The Board Gamer Reviews: San Juan

Written by on August 30, 2012 in [, , , , , , ]

Have you ever dreamed of running your own territory? Being the governor of a prosperous new region? Deciding which buildings are erected and how resources are managed? Enter San Juan, a card game from Andreas Seyfarth, Alea, and Rio Grande Games. In San Juan you will race against other players to develop buildings, create a structured production of goods, and accumulate the most victory points. Do you have what it takes to develop the capitol city of Puerto Rico, facilitate the needs of a region, and emerge victorious? If so, then I welcome you to the city of San Juan. 

San Juan is a strategy game where you build important buildings like houses, palaces, smelters, statues, and other essential building blocks for a populous city. To win the game you must have the highest amount of victory points at the end of the game. Players earn these points by constructing buildings and through secondary goals. The game automatically ends once a player reaches 12 buildings, so San Juan is a game in which you need to be aware of your opponents’ plays. Turns are split up into rounds with players choosing a “role” and then performing an action associated with that role. Roles include governor, trader, builder, miner, councilor, and producer. The way a typical round would go is that the governor, a title passed from player to player each round, would go first by selecting a role, say “builder” for example. Everyone then gets to discard cards from their hands in order to build structures. The amount of cards you must discard to build are listed on the structure card, with some buildings requiring up to six cards to be discarded from your hand. It is only when someone has chosen the builder role that people are allowed to build. The incentive for taking the builder role however is that the player who drew that role gets to discard one card less to build. Each role has a special privilege that only the person fulfilling that role receives. Other role actions include drawing more cards, producing additional goods, or trading more goods.

After everyone has taken the action associated with the governor’s role, the next person would get to choose a role, followed by everybody taking that role’s action. This continues until everyone has chosen a role and taken the action that goes along with it. Once this has occurred, the roles are put back in the middle of the table, and the next person at the table receives the governor title, beginning a new round. Depending on how many players are in the game, not every role will be chosen each round, so some rounds will be centered around producing goods, or building, or just drawing more cards.

Certain cards play off each other so be aware of how you are helping and hurting your opponents. A good tip is to make sure you have several production buildings that can create indigo, sugar, tobacco, coffee, and silver. Having these buildings produce goods for you, and then selecting the trader role can boost your hand size, allowing you to build more structures the next time the builder role is selected.

Included within the game box is 110 cards, 6 role placards, 5 trading house tiles, and one scoring pad. The cards are sturdy and form a single pile. The cards are colored to indicate what type they are and each type of card has a distinct picture and explanation of its uses. The role placards are heavy cardboard and have a description of each role’s abilities printed on the placard itself. This helps alleviate the need to look through the rules to determine uses. The score pad is only used at the end of the game and comes with a lot of pages, allowing for dozens of plays before you need to replenish your paper supply. The game is simple enough to where you could keep score on a blank piece of paper though, so it isn’t a bad thing if you blow through the game’s score pad quickly.

The cards included in the game all give their owners special abilities for different phases. Some buildings will allow their owner to produce more goods, or require less cards to build. These abilities are similar to the abilities unlocked by selecting roles, but are permanent throughout the entire game. Violet cards are the more  powerful cards that players will want to build, and are restricted so that a player can only build one of each type. One special violet card you will want to use early on in the game is the chapel, which allows you to place cards from your hand underneath it to add victory points at the end of the game. This can really add up if you continuously add cards as you play.

When my wife and I sat down to play San Juan for the first time we ended up struggling with the instructions on how to play. There are examples included in the booklet, but if you aren’t familiar with San Juan or Puerto Rico, you may find it easier to look up a video walkthrough on how to play it instead. We had never played a game like San Juan before and were unfamiliar with playing in rounds and picking roles. Once you get the hang of the way the rounds work you should be able to devise your own strategy and play rather quickly. The only other problem we had was that it felt like the violet cards, which restrict you to owning only one of each type, seemed to overwhelm the rest of the cards. There were times where we had nothing but violet cards in our hands because of the majority of the card deck containing these types of cards, and would have liked to see a more diverse amount of production and house cards.

San Juan is a unique game that pits players with a choice of what kind of role they want to fill in a developing coast nation. Its simplistic layout and strategic gameplay keeps players coming back for more and I for one am hooked. To date it has earned such honors as the 2004 Spiel des Jahres Recommendation, being a 2004 International Gamers Awards Nominee, and winning the 2004 Japan Boardgame Prize for The Best Japanese Game. If you are looking for a great building game that puts you in control, and allows you to play with 2-3 of your friends, then look no further. San Juan will be your own bustling metropolis before you know it! Game on!

Rating: 3.5 Indigo Plants out of 5

A copy of San Juan was provided to TMG for the purpose of evaluation and review.


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Author: Loren Nikkel View all posts by
Hardcore Xbox and occasional PC gamer. I love to play multiplayer and co-op games where strategy is key.

2 Comments on "The Board Gamer Reviews: San Juan"

  1. Nightskyre September 2, 2012 at 8:21 pm -

    I’ve never played San Juan, but I own and love Puerto Rico, which is essentially the same game structure but done with boards and tokens, not cards. It’s done by Rio Grande as well.

    • Loren Nikkel September 3, 2012 at 11:08 am -

      I’ve been meaning to check out Puerto Rico and see the similarities.