Board game review: Jaipur

I don’t normally do board game reviews but thought I’d give one a go for a change. So, I’m going to talk about Jaipur, a quick and fun two player card game, about trading in the bazaars of Rajasthan.

It’s not in the top class of truly great games that I usually evangelise about, but it is fun, easy to introduce new players (and non-gamers) to, and quick-playing, which means it fills a gap in many board game collections: for something light and quick but still satisfying, and good for two players. There’s another reason I felt like writing about Jaipur too, which I’ll mention at the end.

The central theme of Jaipur is trading. You play a trader in the markets of Jaipur, a city in Rajasthan, India, which, as I can personally attest, has a particularly robust and energetic mercantile culture. You deal in gems, gold, silver, cloth, spice, leather and camels, trying to accumulate more wealth than your opponent in order to win the title of “Maharajah’s personal trader”.

However, technically the game’s mechanic isn’t trading. At no point do you barter with your opponent and directly swap cards or anything else. Instead, you both acquire goods from “the market”, a pool of cards which sits between you and which is available to both. If you take a single good, or camels, you get them for free, replacing the taken cards from the deck; alternatively you can put your own cards back into the market instead. In this way, cards you held might end up in your opponent’s hand, but only indirectly via the market. So, there’s none of the frantic negotiation and convoluted deals which are typical of Bohnanza. Instead, like other draw-and-replace set collection games (rummy and mahjong, for example) there’s more tactical thought required, to strike a balance between what you get for yourself, and what you leave or make available for your opponent.

It’s that tactical balance which makes Jaipur such an engaging game. The ultimate aim is to collect sets of identical goods, which you then cash in for points. Hand management also comes into play, as you have to decide and prioritise between goods to stay under your hand limit. Taking individual cards is a cheap way to build up sets, because you don’t have to return anything, but it’s also slow, and entails the risk that a random (and potentially valuable) card will become available to your opponent. Trading several of your own cards back to the market clearly costs more, but also gives you control, as you can fill it with junk. Of course, what you think is junk might be just what your opponent is collecting, and enough low value goods like leather and spice can be as valuable as a smaller set of gold or silver.

Then there are the camels, which are kept in a “herd” separate from your hand, meaning you can hoard loads without affecting your hand limit; since you can take any number for free, they’re an engine for quickly accumulating cards. But the more you take on your go, the more likely you are to turn over something valuable for your opponent. In fact, engineering a situation where the market is entirely camels, thus forcing your opponent to take them all and give you first pick of the new market offerings, is often a good move. As is taking a lot of camels yourself, when your opponent is at their hand limit and won’t be able to take anything. Unless of course there’s some other consideration which makes something else a better move instead – and there could be many such considerations. For such a simple set of rules, Jaipur has surprising tactical depth.

For people who like to have board games explained in terms of other board games, you could say that Jaipur is basically the part of Ticket to Ride where you pick up train cards to make sets, expanded into a whole game. You race to cash them in for diminishing returns, like selling cotton to the overseas markets in Brass. Camels are creepers from Zombie Fluxx but as a tradable resource, plus there’s a Settlers of Catan “biggest army” bonus for having the most of them at the end. (There’s a tradition among some of my board gaming friends, derived from one person’s ownership of a German-language version of Settlers, of referring to the camel bonus as “der größte Kamelherde”.)

The other thing which I love about Jaipur is the customer service from the manufacturers. This is the reason I mentioned earlier for writing this review at all. Recently, I lost one of the goods tokens after a game in the pub (since it’s quick, card-based and doesn’t need too much room, it’s a good pub board game – just take care not to lose any pieces!) I wrote an email to Gameworks, the small Swiss company which publishes Jaipur, asking if I could purchase an individual replacement component from them. Instead, the game designer himself replied, then sent me a copy of the lost token for free – including postage from Switzerland. What a great service!

So, if you’re looking for a game to fill that fun, light, tactical 2-player gap in your collection, try Jaipur. And if you haven’t yet experienced the Golden Age of Board Games (1995-present), Jaipur’s not a bad place to start.

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