Review: Jabuka, a word building game with a fun twist

Jabuka is a coffee themed word game for up to eight players that features a patented alphabet of twistable letters and letter pairs that you use to spell words and to steal words from the other players. 

My kids love playing around with magnetic letters on our fridge. We have a mix of different letter sets from different sources, and we are missing a number of numbers and letters. My kids love being creative with the letters we do have, flipping them to use them in odd ways. That’s what made me really want to check out Jabuka, a game that intentionally encourages this type of creative letter substitution.

Disclosure: Thanks to Jabuka Games Inc. for sending us a copy of Jabuka to check out. Links in this post may be affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. 

What is Jabuka the word game?

Jabuka, coffee bean tiles word game.

Jabuka was designed by Martin Russocki and self-published in 2019. It plays with two to eight players, broken into up to four teams. Each game takes from fifteen minutes to half an hour. While the game is listed as for ages eight and up, you could play with anyone of any age that is able to spell words and I actually recommend this game for helping to teach spelling skills. 

Jabuka has an MSRP of $19.95 and has won a handful of Toy and Educational Game awards. 

In a game of Jabuka, you spill the letter beans on the table and players rush to spell words. The neatest bit here is that the game has a special set of letters and letter pairs that can be used in multiple ways. For example, one tile can be a U, a C or an N. Along with spelling their own words players can also steal words from other players by rearranging the letters, adding letters or rotating letters. 

To get a look at the coffee themed components in this game check out our Jabuka unboxing video on YouTube

My copy of Jabuka showed up in a clear plastic bag that contained a small coffee sack like bag with a cardboard tag on it. Inside this were the folded two-sided instructions for the game and all of the letter tiles. These tiles are made of recycled wood and are shaped like coffee beans. The letters are only printed on one side of the beans, with the special twistable letters being in yellow with the rest being white. In addition, the game includes eight lighter coloured coffee beans that can be used as wildcards during play. 

It’s worth noting that many of my tiles were stuck together. These weren’t difficult to separate and once separated I didn’t notice any damage to any of the stuck tiles. My only other issue with the components is the sack itself, it tends to shed threads which can be a bit annoying. 

How do you play Jabuka?

Unique twisty letter tiles for the word game Jabuka.You start a game of Jabuka with The Pour. You take the sack and dump the coffee bean shaped tiles out onto the table. Do not flip over any of the tiles, but make sure they are all laying flat so that all of the players can see them. 

Players break into up to four teams, and each team takes two of the light coloured beans which act as wildcards.  Any leftover wild beans can be put back into the bag.

Once everyone is ready the game starts.

Players look at all of the letter beans in front of them and try to find words to spell. When they spot a word they say it out loud and grab the beans for that word and place it in front of them. Note that if two players say the same word, then the player who grabs the beans first gets the word. Also if someone grabs a bean for your word before you can finish spelling it, you have to put the letters back and find a new word. With this, there’s no bean wrestling allowed. The first player to touch a bean gets it. 

In addition to spelling their own words, players can also steal words from the opposing team(s). This is done in one of three ways.

  1. Rearranging a word, moving the letters in the word around to make a new word.
  2. Adding letters to a word to make a new work.
  3. Rotating the special multi-use letters to form a new word.

You can also combine any or all of these, for example rearranging some letters and rotating another.

Simultaneously grabbing letter tile beans in Jabuka,While a word can get stolen multiple times, you can’t reuse an earlier form of a word to steal it back. 

As mentioned earlier, each team also has two wildcard beans that can be used as any letter. The trick here though is you have to remember what letter you used your wildcard for and opponents can use that wildcard as any letter when stealing. If a player gets asked what letter one of their wildcards is supposed to be and they don’t know the answer their entire word goes back into the middle. 

When pouring the tiles out, many of the letters will have landed face down. At any time a player can call for a flip. If all players agree, each team gets to flip over two face down beans. 

The game ends after the final flip. The first player to make a word after all the beans are face up says Jabuka and the game stops. 

Teams then add up how many beans they have collected and the team with the most beans wins the game.

Jabuka is an interesting twist on tile-based word games. 

SIlly fridge magnets game we've been playing with the kids. When I was first contacted by Martin, the designer of Jabuka, on Instagram I took a quick look at the Jabuka webpage and immediately wrote back that we would love to check it out.  I was excited to test out the game because of the way it uses letters for other letters by twisting them, which is something my kids have been doing on our fridge for a couple of years now.

We have this ragtag collection of letter and number magnets on our fridge, which have come from various toys over the years. None of these sets is complete, we are missing several letters. My wife and I have both been very impressed by our kids’ creativity in using the letters we do have to spell out ever changing silly fridge messages. 

That’s what got me excited about Jabuka. Here is a game that my kids will instantly get and understand because it incorporates something they’ve already been doing on their own. 

Coffee bean letter tiles for Jabuka.When I first dumped out the letter beans for Jabuka I was excited to see exactly what they had done. I love the look, weight and texture of the beans. They are very light and almost feel like coffee beans, they also make a very satisfying sound when you dump them on the table. 

What I wasn’t expecting is the fact that all of the twistable letters were in a different colour. Along with this, each twistable letter can only be used to make specific other letters. There’s even a chart on the rulebook to show all of the legal letter swaps. This surprised me as I had expected to be able to try to make whatever you wanted out of any or all the letters. With this, my entire family found there were some obvious omissions. 

The Jabuka Twistable AlphabetThe letters included mix and match small and capital letters. Due to this I fully expected a capital I lowercase l combo to exist, as well as an interchangeable Z and N, and a V you can use as an A. My kids noted a few other combinations they were used to doing with our magnets that weren’t legal here. 

Now a quick fix would be to just allow for these swaps to work. However, the font used doesn’t really allow for it. For example, the L looks more like a checkmark and is meant to be used for V and L, and the Z has a line through it to specifically distinguish it from the N. 

The other surprise for me was the fact that there are also two-letter combinations that can be twisted to make other letter pairs. This is something that I thought was really cool (and not something we can do with our fridge magnets!). I really appreciated this aspect of the Jabuka letter tile set, which didn’t seem to be highlighted in any of the marketing material out there. 

I did ask the designer about their choice of which letters to use and why they didn’t use some obvious swaps. They replied that they wanted people to be able to pick up the game quickly and easily and that having the special letters in a different colour makes it easier for new players to get the concept. He also noted that having a legal letter list eliminates any possibility of arguments in what is meant to be a light party game. 

Building twisty words in Jabuka.While not quite what I expected, the Jabuka letter set does work well when you are playing the game. It really does require some creative thinking in order to build words with this tile set and even more imagination to figure out ways to use those twisty letters and letter pairs to steal words from the other team. 

This stealing words aspect of Jabuka is something else that is unusual for a word-based tile-laying game. I can’t think of any other game that lets you steal your opponent’s words by modifying them. While this is a bit like building on a word in Scrabble or Upwords, I’ve not seen it in a game where every player has their own collection of completed words in front of them.

This stealing of words, combined with the “rush to grab letters” mechanic, does mean that this game can be very cutthroat and that’s not going to be for everyone. 

As for me and my family, we dig it. This is a neat word game that’s doing a few things different from the other similar games on the market and I love discovering any game doing something new. While we may be a bit biased towards the letter twisting mechanic due to our fridge magnet game, that system works really well here and I really dig the way it includes letter pairs and not just individual letters. While I do wish there was a bit more variety in the way the letters can be used, I understand wanting to keep things simple.  

My biggest concern with Jabuka is the real time competitive nature of the game. While some families may be up for fast furious fun with players trying to grab beans before other players and lots of stealing of each other’s words, other families are going to prefer a less confrontational style of word game. Now I will say there’s nothing stopping a group that isn’t into the take that aspects of Jabuka from adding some friendly house rules, such as players taking turns to make words or removing the ability to steal words from other players, but that’s not how the game is designed to be played.

You can use the same letter multiple ways in Jabuka.If you dig word games I recommend giving Jabuka a try. It’s definitely not “just another word tile game” rehashing all of the same old mechanics from many word games that came before it. Jabuka adds an additional twist (pun intended) in both the multi-use tiles and the ability to steal words from your opposing team(s). 

If you aren’t a word game fan, you probably haven’t made it this far into the review. If you have made it this far, I’m sorry to say I don’t think Jabuka will win you over to loving word games. Perhaps if you really dig cutthroat games where you can literally steal the win from your opponent, you may find something here to enjoy.

If you own a coffee shop, you absolutely should pick up one or more copies of Jabuka and just have it out on the tables for your patrons to play with. 

Winning word spread from Jabuka.One note about playing with kids, one of my kids is an avid reader with a very impressive vocabulary and she loved the game. She kicks my butt every time we play against each other. My other daughter, who also likes to read, struggles with spelling and due to that did not enjoy playing Jabuka. She particularly hated the fact that players could steal her hard won words. That said, I think with some patience further plays may help with her spelling and I think the tiles in this game will be an excellent educational tool for her to play around with on her own or with some supervision.  

This leads me to my final note about Jabuka. In addition to being an interesting word game, I think the tiles here are just cool to have. Like the Knot Dice we reviewed in the past, you can leave these out onto a coffee table for guests to fiddle with. I think they could also be a great learning tool for teachers and parents. 

We talked about our favourite word based party games on our last podcast episode, What’s In A Word? At this point, I would happily add Jabuka to that list of party game favourites. While it wasn’t quite what I expected, it’s still a very solid quick word game that is doing something different from all of the other games on that list. 

If you are picking up a copy of Jabuka from Amazon.com you can use the code SPEAKJABUKA to save 10%.

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