Games in the Stacks: San Juan

The Basics:

Designer: Andreas Seyfarth
Game Type: Card, City Building
Number of Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Mechanics: Set Collection, Hand Management, Variable Phase Order

photo 4

The Game:

San Juan is a city building card game based upon the popular board game Puerto Rico. Unlike its spiritual brethren, it consists of  a deck of 143 building cards, 5 role tiles, and a few other bits and pieces. The cards consist of production (indigo plants, sugar refineries, tobacco storage, coffee roaster, and silver smelts) buildings and city (an array of buildings which affect game-play through bureaucracy) buildings. Each player takes certain actions which allow them to build buildings, gain cards, and score victory points. At the end of the game, when one player has twelve buildings, everyone tallies up points from the buildings and the one with the most, wins.

photo 1

The Rules:

Set up is fairly simple in San Juan. Each player starts the game with one Indigo production card which is placed in front of them (your humble, aristocratic, European, privileged, colonial birthright, no doubt). The rest of the cards are placed in a draw pile with room to discard. The 5 role tiles are placed in front of the players. The 5 trading house tiles are placed face-down in a pile to be used during the trading action. During each of the player’s turn, they will select an available role from the table and place it in front of them. The function of that role is performed by the active player with an added privilege for being the person to choose that role. Then all the other players will perform the same function but without the added privilege (since really, they are just mindless followers).

This continues until every player has selected a role. Then the role cards are returned to the center of the table and the Governor tile (first player) checks for a couple of rules and gets passed to the next player for another round of play. This will continue until one player builds 12 buildings and the game ends in glorious climax.

The five roles are Prospector, Councillor, Builder, Producer and Trader.

  • Prospector: Draw a card, and all other players eat it.
  • Councillor: Draw 5 cards and keep 1. Other players draw 2 and keep 1.
  • Builder: Pay one less card to build a building (play a card) on the table. Everyone else pays full price.
  • Producer: Produce 2 goods from 2 production buildings if you can (take a card from the deck and place it face-down on a production building). Everyone else only produces 1 good.
  • Trader: Sell 2 goods from the production buildings. Flip over a trading house tile to see what the current rate of exchange is. You get a certain amount of cards into your hand for a certain good produced (coffee provides you with 2 cards for example and indigo provides you with 1). Everyone else sell 1 good if they wish.
photo 2
Card design is straightforward, cost of building on top, points on the bottom, effect in the middle.

The Review:

San Juan is a simple and genuinely accessible card game. A case can be made that San Juan is a good game to use when introducing role selection to new players. The essence of the game being knowing when to choose the appropriate role and when to block another player from picking up a needed role. The goal is also simple enough to understand — the first person to 12 buildings ends the game. They don’t necessarily win the game (it isn’t a race) but it does allow you to scale the game down for a quicker play. Scale down too much and you don’t let the cards build up to their full effect but limiting the endgame to 10 buildings will produce a quicker game with much the same affect.

However, the game feels as if it didn’t age that well. The game play is focused and narrow. The decision space isn’t particularly wide and the cards are not too difficult to understand. The abilities of the city buildings are very clear cut and most players (even new to the hobby) can quickly grasp the game. My only issue with simple games is that they can be very dull. Look at 7 Wonders. This is a simple game which plays quickly and has limited player interaction but never feels particularly dull even after repeated plays. Citadels is a simple role selection, drafting game with even simpler cards but the increased player interaction provides a much more satisfying play. Machi Koro is arguably even simpler but the element of randomness in the dice roll to see which buildings are activated makes a more satisfying play.

Everything in San Juan flows so wonderfully well. The cards’ iconography and design make sense and the cost, worth and action of each of the buildings is understood immediately. The game does not try to be more than it is — a simple set collection, hand management city-building game. The problem for me is that the game never really ramps up. There is the satisfaction of having a well oiled engine created through the use of the cards (I freaking LOVE the library….knowledge is power!) but players never really have a chance to explore the theme.

The mechanisms work so well that I think a richer theme would at least make the game more interesting. Like most European styled board games, San Juan puts you in the position of finding the most optimal position that can be acquired at that moment but doesn’t give you much control over that environment. Really the worst that can happen is that you take a role prematurely and don’t benefit fully from your turn. There isn’t much bite here.

The production buildings on top and the city buildings are on the bottom.
The production buildings on top and the city buildings are on the bottom.

The Bottomline:

I understand that San Juan is a very popular game and many gamers have been looking forward to the release of the second edition. The mechanics are certainly smooth and the game-play has great flow. But without much interaction players tend to feel like they are constantly moving but never really engaged. If you like games with an “alone/together” sort of feel like Dominion or 7 Wonders then San Juan is a perfect fit for you. You can play and never look another player directly into the eye.

Better artwork and theme would make me love this game but as it stands, the game is too dry for me and teaching a dry game to newcomers can be rough. In the end, I rarely say anything about the theme and just stick with the fact that your goal is to get cards into your hands which will allow you to build buildings which will, in turn, allow you to get more cards into your hand. The theme is left flopping in the breeze. There can be an argument that the limited player interaction can lead to a “friendlier” gaming experience but really, disengaging from the individuals around you hardly constitutes being friendly or an experience of any kind.

Would you rather?

Play San Juan or Puerto Rico? San Juan but only because it plays much faster.

Play San Juan or Citadels? In a heartbeat, Citadels. Despite the issues with the Assassin or the Witch; Citadels places a group of people pitted against each other and is much more exciting. Citadels tends to be better at higher group numbers and San Juan plays 2-4 so really they are filling two different roles. But if given a choice between the two to teach the role selection mechanism, then Citadels hands down.

Play San Juan or Machi Koro? Machi Koro. Better artwork, a bit more luck, and you have a greater chance at sabotaging other players and their buildings without feeling too mean.

2 thoughts on “Games in the Stacks: San Juan

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