Tuesday, February 5, 2013

February Board Game of the Month: San Juan

Over the Christmas holidays, I had no fewer than three people independently tell me that San Juan was an awesome game, and given my deep and abiding love for Race for the Galaxy and my impressed (if fearful) admiration for Puerto Rico, I'd especially love it. After a fortuitous run-in with my department's normally stingy key office, I found myself with a bonus $40 in my pocket. I decided there was a worse way to spend it than on San Juan and a latte, and though the latte was drunk long ago, I finally got a chance to play San Juan last weekend.

Style and Gameplay

San Juan is a tableau-building card game (not really a board game, despite the post title) and was among the first card game to use the "role selection" mechanic that has now been adapted by Race for the Galaxy and a handful of other games. As similar as Race and Puerto Rico are to each other, San Juan is more similar to both: legend has it that both Race and San Juan grew out of an attempt to create a card-game version of Puerto Rico. Indeed, the theme of San Juan is essentially the same as in Puerto Rico: you're a colonial-era governor trying to build the economy of San Juan by constructing buildings and plantations.

San Juan's game play is straightforward: on each turn, every player selects a "role," allowing you to draw cards from a common stock, construct buildings, produce "goods" on your plantations, or sell your goods for more cards. Like in Puerto Rico, once a role is selected, every player can perform an action within the role (i.e., everyone may build when someone selects Builder) but whoever selected the role gets a small "privilege" (like building at a reduced cost). Allowing everyone to act within a given role drastically reduces the "lockout" problem that plagues Agricola, where your entire game may be ruined in turn 3 because someone takes a stone ahead of you.

The most brilliant part of San Juan's design is that is dispenses with two Euro-game mainstays, currency and victory points. Victory points are present, and in fact the way to win the game, but they're entirely contained within your buildings, not as separate tokens. And currency doesn't exist at all: in order to play cards, you must discard other cards. Therefore, the biggest strategic decision (aside from the role selection) in San Juan comes in choosing which cards you want to hang on to for later development and which you're comfortable discarding immediately.

Our first game was a 4-player game; two of us had played both Race for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico, one had played Race but not Puerto Rico, and the fourth had played neither. The three of us who had experience with Race and/or Puerto Rico grasped the game immediately; it took our fourth a few turns to figure out what was going on, but the game started running smoothly at around turn 4. It clocked in at under an hour, right in line with the box's prediction of "45-60 minutes".

Analysis and Anecdotes

Given its nearly identical play style, it's hard not to compare San Juan directly with Race for the Galaxy. Judging from the discussion at BoardGameGeek, it seems almost imperative that you pick sides and prefer one game over the other, but in reality the two games are so similar that there's no reason not to like them both. The crucial difference between the two, aside from some rather minor mechanical differences, is that there are more cards in Race--the decks are almost exactly the same size, but Race has far more kinds of cards and fewer repeats.

Therefore, San Juan is less disposed to random variance than Race for the Galaxy might be, a fact that delighted the "gamier" gamers among our group. If you need a certain card as the lynchpin of your strategy, you're proportionally more likely to get it in reasonable time. But both San Juan and Race for the Galaxy are "reactive strategy" games, rewarding you more for adapting your strategy to the board state rather than trying to chart a course a priori.

On the flip side, the number of viable strategies for winning San Juan seems like it could be small: basically, you need to pursue some variation of either the production route or the building route. One of the best parts of Race (or other card games with lots of cards, like 7 Wonders) is discovering small but clever interactions; San Juan's deck is sufficiently limited that in any given game, each player is likely to see all the cards that exist in the whole deck.

San Juan worked fine with four players. The rules are identical for three and four, with some alterations for two. Normally, rules alterations are a surefire reason to assume the game would be less good under that condition, but there seems to be a fair amount of consensus that San Juan actually "shines" with two people instead of three or four.

The one mechanic I'm least crazy about (incidentally, the one that's most different from Puerto Rico or Race) is the trading market. The first few times that produced goods are sold, the prices are semi-random, but afterwards, the prices cycle, introducing a memory-game element into trading. In a reasonably fast-paced game that rewards reactive strategy, it's tough to see how the additional requirement to memorize strings of numbers makes the game any more fun.

Overall Impressions

At the moment, I'm really into San Juan. I strongly prefer reactive to proactive strategy games, and shorter games to ridiculously long games (though I've vowed to reexamine that in 2013!) so everyone who told me I'd love San Juan, you were correct. And I feel like I can't give an adequate strategic analysis until I've seen about a dozen more games of it because there's probably a vast depth to the game that I haven't even begun to scratch yet.

But the biggest reservation I have about San Juan is how long I'll continue to be really into it. While I could see it holding my interest (and a spot near the top of my games rotation) for years, I can also see it getting stale in a few months, if the strategic options really are as limited as I fear they might be.

Even if San Juan ceases being the Next Big Thing in my game collection quickly, though, it has a lot going for it that I won't stop appreciating, including straightforward instructions, elegant mechanics, and a low profile (literally all you need to play: a deck of 110 cards and a handful of role and market tiles!). At the very least, San Juan's floor is an easy and quick "gateway" game for Euro-style card games, the same function Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan often fulfill for Euro board games. And if Race for the Galaxy is any comparison at all, San Juan's ceiling is much higher than that.

2-4 players, 45-60 minutes, $30 at a game shop or $21 on Amazon.