CHENNAI: Growing up, carrom was an inevitable part of Sunday afternoons. If you didn’t have a carrom board yourself, you almost certainly knew somebody who did — a friend, a neighbour, a cousin. We’re not talking about carrom today; instead, we’re talking about a game that has traces of carrom (and that other classic, crokinole) in its DNA — JamSumo.
...Except that that’s not quite accurate. JamSumo is just a wooden board (with legs raising it slightly off the table), 24 dice in four colours, and a single sheet of paper with the rules to both games printed on either side. That’s right, ‘both’; because you can play two games with those components, one called Jam and the other called Sumo.
Let’s start with Jam, which is straightforward — your goal is to flick your dice (one at a time), and get them to fall through the hole located exactly in the centre of the board. If you do so, it’s removed from the game and the first player to eliminate all their dice in this way ends the round. At that point, every other player immediately scores negative points equal to the sum of the values of their remaining dice.
Sumo is equally simple — each player arranges all their dice in one of the corners of the board, and then they take turns flicking one of them at a time. Your goal in Sumo is to knock your opponents’ dice off the board (off the sides or through the hole, doesn’t matter which); but if your flick fails to make contact with an opponent, you lose one of your dice. As soon as one player loses all their dice, the round ends and everybody scores points equal to the sum of the values of their remaining dice. In both Jam and Sumo, you play as many rounds as you have players and whoever has the highest score wins.
Using dice as your pieces was a brilliant design choice, because it gives each individual piece a unique value. When playing Jam, a six is a terrible thing to have — that’s -6 to your score, potentially! — so it becomes a priority to eliminate that die. Conversely in Sumo, you want to guard your precious fives and sixes and hope they survive the round. This added twist creates more interesting decisions to make and heightens the risk-reward element; which is always so important in a dexterity game. Also, Sumo’s added wrinkle of eliminating dice that fail to strike at least one opponent is amazing — it not only forces you to employ a little more finesse, but it also means that there are only ever a couple of bad shots separating the player who looks to be running away with it and the one who looks to be done and dusted.
JamSumo is the creation of one man, Gavin Birnbaum — he not only designed it, he also made the first few copies himself by hand. Thankfully, it can be found a little more easily now as the result of a licensing deal but it’s still not widely available. Still, it’s worth the effort — this is a fantastic game that’s well worth your time. For me, personally, it brings back memories of those long-ago Sunday afternoons playing carrom with (and losing badly to) my grandfather; and that’s why it’s never leaving my collection.