Review: San Juan – Puerto Rico Jr.
Last week we looked at Puerto Rico – one of the giants of the Euro game genre. Puerto Rico proved to be so popular that it wasn’t long before a spin-off card game was created. I’m happy to report, however, that San Juan is a tremendous game. It brings the same flavor and challenge of San Juan, albeit with a little less depth. As a card game, there is a little more luck involved, but it does become more accessible to casual and non-gamers. Full review after the jump.
The Basics. Your role is to build up the city of San Juan. First to twelve districts ends the game, then victory points are tallied for a final winner. Simple, no? And, the game turns out to be mechanically simple, making it a great game to take on a trip. There are very few pieces (and no cubes or coins) to lose on the road or away from home.
Some buildings can grow indigo, tobacco, or another good. When they do so, a card is simply dealt on top of the building to note that it has produced. It is only a placeholder. When goods are sold, the placeholder is discarded and new cards are drawn. Similarly, buildings are purchased by discarding cards from your hand. Thus, cards are not only potential buildings, but also the building resource and good tokens.
As in Puerto Rico, the crux of this game is the roles. Each round, someone is the governor and they pick from among the available roles. Each role allows everyone at the table to complete an action, but the individual who selected it to have a special advantage. This mechanic keeps everyone involved and helps the casual gamer feel engaged. There are no long pauses between turns to foster boredom.
Like its forefather, there are also purple buildings which do not produce goods, but instead give special powers. The only problem is that, unlike Puerto Rico, the buildings are not available to be selected from a common board according to particular taste and strategy. Instead, they are drawn randomly. And, unfortunately, some of the cards are simply much more powerful than others. In particular, the Aqueduct/Well combination allows a player to take cards from the supply directly into his hand (a rarity in San Juan) with alarming frequency.
Components: 5 of 5. The components are top notch. The role cards are hefty cardboard and not likely to be damaged through frequent use. The cards are also on good quality stock and have survived numerous reshufflings. They are about the size of standard playing cards which makes them easy to manipulate.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 2 of 5. There’s a lot more luck in San Juan than in Puerto Rico, and more than even typical card games. San Juan has several card combinations that are designed to work together. Some are more powerful than others. If you are lucky enough to draw the combo, then you’ll have a distinct advantage. Not necessarily an easy win, but enough that it makes catching up hard for opponents. Still, many strategy elements remain, especially in choosing which role will benefit you the most while benefiting the other players least.
Mechanics: 4 of 5. The game is well-designed and flows easily. Although it borrows heavily from Puerto Rico, the mechanics transfer easily. The rulebook is also clearly written with numerous examples and detailed analysis of many of the cards. However, the imbalance between power levels in some cards can present fate with a bit too big of a role.
Replayability: 4.5 of 5. San Juan is easy to learn and addicting to play. It is easily taught to new gamers, and even non-gamers. My immediate family didn’t much care for Puerto Rico, but they eagerly asked for another game of San Juan after we finished the first play through. The randomness of the cards forces players to direct their strategy to the hand their dealt, instead of some preconceived plan. This makes each game seem different as you are forced to adapt to the random hand you are dealt.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Essentially, San Juan is a boiled down version of Puerto Rico. It removes some of the depth and a bit of the strategy to increase the accessibility and randomness of the game, as well as substantially decrease play time. For most groups, that can be a huge bonus. Both are great games, but San Juan really shines with newer players, and when time might be a bit short for a lengthier game.