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Everyone knows Snakes & Ladders. Everyone has probably played it. While not a particularly exciting game as it’s based entirely on luck, is still has merits as a game to play with small kids to get them into gaming.
Originating in ancient India, the mechanic at the heart of the classic Snakes & Ladders of roll and move to win a race has been installed into countless other games and has become one the most common and widely used mechanics in modern board games. The real challenge is crafting a game with a dice roll that reduces the random luck factor. While many have tried and failed to bring a much more strategic evolution of roll and move to the table, the occasional title comes along that really achieves it and then some.
One such game is GameWorks/Asmodee’s Jamaica, from designers Malcolm Braff, Bruno Cathala and Sebastian Pauchon which is a fantastic gateway game for those wanting to dip their toe in modern tabletop gaming.
Using a beautifully illustrated pirate theme, Jamaica is a race around the titular island where coming first is only half the battle as the winner is determined by gold acquired on the journey. The first player is “The Captain” for the round and rolls two dice, deciding where to place them – either into the day slot or the night slot on the compass in the centre of the board. Reducing the randomness of the dice roll, movement is controlled by playing cards that determine the affect the dice rolls will have for each player. At the start, each player has an identical set of cards that are shuffled and the top three drawn into your hand. Each time a card is played a new one is drawn from your own deck, shuffling and recycling the discard pile once your deck runs out. Each card has two icons, with the top left icon indicating the day-time action which is taken first, and the top right indicating the night-time action. This system allows for a much more strategic approach to the game.
And it’s not just a case of moving forward or backwards, there is also the option to take gold, to take on cannons or to take on food supplies – all of which are required in the game. Gold is what wins the game, but it is also needed to pay docking fees on the spaces indicated. Food is required to feed your crew with spaces without docking fees incurring a food charge. Finally, cannons help in battles as a modifier to the combat dice which both players role should they find themselves in the same square. The winner of battles gets to steal items from their opponent. The catch is each player has a limited cargo hold that can only store so much, so balancing what you require is instrumental. If you can’t afford the gold/food cost of a space, you pay all you have and move back spaces. However, sometime this can be a useful ploy.
If that all wasn’t enough to consider, there is also treasure than can bring you additional bonuses, gold coins or even curses. These are gained by being the first to land on one of the pirate cove locations in the game – which usually require taking a longer route. While the bonuses are invaluable, you run the risk of picking up a curse which usually involves a subtraction to your score upon completion of the game. Each treasure obtained is kept hidden unless it is a ship upgrade – such as extra hold space – and there is a possibility an opposing player could steal your curse card following a battle.
While it sounds like a fair amount to digest, it truly is very simple – and that’s the absolute beauty of this game. Within ten minutes you will grasp how the game works and will be able to run through a game in half and hour. The multiple options open to players along with the fear of the unexpected keeps it very fresh each play through.
In the gaming community we talk about “gateway games” – essentially a game that can entice new people to the board game world up, taking you from the safety and unimaginative classics such as Monoplay, Trivial Pursuit, etc and showcasing just a taste of what is out there. Many herald light games such as Small World, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne as great starting points – but I would always offer up Jamaica as my perfect choice for three simple reasons.
Firstly, it is so easy to learn, taking the very basic principles of classic roll and move games and adding more depth to provide a very quick game. Secondly, its design is absolutely wonderful and really is a treat to look at. And finally, most prominently, it’s a damn fine game that appeals to everyone. Even for a more advanced gamer like myself, my copy will still find itself on the table from time to time.
Everyone knows the classic board games such as Snakes & Ladders. What people don’t know is the mechanics of these iconic childhood games have been expanded on and then sum. Jamaica is a perfect window into what modern tabletop gaming is, and priced around £25, is surely worth a punt. Trust me, guaranteed fun for all the family!