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San Juan

Category: Card Game

Designer: Andreas Sayfarth

Publisher: alea, Rio Grande Games (2004 English edition)

Year Published: 2004

Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 45 mins.

To Play or Not To Play: Play

Several weeks ago, I reviewed one of my favorite card games: Race for the Galaxy. There I wrote about how its designer (Thomas Lehmann) was one of two people working on a card game version of the 2003 hit Puerto Rico. The other was Andreas Sayfarth, Puerto Rico’s designer. As you can see above, Sayfarth’s design became the official spin-off.

San Juan is a much simpler, and much faster, version of Puerto Rico. The primary game behavior resembles Puerto Rico: the players will take turns selecting role tiles for that round. Every player can take that role’s action if they choose, and the player who selected the role gains a small privilege as a reward for selecting the tile. The difference is that this is a card game; so all the actions either help you draw cards, or let you play cards to your tableau. Once a player as 12 cards in their tableau the game ends immediately.

A two-player setup for San Juan.
Two players sit down to a game of San Juan. Who will win, top or bottom?

The cards all depict different buildings you can construct. Each has a cost represented by a number on the top corners of the card, and each is worth several victory points. Simple enough. Like in Race for the Galaxy, when you play a card you have to pay the cost by discarding that number of cards from your hand. Also like Race for the Galaxy, the cards generally range in price from 1 to 5. There are also a few 6-cost cards which are worth variable points, just like the 6-cost Developments in Race. Those 6-cost cards can be critical for victory, but only if you develop your tableau to take advantage of them.

The four 6-cost buildings.
Only four 6-cost developments in this game, compared to a dozen in Race for the Galaxy. If your opponent builds one, you'll have a hard time winning unless you can get one of your own!

But that’s where the similarities between Race and San Juan end. The biggest difference is the composition of the deck. Race for the Galaxy’s deck contains over 110 cards, and the majority of these cards are unique. San Juan also has a deck of 110 cards, but none of the cards are unique. There are at least two copies of every card, and some have far more. With fewer overall cards to learn, San Juan feels much simpler for new players.

Unlike Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy, there are only five role tiles in San Juan: Build, Produce, Trade, Prospect, and Council. Like in Puerto Rico, there’s also a special role called “Governor.” This is basically the first-player marker. The Governor gets to select their role first, and they are responsible for reminding players about pre-turn upkeep, like making sure everyone is within the seven-card hand limit.

San Juan's role tiles.
Oh alright, Governor can hang out with the other role tiles. It's the same shape at least.

The five roles in this game are all very simple. They either draw you cards or let you play cards to your tableau. But just like Race for the Galaxy, the real fun in this game stems from the cards. They come in two varieties: production buildings and “violet” buildings. There are five different production buildings representing refineries for five different luxury goods: indigo, sugar, tobacco, coffee, and silver.

The five types of production buildings.
Production buildings! I've always thought that Sugar and Silver are a little too similar in color. What do you think?

These buildings all work the same way. When someone produces, you can place one card face-down underneath the building to represent one good of the variety that building produces. These buildings can only hold one card at a time. The only way to use these goods is to sell them for cards during the Trade action. You can have as many production buildings in your tableau as you want. And when you trade, there's some variance in how many cards you'll get. You'll have to draw a Trade tile to see how much each good is worth that round. The stack of trade tiles is never shuffled, so keen players will remember the order of the tiles to plan for future trades.

The five trading tiles.
They're all slightly different, but as you can see some goods vary in value more than others!

The “violet” buildings bend the rules. Most of these cards have a special bit of text that references one of the six role tiles (yes, some of these cards refer to the Governor role!) and they have some sort of effect every time any player selects that role. For example, the Market Stand reads that during the Trade phase, the player with the Market Stand gets 1 bonus card if they sold two or more goods that turn.

Normally, the only way to sell two goods is to have two production buildings each holding a good, and to select the Trade role on your turn to use the Trader privilege to sell two goods. Playing a Market Stand to your tableau means one of two things: either you are playing cards randomly as quickly as possible to race to the end (a viable, but risky, strategy), or you’re planning to set up a situation where you can take advantage of it. Later, you might build a Trading Post, which allows the player who controls it to sell one additional good during the Trade phase. Now no matter who picks the Trade tile, you can sell two goods and get a bonus card to boot.

In other words, the violet cards let you build card-drawing engines, supplement your production buildings with extra bonuses, or create a situation where any action your opponents takes will benefit you more than them. The only restriction is you can only have one copy of any given violet card in your tableau. Just one. Once you’ve played your copy, the rest are only useful as discard fodder to build other buildings.

A two-player game of San Juan at its end.
This game just ended! The top player finished it before the bottom player got a chance to play anything! Final scores: Top 39, Bottom 30

And that’s really the entire game! What makes San Juan so simple is that it limits the decision space to a very narrow range. Cards only have one ability which makes it easy to evaluate their worth. And there are only five choices for roles each round, some of which may not be options anymore when your turn arrives. It only takes a few games to get comfortable with the cards and start thinking about strategy. And once you do, you’ll find that you actually need to pay close attention to your opponents’ tableaus. If you’re not careful, you’ll take an action that helps your opponent more than you! Don’t worry, it’ll happen in your first couple games, and then you’ll learn what to look for to avoid that mistake in the future!

To that end, I actually prefer San Juan as a two-player game. With four players, most of the roles will get selected each round, but it can be miserable if you mis-time your actions and get stuck waiting for the Governor tile to come back. With two players, the Governor gets to pick the first role tile, then the second player picks one, then the Goernor gets to pick a SECOND role. Oh yeah, two privileges in one round! How luxurious! Then the Governor tile switches sides, so the other player now gets two actions that round. This means that both players will still get three actions each round to keep the game moving. You also can set yourself up for some sweet two-action turns!

On the other hand, part of the reason I might prefer the game with two players is that I’ve played it so much that way. Since 2014, I’ve played this game 43 times, and only seven of those games were with three or four players. San Juan is actually one of my favorite tournaments at the World Boardgame Championships, and the event only allows two-player games. The organizers state that two-player games are more strategic and less subject to random chance. Given that this is a card game, they probably have a point. On the other hand, I’m biased after advancing to the Finals in 2019!

My plaque for 2nd place in WBC's San Juan tournament.
Sadly, I lost in the Finals. So it goes, maybe next time!

Clearly I love this game, but it’s not perfect. Let’s start with the big issue: theme. Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony, and San Juan was the capitol. Globally, colonialism caused all kinds problems: genocide, geo-political instability, forced migration, and environmental disruption, to name a few. And the problems caused by the colonial era continue to ripple into the modern day. To this day, Puerto Rico remains a territory subordinate to a larger superpower. Many European game designers rely on the Colonial era for their designs because it is a part of their culture’s history and because it is an interesting economy to simulate. These days, San Juan feels dated. On the other hand, San Juan’s theme is incredibly abstract. The card art depicts buildings, not people. There’s certainly a lot of historical unpleasantness hidden beneath the surface, but this game doesn’t force players to engage with it in any way, positive or negative.

The art in this game is very bare bones. Each card has a simple drawing of a building, and some of the buildings can look very similar until you play the game a few times. This is not a game with gorgeous art that you’ll be staring at for hours on end. It’s utilitarian and functional. And I wish I could leave it at that. However . . .

The San Juan second edition box.
Wait, what?

In 2014, alea decided to release a second edition. On paper, this was a great idea. The original game had been out of print (especially English version). And the reprint gave the publishers an opportunity to make some revisions. First, they added in all the cards from the expansion. Second, they created a brand new card just for this version of the game. And third, they re-balanced a few of the more powerful cards from the first game. That’s all fine. Personally, I liked that some of the cards were so powerful. Yes, I lost a tournament because of one of those powerful buildings. But the process of learning the game and discovering how powerful those buildings were was really fun for me. I could feel myself learning and improving in real time as I played the game. Still, it probably improves the game for 3-4 players. I haven’t played the 2nd edition myself, but the response has been generally positive.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only thing they changed. They replaced all the card art with new pieces. The new art is . . . busy. Instead of standalone buildings on a solid background, the new art shows the buildings nestled among palm trees and other vegetation on the island. Instead of the recognizable shapes and silhouettes, you get art that is pretty, but less utilitarian. Personally, I don’t like it. Also, the first edition used colors to differentiate the five production buildings from each other, and the violet buildings from the production ones. The second edition kept the colored backgrounds for the production buildings, but replaced the violet backgrounds with a generic tan. I just don’t like the way that looks. I find it harder to differentiate between the non-production buildings, the white-background of the Sugar Mill and the brown background of the Tobacco Storage. But maybe that’s just me.

San Juan is one of my favorite two-player card games. And it’s flexible enough to play well with more if necessary. To me, that’s a win-win. The game is simple to learn and fast to play, and it can accommodate players of almost any age. The theme is a slight issue, but the minimalist design evades the worst of those problems by focusing more on gameplay mechanisms than on thematic clarity or historic simulation. My only hesitation is that while I think this game is always fun, it truly shines once you master it. Its simplicity lets players grow their skill level quickly (I recommend playing on the app if you want to learn the game quickly) but the reality is to get the most out of this game, you need to put time in.

Oh, who am I kidding. The game is so easy to learn and plays so quickly that there’s no reason not to join in. But I highly recommend putting the time and energy into really learning this game’s depths. It’s not like they’re hidden behind complex mechanics and tons of jargon. You should play this game.

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