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Review: Jamaica

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Jamaica Box

Jamaica is a nation known for racing. This is the nation that turned out Cool Runnings and Usain Bolt, after all. It’s also known for its pirate lore and history. The city of Port Royal was once a haven for pirates, thanks to a slightly misguided invitation from the city’s administrators. “Hey, we need some defense from the Spanish, so let’s invite the pirates in to help out.” That went well until the pirates brought all their fighting, drinking, womanizing, and looting issues with them.

Then Henry Morgan (a former pirate, so you know he was trustworthy) became lieutenant governor and promised to clean it all up. Piracy became illegal and, instead of being a haven for pirates, Port Royal became the place where pirates went to get executed. That’s the official story, anyway. The board game Jamaica pretends that Henry Morgan instead invited all of his pirate friends over to continue looting and pillaging with impunity and even created a sailing race called the Great Challenge for their enjoyment! Just like a politician, right? Make a bunch of promises and then do something else entirely.

How It Plays

Jamaica is a fast-paced racing game. You are a pirate captain competing in the Great Challenge, a sailing race around the island of Jamaica that begins and ends at Port Royal. But this is no ordinary race. It isn’t enough to simply finish first. You’re a lootin’ shootin’ pirate, after all, so you must finish with the most gold in order to win the Challenge. How do you accomplish this?

Each player is dealt a hand of three action cards and each card has two icons on it. The icon in the upper left corner corresponds to the daytime action and the icon in the upper right corresponds to the nighttime action. These cards determine your movement and any resources you get each turn.

Players take turns being the Captain. When you are the Captain, you roll the two action dice and choose how to order them on the navigation box. One number will represent the daytime action and the other will represent the nighttime action. So, for example, let’s say you roll a six and a three. You look at your three action cards and decide which one will make the best use of those numbers and in what order.

Jamaica Movement Cards
The artwork on the action cards is great

After the Captain has set the dice order and revealed his chosen action card, the other players look at their action cards and choose one to use for this turn. Each player takes their day and night actions in turn order and then draws their action hand back up to three cards.

The possible actions are:

  • Move forward by the number on the die.
  • Move backward by the number on the die.
  • Load food, gunpowder, or gold into an empty hold, again according to the number on the die. If all of a player’s holds are full, the player must dump cargo in order to make room for more.

If movement results in landing on an already occupied space, combat occurs. Combat is handled by rolling the combat die. The player who rolls the highest number wins. Players can boost their numbers by using gunpowder, if they are carrying any. The winner may steal goods or treasure from the loser, or they may give the loser a cursed treasure.

Besides combat, certain spaces may require players to pay to occupy that space (either in food or gold). If the player cannot pay, they must pay what they can and then move backward to the first space that they can afford.

Jamaica Components
Treasure cards, money, food tokens, and gunpowder tokens

Some spaces have treasure available. The first player to land on that space claims the treasure. Treasure cards are drawn from the appropriate deck and may include victory points or special powers. Not all treasures are good, however. Some are cursed and these subtract points at the end of the game. Point treasures are kept secret from other players, while power treasures are revealed and left face up in front of the player for as long as they own the card.

The game ends when the one player completes the loop and returns to Port Royal. All other players complete their turns for that round and then scoring begins. Each player receives a specified number of points based on where their ship finishes in the race (a white number in the corner of their space denotes how many points are received). If you don’t make it past the -5 space, you lose five points. Points are also added for any doubloons in your cargo holds, plus any points from your treasure cards. Points are subtracted if you have any cursed treasures. The player with the highest point total wins.

Swashbuckling Fun or Foundering Failure?

Jamaica is an ideal gateway game. It is simple to play and learn, but it also introduces some basic gaming mechanics. Taking multiple actions per turn and deciding the optimum order in which to take them, basic dice-based combat, and stealing from other players to help yourself are some of the mechanics that advanced gamers take for granted but which stump some non-gamers. Jamaica handles them beautifully.

Yes, there is some luck involved in the dice rolls and card draws, but Jamaica isn’t a complete roll and move luck fest. You have some say in your fate if you carefully manage your resources and think through your moves. Is it more advantageous to move forward and engage in combat, or backward to grab that treasure? Is it better to speed along to the finish line and try to end the race early, or do you plod along hoping to load up on gold? Is it better to load up on food for future turns but give up the overall race lead? These aren’t hard decisions to make, but they are there and you ignore them at your peril.

The decisions you need to make are important, but not so difficult as to induce AP. Your hand of action cards is limited to three. Deciding which card to use isn’t that difficult. It doesn’t take much time to look at your ship and evaluate whether moving, loading, or some combination of the two is your best option. The other decisions (what to steal if you win in combat, what to toss overboard if you need to load cargo but already have too much, etc.) aren’t complex, either, and are usually pretty easy to judge from the context of the game around you. It might take kids and non-gamers a bit longer, especially the first few times they play, but most games clock in around 45 minutes, maybe less.

Jamaica Captain Cards
The Captain cards (beneath is the artwork featured on the back of the board)

Granted, Jamaica is a simpler racing game than something like Snow Tails or Formula D. Those games make you account for speed, gear shifting, and cornering. Jamaica, on the other hand, is not complicated by these mechanisms. It’s pretty much a straight race to the finish line, but with some back and forth that enables you to gather or lose the victory points you need to win.

This simplicity mixed with some strategic options makes Jamaica ideal for groups that contain both hardcore gamers and newbies. (Groups of nothing but hardcore gamers will likely get bored with Jamaica after a few plays. It might become a filler, but not much more than that.) It’s great for family game night because kids can pretty easily grasp this one. There is no text to read so they don’t have to be great readers to play. It’s clean, too, focusing strictly on racing and light hearted looting and leaving out the less savory aspects of pirate nature. Seniors seem to enjoy it, too. The first time it hit the table, my dad said, “Oh, Mutiny on the Bounty!” and proceeded to dive right in. It has a theme everyone can grasp and enjoy and components that make it easy to play.

And pretty much everyone wants to play Jamaica when they see it on the table. Much has been written about the components and art for this game and I won’t belabor those points except to say that everything is gorgeous and top notch. The board, both front and back, is a work of art. It’s the kind of artwork that brings people to your table saying, “Ooohh. What’s that you’re playing?” Everything has small, well thought-out details. Your captain cards fit together to make a mosaic. The rule book is laid out like a treasure map. The ships are detailed. The box insert is one of the best designs that I’ve ever seen. Everything has a place and is given enough room. This is one of the few games I haven’t had to baggie the components, cut up or toss the insert, or invest in Plano boxes to keep everything neat. Other game developers could take a class from what Jamaica has done.

Jamaica Box Insert
The box insert is fully functional. One of the best I’ve seen.

The game scales well at all player counts. Even at six it doesn’t feel too chaotic or take too long.  The two-player version uses a ghost ship to provide extra interaction and challenge. Whether this bothers you or not will depend on your tolerance for dummy players. It isn’t very fiddly or confusing to control the ghost ship and it does a good job of adding a third player to the board. The ghost ship can engage in combat, take treasures, and steal cargo. It can also be stolen from. Some people hate it and claim that the two player version isn’t any good, but we enjoy it. Then again, we have a high tolerance for dummy players in general and find this to be one of the better implementations of a dummy player.

It’s worth noting that there was an expansion produced for this game several years ago that has never been reprinted. It consisted of three extra special power treasure cards. It’s not a huge game changer of an expansion, but the cards do add some interesting decisions and options to the base game (and it reduces your chances of getting a cursed treasure). If you don’t want to pay extortion prices for the cards, there is an official file from the publisher at BGG that you can use to print your own.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t get the cards to exactly match the base cards. Since they are all power treasures, they’re not going to be kept secret from other players so it doesn’t matter that other players know you got one of the extra cards. You can simply shuffle them into the deck and play as usual. Yes, you’ll know if one is coming up in the deck if it doesn’t exactly match but since you have to take the top treasure card regardless, it makes no difference to the outcome. We play with it all the time (and our cards aren’t even a close match because I stink at anything resembling arts and crafts) with no problems.

Jamaica Setup
Two player game, set up and ready to go

Jamaica is one of those games that seems to divide the gaming community. They all agree that it gets top billing as far as components and artwork, but from there it gets murky. Some say that it’s a great game and something that gamers and non-gamers can enjoy. This is the view I share. Others say that it’s boring, nothing more than roll and move, and a horrible luck fest that no one over the age of ten can possibly enjoy. Look, if you’re looking for a deep strategy game with lots of things to consider and manage, this isn’t it. It is a great family friendly game with a few advanced gaming elements worked in. In that sense, it’s a good gateway and teaching game.

If you can take it for what it is, Jamaica is a blast. I can’t find enough good things to say about it. It’s one of the few games in my collection that I can play with my parents, my younger cousins,  friends who don’t know a game from a hole in the wall, as well as gamers. It’s the game I bring out at Christmas when my gamer husband and I entertain our non-gaming relatives. It’s the game I bring out when a few gamers come over and we all agree that we’re too brain fried from real life to play anything too long or deep, or when we want something as a warm up for something harder. It’s one of those rare gems that sees a lot of table time simply because it’s so versatile for the types of people I play with.

Whether it’s worth it to you or not will depend on the types of people you game with. If you never play with more casual players, or you are never up for a lighter game because you always play the hard stuff, leave Jamaica in the store. However, if you play with varied groups or you just want something light and fun after a hard day, Jamaica is a winner.

Summary

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

  • Gorgeous art and excellent insert are a master class in board game design and functionality.
  • Accessible rules, fast play time, and easy set up make it great for a variety of ages/groups.
  • Despite its simplicity, there are some decisions to be made.
  • Limited choices and simultaneous action selection prevents AP.
  • Plays well at all player counts.
  • It's just a heck of a lot of fun!

Cons

  • Two player version requires a dummy player.
  • Hardcore gamers will lament the luck elements of the die rolls and card draws, and the lack of deep strategic choices.
9.0 Excellent

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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