Jab: Real Time Boxing Review
So, I feel like it's only fitting to start this review with a confession. I had absolutely no interest in playing the next game. I had read a review or two about it, and it really didn't seem to be something I would enjoy. In fact, when I was talking to Michael Mindes (owner of Tasty Minstrel Games) at GenCon, I was very reluctant to even accept a demo copy of it. The game I'm referring to is Jab: Real-Time Boxing. In my previous experience, "Real Time" in board games is normally synonymous with "horrible". Fortunately, I did accept the copy from him, and this allowed me to write the rest of this review (which, of course, I feel is definitely worth reading)!
In Jab, each player represents a boxer that is attempting to defeat his opponent - either through a knockout, or through winning three rounds by judge's decision. Each boxer is represented by three cards; a head, left side, and right side - each of which can be punched by your opponent. Each player will also have two piles of punch cards in front of him (one in front of his left hand, one in front of his right) - and he must play the cards from the appropriate hand (for example, right side pile with the right hand). When landing these punches, a boxer is looking to do a number of things: stagger his opponent by landing a Haymaker follower by a punch of the same color (this steals 2 health from your opponent), counter-punch by having a punch of the same color on each player's stack (this is worth 2 judge points and steals 1 health from your opponent), or by landing combos (such as Jab, Uppercut, Cross) by having each of the punch types listed on the current combo showing on your opponent (this is worth judge points at the end of the round). You can also block your opponent's punches by playing cards of either the same color or type on top of the showing card (for example, if they have hit you with a Red Hook, you can block it with any Red card or any Hook card - or you can block a Haymaker with any card). Once players run out of cards, the round ends and judge points are tallied - with the player gaining the most points winning that round (assuming nobody was knocked out). If a player runs out of health and then takes more damage, he can be knocked out, thus immediately ending the bout (and causing massive amount of trash talking).
(And then, after declaring a winner, you repeatedly have rematches since neither player wants to walk away after a loss - be warned, this can cause a never ending loop in your life. Make sure that you are in a location in which this is acceptable. You don't want to start a game of Jab at the coffee shop 30 minutes before they close - you will only have completed 2 or 3 of the necessary 15 games by then, and you will have to go to an alternate location to continue punching each other in the face.)
The first pro to Jab was that there really was strategy in a "real time" board game. I must admit that I didn't really expect this, as most "real time" games seem to only be about how fast a player can burn through his pile of cards. However, with the fact that you can win both by judge's decision and by knockout means that you have to pay attention to multiple things at the same time and make sure that you play a balanced game. If one player is focused solely on judge points, he can find himself knocked out before the three rounds are over; conversely, if a player is focusing only on the knockout, his opponent can fairly easily defeat him by playing a little bit of defense and winning the judge decisions.
The other aspect of Jab that works very well is that there are enough things going on in the game to force you to be scatter-brained, but not so many that you can't possibly pay attention to all of them. Here are the primary things you will need to focus on: going for a combo, landing haymakers, preventing your opponent from landing haymakers (and possibly blocking a few other punches for good measure), watching your health, and scoring counter punches. Sound easy enough? It's really not. I think that if much more was introduced to the game, then it might become cumbersome - I think that the designer did a very good job of adding enough to the game to make it a challenge, without adding so much that it was unnecessarily complex.
The next point is more of a neutral aspect to the game. Both of the boxers are the exact same. I think it would have been interesting to have an "advanced" mode in which the players were able to choose from different boxers that actually had different characteristics. Perhaps one that took three health instead of two when staggering an opponent, but that loses 5 judge points each round. Another one that gets bonus points for combos. One that staggers an opponent for one health each time he plays a haymaker (but a stagger does nothing). One that gains health whenever he blocks a haymaker. Obviously, I haven't playtested any of these things, so I don't know if they would work very well, and I especially don't know if they would keep the game balanced, but I think it would have been an interesting thing to add even more replayability to an already high quality game. (And so, if the designer or publisher is reading this, it might be a nice little expansion opportunity - all you would need are extra boxer "heads" that told you what the ability was).
Now for the first (and biggest) con for Jab. It's really hard to teach new people. By this, I don't mean that the rules are especially complicated - in fact, my summary at the top covered around 75% of them. What I mean is that after I've played the game a few times, I may not be great at the game, but I'm going to be much better than a new player. And so, if I teach a new player (and then completely destroy him so that he runs crying to his momma… you know, after he regains consciousness), it is hard to figure out how exactly to let them play the game and feel competitive. If they don't feel like they have a chance, then they are not going to want to play the game again. There may need to be some official "handicap" rules that are implemented in games involving newcomers.
The next con for Jab was that, as with any game in which you and your opponent are reaching across the table at each other as quickly as possible, you get in each other's way. Now, from what I have seen, this doesn't actually start happening until you and your opponent start getting pretty good at the game (because that's when you start playing faster). And, honestly, it doesn't happen nearly as often as I was expecting after initially reading the rules. Nevertheless, you will inevitably have a collision mid-air over the table at some point, in which you will need to pause and re-set the game so that the card that was in your hand and went flying across the room can actually be placed in a valid location. This doesn't happen very often, and is actually somewhat amusing when it does, but it is still inconvenient.
Overall, I give Jab: Real Time Boxing an 8.0/10. I would never have thought to buy this game. And yet, if I had, I would have been quite pleasantly surprised, and I would have thought that it was worth the money. I would recommend that if you have the chance, you try this game - it won't be a perfect fit for every player, but I think that most of you will be quite pleasantly surprised!
And, as a final passing thought as I conclude this summary - it might be really fun to play this against one of your normal opponents that suffers from "Analysis Paralysis" (taking forever to take their turns because they have to weigh their options for hours on end). It might help you relieve some of your aggression as they get slaughtered for taking forever to play!
I would like to thank Tasty Minstrel Games for providing me with a review copy of Jab: Real Time Boxing.