Buzzworthiness: Jambo

Today’s review is a two-player game called

image by BGG user binraix
image by BGG user binraix

Jambo was designed by Rüdiger Dorn, and was published in 2004 by KOSMOS (Rio Grande in the US).  It was part of the KOSMOS two-player line.    Jambo is an economic game where players are trying to buy and sell goods in order to turn a profit.  The game is set in pre-colonial Africa, and the name is in reference to the Swahili greeting.

The game is card-driven, and most of your decisions will be based on what you can play.  You have five action points to spend on your turn, tracked using five special tokens included in the box.  You can use an action to draw a new card, though this must be the first thing you do if you’re going to do it.  If you don’t like what you draw, you can discard and draw again.  This costs another action.

Once satisfied with the cards you have drawn, you can start spending actions on playing cards.  There are five types of cards.  The first type is wares cards.  These show three (sometimes six) goods.  You can either buy them for your market stand, or sell them if you have the matching types.  If you don’t have room in your market when buying (you have six spaces, and the sixth costs two gold to fill), then you can’t buy.  This leads to the next type of card, which is extra market cards.  These can be played and paid for – the first one costs six, and all subsequent ones cost three.  This provides three extra market spaces, and you can have as many as you want.

The other three types of cards are animals, people, and utilities.  Animals and people are one-time use cards, with animals tending to be more confrontational.  Utilities cost an action point to play, but then remain in front of you and can be used once each turn for one action point.

When you are finished using actions, you pass.  Any remaining actions are lost, but if there are two or more remaining, you get one gold.  Play continues until one player makes it to 60 gold.  The other player then gets one more turn, and the player with the most gold wins.

COMPONENTS: The game comes with 112 cards, 36 ware tiles, 52 gold tokens, and 5 action tokens.  The art is by the always wonderful Michael Menzel, and this game is accordingly beautiful to look at.  Cards are good quality, and each one has text on it letting you know exactly what they do.  The utility cards are differentiated from the people and animal cards via a common border (bamboo for the utilities, statues for the people and animals). There are enough tokens for you to never run out of things – the gold is divided into 1 and 5 denominations, and there are six of each ware.  The wares are easy to differentiate from one another – the only problem is knowing exactly what they are (it’s not sugar, it’s salt).  The action tokens were a nice touch – it beats having to remember how many you’ve taken for yourself.  Overall, these components are great.

THEME: Jambo is set in Africa, and really feels grounded in that region.  The look of the cards, the different actions you can do, even the available wares all feel very thematic.  I think the system could be used with another theme, but the cards are very tied to their theme.  The game is economic in nature, and you do feel like you’re running a market.  The ability to use people and animals is a little odd if you think about it, but most of the game makes sense thematically.

MECHANICS: The primary mechanism in play in this game is the action point system.  You have five points to spend however you wish during the round.  Your choices are simple – draw at the beginning, play cards, or pass.  Each action costs one action point (except for pass, which costs any you have left).  This makes it a simpler entry into this mechanical genre than, say, Tikal.  In Tikal, you have 10 action points, and every action costs different amounts, leading to a lot of analysis paralysis.  Here, everything you can do is right in front of you, and the game tends to move fairly quickly.

Most of the game involves hand management.  Specifically, you’ll be trying to figure out the best way to bring out your cards so they are most beneficial to you.  There is a vast array of cards in the deck, so there’s almost always something different to try.  The economics of the game will often guide your choices – as you are trying to make money, you’ll be trying to figure out how to best combine your wares for the biggest payout.  Buy low, sell high with the right sets of wares.

STRATEGY LEVEL: The number of cards in this game means that it will be difficult to form a long-term strategy early in the game.  As you get utility cards out, you may be able to formulate some plans, but mostly, you’ll be reacting to whatever is in your hand and whatever your opponent does.  Luck does play a factor in this game, but leads to lots of crucial decisions.

ACCESSIBILITY: Jambo is not the simplest game, but that’s not because of the rules.  It’s very simple to understand how to play, and players will catch on as it goes.  The biggest barrier to entry on this game is the amount of text on the cards, which may cause inexperienced players to freeze up.  However, I still think it’s a pretty accessible game.

REPLAYABILITY: This game has a lot of replayability.  As has been mentioned, there are a ton of different cards in the game, and the way these come out will lead to a different experience every time.  There are two expansions for the game, plus a standalone game that can be played with Jambo (Asante).  Adding these in amp up the replayability even more, but there is still plenty of fun to be had in the basic box.

SCALABILITY: Jambo is for two players only.  There are some unofficial variants out there that add players, but to me, it’s a head-to-head battle of wits, and I don’t want to add more to the experience.

FOOTPRINT: This is a new category for me in my reviews.  I want to talk about how much space the games take up.  Jambo is in a stadard KOSMOS two-player box – 8″ long by 8″ wide by 1.5″ deep.  If you want to take up even less space, you can easily bag up the tokens and cards t carry them around.  When in play, the game does not take up a whole lot of space on the table – oretty much you have your market stand(s) in play all the time, plus space for three utilities.  You also need a spot for the deck, discards, and tokens, but that’s it.  It’s very portable, and doesn’t take up much room when playing.

LEGACY: The KOSMOS two-player consists of over forty games at this point, of which I think I’ve played ten.  Jambo is easily one of my top two or three in this line (along with Baloon Cup and Tally Ho).  It’s ranked number three in the series according to the BGG rankings (behind Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation and Lost Cities).  It’s established itself as a great two-player game, a great economic game, and a great themed game over the years, and should be doing so for years to come.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  I love Jambo, and have enjoyed it since I first played it.  If you like economic games, I’d highly recommend you check this out.  Even if economic games aren’t your favorites, I still think you should check this one out.  Thanks for reading!



  1. Jambo is a game that, I think, people accept as good, great or excellent, nod and sagely recommend it to couples that like economics games.

    It is a serious feat of design. It wasn’t until I started dabbling with game design that I sat up and realised what Rudiger Dorn did. Balancing a game with the number of cards and effects that Jambo has, and getting it right, is really, really hard. Card games are a nightmare to design well- this one has two expansions too. Designing a ‘bad Jambo’ is easy, getting it right gets my massive respect.

    • Well said. And you’re right – often when playing a game like this, you’ll find a card or two that is so powerful it will win you the game, or at least put you in a really good position to win. I can’t think of anything like that in Jambo. Thanks for your comments!

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