I don't like Puerto Rico.
There, I said it. Yes, I realize that this amounts to heresy in the German gaming world but it's true—I simply don't like the game. As such I was not particularly interested in San Juan; the lighter, card game version of Puerto Rico. My first few playings were not promising; it felt processional, predictable and rather luck-dependant. To be honest I'm not sure why I stuck with it but I'm glad I did as I've grown quite fond of the game.
While San Juan has many similarities to its parent, there are just as many differences. Buildings, plantations, money and victory points have all been combined into a single set of cards; colonists have been removed completely. Each player maintains a hand of cards and each of these is either a production or violet building. Each has a cost to build as well as a number of victory points. The production buildings allow you to produce one of five types of good whereas the violet buildings grant you some special ability. The interesting thing is that the cards are also money—in order to build one card you must spend others in your hand. The decisions you make about which to keep and which to spend will be the most important you make in the game.
The sequence of play is lifted directly from Puerto Rico; there are five roles and on a turn a player will choose one of them. All players will then perform the chosen task with an advantage given to the choosing player. Subsequent players will then choose one of the remaining roles until everyone has had a choice. The starting player then passes to the next player, all roles are again available and a new round is performed. This continues until one player has built twelve buildings at which point the game stops and victory points are tallied.
One of the first things I most appreciate about San Juan is its pace—it moves very quickly. Only very rarely will a player have a whole lot to think about on a particular turn. The mechanics of the game are quite simple and at first I thought it was also strategically simplistic but I've been pleasantly surprised. I think the key is the variety of buildings and the differing strategies they allow. More specifically, how various combinations of buildings can work together and how these will affect your choice of role. For example, a Well grants its owner a bonus whenever he produces two or more goods. By itself, you'd need to choose the Producer in order to take advantage of this but if you also build an Aqueduct (which lets you produce an additional good) you'll be able to use the power of the Well almost every time. Deciding how best to build complementary buildings greatly increases the appeal of the game.
A criticism that has been leveled at San Juan is that there is very little interaction. To some degree this is true although I tend to see it as a feature and not a bug. It's enjoyable to be able to formulate a plan and work towards achieving it with little interference from your opponents. However, this is not to say that there's no interaction at all; obviously you'll try to choose roles that help yourself but not your opponents. Further, I've found that there are a number of rather subtle ways in which you can affect your fellow players—such as "hiding" cards in the Chapel to take them out of play. Still, these sorts of tactics tend to be somewhat "covert" and so San Juan has a fairly friendly feel to it. I think this makes it rather ideal for casual game players who are seeking a competitive but not necessarily aggressive game.
I believe that success ultimately depends largely on anticipating what your opponents will do and, interestingly, this changes greatly with the number of players. Different tactics will work much differently in a three player game than they will with four players, more than I would have thought. I guess this has a lot to do with the fact that only three roles will be chosen per round in a three-player game and this can have a pronounced effect. It also leads to another level of interaction—for example, you do not want to be the only production-oriented player in a three player game, you may find that neither of your opponents will choose the Producer or the Trader. This general line of thinking extends to a four player game as well—you can do quite well if you align your interests with other players. This sort of subtle interaction may elude a new player but it is there.
In my first few games, I concentrated on violet buildings (and did quite well as a matter of fact); it did not seem that production buildings were worth as much. The fault with this line of thinking is that the Producer and Trader become very poor choices—any time you are forced to choose either role you will likely help another player more than you help yourself. However, if your opponents are themselves choosing these two roles (presumably because they have many production buildings themselves) then it's less likely that you will get stuck with either. So again, your best decision often depends on what the other players are doing.
Still, there is a healthy dose of luck involved as you are limited to a large degree by what you draw. If you don't draw the Library you can't really agonize over whether to build it, can you? However, it's this limitation that leads to the quick pace I mentioned earlier—San Juan plays fast, fast, fast. There's very little downtime and players are constantly occupied throughout. Occasionally you will have a handful of cards and a tough decision to make but these occurrences tend to be rare.
I don't want to discuss individual cards too much but one that has received a lot of debate is the Guild Hall. This card grants the owner 2 victory points for each production building she owns and most people agree that this is far too powerful. I tend to agree and so we have changed it so that the owner gets 2 victory points for each unique production building she owns. This seems to work quite well and brings it in line with the other 6-value buildings.
The production of San Juan is of a high standard; the cards are good (but not excellent) quality and the role placards and trading house tiles are thick cardboard. Also included is a practically useless pencil and scorepad (the scores are very easy to calculate and so we never used them). I'd have much rather foregone these and had the savings invested in superior quality cards. Amigo's Bohnanza remains the gold standard (its cards have a very durable linen-type finish) and I wish San Juan measured up—the deck is cycled through many times over the course of a game and so the cards receive much handling and wear. The rules as written are top-notch—they're clear, concise and well laid-out. Any questions we had were answered and easy to locate, I wish all rulebooks were as good.
Overall, I'm very impressed with San Juan. It has a surprising level of depth for what appears to be a rather simple game. However, there is a fair amount of luck in which cards you will draw and this will be a major deterrent for some players (particularly those who expect a light version of Puerto Rico, a game with very few random factors). However, due to the cost structure, it's difficult to say that any one card is better than another so I don't believe that victory is dependent on drawing "good" cards. Given the fact that most of the cards you draw will be used as money (and therefore exactly equal in value), victory will depend more on working best with what you're given. This is an excellent quality in any game and so I can heartily recommend San Juan.
- Greg Aleknevicus