Board Game Review: JAIPUR

Pure, solid two-player bliss.

I’m all for big games that require a group of folks, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and strategies that you learn over time just as much as you learn the game itself. There’s a real joy to that sort of gameplay that feels unique to board games. As such, I try to organize nights like this as much as possible.

But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to put together. Unless you have a dedicated group meeting on dedicated nights for (in all likelihood) a dedicated game, scheduling a handful of friends can be rough. Who do you ask? Is anyone out of town? Are any holidays coming up? How large a net should you cast? Do you ask more people than you need, since not everyone is going to be available? What if you do and then everyone IS available? Do you tell the extra folks to fuck off?

It’s worth the trouble, but sometimes you still don’t want the trouble. For this reason, I always have a special eye out for games designed for two players. There’s something beautiful in the simplicity of going up against just one pal in a game both of you understand. Often these games are simple too, which means it’s easy to get going if you need to kill a little time. Of course there are big ones as well, such as my beloved Star Wars: Rebellion (the review for which is in our new Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker issue of BMD!), that can take a full table and three to four hours to play.

Jaipur is one of the smaller games, as suitable for a quiet night at home as it is while waiting for food to arrive at a restaurant. Learning how to play is easy as well, though the really good stuff comes from multiple sessions with the same opponent. The game is perfectly balanced and packs just enough nuance to keep things fresh as you and your pal get better and better at understanding its full potential.

You and your opponent are rival merchants. Throughout the game, you buy wares at the market (five cards drawn face-up between you). When you feel ready, you can exchange your collected wares for money. The person with the most money at game’s end (when you run out of cards or totally cash out three different goods) wins.

Sounds simple, but it gets tricky in a hurry. The five cards from the market represent goods you can pick up, but you can only have seven at a time. You can take one and replace it from the shared deck, but if you want more than one, you have to replace from your own hand.

Or you can replace them with camels. That’s right, in addition to goods and money, this game has camels. They don’t seem like much at first, but it doesn’t take long to realize the paramount importance of camel management. For starters, whoever has the most camels at the end of the game gets five extra dollars added to their final tally. But that’s nothing. When grabbing more than one good from the market, you can replace those cards with camels instead of goods from your hand, which means you don’t lose anything AND your opponent is stuck at the market with nothing to buy but a bunch of lousy beasts.

Jaipur is really a game about waiting for the right moment to unload your wares. You get bonuses when you sell multiple goods at the same time, but building up, say, five gold cards can be risky. What if your opponent buys all the gold while you’re waiting? What if you’re saving up for that big bonus and a better opportunity comes along? You can only hold seven cards, after all, making it very difficult to follow more than one selling strategy at a time.

Many opportunities will pass you by in Jaipur; you just can’t have them all. They frustrate, but frustration is an equal opportunist in this game. Well-matched players should experience both heartbreak and triumph throughout, and that’s a big part of what makes it so great.

I’m a sucker for complicated games with lots of crazy pieces, but it’s also a delight to just hold onto a hand of cards while watching a stack of chips grow in front of you. Or not grow, if you’re having a bad time. Either way, Jaipur is still pretty great. The games don’t last super long, and it’s set up to be a best out of three situation, so it won’t be long before you’re bouncing back and selling all the rubies out from under your opponent’s nose.

Jaipur is in that rarified territory where it couldn’t possibly be any better than it already is. It’s perfect. In fact the gameplay is so pure, you could get some paper and scissors and make your own version at home if you really wanted to and it would be just as good. Probably not as pretty though.