit.

The end of the game is triggered when one of the players has 60 or more gold at the end of her turn. Her opponent then takes one last turn. If he can match or exceed the first player’s gold total, he wins. Otherwise, the player who triggered the end of the game is the winner. Some people have complained that this could lead to a situation where two closely matched players are afraid to end the game, fearing that their opponent, armed with an extra turn, will be able to pull ahead. I suppose this is possible, but based on my experience and that of others, it seems as if this would be a pretty rare occurrence.

Jambo is all about sizing up the current situation and then making the best play with the cards and actions available to you. The utility cards introduce a little bit of a long term planning, but this is mostly a tactical game. In that regard, it reminds me of another one of my Kosmos two-player favorites, Babel. Jambo is less chaotic and has fewer chances for messing up your opponent’s plans, but in both games, players are presented with a gaming problem each turn and the one who does the best job of optimizing his chances will win.

The decisions begin with the card draw. Since all the cards are good and most have interesting effects, it’s tempting to take the first one you pick up and save some actions. After all, even if you can’t use this card right away, you should be able to find some use for it soon. Experience has shown that you’re often better off spending one or two extra actions trying to find the card you really need. Of course, this decision can be influenced by the number of actions you plan to use in the second part of your turn, plus a whole host of other factors. In other words, this is yet another interesting decision in the game.

There are many ways to go about acquiring wealth. Most of them involve the use of one or more Utility cards. These can give you gold, extra cards, or wares. The fun comes in trying to get good combinations in play and utilizing them well. You can also make useful combinations with the one-time use People cards. Of course, you’re limited to the cards you draw, but something decent can usually be constructed out of most hands you’ll encounter. Remaining patient and flexible and grabbing your opportunities when you can is a big part of the skill of the game.

You can use the cards to carry out quite a few viable strategies. You can try to play ware cards and then mix and match them to a nice profit. Small Market Stands and cards which allow you to acquire extra ware cards are helpful here. You can also use Utility and People cards which let you pick up and/or exchange wares to allow you to make sales. Another popular strategy is to have Utility cards in play which let you add cards to your hand—the extra flexibility this gives you can be invaluable. Finally, you can emphasize the tactical approach and simply carry out whichever strategy seems most appropriate based on the cards you are seeing. I’ve yet to see any one approach dominate, which is the mark of a well-designed and well balanced game.

Although you’ll probably be looking to help your own position more than hurt that of your opponent’s, there’s still plenty of ways to play a little defense. The Animal cards are the principal way of doing this. Some are so powerful that it’s always a good idea to have at least one Guard card in your hand if possible, just to keep the true natives of the jungle at bay. The Animal cards also do a good job of balancing the game. For example, there are cards which make it dangerous to have too big a supply of hand cards, wares, or Utility cards. Just the threat of a card like this being played can serve to keep the players honest. Even though these cards can disrupt the best laid plans, their numbers are sufficiently small and the Guard cards sufficiently numerous that they don’t dominate play. Although in most games, the advantage between the two players will sway back and forth a bit, this is not a game that tends to feature wild swings of fortune between the two opponents.

Hopefully, these guidelines will give you something of the flavor of the game, but Jambo really is a game that works better in person than on paper. Games of this sort always come down to the quality of the card abilities and how well they interact. Dorn and the Kosmos development team have done an excellent job here, producing a game with plenty of variety which plays consistently well. I find the game quite absorbing, where good judgment, rather than brain-busting analysis, is rewarded. Games move along at a good pace and come from behind victories are very possible. I honestly can’t think of any serious negatives with the design; it accomplishes what it sets out to do flawlessly.

The Kosmos two-player series always features fine production values, but Jambo’s appearance shines even when compared with this high standard. The cardboard counters are nice and sturdy and the ware counters have easily distinguishable illustrations and colors. It’s the cards, however, that will really get your inner parakeet singing. Artist Michael Menzel (a new name to me) did a beautiful job of illustrating the cards, without once resorting to caricature or cliché. The hues are rich and bright and the illustrations really give the game a delightful African feel (far more than the gameplay does, since the mechanics could have been based in any marketplace in the world). Thankfully, Kosmos and Menzel didn’t get carried away with the pretty pictures and left plenty of room on the cards for a clear explanation of how each one works. The rules are also clear and laid out well. This is a game that is as enjoyable to look at as it is to play.

So if you’re looking for a reasonably quick two-player game with good variety and challenging tactical gameplay, I highly recommend Jambo. It’s another triumph for Rüdiger Dorn, who as far as I’m concerned can do no wrong right now. The combination of Dorn and the Spiele für Zwei series is what grabbed me, and the combination of a game that both plays great and looks great is what sold me. Like that other notable commercial says, “double your pleasure, double your fun!”
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Gary Bradley
United Kingdom
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Thanks for a superb review. I wish they were all like this, instead of rules summaries as is often the case.
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