Sunday, June 9, 2013

San Juan Review

San Juan was released in 2004 by Rio Grande Games, and was designed by Andreas Seyfarth.  It is the card version of Puerto Rico, and in my personal opinion, superior to it's parent game.  It also bares a striking resemblance to Race for the Galaxy.

For years San Juan would come up every time Race for the Galaxy was mentioned.  But being such similar games, I always ignored San Juan because I already owned Race for the Galaxy.  However, a few weeks ago San Juan was on sale for iOS.  So I figured why not, lets give it a spin.  What I found really shocked me, and I quickly purchased a physical copy to share with my friends.

Rule Summary

San Juan comes with a deck of 110 building cards, 5 role tiles, 1 Governor tile, and 5 trading house tiles.  To set up the game, each player starts with 1 Indigo plant from the building cards in front of them.  The building cards are then shuffled, and each player receives a hand of 4.  The 5 role tiles are laid out for the players to select, and the 5 trading house tiles are shuffled and placed face down.  One player receives the Governor tile, indicating that they went first in the round.

The role tiles
On their turn, players will select a role.  They will perform that role with an added privilege.  All the other players will perform the same role, without the privilege.  Once every player has selected a role, the current Governor passes the Governor tile to his left, and a new round begins.

Building cards
The five roles are Prospector, Councillor, Builder, Producer and Trader.  When a player chooses Prospector, they draw a card, and all the other players do nothing.  Councillor allows the player who selected it to draw 5 cards and chooses 1 to keep.  The other players draw 2 cards and keep 1.

Builder allows players to play a card from their hand to the table.  The cost of each card is listed on the top.  The cost is paid by discarding cards from your hand to the discard pile.  The person who selected Builder pays one less card.  There are two types of buildings.  Violet buildings will confer some sort of bonus to their owner.  For example, the Carpenter allows players to draw a card after they build a violet building.  All non-violet buildings are production buildings, and they produce goods.

Producer allows players to produce goods.  The player who selected Producer may produce 2 goods, and all the other players may only produce 1.  To produce a good, players take a card from the deck, and place it on one of their production plants.  Production plants can only hold one good at a time.

Trader allows the player that chose it to sell 2 goods, and everyone else may sell 1 good.  A trading house tile with the current trade rates is flipped over.  Players then take cards into their hands for the goods traded.  Traded goods are moved from the production plants to the discard pile.

Play continues like this until one player plays his 12th building.  Then the game immediately ends, and points are added up.  The player with the most points wins.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

San Juan is extremely accessible to new players.  In fact, I think it could be the perfect game to use to introduce role selection as a mechanic.  San Juan really captured the essence of role selection, without confronting players with a bunch of other nonsense.  Additionally, the card play and hand management naturally appeals to people who grew up playing card games.  It also revolves around a single goal, get 12 buildings out.  This helps new players stay focused, instead of constantly asking "What should I do?"  Lastly, the deck is not remarkably complex.  There are only 29 different buildings, most of which just let you draw more cards, or pay less cards in various situations.

Why is it so accessible?

Everything in San Juan is in plain sight.  The roles spell out exactly what they do.  The building cards say exactly what they do, and when they do it.  The play area starts out very simply, with just a single production card out.  Nothing too intimidating is going on.  Players really have a chance to learn the game as they go, focusing on just the cards in their hand, and slowly building up experience with the game.

The view from the first turn

This stands in stark contrast with San Juan's counterparts, Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy.  Puerto Rico slams players with a wide array of options right off the bat.  Plus an extremely busy play area.  Race for the Galaxy assaults new players with a well designed, but initially confusing symbology, and a daunting deck of unique cards.  In both games, players get so sidetracked memorizing all these auxiliary factors to the game, that it detracts from learning the ins and outs of the core mechanics.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

The core of any role selection game, is figuring out how to exploit the roles better than your opponents.  Get the most out of roles other people have selected, and take the role they desperately needed the privilege for. Accomplishing this can be subtle, and I've never been the best at it.  Against experienced players, it can feel like before you know it, you are helping them more than you are helping yourself, every turn.

On top of the role selection aspects of San Juan, is a very compelling hand management mechanic.  Knowing which cards to keep, and which cards to spend makes or breaks a game.  The valuation of certain cards, and knowing how difficult it can be to get a card back once you've spent it, are both lessons usually learned the hard way.  I've lost numerous games thanks to spending a card I should have kept early on.  I've also won quite a few thanks to other people doing the same.

Why is the experience gap a perfect balance?

In San Juan, I find the effect of benefitting from other people's roles to be less pronounced than other role selection games.  Many of the violet buildings explicitly duplicate the privilege of many roles.  Additionally, the produce and trade cycle is somewhat constrained by the fact that you cannot hold onto more goods than you have plants.  The hand limit of 7 cards also caps the effectiveness of certain approaches.

I find these elements create a much better balance.  In Puerto Rico or Race for the Galaxy, it can be an outright massacre when an experienced player is unleashed on new players.  In San Juan, although the experienced player will still likely win, it just feels more competitive.  The scores are a bit closer.  The tableau of cards in front of new players looks more impressive.  I just don't see the situations I see in the other games where one player has handily won, and the other 2 or 3 have barely gotten started.

Don't let these slip through your grasp!

I would give players some tips on hand management though.  You really want to explain that the 6 cost buildings can make or break your score.  Buildings are usually worth about 20 to 25 points on their own, and each 6 cost buildings can add 5 to 10 on top of that.  Additionally, there are fewer of the 6 cost buildings than all the others.  Only 8 cards total out of the 110 card deck!  So once you give one up, it can be very difficult to find another.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

San Juan is a very smooth game, with a fantastic flow.  You constantly feel engaged and in motion.  The rules claim you are supposed to take each role in turn order, but I've never once played that way.  It is entirely possible, and I'd even recommend, that you play the roles simultaneously.  I can think of nothing that gets disturbed by having players know what you traded, produced, or built before they should.  Sure, it's a little more information than they should have.  But honestly, what is anyone really going to do with it?

I will say, the theme comes through a bit loose.  The artwork and the card formatting is what you'd expect from your standard dry eurogame.  It could also be that I get so wrapped up in how fluid the game is, that I don't really take a moment to pause and immerse myself in the theme.  But I doubt it.  Nothing about the game says to me "I'm managing a colony."  Instead I'm just thinking abstractly.  I'm getting more cards, and playing cards that give me bonuses or points.  That is all I think about.

Why is the game so enjoyable?

I'd say the theme could be better.  But to be honest I don't care.  What really enthralls me with San Juan is how constantly engaged with the game I am.  There is practically no down time.  No waiting on other players.  And I love it all the more when it's compared to Puerto Rico.

Every player action is finely interlocked in Puerto Rico, and it drives me mad.  Players never get to make two consecutive decisions.  Players never get to take a complete turn.  Instead they take a piece of a turn, like putting their corn on a boat.  Then they wait.  Then if nobody has messed with them, they take another piece of a turn, like putting their indigo on a boat.  And the game just goes round and round like that.  Take a micro-turn, wait on everyone else.  The gameplay is constantly lurching and halting.

What also helps aid the smoothness of the game is the singular focus.  You draw cards, and you use the cards in your hand to pay for other cards.  Everyone is trying to maximize that drive.  Too often in Race for the Galaxy, phases are broken down into the ones where you do stuff relevant to you, and the ones where you don't.  You have one guy turning a crank for victory point chips, and another guy pursuing a colonize strategy, and another guy chasing a development strategy.  Not so in San Juan.  You are more consistently engaged in the game.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

My gut reaction to San Juan is that it is a very tactical game, with a splash of strategy.  In many ways it is similar to 7 Wonders in that you must deal with what you are given.  The game is a cycle of building up your hand, then building a card from it and discarding some or all of the rest to pay for it.  So superficially, it has that "Pick the best of a random hand of cards" aspect from 7 Wonders.

However, I found 7 Wonders to be a game utterly devoid of strategy.  A controversial opinion, but one I stand by.

It's all about drawing cards.
San Juan adds some strategy by keeping the divergent paths limited.  Production, trade and building are all heavily linked.  If you fail to find the Guild Hall which rewards strong production, you might still be able to play the City Hall to decent effect.  This contrast sharply with 7 Wonders where it's far more difficult to leverage the bonuses from one category towards another.  Warfare never aids you in your Civil buildings.  Additionally, the scoring categories in San Juan are roughly linear, whereas the scoring categories in 7 Wonders scale faster.  So the penalty for failing to follow through on a strategy is far less severe in San Juan.

San Juan also provides a wonderful sense of continuity in the card play.  Maintaining a consistently hand of cards, even a hand that rapidly cycles, is great.  San Juan also allows you to fish for cards using the Counselor role.  Drawing 5 cards and trying to find 1 that fits your goals is a powerful ability, and really helps mitigate the luck.  It allows long term strategies to remain possible when the cards simply aren't working with you.  Something 7 Wonders utterly fails at.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

The dilemmas in San Juan revolve around two facets.  How do you take the most beneficial roles from your opponents?  Then which cards are you willing to part with in order to get one into play?

The role selection has a lot more immediate feedback than other games.  It is constantly putting you in the position of doing what is best for you, or trying to take away what is best for someone else.  If you are really good, you might be able to have it both ways.  You take someone else's best role, and force them to take one that is still good enough for you.  It's a fantastic system to try to navigate.

I think my favorite part of San Juan though is the hand management.  You will find yourself with a hand full of great cards.  Then you must choose.  Do you play the best card, but pay all the others to get it out?  Or do you play a slightly worse card, just so you can hold onto one of the really good ones.  It's especially difficult early in the game.  The clock is ticking and you have to start building your engine!  It can be very painful to sell off one of the powerful 6 cost buildings, only to never see one again the rest of the game.

Why are the dilemmas so good?

The dilemmas in San Juan are easier to assess than other games.  You can plainly see, thanks to the cards, how well positioned a player is for any role.  If they have no goods, it's obvious at a glance.  If their production plants are all full, it's plain for all to see.  If they have a small hand of cards and won't be able to build much, you'll know immediately.

In this example, it could be a perfect time to snatch trader!

All this stands in stark contrast to the busy play areas of Puerto Rico.  A player's potential to ship goods depends not only on what they have, but what everyone else has.  You may spend several minutes looking around the table attempting to assess the ramification of a Captain role!  Then as it turns out, you didn't see the itty bitty wooden brown block hiding behind the mountain of yellow blocks.  So all your analysis was wasted anyways.  That will never happen in San Juan.

Physical component design and limitations?

There isn't much to say about San Juan's components.  The cards are sufficient.  The game comes with a fantastic insert, along with a score pad and pencil, which is thoughtful.  The score sheets are even double sided, and have a total of 4 games per page.  The tiles for the roles and trading are sufficiently thick for a game of this sort.  I'd say for the weight and length of this game, it was appropriately produced.

What could have been better?

Could you tell these buildings apart without the titles?

It's a nitpick, but the cards could have used better art.  For the most part they all just look like random shacks.  The cards don't scream out "This is a Smithy!" or "I am a Carpenter!"  There is a painful lack of color as well.  The artwork isn't exactly black and white.  But it's so washed out, and with such a limited palette, that it may as well be.

Long term prospects?

San Juan was the perfect game I didn't know I needed.  It is a pure role selection game, without any bolted on nonsense.  It's also a fantastic card game with a good balance of tactics and strategy.  What's best, is that anyone can play it.  The skill ceiling is at a good place where experienced players don't completely mop the floor with new players, but are still rewarded.  It plays smoother than Puerto Rico, and it doesn't require you to constantly stay in practice like Race for the Galaxy.  It's a simultaneous action, light card game, but with more depth and strategy than 7 Wonders.

This one game is single handedly keeping 3 wildly different games off my table.  San Juan does a fantastic job of providing the same experience as those games, in a more concentrated dose, with just as many interesting decisions.  I can't believe I ignored it for as long as I did.  So, in case it wasn't clear already, you owe it to yourself to at least try this fantastic little game.


  1. Great review! I also am an owner of both Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy. I've been on the fence for San Juan for quite a while…wondering if I really need the third game in this family. The only thing I like about it better is the role selection mechanic…I like the idea of "stealing" the role bonus from my opponent as opposed to using two sets of identical orders cards in Race. Race is a really great game, though. And the good player is always doing stuff during his opponents actions, that's how you win! Now I've got to read the rest of your blog.

    1. It's a tough call, whether you should get San Juan if you already have RftG. For me it made sense, because RftG is a tough sell in my group. It's hard to teach, takes 2 or 3 full games for people to really get it, and new players get completely shafted. If I had a group I could reliably play it with often, I doubt I would have needed San Juan.

      Some people consider San Juan training wheels for Race for the Galaxy, but I think it's a great game in it's own right.

  2. My understanding is there is a reason it seem so much like Race for the galaxy - as whilst Andreas Seyfarth has his name is on the box - Tom Lehmann had a very strong influence in the design of San Juan.

    Race for the Galaxy is really him taking the concepts he helped develop for San Juan and expanding upon them.

    1. I've heard a lot of stories about why they are so similar. One of them involved both of them being designed in a contest of sorts to see which would be the card version of Puerto Rico. San Juan won, and the other got rethemed into Race for the Galaxy.

  3. I think I might speak with a little bit of knowledge on the subject - a few years ago whilst attended Essen - Tom Lehmann happened to be staying at the same hotel I was at and I got chatting to him at the bar in the evening - and subject of San Juan & Race for the Galaxy came up.
    From what he told me the impression I got was there where two prototype games - Andreas's 'Puerto Rico' card game and Tom's Card Game (Which may or may not have been intended to be a 'Puerto Rico' derived game) - basically neither game was really working properly. However it was decided to effectively merge the two games - and the result was San Juan.
    I don’t really remember him explaining which concepts came from who or who actually did the work of merging the games -but his explanation sort of felt right to me at the time.