Jamaica is a racing game with a pirate theme. You race to complete a circuit around an island, picking up treasures where you can. You collect food, weapons and money, and also spend them as movement cost. The first to pass the finish line will score many points, but may not necessarily win, because players also score points from treasures and money collected.
At the start of a round, the active player rolls two dice, and assigns one each to day and night. Then everyone simultaneously picks one card for the round, from a hand of three. The selected cards are revealed and resolved one by one, starting with the active player. Each card has two halves, for day and night actions. Actions include moving forward, moving backwards, collecting money, collecting food, and collecting weapons. The number of steps or the amount collected depends on the die value. That means sometimes your card selection will not match well with the die roll of the round. E.g. high numbers are rolled, but you don't have any move forward action; or you do have a move forward action, but the active player assigns the high number to the other half of the day.
Card artwork is fantastic. Each action card has a left (day) and a right (night) half. On this card the day action is collecting weapons, and the night action is collecting food.
Every time you move, you need to pay the movement cost depicted at your destination, which is either food or money. If you can't pay, you have to move backwards, and it is possible that you end up further back from where you started. However being unable to pay is not always a bad thing. Sometime you want to have this happen to you so that you can end your movement at a buried treasure location.
The start of the race. Start / finish line is Port Royale. The tiny white squares on the sea spaces are food requirements when you land on the spaces. If you can't afford the food, you pay all you can and then must move backwards. That die on the right is the combat die.
When two pirate ships meet, you fight! That's regardless of whether the two players involved want to or not. Fighting is simple. The attacker decides whether to spend weapons to boost his attack, and then rolls a special combat die. After that the defender decides whether to spend weapons and then rolls the die too. The winner gets to steal a treasure from the loser, or steal the content of one cargo hold, or give a cursed treasure to the loser.
The game ends once a player crosses the finish line. Scores are tallied, and the highest scorer wins.
This player board represent the five cargo holds of your ship. You can only store one resource type per hold. If all holds are full, and you have a collect resource action, you must clear out a hold before you load the new batch of resources.
Michelle and I played Jamaica with the children (8 and 6) at Meeples Cafe. The game doesn't really feel that much like a race game to me, because you don't really keep pressing towards the goal. Instead you are at the mercy of your card draws, and you make tactical decisions to gradually sail forward, picking up food, money and weapons along the way, which are needed to fuel your race. The game is not just about the destination; it is very much about the journey too. There will be competition for the treasure chests. There will be fighting and robbing one another.
There is some luck in the game, but the fact that you always get to choose from three cards makes you feel you have reasonably good control. Also everyone has the same deck of cards, which helps in balancing things. And of course when you are the active player and get to roll the dice and assign them, that's a little bit more of control. There will be times that you can't do anything very useful because of the dice and your hand of cards. You just have to try to make the most of it. I think the relaxed pace of the race helps to make you mind less about the luck factor. There is less sense of urgency, so having a bit less control (I imagine the game is representing sailors at the mercy of the winds) doesn't make you feel too frustrated. In addition to the racing, you also enjoy the manoeuvring and positioning, the robbing and double-guessing along the way.
I was first to cross the finish line, and I won the game. However Michelle who was closest to the finish line was outscored by Shee Yun, who had more money and treasures. That proves the race is not everything.
Both dice are 1's so the active player has no decision to make when assigning them. There are still many round treasure tokens scattered around the race track. When you collect a treasure, you discard the token from the board and then draw a treasure card from the centre of the board. Treasures are usually worth points. Some are special equipment. Some are curses (negative points). There are more treasure cards than there are treasure tokens, so no every treasure card will appear in every game.
Jamaica is well-suited for families and casual gaming. The copy at Meeples Cafe has gone through a lot of wear and tear. Nothing broken, but it has obviously been played many times. Components are soft and rounded and not crisp and sharp. It's a well-loved game. Jamaica has that balance of luck and control that makes it suitable to be played by adults and children together, or regular players and casual players together. More experienced players will do better but will not always win. Less experienced players are not overwhelmed and don't feel they have no chance.