Monday, 2 January 2012


Plays: 2Px3.

The Game

Jab is a real-time card game about boxing. There aren't many real-time boardgames or cardgames. Off the top of my head I can think of Space Alert, Brawl, Galaxy Trucker (the ship-building part), Mondo and Wok Star (I have not tried the last two). Coincidentally I played Brawl quite recently, which is also a two-player-only and fighting-themed game like Jab.

In Jab, you win by either knocking out (KO) your opponent, i.e. instant win, or by accumulating 3 round victories by judge scoring. When a round starts, there are many things you can do to either earn points or injure your opponent or both. On your side of the play area you have your boxer, represented by three cards - head, left-side body and right-side body, and your two stacks of face-up Punch cards. Not the factory worker punch-in / punch-out cards, but the punch-opponent-in-face type of punch cards. Punch cards come in 5 colours and 5 types (e.g. Jab, Hook, Haymaker). The most basic thing you do in the game is to Punch your opponent, by taking the top-most Punch card from either left hand deck or right hand deck, and playing it on one of your opponent's body parts (head, left or right). This scores you points at the end of the round. The other basic thing you do is to Block, by playing cards onto your own body parts, with the condition that the card played must match colour or type of the top-most card. Blocks neutralise your opponent's Punches when it comes to round-end scoring.

This is how the game is set up before a round starts. We are in the middle of a game, and I have won one round victory (i.e. by judge scoring), and have also injured my opponent (I have more health tokens).

You can make Combos. There is a stack of face-up Combo cards, and if you see that the punch types on it match the punches on your opponent, you can quickly claim the top-most combo card, which is worth points. You can do Counter-punches. There is a stack of face-up Counter-punch cards with specific colours, and if you spot that both you and your opponent have cards of this colour on your bodies, you can claim the top-most Counter-punch card, which is worth points and also injures your opponent. The other action that injures your opponent is Stagger, which you do by first Punching with a Haymaker card and then following up with any other Punch card of the same colour.

Both boxers start with 5 health tokens. Whenever you injure your opponent, you take his health tokens, i.e. you actually become "healthier". Once your opponent runs out of health tokens, he is In Danger, and if you can deal another damage point in this situation, you knock him out and win instantly. If there is no KO, a round ends either when both boxers run out of Punch cards, or when one boxer runs out and forces an early end (which comes with a penalty). Judge scoring is then done, and whoever has earned more points wins that round.

The round-end scoring for Punches landed is quite clever. You only score one body part pile of your opponent and not all three piles. Your opponent takes away one pile first (and usually he will try to take away the pile where you have landed the most Punches and/or he has put the fewest Blocks). You then pick one pile from the remaining two. This means you need to have some idea of which stacks have more Punches and Blocks.

If you win a round, you take a health token from your opponent, flip it, and make it a round victory token. So your opponent has less health next round. As the boxing match progresses, the total number of health tokens decreases, making the likelihood of knock-outs higher and higher.

The Play

I tried this with my wife Michelle. She doesn't like the fighting theme, but she still managed to knock me out. Our games mostly ended with knock-outs. Although this is a real-time game, this is not a speed game at all. It is more important to play smart. You need to watch out for many things at the same time. You watch for the Combos you can make, Counter-punches you can take. You try to find opportunities to Stagger your opponent. Ideally you want to keep a rough count of Punches and Blocks that both you and your opponent are making, so that if it comes to round-end scoring, you have some idea which piles are more "valuable". There are many things you need to keep track of and watch out for at the same time. I find that during play, it takes quite some time before I can decide where to lay my Punches, because there is so much to evaluate. If I have a green Haymaker Punch in my left hand, do I quickly play my right hand Punches randomly onto my opponent's body so that I can find a green Punch card and then make a Stagger? Have I played many green cards and would I still have any remaining in my right hand deck?

During play, you do not just stay alert for opportunities, you also create your own luck. Since you can see the top-most Counter-Punch and Combo cards, you know what kinds of Punches you need to play to achieve them. You also need to watch your opponent and prevent him from doing the same. If you see your opponent holding a Haymaker card, you better to prepared to Block it so that you don't get Staggered.

In addition to all this real-time analysis and evaluation, you also need to consider the longer term - whether to go for a 3-round scoring win or for the knock-out. These determine your short-term goals.

Eventually Michelle and I decided to arrange our cards this way, which makes it easier to manage our cards during play. Now our boxers look like monsters with the heads growing from their stomachs. In this particular match I won two round tokens, but Michelle injured me badly (see how many health tokens she had) and eventually knocked me out to win the match.

I have no photos of a game in play. It's quite impossible to hold a camera and take photos with boxing gloves on.

The Thoughts

Jab can be overwhelming, because of the many things you need to think of and watch for concurrently in real-time. I suspect it is very hard to really play at an expert level. 5 Punch colours and 5 Punch types mean it is close to impossible to keep track of everything. You will need to at least partly rely on gut feel in remembering cards that have been played. Being able to spot opportunities is probably still manageable once you are used to it, but I think the memory part will be rather difficult. It's very hard to keep track of which cards have appeared and where they have been played.

One aspect of the boxing theme is implemented quite well - how the health tokens total decreases, and how the tension builds as it becomes more and more likely for a knock-out to happen. The game also gives much freedom to players to play their own style of boxing. Do you Punch aggressively? Block frequently? Focus attacks only on certain body parts? Go for points or go for KO? Do you watch your opponent's moves more or try to make combos yourself more?

The feeling when playing Jab was not what I had expected - something fast and furious, something visceral. The feeling I had was more of speed analysis and quick pattern recognition. So instead of aggressively and relentlessly attacking your opponent, you are mostly circling him, making small jabs, and waiting for or creating the right moments to unleash powerful attack sequences.

Buy from Noble Knight Games. Status: in stock (at time of this post).

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