Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Strategy Spotlight: San Juan

Yesterday, I published February's Game of the Month post about San Juan. I mentioned that it seemed there were a finite number of paths to victory, maybe one involving production and another involving buildings, and that was all. My own strategy was a heavy "violet building" strategy spiked with just enough low-cost production to keep the cards flowing in. Though my strategic experience with San Juan is still limited, I was pretty happy with this line. Here's how it played out.

Violet-card cards

I was lucky enough to get a Quarry in my opening hand, and Quarry is one of those cards best played at the beginning of the game so you can maximize its advantage throughout. I picked Builder with my first action and played Quarry at the cost of the rest of my hand. A few turns later, City Hall wandered into my hand, and given that it was relatively cheap for me to build violet buildings, I knew I had a strategy. It took me a while to build City Hall, but there was no rush.

Producer-phase cards

The second card I was able to build was Aqueduct. I was torn about Aqueduct at first: it was cheap because I already had Quarry, but it didn't immediately fit into my "build lots of violet buildings" scheme. Instead, it encouraged me to build production buildings, but fortunately, I didn't need to build so many of them. I had my starting Indigo Plant and added a Sugar Mill a few turns later, and that was all. This way, I never had to select the Producer role, but I still produced an Indigo and a Sugar every time someone else did.

Frankly, I would have preferred a second Indigo Plant to a Sugar Mill. The expected trader value for Sugar is 1.4 cards compared to 1 card for Indigo, making the "break-even" point between the two 2.5 Trader phases. While I'm certain the Trader phase happened at least three times, the extra card I could have saved by building an Indigo Plant rather than a Sugar Mill early on would have been more helpful than the extra 0.4 cards per Trader phase were in the late game.

The biggest mistake I made all game was not building Well when I could have. It was complete oversight on my part--I mistakenly discarded Well to pay for City Hall instead of Tower (I swear it wasn't because the picture looked similar. Really.)

Trader-phase cards

Market Stand plus Trading Post is the game's best synergy, at least so far as I've found. This way, as long as you've produced two goods (which I always did), you can always sell them both and you always get the bonus, even if you didn't choose the Trader role. Market Hall wasn't an integral part of the strategy--it was more additive than synergistic, as us science-types might say--but it was some nice icing on the cake.

How it worked out

In any Producer phase, I produced both an Indigo and a Sugar (and I should have been able to draw a card, had I not screwed up). In any Trader phase, I sold my two goods for an average of 4.4 cards. The best part of the strategy was that I never had to select either of these phases myself, freeing me to pick Builder basically every turn. Finally, my freedom to pick Builder, combined with the early Quarry, meant that I was making most violet buildings at -2 cost, and City Hall ensured I was getting a nice return on those violet buildings.

I'm curious: to those of you who actually know what you're doing in San Juan, was I playing a legitimate strategy, or did it just happen to work because none of us had ever played the game before? What's the best counter to a strategy like this one? And are there other variations on this theme that work, or is basically every game of San Juan I every play going to end up with something along these lines?