In 1996 a German company called Kosmos launched a line of games exclusively for two-players. Since that time Kosmos has produced more that a score of games in the series, including such highly regarded titles as Lost Cities, The Settlers of Catan Card Games, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (a personal favorite of mine). Recently, though, the line has seen few mediocre games and one downright bad one, and some began to wonder if the series had run its course.
Then came Jambo. Released last year, the game is being heralded as amongst the very best in the Kosmo two-player series, and was recently nominated for the prestigious “German Game of the Year” award.
Players are merchants, buying and selling wares in a Swahili marketplace. The game is played almost exclusively with cards, although there are also some counters representing the assorted goods players will trade. On a turn, a player receives five actions, which he can use to do a number of things. The first thing a player typically does on a turn is use one or more actions to draw cards from the deck until he finds one that he wishes to keep; the remainder of his actions may then be used to play or use cards.
Central to the game are the Ware Cards, which allow players to buy and sell the six available commodities (cloth, fruit, herbs, hides, salt, and jewelry). Ware Cards (usually) depict three goods — maybe three of the same kind, maybe all different, maybe two of one ware and one of another — and two prices. The first price is the amount the player pays to the bank if he wishes to purchase the shown wares; the second is the amount he receives from the bank when he sells the shown wares. In general, the selling price is about twice that of the purchase price. But as with most cards in Jambo, Ware Cards can only be used once before being discarded. So after using a Ware Card to buy two salt and one fruit, a player cannot then use the card again to immediately sell those commodities for a profit. Instead, a player will typically play a few Ware Cards to purchase goods, and then use subsequent Ware Cards to sell different combinations of the goods he now owns.
Other “play and discard” cards allow a player to take special actions or hinder his opponent in some way. Utility Cards, however, are played face-up in front of a player, and can be invoked once per turn, at the cost of one action per use. Most of the Utility Cards allow a player to exchange two of the game’s three resources (cards, money, and wares) — the “Well” card, for instance, allows a player to buy a card from the deck for 1 gold, while “Boat” let a player discard a card and take the ware of his choice. The more Utility Cards a player has in play the more options he’ll have on a turn, but he’s still limited to five actions, and choosing how to spend them makes for some difficult decisions.
Jambo shouldn’t be good: it’s too random, it doesn’t allow for much strategic play, and the theme is largely superfluous. Trumping all these negative point, though, is the fact that the game is unaccountably fun, way out of proportion to what it oughtta be. There’s plenty of player interaction, as you sic crocodiles, elephants, and all manner of beasts on one another, and the game becomes quite tense when someone nears the winning score of 60 gold. Best of all, the whole thing plays in about half an hour.
It’s a bit more involved than the aforementioned Lost Cities (which continues to be the best “gateway games” of the Kosmo two-player series), but Jambo works pretty well for introducing new players to modern games. And although there are many different cards to learn, the basic framework of the game is fairly simple: draw cards, play cards, buy wares, sell wares. The artwork is very nice too, and somewhat makes up for the deficiencies of theme.
All in all a neat little offering, and one that again has me looking forward to what the Kosmo two-player series has in store.