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Jab: Real Time Boxing

Reviewed by: Derek Croxton

(Tasty Minstrel Games, 2 players, ages 10 and up, 15 minutes; $19.95)

jabboxThe attractive cover of Jab: Realtime Boxing proclaims its contents “a revolution in real-time card games.” This pulled me immediately in two different directions. Any game that claims to be revolutionary sets off my skeptical sensors; yet I am intrigued by novel systems, especially for so challenging a problem as real-time play. I finally had to find out for myself.
The contents of the box are modest enough: 70 cards, 10 tokens, two tiles, and a colorful rulebook. Each player gets three cards representing his body – one for the head and one each for left and right torso – which he places in front of him. These are the targets where his opponent will play his punch cards, and they are functionally identical (there is no difference between a blow to the head or the body). The players also get identical decks of 25 cards: five different kinds of punches (jab, cross, uppercut, hook, and haymaker) in each of five colors. (The cards differ only in the color of their borders, which is important when distinguishing an aggressive punch from a block.) The remaining cards form two small piles next to the body parts, one with 5 counterpunches, the other with 9 combinations. Players can claim these during the match if they meet certain conditions – and if they have enough awareness to realize that they qualify.

Each player takes 5 health tokens to start. Your 25 punch cards are divided into two roughly equal stacks (obviously they will not be exactly equal), placing one by your right hand and one by your left hand. You will only be able to play cards from the right-hand deck with your actual right hand, and from the left-hand deck with your left hand. Although this is the most convenient and natural way to do it, there are definitely times during the game when you want to reach across and play a card with the opposite hand. Then the players simultaneously flip their decks face-up and begin throwing punches, i.e. placing cards on one of their opponent’s three body parts. There are no restrictions on where your punches go; any punch can go on any body part, in any order, so you can play pretty fast – although there are reasons to be more thoughtful, which we will get to momentarily.

When both players are out of cards, it’s time to score the round. You choose one of the three parts of your opponent’s body to score, ignoring the other two piles: jabs and crosses score one each (clearly indicated on the cards), uppercuts and hooks two, and haymakers zero. The player with the higher score wins the round, taking one of his opponent’s health markers and flipping it over to the victory side. The first player to win three rounds wins the game.

Obviously, there is more to it than that, otherwise you would just play all your cards on one of your opponent’s body parts. The first wrinkle is that your opponent selects one of his three body parts that you cannot score, and you choose from among the remaining two. This means that you need to divide your punches among at least two body parts. The second wrinkle is that your opponent can block one of your punches by playing on top of it either (a) the same kind of punch, or (b) the same color card. When scoring, a block always negates the highest of your opponent’s cards in that stack and not the card it is directly on top of. I understand this rule now but I had trouble grasping it at first and I found it the most difficult to teach, I suppose because it is so intuitive that a block would affect the card it is blocking and not some other card.

The haymakers introduce the really interesting element. A haymaker scores zero points, but if you can play a card of the same color on top of it, you stagger your opponent, grabbing two of his health. If he is already out of health when you stagger him, he is knocked out and you win the game. The disadvantage to haymakers is that they can be blocked by any card, regardless of punch or color. This makes sense, as presumably your heaviest blows give your opponent the most time to react; it is also almost a necessity to block haymakers, as allowing only a few through (especially in later rounds) can get you knocked out. So piles with haymakers are likely to score less: the haymaker itself is worth zero, and your opponent will probably block it. When allocating your punches, therefore, you want to keep your haymakers off of your high scoring piles if possible.

There are two other wrinkles to card play in the counterpunch and combination decks. Both of these decks are face-up on the table with the top card exposed; as soon as someone takes it, the next card is available. The combination deck is relatively simple. The top card will indicate two or three punch types — for example, two jabs, or a jab, an uppercut, and a haymaker. If all of them appear on top of your opponent’s stacks (the ones where you play your punches), you may claim the combination. It is worth 4, 5, or 6 points at the end of the round, and it adds to your score regardless of which pile you choose — a pretty valuable addition.

The counterpunch deck contains one card of each color. To claim the counterpunch, look at the colors of the top cards on each player’s stacks. If a matching color appears on top of at least one stack for each player, you may grab the counterpunch. For instance, if the counterpunch card is yellow, there must be a yellow card on top of one of your stacks and on top of one of your opponent’s stacks. Of course, the condition applies to both players, so whoever grabs it first gets it. A counterpunch scores two additional points at the end, which is much less than a combination, but it also takes one of your opponent’s health.
It is worth noting that the cards are especially thick, which is important in a game where you will be shuffling frequently and playing cards fast, without much regard for laying them down gently. They are, in short, quite durable. They are also functional, as it is easy to distinguish their name, color, point value, and which player they belong to (and they even have symbols for the colorblind. The only thing that might be improved is the artwork, which shows only a blurred glove from various angles. I would have appreciated a more distinctive image based on the punch type, but this is not a major issue.

Compared to other real-time games, there is a lot to think about in Jab: playing punches on your opponent; following up haymakers; blocking your opponent’s punches; and keeping an eye out for available counterpunches and combinations. There is so much to think about, in fact, that in my experience the combination and counterpunch decks hardly ever got used. I tried on a few occasions to make use of the counterpunch deck, which seemed the easier to get than combinations. I found it difficult to get more than one in a round, which did not make up for the fact that I played slower because I was looking out for it. As for combinations, those with two of the same kind of punch are feasible, but those with three different punches are simply overwhelming. If I stop to consider what punches are showing and where I should play my punch to get the combination, my play slows to a crawl. It is even more difficult when one of the combination punches is a haymaker, which the opponent is likely to block immediately.

One strategy that is likely to be successful, especially in your first games, is to play cards very quickly onto two of your opponent’s body parts. If you are fast enough relative to your opponent — as my son is to me — you can get all your cards down before your opponent is halfway done. This allows you to grab the “Ding!” tile, which gives you a minus five to your score, but which ends the round immediately. Any time your opponents spends thinking, such as blocking your punches or looking for counterpunches, is less time he has to play his own cards. Plus, there is a reasonable chance that you will still land a haymaker or two, putting further pressure on your opponent to play his own punches quickly before you end the round.

Obviously, this doesn’t make for a very satisfying game. It takes some time to develop the ability to react promptly enough to defeat someone who simply relies on speed. Unlike pure strategy games, it is not enough to know what you want to do during a game; you also have to react quickly enough to do it. Figuring out a strategy has to go hand in hand with learning what you can actually do when the cards start flying, as well as training yourself to react more quickly. One of the advantages of the many options in Jab is that they add replay value. Unlike a game in which a particular strategy becomes obvious, in Jab the strategy evolves with you, and I doubt anyone will ever be able to take full advantage of all the options in the game.

One requirement for any real-time game to work is that both players be interested and comparable in speed, and I found it hard to get adult opponents who were both motivated and roughly equal to me. On the other hand, my son and I had a lot of fun with it. I love the rush of trying to think quickly, of playing a card just in time or of looking back on a game and realizing that I could have won if only I had noticed a certain configuration. If this appeals to you, Jab will almost certainly be a winner. I also like the strategy in the game, in particular the tradeoff between winning a round on points and wearing away your opponent’s health to try for a knockout. Like some other factors in the game, such as playing some cards only with your right hand and others with your left, this tradeoff gives Jab a nice feel. There are, of course, plenty of ways in which it is not like boxing, but it gets the most verisimilitude out of a simple and playable system.

Is Jab revolutionary? My innate caution says no; I don’t think we will see a wave of games imitating it the way card -driven games revolutionized wargaming, for example. Is it unique and fun? Yes, and yes. It is relatively complicated for a real-time game, which means you may need to play a number of times before you begin to pick up on some of its nuances and are able to beat a pure speed strategy. If you can find a good opponent, however, you can get a lot of enjoyment out of this little game.


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