Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Wednesday 18 September 2019

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Jabuka

Game: Jabuka

Publisher: Jabuka Games Inc.

Designer: Martin Russocki

Year: 2019

Jabuka is a word game that's notably picking up some awards in the USA. It likely falls into the category of mass-market game, but word games are the kind of game that it's hard for gamers to dismiss. Admittedly, there are some mass market word games that heavily rely on players having a better vocabulary than others. However there are also others that can be fun for a wider audience, with Bananagrams being a particular family favourite for us, still travelling on most holidays.

The story of Jabuka starts with a coffee bean, inspiring the designer as he explored the ways that the letter 'E' looks a lot like an 'M' or  'W' when rotated. Taking this very literally, Jabuka is a bag full of wooden coffee bean tokens, each with a letter or letter combination. It's a competitive game of word-building for 2-8 players and we've been playing it with two, where the designers say it's the most intense experience.


At the start of the game each player is handed 2 wild card beans and then the rest of the beans are poured haphazardly on the table. Some will be face up showing their letter(s), while others will be face down. Players can then start forming words using these letters by calling out a word and then claiming the needed beans. Whenever all players agree to more letters are flipped, the game will continue until all the beans have been flipped over. At the end of the game the player with the most beans in front of them wins.

So far, so standard word game. However things aren't as simple as they seem in Jabuka. Each bean does not necessarily represent one letter. For a start many beans have a pair of letters on them like 'NG'or 'OD'. While you can include these in your words they only count as 1 bean for both letters. But there is another way that letters can be more than one thing. You see many of the letters are rotatable, you can spin an n round into a u, rotate a w into an m or an E and that 'NG' I mentioned can also be flipped into a 'BU'! This adds some complexity to the word building as the letters you want might be perfectly visible to you, but in disguise as another letter.

Further depth comes from the ability to enhance and steal words that have already been made. You can add to words you own, useful if an s or an 'ing' is in the middle of the table. You'll want to do this, not only to claim more beans, but because longer words are harder to steal. You see your opponents can also add to your words, and in doing so they will claim all the associated beans for themselves. But they have considerably more freedom. When you steal a word you must use all the beans used before, but you are allowed to rotate and rearrange, so while they are using the same tiles they might be using completely different letters to make their new word with!

Amy’s Final Thoughts

Jabuka brings a fascinating idea to the table, the ability to rotate letters and use them as something else changes the set of skills required to win this word game. Not only do you need a good vocabulary, but a sense of spacial awareness is needed. Of course your also going to be putting your anagram skills to the test in a way that's not just the standard fare. Being able to steal people's words makes this a word game with exceptionally high player interaction, and since you have the freedom to rotate their letters you have more leeway than your typical anagram would afford you.

The game starts with a frantic attempt to build big words from the smorgasbord of letters poured out of the bag, but this selection soon dries up and you become restricted to the new beans when everyone agrees to flip. But that's the key thing here, everyone must agree to flip, which means a slow player can sit, staring at your words until they find that way to combine one with a Q and steal it. The game works best if players are willing to flip regularly and keep a good flow of letters in the middle of the table, otherwise the mid-game can have a stop-start feel to it.

There have clearly been some font compromises in order to make the letters rotatable, and while some work very well (W/E/M makes for a good bean) others are a little less obvious (X turning into a T). They have had to resort to a weird mix of fonts and upper/lowercase lettering to make it work. While it's functional it can make your words hard to read and some of the letters are simply harder to spot than others. Overall Jabuka is a clever word game, but it feels a little clunky. It manages to be unique in the word game genre, but not quite to the benefit I might have hoped. Still it's a perfectly solid word game with a good amount of player interaction and I've certainly not seen anything else with the rotating letter gimmick!

Fi’s Final Thoughts

Jabuka is a pretty fascinating word game. Whilst I would typically be the stronger word game player in our household, Amy seems to be better at the spatial element, twisting the letters in her mind to often spot words that I simply can't. That creates a much more balanced experience for us, which is definitely a big plus. On the other hand, Jabuka sometimes feels less like a word game and more of a brain twister that you might find in a puzzle book or a newspaper.

I think that two-players in particular is exactly the right player count for this game. The complete lack of new letters in later rounds means that the true game is in adding one or two letters and manipulating the words of your opponent to cause a big points swing. With two players you're solely focused on your words and the other players words and sitting opposite across a table is also really helpful. Seeing your opponent's words upside down can open your eyes to things they're simply not seeing.

On the other hand, with two players, each round you're only flipping four new beans which really only offers an opportunity for the fastest player to make one short word. The whole essence of a word game is really lost when the letter pool is too small. Since you both need to agree when to flip the new letters, it can be a bit of a stand-off as players try to figure out how to squeeze a Z into an anagram of a word across the table.

Overall I like that Jabuka tries to do something different. The flexibility in the letters, whilst sometimes a bit obscure, opens doors to some new game mechanisms. Unfortunately though, it just doesn't quite work for me. I find the letter manipulation difficult and feel a little trapped by the games mechanisms so that I don't get a chance to feel proud of my words like in other word games. Still, it's interesting to see something different in the word game space and if you're a family of word game addicts then it's definitely one you should add to the collection.

You Might Like...
  • The added spatial element of getting your head around the rotating letters can level the playing field for word experts and spatial reasoning specialists.
  • The ways to steal words are particularly strong.
You Might Not Like...
  • Some legibility has been sacrificed to make the letters rotatable.
  • A good vocabulary and anagram skills will still likely win the game every time.
  • The start of the game has the most opportunity for building good words and then you really start nickel-and-diming at low player counts in particular.

The Verdict
5/10 Jabuka is a nice word game, but for us it's a bit of a novelty that's perhaps better in concept than in its execution. If you have a coffee lover in your life, then Jabuka would make a great stocking filler to start the ball rolling with interesting word games, but personally I'd rather stick to Bananagrams as my simple word game and then Paperback for gamers.

Jabuka was a review copy kindly provided to us by the publisher.

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