Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jaipur: The Trading Game for Two Players

I had heard buzz around the Internet about a great two-player game called Jaipur, but I wasn't sure about it. Mostly because the pricetag was $25, the box was small, and the components, as far as I could gather, were a deck of cards (granted, beautifully illustrated cards) and a few stacks of pogs. But when I found it for $15, I decided it was worth a try, and I haven't been disappointed.

Jaipur is a game of trading for two players that is played over three rounds. The winner of each round receives a "seal of excellence," and the player who secures two seals of excellence becomes the Maharaja's personal trader, thus winning the game.

The goods with their cor-
responding pogs. The art
really makes you want
the more valuable goods,
The game starts with three camels being placed in the center of the table in a row, a hand of five cards dealt to each player, and two random cards turned face up to complete the five-card center row (the market). The cards depict either goods or camels. The pogs, which are divided into expensive goods (diamonds, gold, and silver) and regular goods (cloth, spice, and leather) are organized in descending order by value off to the side. The bonus tiles for three-, four-, or five-card trades are shuffled. Players remove any camels from their hands and place these cards in front of them. Players determine who will go first (after the initial deciding, the loser of the previous round always starts the next one) and are off.

On a turn, players may do only one of two actions: "buy" cards (take cards from the market) or "sell" cards (discard cards for pogs). This is such a simple concept, but the way this is done is clever. Here are options for buying cards. A player may:
  • take one face-up good
  • take all the camels
  • take two or more goods, replacing them with cards from his hand and/or camels
Players may also sell goods, one type per turn, discarding cards from their hand and taking an equal number of pogs from that good's pile. If three, four, or five goods are discarded in this way, players also take a corresponding bonus tile. (For example, if five cloth are discarded, a player would take the top five cloth pogs and the top bonus pog on the five pile.) Each pog has a point value on it, and the combined point value of all the pogs players acquire in a round will determine who receives the seal of excellence for that round.

Now, that's the basic concept, but here's where it gets tricky (and deceptively clever). Your hand size can never exceed seven cards, but camels don't count against your hand size. Taking one card from the market is the slowest way to build up your hand, but it also limits the new cards your opponent will get to choose from (as only one card from the deck will replace it). Taking all the camels is a good move sometimes, as it gives you more to work with (camels don't count against your hand size, but they can be exchanged when you want to take more than one card from the market), but taking all the camels also opens up the market for your opponent (taking three camels, for example, gives your opponent three new goods to choose from on his turn). Exchanging goods is a great way to get what's best in the market, but you have to get rid of cards in your hand or camels, which your opponent can then take. Each buying option is a trade-off.

Each selling option also has its set of challenging decisions. I mentioned before that pogs are organized in descending order by value. This means that the most valuable pogs of each good go to the player who sells first. But players get a hefty bonus if they trade in three, four, or especially five goods at a time. (Selling three goods can yield a random 1-3 point bonus, selling four a 4-6 point bonus, selling five an 8-10 point bonus.) Should a player wait to trade in more goods, or should he sell early to get the top tiles? The expensive goods (diamonds, gold, and silver) are worth the most points per good, but they also must be traded in sets of at least two (all other goods can be sold one at a time). And the pogs are shorted: there aren't as many pogs representing goods as there are cards of that good in the deck. So if you wait too long to sell, you could be out of luck.

The round is over whenever three piles of pogs are emptied. Whoever has the most camels receives a five-point bonus and points are calculated to determine who receives the seal of excellence.

A seal of excellence atop a pile of cash. This is how I roll.
Jaipur is a fantastic game. A trading game for two players seems like a lame idea, but it is surprisingly excellent in Jaipur. Players don't trade among themselves (a la Settlers of Catan), but the interaction with the market really does make it seem like you're trading with the other player. I like that every decision made in this game has consequences for both players, so it's highly interactive. And it's not a game where one player can really run away with it (at least if the other player is careful) because it is so well balanced.

I also like it because it is so variable. At the beginning of a round, I might start with a hand of three leather, making me think I should collect leather. But when gold or diamonds show up, I have to rethink my strategy on the fly. I could exchange those leather in my hand for gold (which are worth more), but in doing so I would give my opponent the chance to take my leather. I like this constant reevaluation. It keeps the game interesting.

Overall, Jaipur is a blast to play. And it's so simple (that doesn't mean "easy"). I read and understood the rules after one pass through the rulebook (about seven minutes), taught it to Abby in about five minutes, and it takes about twenty minutes to play a full, three-round game (though sometimes a game ends after two rounds, like when Abby smokes me). It is fast-paced, and because there is only one decision per turn (buy or sell?), I don't anticipate "analysis paralysis" setting in for even the most overconscious players. And the game gets deeper the more that we play. At first we played conservatively, trying to collect sets. Now we play much more aggressively, which makes the game fun and also more interactive.

The downside of Jaipur? You're paying $25 for cards and pogs. I wasn't willing to make that initial investment in such a compact game before I had played it, but now that I have, I think the $25 pricetag is worth the amount of fun contained in the game, especially for people who have trouble finding two-player games. (This, by the way, should be added to my earlier list of great two-player games.) Another downside is that Jaipur is a two-player game exclusively. This is great because many two-player games are variants of larger games, few are specifically built for it, but it also limits the chances you'll get to play it in larger settings.

I can't recommend this game more highly. The artwork, components, and theme are great, but the gameplay is phenomenal. Seriously, check this game out.


  1. I read an interesting article the other day about people judging the cost of a board game by the components. It pointed out that people fail to consider the amount of time designing, testing, creating art, and doing all sorts of other work to create the game. And no one complains about books, movies, or videogames, which come with a stack of printed paper, or a small plastic case with a single disc inside, respectively.

  2. It's true, and Abby justly chided me on the same point. Even while we play sometimes, Abby and I are taken aback by how elegantly the game plays. The fluid nature of the game is certainly worth the $25 price point. I just wasn't willing to make the leap until I had played it--this was silly of me. My bad.

    Though there are a good many people who have been judging the price of books by the cost of goods, especially in the ebook pricing war.