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San Juan is a card game which is based in a large part on the game of Puerto Rico, and it is definitely a stand-alone game. Because it is seen as Puerto Rico's younger, simpler cousin, I thought it would be useful in my review to contrast the two so that not only do you get a thorough review of this game, but you can see how it stands apart, or runs in parallel to Puerto Rico. This way, you have a better idea of whether one or the other game would appeal to you more or get more play among the people you know.
San Juan or Puerto Rico: Which is for you?
Okay. Let's start off with the basics:
San Juan is a card game for two to four players. After you've learned the game, it should take you about forty five minutes for a full game. By comparison, Puerto Rico scales from two to five, and runs for ninety minutes. I'm using the stats listed here on BGG, but from experience I'm pretty sure they're accurate. So, if you have a gaming group that runs in larger numbers, PR might overall see more play for you guys as it's more scalable in that direction. But if you tend to only be a couple, or a few friends who get together, San Juan may be better scaled in your direction.
If components help you become immersed in gameplay and/or theme, keep in mind that San Juan is a card game. It borrows the variable phase order and job selection from Puerto Rico, so there are job tiles, a governor tile (which I will explain later for those who've played neither game) and a deck of cards.
Both San Juan and Puerto Rico use a gameplay mechanism called variable phase order. The way this works is that whoever is the first player in a round is the governor. The governor picks from the jobs available, and he/she is able to use the benefit of picking that card. For instance, if he picks the builder card, buildings cost one less card for him. Everyone else is then given the chance to build as well--the entire table goes through one "builder phase." Then the next person picks a job, takes a bonus for getting that card first, and everyone is allowed to also do that job, or participate in that phase. Because everyone gets a chance to do each action that is selected, there is an element of strategy in considering what benefits the others will receive from your actions: a key part of the game is keeping track of what others are doing and how successful they are at it.
The game ends when any one player has completed twelve buildings in their territory. At that time, that phase is completed (everyone else gets a chance to do as the first player did) and the game ends. Victory points are counted, and the player with the most wins.
So, San Juan is a faster game, but why is that exactly? Well, there are two basic reasons that I can see. The first is that trade and production have been simplified, and the second is that there is no separate money in San Juan. In Puerto Rico, you must be ever-conscious of your flow of money. You are saving toward goals of certain buildings which will benefit you, all at specific costs. In San Juan, the only currency is cards. When you produce, you place cards under your production buildings face down. These count as goods. When you sell the goods (cards), you receive a number of cards dependent on their relative worth, which is variable throughout the game. So, there is a continual flow of cards as goods and for goods. I particularly like this difference, because as you receive cards you are directly given the opportunity to build something, such as the coffee roaster (a popular item in Puerto Rico.) You then must hold onto that coffee roaster card if you want to build it, but in each subsequent action as you receive different cards you must decide if you will continue to hold onto it. Since cards are currency, you may be put into a situation where it may be to your advantage to discard the coffee roaster card, even though you had originally planned to build it. And you don't know if you will receive another coffee roaster card in the game. I particularly like this mechanism because there are so many difficult decisions throughout the gameplay, and "Oh well, I'll just make sure I have enough money later" is not an option. The lack of separate currency may bother some players, but I feel that it adds an element of difficult decision-making that I enjoy.
Another way in which the game is streamlined is in the fact that there is an elimination of the need for some buildings. One does not need a tobacco plantation and a factory. The reason for this is that there is no use of separate settler-workers in the San Juan game. Shipping is not a factor in San Juan. The gameplay is therefore not regulated by how many people are coming in, or a demand for a supply to go out. The lack of managing settlers means that production can be executed more quickly. There is also no exporting of goods in San Juan. I look at this as a reduction in the Screw Your Neighbor/Take That factor as compared to Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, it was possible to in effect steal profits from opponents by playing the captain card and forcing everyone to ship out goods. While everyone receives victory points for goods shipped out in Puerto Rico, they can be forced to do it, and this constrains their building power by controlling the flow of their money. This doesn't exist in San Juan.
The lack of settlers actually works in two important ways. It means that once anyone has a plantation or factory card (Indigo plantation vs. coffee roaster), they may produce. However, they may only produce one good per production building regardless of what the cost of the building was in cards. One can't assign extra workers to produce more goods. To balance this, however, there are buildings which allow for extra production if you have picked them up and put them into play (built them). Your goods also can't be stolen by the captain, and all goods produce a profit when traded, so goods have an overall higher value in San Juan.
Trading is also handled differently in the card game in that, while you can only trade and produce so many goods at one time, no one can block you from trading in San Juan. Everyone profits from the goods they have produced. If no one plays a trading card (thus the game doesn't enter into a trading phase for all players) and players have remaining goods at the end of the game, these count as one victory point per each "goods" card. So ultimately there is no way not to profit by your goods.
The differences I find between Puerto Rico and San Juan are that there is less of a "take that" factor in the game, some jobs have been eliminated (captain, settler/worker), and the differences in trading and production change strategy in this game. The lack of separate currency means that you are continually making choices of what to give up from your hand knowing that you may not see another card like that again and are thus losing the ability to build it. Some people may dislike this choice, instead preferring the option of being able to build anything they can afford with separate money, in which case I'd say Puerto Rico may be the game of choice for them. But I personally really enjoyed this element of what one must sacrifice when deciding what to build. The consequences are more immediate when you literally see that City Hall being discarded back into the deck in favor of the silver mine because production is your strong suit. Decisions, decisions!
I greatly enjoy playing Puerto Rico, but I am not completely itching to play again when finished, whereas I completed three games of San Juan in one sitting and I woke up this morning wanting to play again ASAP! So it really does have its own beauty to it. I won't yet say I prefer it to Puerto Rico, but I certainly love the game.
I will give the game five stars as a simpler, potential gateway game, and four stars as a gamer game--whether you prefer the cards or the board and tiles is, in my opinion, going to depend on your gaming preferences in general and how deep of a game you want.
Appeal to Gamers: - minus one for the fact that it may not appeal to die-hard strategists.
Good review. I've been considering this very question for an upcoming purchase.
Yeah, so was I, so I was really lucky to get to try both in within a few weeks of each other, and I figured it must be a common thing. (Thanks for the tip!)
Puerto Rico is the tuxedo in your collection while San Juan is the grey suit. However dazzling the tux may be, you'll get far more utility from the suit.