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Games: San Juan

As long time readers of this site know, I used to review board games in this space fairly regularly. These days, though, it's pretty rare to see a here -- not because I am playing less (although The Squirrelly does crimp my ability to stay up until 3:00 am playing Risk and drinking Pabst), but because most of my board game reviews now appear in the magazine Undefeated. (Uhh, did I ever mention that I now write board game reviews and strategy articles for Undefeated? Maybe not. But I do. You should subscribe!)

A quick trip through my game review archive will reveal that my favorite game of approximately forever is the strategic powerhouse Puerto Rico. So it was a no-brainer for me to pick up San Juan, a card game based on Puerto Rico and by the same designer, Andreas Seyfarth.

As with it's progenitor, the players of San Juan are trying to produce commodities and construct buildings; unlike the complex Puerto Rico, though -- which comes equiped with game boards, money, colonists, ships, goods, buildings and plantations -- San Juan is played entirely with a deck of cards. The cards depicts buildings and can be played as such, but, in an ingenious twist, can also be used as money (as you will see below).

On a turn, a player chooses one of five Roles. Each Role permits everybody to take a certain action, with the selecting player receiving some modest advantage. When someone chooses the Builder, for instance, each person may play a building from their hand and pay for it by discarding a number of additional cards equal to the building's cost, with the person who chose Builder paying one less for his building. Other Roles allow players to produce goods, sell those goods to acquire more cards, or take cards directly from the deck. The game ends when someone builds their twelfth building.

The buildings are the heart of the game, and come in two varieties: Production Buildings and Violet Buildings. Production Buildings are used to generate commodities for later sale, while each Violet Buildings confers some special advantage onto the player who has it in his city. A players with a "Smithy," reduces the cost of all Production Buildings for one, for example, while the owner of a "Tower" can hold up to 12 cards in his hand (the usual limit is seven). With 24 different Violet Buildings in the deck, the players can acquire a wide variety of benefits, and some of the cards interact in powerful ways. Discovering interesting combinations is part of the fun, and the myriad of building permutations allows for plenty of strategies for players to pursue.

Halfway through my first session of Puerto Rico I felt "the buzz," the sense that the game before me was something an extraordinary. I have never felt the same about its little brother. That said, I enjoy San Juan quite a bit, and I'm always eager to play it. At first I liked S.J. because it "felt" like Puerto Rico in half the time. Now, after repeated playings, it no longer feels like P.R. at all -- and that's a good thing. Now view San Juan a fine game it its own right, and not just the card game equivalent of a tribute band. Yes, the game is quicker than P.R., and lighter, and more dependant on luck, but there's quite a lot of room for skillful play, and the decisions to be made over what to build, what cards to discard when building, and what Roles to pick are always compelling.

San Juan is also one of those rare games rated from 2-4 players that actually works well with two players. And the art on the cards and game box is really rather handsome. Sure, it's no Puerto Rico, but that's a mighty high standard to hold any game too. Judged on its own merits, San Juan gets high marks as a solid, medium-weight strategy card game, and that's good enough for me.

Posted on October 26, 2004 to Games


Good review. You hit the nail on the head by saying that the feel is like P.R. at first, but that after the initial play, the two really can't be compared except in theme.

This game hits my table quite a bit, esp. since it plays well with 2.

Game on....

Posted by: Bert on October 27, 2004 5:33 PM

What timing. I was just at the game store this evening, cashing in on a gift certificate before it expired. I had in one hand San Juan, and in the other the card game Once Upon A Time, trying to decide what to buy. I opted for the latter, for I hadn't yet seen your review. OUaT still seems like a fun game, and a perfect counterbalance for our more strategy-heavy games like PR and Catan. But now that I know how good San Juan can be, I'll have to put it on my list for my next game store visit.

Posted by: sandor on October 27, 2004 9:35 PM

Played "Betrayal at House on the Hill" this weekend, and it was GREAT. It's a Wizards of the Coast game with some nice shades of Call of Cthulhu -- more roleplaying than you see in a lot of boardgames and really nicely varied gameplay. An excellent Halloween game!

I'd provide a link, but our draconian IT policy prevents me from accessing the Wizards site or even so much as viewing the Google results for the game title. Sigh.

Posted by: sarah on October 28, 2004 11:14 AM

That game reminds me of one I played in High School and subsequently tried to hunt down. I believe it's still in existence, called Conquistador! Fun stuff.

Posted by: Angie on October 28, 2004 11:24 AM

Betrayal At House on the Hill.

Conquistador (or, possibly, Conquistador).

Posted by: Matthew on October 28, 2004 11:30 AM

I saw the BAHotH (re:previous post) from your link and fell in love, so I went and bought it. My friends and I spent all halloween weekend playing it. Such a fun game, when you have 5-6 people who like rolling dice and horror movies.
Thanks a ton!

Posted by: Charlie on November 1, 2004 10:02 AM