San Juan, designed by Andreas Seyfarth and published by Ravensburger, is a city-building card game for 2-4 players. In it, players will develop the buildings under their control, produce and sell goods, and vie to be the most prosperous citizen in the city.
Andrew: Now, it has been brought to my attention that San Juan shares a great deal of mechanisms with its older brother, Puerto Rico. But I haven’t played Puerto Rico, so I can’t really comment on that.
Each round of San Juan starts with the first player (the Governor) choosing one of the five available roles to activate. These roles determine what action the players can take. Once everyone has chosen a role and carried out that role’s abilities, the round ends, the next player becomes the Governor, and play continues until someone builds their 12th building.
The roles are:
- The Bulder – Lets players build one structure by paying its cost
- The Producer – Lets players add a good to one of their empty Production buildings
- The Trader – Lets players sell a good from their Production buildings at market value (changes each turn)
- The Councillor – Lets players draw several cards, choose one, and discard the rest
- The Prospector – Lets players draw a single card
Picking which role to activate is the heart of San Juan’s gameplay. However, in making that choice, we have to go over one of my favorite aspects of San Juan – you aren’t just selecting your action, you are selecting a potential action for the entire table. Choose to activate the Councillor? Not only do you draw cards, but everyone does!
Jess: It’s a great mechanic, because it makes everyone’s turn everyone else’s turn. There is almost zero downtime in San Juan because you can almost always take advantage of another players role selection. In fact, if the timing works out, sometimes it’s actually better to have someone else pick a role instead of you, to set up a combo! Like, if I want to trade, but I don’t have any goods, it would be awesome for a player ahead of me in the turn order to pick the Producer so I have something to sell when I activate the Trader.
However, the player who chooses the role does gain a benefit above and beyond simply activating the role’s ability. Each role has a ‘privilege’, an added benefit only granted to the player who actually chooses it. These privileges make the role’s action better in some way.
Jess: For example, if I pick the Builder, everyone can add a structure to their city by paying that building’s cost. However, since I picked the builder, I get the privilege bonus, which is a discount on building costs.
The only exception to this rule is the Prospector, who has no action, only a privilege. The player who picks the Prospector draws a single card, and no one else gets to do anything at all, making it a pretty jerky card. However, despite the self-serving nature of the Prospector, only getting to blind-draw a single card is the least efficient way of gaining them, so it often feels like a last (if still profitable) resort.
There are two general types of buildings in San Juan, Production buildings and City buildings. Production buildings, as it says on the tin, make goods of various sorts during the Production phase, which are then salable with the Trader action. These buildings often form the heart of your economic engine, especially once you make the higher-value structures, like Coffee Roasters and Silversmiths – you’ll be raking in the cards in no time.
The City buildings all have unique effects, nearly all of which enhance your abilities or add to your end-game score. For example, if you build an Aqueduct, you always produce an additional good when Producing (in addition to the extra good you can produce by selecting the Producer role). There are a ton of City buildings available, especially since the current Ravensburger printing of San Juan comes with an in-box expansion (that you should simply always use). The breadth of City buildings adds a tremendous amount of variety to the game.
Andrew: Another design aspect of San Juan I think is awesome is the fact that the cards serve nearly every function in the game. The cards in your hand are the buildings you can build, but they are also the currency you use to build them. When Production buildings make goods, those goods are represented by cards drawn from the deck. This means that, as you produce, build, and trade, you are naturally churning through the deck, requiring a minimum of reshuffling. For a game with 140+ cards, that’s a handy thing.
Jess: Using cards as currency is a doubly-interesting thing, because it means you need to weigh the value of possibly building something with the need to use that card itself to pay for a different building. It adds a cool hand-management aspect to gameplay, one that is just complex enough to make the choices more interesting but not so finicky that it slows down the game.
San Juan is a really fun, well designed game. It plays fairly quickly, but even at max players, it remains engaging because of the lack of downtime. The only inefficient thing about it, really, is the size of the box for the Ravensburger edition of the game; all of the components fit in the bottom half of the box, expansion included. It’s cool that it matches the size of other Alea/Ravensburger game boxes (especially nice for a collector’s shelf), but seriously, it could have been 50% smaller and just as nice. Still, the inclusion of the expansion makes it worth owning the larger second (current) edition of the game.
San Juan makes for a fantastic gateway game and a nice cool down or warm up on game nights. It has a gentle learning curve, straightforward rules, and enough depth to keep even more veteran gamers engaged. And, honestly, for the price, it is an absolute steal of a game. We heartily recommend adding it to your collection!
Andrew: Upset? Oh, no, you misunderstand; I’m not upset, I think it’s awesome! I know you’re a game-loving, cosplaying, kickass gamer geek to the core, and I love that about you…But, you like the games we play together more, right? More than those other games?