When you know Race for the Galaxy is the game I’ve played the most, ever, you might think that San Juan, that is generally considered as a game with similar ideas as Race, but less complex, isn’t a game I would enjoy. I mean, been there, done that. At least that’s what I thought, so I never looked at that game. Until recently, and boy was I wrong.
To be entirely honest, I started with the online implementation of the game. With all the doubts I had, this was a perfect way to see if I would enjoy it.
So, what’s the game all about. It’s basically the card game version of good old Puerto Rico. Cards give you points, have an ability, but also cost you cards from your hand to build them. Once build you place cards in front of you and once one players has built twelve cards, twelve buildings, the game ends and the player with the most points wins the game.
This sounds exactly like Race for the Galaxy, but where Race adds complexity with two different types of cards (developments and planets), two different types of production planets, planets that only consume specific goods, and the fact that you can also ‘build’ planets by using military force, San Juan keeps everything clean and simple.
Every player starts with an Indigo plantation, that’s a card in front of you on the table that can produce a good, Indigo. And you get some cards in your hand. Cards you can use to build or use as money.
In your turn you select a role. This means that you and all other players have the opportunity to do something, but you can do it slightly better. Let’s start with the Builder. Everyone can build a building, either a production or a violet building by paying the price in cards from your hand, but you, the Builder, have to pay one card less. The Producer lets everybody place one good, one cards from the draw pile, underneath one of their production buildings, but produces two goods himself. The Trader is used to sell these goods. Every good can be exchanged for cards, but some goods a worth more than others. The Trader himself can sell two of his goods. The Councillor can draw five cards and keep one of them, while all the other players only draw two cards and keep one. Lastly, the player who chooses the Prospector takes one card from the draw pile, the other players get nothing.
One after the other, players choose a roll and execute the corresponding action. Only the roles that the players chose are executed. So, if no one picks the Builder, nobody can build. Turn after turn players will add more buildings to their little town. Some of them will produce goods, others just have a cool power, but most of the time you will adjust your building strategy to fit the cards that will cost you 6 cards to build.
These violet buildings cost a lot of cards, yes, but will give you loads of points in return at the end of the game if you play your cards right. There’s this Town hall that will give you a point for every violet building you have, or the Guildhall that gives you one point for every production building, plus one point for every production type you have in front of you. You can also get extra points for all the statues you have built.
So, you either plan to build a lot of production buildings and try to, somehow, get this Guildhall, or you already have that card in your hand or tableau and you build as many production buildings as you can.
When you are in this situation where you do have loads of production buildings, but do not have the guildhall, yet, you must keep paying attention to the tableaus of the other player. What if all Guildhalls are already built, then you can have all the production buildings you want, but the bonus points will never be yours.
And that’s the cool thing about this game, and role selection games in general. It’s all about what do I want to do now and what do I want to withhold my opponents. Maybe it’s just better to not let this guy, who has two silver waiting to be traded for three cards each, take the Trader role. Or why should you choose the Producer role yourself if you can only produce one good yourself. You can’t use its bonus, so let somebody else take that role.
Talking about the Guildhall card, by the way, although it has been slightly fixed in the second edition, it is still pretty powerful and probably can still be considered the prefered strategy. In the first edition you got two points per production buildings instead of what I discussed above.
San Juan in all its simplicity still packs enough strategy. The rules, or lack of them compared to Race, and the easy card texts make this game much more streamlined, much more family friendly. It’s also plays a bit quicker than Race, but all this also makes the game less deep.
Is that a problem? No, not at all. I will always like Race better, but I tried to play Race with ‘I play once in a while’ people and will never do it again. Too complex. San Juan scratches the same itch, but can be played with pretty much everyone.
You know, it doesn’t mean that now I’m an adult and am adjusted, or better, struggling with all the complexities of life, I’m not allowed or not able to enjoy the simpler things in life. It’s just great to be able to not think so hard once in a while. So maybe, while I was already familiar with Race for the Galaxy, that’s the reason I, unexpectedly, started enjoying San Juan so much.
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