I made so many stupid excuses not to buy Jaipur. Don’t repeat my mistake – go out and buy it now. Immediately. Go on.
I had it on my ‘to get’ list for a long time – it appears in all kinds of contexts, recommended by all kinds of people, and the consistency with which it’s been suggested meant that it couldn’t not end up there. However, whenever it came time to get a new game I’d cast my eyes down the list and just… skip over Jaipur.
‘I don’t much like the box’, I said.
‘Two player trading game? There’s no way that can be good’, I said.
‘Oh, a game in which I trade diamonds and fitted sheets? How thrilling but I already have eleventy billion of those’, I said.
‘Looks too much like Splendor’, I said.
‘I think these magic beans would be a more sensible use of my money this month’, I said.
The excuses kept coming. As time went by it just became something of a tradition not to buy it. Not buying it was comforting, in its own quiet way.
That, as I may have previously mentioned, was a mistake. I bought Jaipur over Christmas largely because it was the exact right price to fill an otherwise unallocated chunk of my game budget. It slipped in based on convenience rather than my own inherent desire for it.
And now I spend approximately 90% of my waking hours wishing I was playing it.
It is so good. There is no way this game should be this good – and yet it is. It has burrowed into my collection like a tick, and there’s nothing short of surgical extraction that is ever going to remove it.
I repeat – it shouldn’t be this good. I mean, come on. There’s nothing of substance in that insert – it’s a set of cards and a few tokens. And more than that, it’s a set of tokens that are a pain in the tallywhacker to set up for play. You need to arrange some of them in descending order of value, others need shuffled, and others still are just put to the side with no work on your part. It takes more time to set up Jaipur for each round of play than it does to actually learn its rules. Really though that’s testament to how elegant Jaipur’s mechanics are, rather than how onerous the task of setup can be. It doesn’t take long, not really, it just takes longer than I would like. This, in case you are wondering, will be the sole criticism I levy at the game. Sorry, I really should have said ‘spoiler alert’ there.
In Jaipur, we play the role of ambitious traders seeking to earn the favour of the Maharaja. This we do by showing our canny gift for identifying a lucrative deal, and the killer instincts needed to seal it. We’re leveraging our own assets to horse-trade, or in this case camel-trade, for valuable goods and bulk deals. However, we’re doing this while keeping a suspicious eye on the equally ambitious merchant sitting across the table. There is supply and demand in Jaipur, and as we take advantage of one we risk ceding the momentum on the other. Jaipur is a constant tug of war as we attempt to bend the market in our favour. It’s a game that is about intuiting where the pivot point for the best possible deal may be found, and hoping that the tempo of play favours us when that moment arises. It’s a two player trading game with all the hustle, bustle and energy of an Indian marketplace.
Let’s talk about how it works before we discuss why it works. It’s a trading game for two players. It really shouldn’t work.
In Jaipur we are both working with a set market of goods along with a hand of cards that represent our own personal warehouse stores. These can be any of six trade goods (diamonds, gold, silver, silks, spices, and leathers) or camels (a kind of wild resource that we can hoard freely). Our warehouses are limited, and so we can hold only seven trade goods at once. Camels though – our herd can grow as mighty as we like. The market begins with three camels and two goods randomly drawn from the deck. Those two goods might well be ‘another two camels’, but more often they’ll be one or two of the core commodities that will be so important in the upcoming orgy of mercantilism.
Our hands are made up of five random cards – we place our camels in front of us in our ‘herd’, and the rest represents our secret, hidden stockpiles.
AND THEN IT ALL BEGINS.
Turn by turn, we make our decisions. Each turn, we can choose to take cards, which we can do in one of three ways:
- We can take all the camels in the market, and replace them with cards from the deck. Oooo, that’s so risky.
- We can take a good of our choice from the market and add it to our hand, provided we don’t exceed our hand limit. That’s safe. It’s easy. It’s also slow and boring. Is this your first time in a bazaar? Get a grip of yourself.
- We can trade any number of our goods and camels for any number of goods in the market. We can swap two camels and a bolt of silk for three leather, or two leather for a gold and a silver, and so on.
Or we can choose to sell cards, permitting us to discard cards from our hand in exchange for the appropriate number of goods tokens. If we’re selling the three most expensive goods (gold, silver and diamonds) we need to sell a minimum of two at a time. Otherwise we sell as many as we like. If we sell three or more, we can claim a bonus for our savvy selling:
Ah, but here’s the thing – there’s a real first mover advantage here in Jaipur. As goods flood the market, they become less lucrative and the tokens we collect are worth less. If we are the first to sell leather, we’ll get four points for our first sale, three for our second, and two for our third. Every other sale of leather earns a single point. If you sell one piece of leather right at the start of the game, you’ll earn as much as whoever sells four at the end.
So, sell as quickly as you can, right?
Sometimes maybe, but also probably not – see, those bonus chips you get are extra points and the more you can sell in one deal the more points you’ll get. Some of those bonuses can be worth more than the deal itself. Those end-game leathers might only earn four points for the goods, but that bonus might be another six points on top. Sometimes it’s worth selling cheap goods that your opponent is ignoring just for the set bonus that comes with it.
But it’s risky to put too much hope in the bonus chips. Maybe you won’t be quite so lucky, because the bonus tokens are shuffled at the start of a round and you won’t know what the deal bonus is worth until you sell your goods.
So when is the best time to sell leather? When would a canny merchant take the guaranteed points, and when would they hold out for the more potentially lucrative deals? How long can they wait? Jaipur remember is a two player game – if you don’t take advantage of a deal, then your opponent certainly will. A moment’s hesitation can be the difference between winning a round and losing it. You might wait one too many turns and find your opponent suddenly sells a small lot of spices just to burn your arse on the larger set you were collecting. You might sell up one turn too early and see two silver entering the market – that same two silver would have made your three-silver deal into a game defining five-item masterstroke. It’s all about trying to read the intention of your opponent while making sure you hold your nerve long enough to maximise your profit. Faint heart never won Maharaja favour and all that.
But then there are those camels – the player with the largest herd at the end gets a five point bonus, and it is so easy to accumulate camels since you pick them all up at once. But that is such a risky play because each camel you pick up is one fresh good that will enter the market. It’ll be your opponent too that gets the first chance to plunder it. There’s no such thing as passing your turn in Jaipur – every move you make is going to change the state of the game somehow, and you need to be careful not to leave yourself on the back-foot as the goods start pouring in. Even if you’re not collecting what your opponent is collecting you need to be wary of letting them have too much without a fight. Those five item deals can be worth as much as ten points and that can win or lose you a game.
But on the other hand you don’t have unlimited ability to store goods, and you don’t have unlimited resources with which to procure them. You can trade what you like, but sometimes you like what you could trade. You can’t always be making things difficult for your opponent because you need to be making things cushy for yourself at the same time. You need to be aware of the flow of the market so as to allow you throw out an elbow at the right time whilst still keeping yourself in the luxury to which you have become accustomed.
Jaipur continues on in this way until either three piles of tokens have been used up, or the deck runs out of goods. Even that gives Jaipur a frisson of excitement because games can end at any moment and sometimes it’s worth cutting your losses with a conclusion at a time you prefer rather than one an opponent might prefer. It means you might want to just cash out with four gold rather than wait for the fifth to appear, simply because you think your opponent might end the game on their next turn. When that happens you total up your points and then reset – you play in a best of three playoff, with the winner of each round earning a token of favour. The player with two tokens at the end wins the game. They will also undoubtedly be in the process of setting up for a best of five because oh god Jaipur is so much fun.
I’ve seen people complaining that it’s a game where luck matters too much, and I understand that point of frustration. But, as with Blood Bowl, it’s a game where managing and mitigating the randomness is an important part of the game. You are never truly a victim of randomness without having played some role in its manifestation. Sure, taking four or five camels from the market is an easy way to expose yourself for a vicious shafting – but you were the one that chose to do that. You can be a lot cannier with your trades if you want to avoid the volatility of a bazaar beatdown. You can ease goods in and out of the market, leaving the riskier propositions to your opponent. Present them with a menu of choices they don’t want, and a couple of camels – that way you control the gradient of revelation, and you do so in your favour. Don’t leap to deals instantly when you think you have a bit of breathing space – leave them for when your other options will yield too much momentum to your opponent. Jaipur is a game of subtle, nuanced tools for dealing with randomness and learning to use them well is part psychology and part risk management. Jaipur is a game of holding your fire until you see the whites of their eyes. And even if it weren’t, you play several times which does a good job of dulling the impact of randomness even in a thirty minute playtime. There’s luck, sure – but to a much greater extent you make your own luck.
And for all of this, it’s incredibly quick and energetic to play. It’s not a game that encourages careful consideration of each monumental decision. It’s a game that thrives in the instant value judgement that coheres from an intuitive understanding of a dozen contributory factors of which you may not even be fully aware. As such, play is a frantic, electric blur of trades, counter-trades, seizing of camels and frantic selling of goods before your opponent can devalue your entire hand. It doesn’t prohibit thought-heavy play but it does a great job of injecting enough uncertainty via human psychology that it’s usually not worth the effort.
It’s glorious. My only complaint is that I didn’t add it to my collection earlier, and that’s the fault of Past Michael rather than of Jaipur itself. Screw Past Michael. That guy is always letting me down. Don’t be like Past Michael – go buy Jaipur. Buy it. Buy it. Buyit. Buyitbuyitbuyitbuyitbuyitbuyitbu…
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