Saturday, January 08, 2005

Review: Jambo

Jambo is the newest game in the popular line of two player games from Kosmos. In this game by Rüdiger Dorn, players become African merchants, trading wares in an attempt to turn a profit.

Inside the box you'll find a host of sturdy cardboard counters representing gold, wares, and action markers. You'll also find a deck of 112 high quality cards. All of the artwork is very pleasing and appropriate to the theme. This is a very pretty game.

The basic structure of the game is pretty simple. Each player starts with twenty gold nuggets, five cards, and a market stand that can hold up to six wares tiles. On your turn you may take up to five actions. Every time you take a card or play a card you use up an action. Players continue alternating turns until someone ends his turn with 60 or more gold. Then his opponent gets one more turn and the game ends.

Jambo is about trading and trading requires merchant cards. A little more than one third of the cards in the deck are merchant cards. Merchant cards are used both to buy and sell wares. Each card lists three or six wares (there are six different types of wares) in various combinations and two numbers. When you play a merchant card you decide if you are buying or selling. If you are buying, you play a card, pay the amount indicated by the first number, take the wares listed on the card and place them on your market stand. If you are selling, you play the card, give up the wares listed on the card and collect the amount indicated by the second number. Sounds simple? It is but there's a catch. Your market stand only has space for six goods and that severely limits what you can do. You're going to need some help and that's where the other two-thirds of the deck come in.

The rest of the deck is composed of utility cards, people cards and animal cards. Each of these cards allows you to take a special action. Actions are clearly printed right on the cards and for the most part, you're not going to need to refer to the rules to figure out what they do. Animal cards tend to be a bit more powerful than people cards but they can be blocked if your opponent has the proper card. Utility cards are even more powerful but they have to be face up in your play area before you can use their action so that means you're going to have to use one action to get them in play and another action to actually use them. Utility cards remain in your playing area after use, while people and animals are discarded when they are used. There are also five small market cards in the deck that can be used to increase the number of wares you can store.

All of the special actions are extremely well balanced. You're typically giving something up in order to gain something else. All of the cards can be useful in the right circumstance. It's the way the cards work together that really make this game special. This game is about working with the cards you have to come up with a strategy for generating revenue. There are plenty of ways to do that but every game is going to require a different approach. There is no single successful strategy. To succeed, you're going to have to be both clever and flexible.

This game reminds me quite a bit of San Juan and Puerto Rico. It's got lots of great decisions, lots of different avenues to success, and it's extremely well balanced. It's a faster game than both of those. Once you're familiar with the game you can probably play it in around thirty minutes. It's also a little easier to learn than either San Juan or Puerto Rico. If you're looking for a two player game that's got a lot of depth and strategy then you need look no further. Jambo is definitely a winner! It's currently my two-player game of choice.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Review: Igloo Pop

Igloo Pop is a frantic, tactile game that's fun for all ages. It supports 2-6 players and a game lasts around ten or fifteen minutes.

Inside the box you'll find a deck of special cards, some wooden talers, a sheet of stickers, a dozen plastic igloos (which you must assemble) and a bag of 90 little glass beads. Parents be cautioned. This game requires careful assembly by an adult. Assembly involves very carefully counting small beads into an igloo shell, snapping the igloo together to seal the beads inside, and affixing a numbered sticker to the bottom of the igloo that tells you how many beads are inside. Once the igloos are assembled, they are nearly impossible to pull apart again so be careful to get the count right the first time because you won't get a second chance if you mess up.

The components are all first rate with bright colors that will appeal to kids of all ages. The igloos are attractive and fun to pick up and shake, which is a good thing because you'll be doing a lot of that in this game.

The game works like this. The igloos are scrambled and placed in the middle of the table. Then nine cards are arranged in a circle around the igloos. The cards all have from one to four (consecutive) numbers on them. The numbers on the cards correspond to the numbers on the bottom of the igloos and range from two to thirteen.

The youngest player counts "one, two, three, go!" and everyone begins grabbing and shaking igloos in order to divine how many beads are in each one. If you think you know how many beads are in your igloo, you slip one of your talers (colored wooden disks) into a slot in front of the igloo and place the igloo on a card that has a matching number. No fair peeking at the number stickers on the bottom!

Once players are done placing igloos, they check each card to see who guessed correctly. If you guess correctly, you are rewarded with your taler, the card under your igloo, and the talers of any incorrect guesses on that card. If you guess incorrectly, you lose your taler, either to the player who guessed correctly, or to the box if no one correctly matched an igloo to that card. If more than one player guessed correctly (because there was more than one number on the card) then whoever matched the highest number wins the card and the talers from the incorrect guessers; the other correct guessers just get their talers back.

Rinse and repeat until you've been all the way through the deck or until someone is out of talers. Then count all the cards and talers in front of you to determine your score. It's that simple.

This game rewards players who have a good memory for sounds and weights and this is definitely one of those games where you're likely to get better at it the more you play. It also rewards good strategy. Sometimes you're better off not risking a guess at all. Sometimes you'll feel comfortable risking a guess on a single number card. Sometimes you're better off playing it safe and only risking a guess on cards with a range of three or four numbers on them.

Igloo Pop is a fast and fun game that works for players of all ages. Because the game relies on dexterity, sound, and tactile memory, as opposed to raw smarts and strategy, kids have just as good of a chance to win this game as adults.

Give Igloo Pop a try, particularly if you have kids. I think you'll be glad you did.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Review: Mall World

One of the new games to come out of Essen this year is Mall World. This game supports three to five players and it plays in about ninety minutes.

Mall World is supposedly about building and maintaining a shopping mall. I say "supposedly" because in reality, Mall World is a very abstract game that has about as much to do with shopping malls as it does with cheese making. The theme is completely pasted on and it really adds very little to the game. Still, once you get past the odd, ill-fitting outer covering, there is an interesting game underneath.

Inside the box you'll find a bunch of sturdy tiles, some counters, some cards and the game board which looks attractive enough but there were some odd choices made here. For instance, the game play area, which represents a mall blueprint, is an oddly shaped affair whose spaces are all rhombus shaped in order to present the "mall floor plan" in an isometric perspective. (That means you're viewing the floor plan a bit from the side instead of from straight above.) The tiles that go on this board are reasonably attractive but they are also shaped like squished squares to match the board, which makes them a little difficult to place. Where things really go awry is with the circular customer tokens that get placed on the tiles. The artwork on these tokens is truly ugly. I think they went for a certain look and it somehow got away from them. Also, the color choices are a bit odd. Dark, over-saturated colors of purple, blue, green and red are not exactly traditional colors (and color blind players may want to steer clear as distinguishing between the colors is vital). Oh well. Beauty is skin deep.

Game play is an interesting mix of play styles. Players select "order cards" using a mechanism very similar to the civilization selection process in Vinci. Several cards are available. The first is cheap but each subsequent card is incrementally more expensive. Order cards are used to determine what color combinations you will score points for on the board. It's not enough to bring one of these cards into your hand though, you need to play it in order to score it, and playing requires giving up an action. Early in the game, these cards reward placing square tiles of a certain color next to square tiles of another color. For instance, you might get 2 points for each red square placed next to a blue square. Later in the game they reward putting circles of a certain color on squares of another color. Each player also has a "special order" that rewards a specific color combination of two circles on two squares. Special orders are secret so at the beginning of the game, each player has a goal that's unknown to the other players. Of course it won't take too long to figure out what people are going for but then that's all part of the game.

Placing tiles on the board requires playing "approval cards". On each turn you can take a certain number of approval cards into your hand. You can play up to three of these cards on your turn and each card lets you choose from among a couple of placement actions. The trick here is that when you play more than one card, you may not get to carry out the action on the card yourself, that's because the actions on the cards get auctioned off to the highest bidder. Depending on how many cards are put up for auction, winning bidders might have to pay the auctioning player or they might deposit their bid in the slush fund, a pool of coins that gets redistributed among the players at the end of the turn once enough coins accumulate there to distribute evenly.

There's a lot of interesting tension created between trying to maintain enough cards in your hand to do what you want, keeping your hand size under the hand limit (the consequences for violating this can be disastrous), managing your limited coins, bidding to control tile placement, deciding which approval cards to invest in, and deciding when to play your approval cards.

If all of this seems a little confusing, well it can be. And unfortunately the rule book, with its poor organization and occasional typos, sometimes doesn't help. Fortunately, the rules aren't that long and there are some handy quick reference sheets that help out. Still, it may take you a couple of rounds before you really get the hang of it. I'd recommend that you play a couple of practice rounds to familiarize yourself with the play and then start over once it's understood. You should also be warned that there is one important rule that somehow didn't make it into Rio Grande Game's English translation: in a three player game, if a player wins their own three card auction, they pay the slush fund, not themselves or another player.

One issue that came up in one of our games had to do with the pacing. The game is played in three distinct scoring phases. We initially expected each phase to last roughly an equal amount of turns but when we played the game this turned out not to be the case. Instead, the first phase was significantly longer than the rest, as everyone deliberately avoided triggering the end of phase scoring while they jockeyed for position in the hopes of getting a high score. The second phase went significantly faster since by then the board was mostly developed. And the third phase nearly ended before it started! That caught everyone by surprise. With subsequent playings, once people get the hang of how the game works, things should be a little more even.

I rather liked Mall World and I'll happily play it again but there were definitely some interesting design choices here. From the odd colors, to the unattractive artwork, to the oddly shaped tiles, to the poorly designed rulebook, this game's production didn't quite live up to the standards that I've come to expect from Rio Grande Games. The components are sturdy but the game would have probably gone over better with a more straight-forward presentation. Still, once I got beyond the production, and managed to wrap my head around the rules, I found the game itself to be quite enjoyable and I look forward to playing again. In the end, it gets a thumbs up. Don't let the minor cosmetic issues scare you away, there's a pretty darn good game here.