Sunday, January 08, 2006

"Jambo" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 1/8/06)

I lived in Guinea, West Africa, for two years as a Peace Corps education volunteer and taught English at the high school level. For those of you interested in joining the Peace Corps, I urge you not to take the following as definitive.

Some of my classes were as small as six students (heaven), and others were as large as one hundred (the opposite). Just like the school system in the states, student behavior and classroom management were at the forefront of my responsibilities. I learned one truth early on - teaching is never easy.

However, my job only filled a fraction of my time. Talking with friends (or trying to talk, depending on my proficiency), exploring my new town, washing clothes, lugging water, and eating usually filled up the bulk of my days.

I especially enjoyed going to the market. I was able to use whatever new words I had picked up and was usually on a mission to make the best pasta sauce I could with the given market ingredients. I loved haggling with the market women for the right price, and my blubbering through the local language often caused an uproar of laughter, from the women as well as from me. I would often leave the market in a better mood than I had arrived with.

Until recently, I hadn’t had cause to think too much about those marketplace memories. But as luck would have it, I received a game for Christmas whose theme was about just that. The game was "Jambo."

Created by Rüdiger Dorn and distributed by Rio Grande Games, "Jambo" is a marketplace strategy game in which a player’s timing and skill outweigh lady luck.

"Jambo" is Swahili for "hello." As any Africa Peace Corps volunteer will tell you, the opening salutation is perhaps the most important conversational chunk there is (cutting to the chase is considered rude). Players of "Jambo" might also want to start the game with this friendly exchange, but I’m afraid that’s where the pleasantries will have to end. To win, you must be anything but friendly.

Two players are each dealt a free marketplace card, twenty gold, and five cards from the deck. During each turn, a player may choose up to five actions, like drawing a card or cards, using any cards in hand or on the table, or buying and selling wares. The goal is to have the most gold at the end of the game.

A bank of ware cards is set up next to the gaming area consisting of silk, salt, fruit, tea, animal hides, and trinkets. The careful buying and selling of these wares can lead a player to victory.

The supply deck consists of benign cards, like extra markets and ware cards, and of several more potent utility, people, and animal cards. The latter group usually gives a player the power to do something out of the ordinary like buy a ware, destroy a utility card, or draw an extra card.

Players are required to balance the cards they play, the wares they buy and sell, and the gold they earn. The first few games are often used getting familiar with the cards and their abilities and how each of the above categories interacts with one another. After that, it’s pure fun.

"Jambo" is a match of wits and a game of patience. It is amazingly simple yet lends itself to great possibilities. It’s hard to find good two-player games which are both new and dynamic, and "Jambo" delivers these qualities with style.

My time in Guinea seems so far from me and my day-to-day life. I miss my friends and my nene (mom). I miss the laughter of the market. Perhaps you’re wondering if "Jambo" captures the feeling of being in the marketplaces of Africa. Not really, but for me, it was enough to be reminded.

Cost: $22.95
Players: 2
Age: 12 and up
Time to play: 45 to 60 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 8
Additional Comments: While the game is simple and uses some "Magic: The Gathering" variations in the cards, there is a lot of depth to the timing. This comes out after a few rounds, so don't give up!

"Gulo Gulo" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 12/11/05)

This past Thanksgiving, my partner Annie and I visited family in Fort Worth, Texas. My parents, brothers, sister, and their families came from all over to celebrate both Turkey Day and my grandmother’s 90th birthday.

Traditionally in the Read family, little to no energy goes into planning. It is a small miracle that we made it to Fort Worth at all. After a lifetime of invisible itineraries, no one comes to expect anything. It is in this regard that Annie and I took the family completely by surprise.

We, of course, brought games. We brought so many games that at one point during packing I wondered where my clothes would fit. Thankfully, our efforts were rewarded.

Finding a game that will work well with kids is a difficult task, though. On top of that, we were playing in a crowd that was composed mainly of adults. Annie and I introduced several games to this crowd of unlikely participants, and we hit the jackpot with a game we’d never played in a large group before. The surprise favorite was "Gulo Gulo."

Designed by Wolfgang Kramer, Jurgen P. K. Grunau, and Hans Raggan and distributed by Rio Grande Games, "Gulo Gulo" is a simple dexterity game involving luck, skill, and a baby gulo.

In this brightly colored game, a baby gulo, or wolverine, is eating all the eggs. It’s up to the adult gulos to retrieve him. Two to six players assume the roles of the adult gulos and must follow a path of stepping stones to reach the baby.

The path consists of tiles which are laid face down, forming a long trail. Off to the side, a small wooden nest is filled with eggs of all colors, and an egg alarm (a top-heavy stick) is placed upright in the nest, supported by the surrounding eggs.

In order to move forward, players must choose a tile, flip it over, match the color on the tile to an egg in the nest, and remove that egg without toppling the egg alarm. Once an egg is safely removed, the successful player moves to the flipped tile. Be careful! If the egg alarm falls for any reason or if the wrong egg comes out of the nest, players are penalized by having to move backward to a tile of the same color. And this could be a long way back.

Once you reach the end, you must find the baby gulo amidst a stack of other colored tiles and extract a special purple egg from the nest to win the game.

Kids and adults rallied behind "Gulo Gulo." Sideline players waited with anticipation to see whether the egg alarm would fall. Every round was filled with healthy tension. It was also funny to see adults and their big hands flounder in the egg nest while little kids succeeded with their tiny fingers. In many cases, parents and grandparents teamed up with their kids or grandkids for the added fun and extra competitive edge.

It was nice to have the family, all four generations of us, together in one place for the first time in about ten years. It was nice to see my grandmother so healthy and strong. I also consider myself fortunate that Annie was part of this family get together, quite possibly the last of its kind. And of course, it didn’t hurt having a little bit of that Texas heat.

But perhaps what was nicest of all was what my grandmother saw: a large group of her children, some of them small and many of them grown-up, laughing, talking, and playing together in her home. I could see it in her face. She was happy.

Cost: $37.95
Players: 2 to 6
Age: 5 and up
Time to play: 30 to 45 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 8
Additional Comments: The "physical challenge" of this game keeps everyone interested. Young children can get especially enthralled with it. Thumbs up.