Picture this. The camera centres on a dot in a vast, sandy desert. It seems to be moving – weakly, but purposefully, towards a far off oasis. The camera begins a slow, careful circle around the dot as it zooms in – the motion is akin to a vulture spiraling around an imminent meal. We begin to see the features of the poor soul at the centre – he, for it is a he, looks more like a corpse than a man. His skin is desiccated. His eyes are blank, glassy orbs in an unseeing face. They are locked, unwavering, on a point within the cooling shade of the oasis ahead. His lips are dry – dry like the sands that surround him. And yet he crawls. He crawls on, ever onwards, towards his salvation. Eventually he arrives, and with a croak of exultation he dips his head into the cool, clear water and drinks deeply. He keeps drinking, drinking, and drinking until the dry sand of the mirage finally claims him. He looks off camera before the sweet embrace of the grave wraps its chill around his heart. His eyes focus for a moment before he gasps out ‘oh God, it’s so dry’.
The camera lingers for a moment before pulling back to reveal that he was staring at the box of San Juan all along.
Yes, this is a dry game. It’s such a dry game that it’s almost a parody – the kind of thing that you could imagine some television comedy writer using as a premise to make pointed fun of the whole hobby. ‘It’s a game where you each take the role of a governor building trade buildings in the capital of Puerto Rico’.
It’s so lacking in thematic whimsy that it’s the kind of thing you could bring out at a funeral and still appear deeply respectful. It’s like a mouthful of dust instead of cool water. It’s like someone crumbled stale bread onto a Ryvita crispbread. It’s like surface of Mars after an especially pronounced drought. Oh God, it’s so dry.
It’s going to take some effort for most people to look beyond that – in a marketplace as crowded as that of designer board-games you don’t have to choose between theme and mechanics. The largely historical bifurcation between ‘eurogames’ and ‘ameritrash’ has long since ceased to be a useful way to look at games, if indeed it ever was. In 2004, when San Juan was first published, pickings were much slimmer. Nowadays, you don’t need to pick a faction and fight for it – you can have it all. We can all have it all. Even back then a game about trading goods in the medieval/renaissance Mediterranean/Caribbean/Orient was the creative equivalent of outsourcing your design to the autocomplete algorithm on your phone. There is nothing about San Juan that will entice most people to open the box.
The good news is that if you do take the effort to look a bit deeper, San Juan won’t disappoint. It’s a simple card game of engine-building that packs a pleasing density of interesting decisions into its core deck. Two or three rounds in and you’ll know everything you need to play. It’ll be many games down the line before you know how to play well. In San Juan, your engine is rated not only by its efficiency but by the way it lets your ride the capricious currents of temporal necessity.
Every round, a player is chosen as the governor – the one charged with checking hand limits and triggering the first action of play. In turn order, each player picks a role that they fulfill during the round and everyone performs the action associated with that role. The player picking the role gains a privilege to go with it – a little extra dollop of advantage that serves to incentivise the selection. Each role can be selected only once per round. Since it triggers for everyone your job each time your turn comes is to weigh up the personal privilege versus the communal advantage. Only the prospector action benefits the player that selects it alone – every other role is good news for everyone around the table.
Each payer begins with a hand of four cards, and these cards represent opportunities for development. However, cards in San Juan have multiple roles they fill – they are buildings you can erect, but they are also the currency for which you pay for them and the goods that production buildings generate. It’s a clever system that keeps the components of San Juan easy to manage. You don’t need money, or goods tokens – it’s all cards. It’s cards all the way down.
Everyone begins with an Indigo Plant – this is a production building, and these cards are the key driver of the trading and production phases. Production allows players to place a card underneath a certain number of their production buildings. Trading allows them to be sold at an exchange rate determined by a randomly drawn value chart.
In a typical round, someone might decide to be the builder. If you wanted to build the well, it costs two cards (the number at the top of the card) so you’d discard two other cards and place your new building in the growing tableau of your city. If you had been the one to trigger the build phase, your privilege is that costs are reduced by one. You’d only need to discard a single card to build it, everyone else would need two.
When you sell goods, you discard a number of the cards you previously produced and cash them in for the correct number of additional cards. Every turn of San Juan is a cascade of cards cycling in and out of your possession as you try to make sure you can line up the order of role execution in a way that works for you. The game continues until someone completes their twelfth building – when that happens, the current building phase concludes and the game is over. The winner, as you might expect from such a joyless theme, is the player that has accumulated the largest number of victory points through the placement of their buildings.
It doesn’t sound like much, and you would be forgiven for being entirely underwhelmed. The elevator pitch for San Juan sounds indistinguishable from that of thousands of other games. And yet, I have played this game more often in the past few months than I’d like to admit. Between the physical game and the competent mobile implementation, San Juan has become an environment as familiar to me as my own house.
Most of the buildings you create won’t be production based. Sure, you’ll have sugar smelters and silver farms and tobacco mills strewn around, but you’ll also have smithies and quarries and town halls and taverns. Production buildings drive much of your wealth, but it’s the city buildings you create that define the efficacy of your engine. City buildings don’t just give you victory points – they give you the ability to level up your enterprise into something of potentially breath-taking efficiency.
The first few rounds of San Juan will be characterised by austerity – just like living under a Tory government. Your indigo plant produces a good that is worth one card – no matter how prosperous the times may be, indigo never changes its value. So, someone produces and you all place a card under your indigo plant. Someone else trades, so you sell that card for another random card. Someone takes on the Councillor role and everyone gets to draw some cards and keep one. By the end of turn one, you’ve got fewer opportunities than you started with and you’re beginning to think colonial mercantilism may not be a career path for which you are suited. A couple of turns later, you’ve built a silver smelter and suddenly you’re getting two and three cards for each trade. You leverage that to buy an aqueduct – that lets you produce two goods even when you didn’t select the producer role. You add a second silver smelter. You couple that to a market hall – that gives you an extra card for one of the goods you’ve produced. Then you layer in a market stand – that gives you an extra card whenever you manage to sell two goods. You add in a library which doubles the privilege bonus you get for selecting a role. Next time you select the trader action you dump your silver for three cards each, the indigo for one, and with all the bonuses you end up with nine cards for a single action.
Nine cards is enough to build anything in the game and then some. Suddenly the card problem you have is abundance, not scarcity. You’re the One Percenter of the One Percenters.
You have a base hand limit of seven by default, so the timing of an round like that is important. Your hand limit is enforced at the beginning of a round, so you want to draw excess cards early in the hope that someone triggers a build phase letting you take advantage of your fate’s temporary largess. However, you also don’t want to let others make use of building phases too liberally – you want to make an attempt to keep up with your growing settlement, and you can’t necessarily do that well if someone else is defining the pace of construction. Roles need to be considered both for their current utility and how they contribute to your defending your own interests.
Working out what defensive role selection means though requires you to understand what’s happening all over San Juan – there are a lot of different building types and they all synergise in different ways to permit all kinds of emergent strategies. You might be going for a trade heavy build, but someone else might be looking to maximise their victory points by ensuring they consistently benefit as much from a role as the person selecting it.
Consider the settlement above – the prefecture means that this player keeps two cards instead of one when a Councillor phase is called. It’s like they’ve got some dirt on the politicos and the Trumps of this island are kicking back some cash to keep them quiet. The aqueduct means that they always get to produce two goods, and with only two production buildings they’ll never need to be the one that calls a production phase. The trading post means they always get to sell two goods, and as such they never need to be the one to call a trading phase because they’ll never have more than that. They’re never going to run too low on cards with a city like this which means they can spend their time accumulating victory points with monuments and the special ‘triumphal arch’ which gives a bonus for monuments at the end of the game.
But then another player might be doing something entirely different and seemingly absurdly oddball.
Clearly they have no idea what they’re doing – indigo plants are borderline useless, and they don’t have any of the buildings they’d need to take advantage of seven different production facilities. They’re entirely at the mercy of the availability of roles if they want to use even two of these at a time. But they do have… oh.
See, they have the Smithy and that reduces the cost of production buildings by one. An indigo plant is free for this player regardless of who picked the build action. Sugar mills are free if they’re the one to trigger it. So, they don’t really need to worry about generating cards because the production buildings are heavily subsidized. That in turn leans into the guild hall they built…
For the player with a guild hall every production building is worth an extra victory point at the end, and each different type of building gives another one. If they can get a coffee roaster into that city, they’ll earn thirteen victory points from that guild hall alone. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem such a bad strategy. Or does it? It all depends on what everyone else is doing, and the availability of resources when cards are drawn. You have to be responsive in San Juan – there’s no point planning for a lot of trading if you’re never getting the opportunity to build the right infrastructure. You have an overwhelming pressure in play to keep up with the rhythm of building if you’re to stay in the running. You don’t have the luxury of hoping you get the cards that will be ideal for you. When you draw your first hand in San Juan, it tells you what kind of a settlement you should think about building – the extent to which you heed that advice will greatly influence your chances of success. I’ve seen people remark that San Juan is too heavily built on luck, but I think that remark is more reflective of an inability, or unwillingness, to read the future in the entrails of the cards. Luck is a consideration, but that luck is too dependent on a largely unstemmed flow of cards to really be a major factor in success.
There are other strategies that more esoteric buildings offer. The chapel allows a player to ferret away a card every turn, with that card converting into a victory point at the end of play. The loss of a card in this way can be hugely depressive in an economy, but if you’ve got cards to spare it’ll pay for itself at the end. The bank allows you to do a similar thing, but permits you a one-off bulk investment – if you’re suddenly flush with cards, that might be the right action to take. The park and the crane work together to let you build over previous installations at a massive discount, whereas the Harbour gives an extra boost to traders looking to bank some of their trade for the end-game phase. It’s remarkable the degree to which the cards synergise, and in different combinations, to support different strategies. Small chains of cards work together in small numbers to create powerful compounding effects. There are no poor cards in San Juan, but there are plenty of ways you can use them poorly.
San Juan even works well, perhaps even optimally, as a two player game – in this variant the governor gets two actions and the other player gets one. If a three, four or five player game San Juan is a staid quadrille. A two player-game is a tango where the tempo of play is ever shifting. It’s nice to see a game that scales so elegantly.
It’s really that tempo element that drives San Juan from a comparatively workaday euro to a fascinating exercise in intricate timing. The card synergies are hugely dependent on your ability to select roles – not necessarily to be the person that picks them first, but the person that engineers the circumstances at which they are picked at the right time. You might not want to pick a trade action since your cards permit you to get all the benefit you need as a happy bystander. Instead, you might pick the production action in the hope that someone else thinks ‘Well, I’ve got goods and it would be worth selling them’. Or perhaps you’ll pick the build action to create a card scarcity in an opponent so they’ll feel the need to trigger a production, which in turn might put pressure on another player to trigger the trade. You need to be careful to ensure you’re hooking into the table though because if someone produces when you’re full up you just lost a whole action in a game marked by scarcity of time. If someone triggers a trade when you have nothing to sell, you done messed up. That end result is that your best move may not be your optimal move, and that’s a profoundly interesting puzzle around which to build a game.
I won’t go as far as to say San Juan is a game of limitless opportunity, but it is one that is far more interesting and varied than its soporific theme would imply. Many games would claim they offer players a chance for creativity within ludic constraints, but almost always they converge upon a handful of mini-maxed strategies that are optimally competitive. San Juan does a far better job of preventing this by ensuring strategies must be emergent based on availability. It’s definitely possible to create a super-powered settlement that can crush all that dare stand before it . The cunning system of conflating cards and currency though means that you don’t get a lot of chance to hoard. If you make the attempt, you end up effectively putting a bullet through the pistons of your own engine. The order in which you build things is as important in many respects as the composition of your settlement. That’s exciting, because it makes every game feel fresh and interesting because you can’t build a nest within your own comfort zone. Your local optima will shift game to game, and opponent to opponent.
Try not to let the theme dissuade you. There are definitely games that use this same basic formula within a more interesting context (Race for the Galaxy, as an example we’ll eventually get to), but they all have their own off-putting quirks. San Juan is quick to play, easy to learn, and after truly countless games I still don’t feel as if I’ve exhausted its potential. It is worth the time it’ll take to love it.
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