My series of articles for mental_floss on the history of board games begins today, with a look back at games from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. We’ll end up with some contemporary games at the end of the series, but not before going through the histories of some important games from East Asia, India, and Africa, and medieval Europe.
Note: I revised this article about a week after it was first posted to reflect the fact that we were playing the game wrong at first. The review below reflects the correct rules. I think.
I picked up Jambo in September on the recommendation of dish reader Joe Huber, designer of the game Burger Joint, who declared Jambo his “personal favorite two-player game” in response to my lament (in the Lost Cities post) about great German-style games’ tendency to play best as 3- to 5-player games. Jambo is, indeed, an excellent two-player game, even though there are certain mechanics I don’t love. It’s a higher order of complexity than Lost Cities, but much of what’s added is random chance rather than deeper strategy.
In Jambo, each player is a trader in precolonial east Africa, with a market capable of storing six “wares,” of which there are six types available (silk, jewelry, salt, hides, fruit, and tea, although the drawing for that last one keeps reminding me of the cover of The Chronic). The goal of the game is to finish with the most money; end game is triggered when either player passes 60 coins, after which he completes his turn and the other player gets one more full turn before the game officially ends. Players earn money by buying and selling wares, most often through ware cards that allow for the purchase or sale of a specific combination of wares – usually three, but a few cards allow the purchase of six – for fixed prices. However, the deck of cards is full of “utility” cards that allow for exchanges of cards and wares, for direct purchases of wares, or for attacks against your opponent such as swiping a single ware from his market or discarding one of his active utility cards, making the game more interactive and opening up some other avenues for strategy.
The core mechanic, however, is buying and selling wares. Each three-ware card has three specific wares on it; they may all be identical, there may be two of one kind and one of a third, or it may contain three different wares. The gap between purchase price and sale price shown on the card is always 7 coins for a three-card combination. That is, if you draw two copies of the same three-ware card, you can buy them and immediately sell them for a profit of seven coins. And since on each turn a player receives five “actions” – the first is usually used to draw a card, so in practical terms we’re talking four actions – it seems to me that the ideal turn is one that starts with a purchase and ends with a sale, where in between you might use utility cards to ensure you have what you need to complete the sale. (You can’t use a ware card to sell unless you have those three or six exact wares in your market.)
The non-ware cards are where the game gets interesting, or at least gets interactive. There are two types of cards – utility cards, which are played once and used repeatedly; and people/animal cards, which are played once and discarded. (I misread the rules, and we played people cards as utility cards for a while, which really wreaked havoc with the game.) Each player may have up to three utility cards face-up in front of him – playing a card counts as one action – and may use them once per turn, with each use counting as an action. Most involve the exchange of something for something – cards, gold, and wares, sometimes allowing you to exchange like for like, sometimes allowing you to use one thing to buy another.
People cards are a wildly mixed bag, with the best of them allowing you to increase your profits on a sale or buy missing wares cheaply so you can complete another sale, but many of them are close to useless and just clog up the deck. Animal cards are all for attack purposes; the parrot lets you steal one ware from your opponent, while the crocodile (the most abundant animal card) lets you take one of your opponent’s utility cards, use it once yourself, and then discard it. You can fight off an animal attack with a Guard card, although I don’t think the deck has enough of them and acquiring one is a function of luck rather than skill or planning.
And that’s the only thing keeping me from raving unabashedly about Jambo: There’s a lot of luck in this game, more than I tend to like. You have no outright control over which cards you draw, of course, and only a few utility cards give you any improvement over that. The solution is simply to draw more cards, and there are utility cards that allow you to draw an extra card, swap a ware for a card, buy a card for gold, grab a ware card your opponent just used, or even rifle through the discard pile for a specific card you’d like to have.
But, unlike in a game like Dominion where you build your own deck, acquiring good cards in Jambo requires luck, and I didn’t feel like the deck was flush enough with good utility/people cards to allow me to set a couple of strategies up and then just pursue whichever one the cards offered me. We’ve played ten times, and each of us has had at least one game where the cards just killed us, including one where I spent five turns needing just about any ware card to win the game, never got it, and lost.
Bear in mind that I prefer games with lower luck levels than most people do – if you view a game as just a game, you’ll probably love Jambo even more than we do. I enjoy games for the thinking and strategizing as much as I enjoy them for their social aspect, and Jambo fell a little short in that regard for me. It is still an excellent two-player option that I think we will continue to play often even as the collection grows.