When I look for a game I’m really going to enjoy I look for “crunch.” Fans of Tabletop games may be familiar with this term, as it is common with many roleplaying games. Crunch typically refers to a relatively complex rule system that you can sink your teeth into. Sometimes the complexity leads to a rewarding challenge and engaging experience, and other times it can be overbearing and bloated. A game with a lot of crunch can be a bit of a double edged sword. But what about the opposite?
There is a new trend occurring in tabletop gaming. Games with unique player powers, 20+ page rulebooks, and hundreds of unique components are becoming the norm. Yet every now and then it’s fun to take things a step back and play something more distilled. Something more elegant. That game would be… San Juan.
Designed by Andreas Seyfarth, San Jaun is a card game all about building up your own town. It was originally released in 2004. Ten years later, in 2014, Ravensburger helped publish a second edition. Together you and a select number of other “businessmen”(?) will attempt to build a town that is better than all the others. Thematically I suppose that this competition will breed further competition and all of these little towns will one day grow into the San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico that we know of today.
But we’re not there yet. Gone are the winding streets and tall buildings that dot the landscape today. They don’t even exist yet. Instead you’ll start out with nothing other than an indigo farm. You’ll also get a hand of four cards that you can use to further your goals. How do you get to these goals? You do so by either building (playing a card), producing (gaining resources), trading (selling resources to draw more cards), prospecting (draw one card), or counsilling (drawing some cards and picking one to keep). That’s right, this game is all about the cards. Thankfully this doesn’t mean the game is overly complex. There aren’t a lot of chits and little bits because all of that is in the cards.
The image above shows a selection of cards you may come across. Let’s break them down. On the top corners you will see a number. That number is the cost to build the card. To pay the cost, you simply discard a number of cards in your hand and place the desired card in front of you. So if I wanted to build a Coffee Roaster then I would discard four cards from my hand (not the roaster of course) and then place the roaster card in front of me. Below the numbers is the picture, of course, portraying what you’re building. I rather like the art style in this game, but I’ll touch on that later. Below the art is the title of the card. In the text box there is some italicized text. It indicates in what phase the building’s effect will trigger. So if we are in the production phase, then the coffee roaster, according to its card will produce 1 coffee. Finally below that is a number with a red hexagon behind it. That indicates the card’s victory point value. After a player has built their 12th building the game ends and every player calculates their victory points. Though there are other fancy cards that have end game scoring, you will essentially be adding up the numbers at the bottom to get your final score. The person with the highest score wins.
Is that it? Well yes and no. There’s another aspect to San Juan that I really enjoy and that is the phases. In most games, all phases happen sequentially and consistently. In LOTR: LCG we will always have a staging step, a questing phase, a travel phase, a combat phase, etc. Granted we may choose to bypass those phases if we can’t participate or a card may force us to skip but as far as the core rules go, these phases will happen. That’s not the case with San Juan. You have to pick what phase you’d like to occur that round. In front of the players will be cards representing each phase.
Above you will see the five role cards available to all players. When the first player starts they will pick one of these roles. If they pick the Builder, for instance, then the builder phase will occur. All players will enter the building phase and will be allowed to build one of their buildings (by discarding the required number of cards). What’s the benefit then of picking the card if it’s bound to happen later? When you pick a role card you get what the game calls a Privilege. In the case of the Builder, the player who selected the card can play one of their buildings at a cost reduced by 1. The Governer card will get passed from player to player. The Governer’s role has no real effect on the game but the player tasked with the role will have the job (for a turn) to do some upkeep and make sure everyone’s game state is legal. It’s a nice little touch that keeps the ruleskeeping from being thrust upon one person, and it could even help newer players stay involved when it’s not their turn.
And that’s pretty much it. San Juan is a very simple game, but there is definitely some strategy. There’s a rhythm and a flow that at least for my first playthrough took a few turns to find. Once you tinker with the various roles you’ll see the proper sequence that you need and next thing you know you’ll have quite the engine going. I haven’t played enough to confirm this but San Juan seems to avoid the runaway winner problem, thanks of course to its role cards. If there are multiple players in a game then the players who aren’t fairing so well can sort of “Gang up” on the leader by taking the role cards that benefit the winner more, depriving him or her of the privileges.
San Juan was hard to find, as detailed at the end of SUSD’s review (which inspired this post by the way), but has since seen a reprinting. There is an expansion that is included in the newer edition, with newer buildings and so forth but the core mechanics of the game are unchanged. The newer buildings were not complicated to learn at all and though I accidentally shuffled both sets of cards together my first game, I didn’t feel overwhelmed in the slightest. I haven’t attempted this yet but if you want to try before you buy you can check out the iOS App that is out for the ipad. A link to the BGG page, and with a link to the app, can be found here.
If you do decide to pull the trigger then you will find that the hardcopy of San Juan isn’t too expensive. And though it’s only a bunch of cards I find the amount of game hidden inside to be well worth anyone’s money.
-The Secondhand Took