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Subject: San Juan: I've heard its Meaty but is it Fun? rss

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I am relatively new to Euro games, and after discovering The Geek I have been using this fantastic resource to research games in order to build a small collection. My choices of games have been governed by two main factors: 1) low purchase price and 2) potential attractiveness to my new-to-gaming girlfriend.

After reading user feedback on San Juan and trying the downloadable computer version, I thought it would be a good choice for us, hopefully meeting my girlfriend's stringent criteria of easy accessibility, strong theme, depth of strategy and short playing time. Bonus is the fact it plays well with up to 4, so visiting parents/friends could be potentially encouraged/pressganged into playing. I should say at this point that I haven't played Puerto Rico - the Big brother and forerunner of San Juan.

The box had been sitting on the shelf for a couple of weeks, but we cracked it open yesterday and have played half a dozen games since.

Components:

Positives: Nice sturdy box, the smallish cards are good quality and thick. The other components - role placards and trading tiles are fine.

Negatives: The box could have been half the size. A pencil and score sheet comes with the game which we didn't feel the need to use and clearly doesn't warrent inclusion. My main complaint is the game's art and design. The colours are very dull and the limited difference in colour of the production buildings are confusing. This is compounded by the fact the colours depicted on the trading tiles are different again! The rule book while functional, looks surprisingly amateurish, the layout is poor making it difficult to read. It also wasn't entirely clear that the two packs of cards that come with the game should be shuffled together to create a single deck used by all players.

Rules, Strategy and Opinion:

I won't give a detailed description of the rules here as they have been covered previously. The players aim to score the most victory points through playing buildings. These buildings are worth varying amounts of points. The game ends at the end of the round when the 12th building is played and the person with the most points wins.

Each round the players choose from the roles of councillor, builder, producer, trader and prospector. The holder of that role takes the first action (with an associated bonus as holder) and the other players are also able to perform the action. Each player takes it in turns to pick a role first. This is an interesting mechanism and the choice of role can be used offensively - by choosing a role which confers the biggest advantage to you, and defensively to give the lesser advantage to your opponents.

Each turn offers the strategic decision of which role to choose to enable you to reach the biggest potential score. The other main decision is which cards to keep and which to discard. As buildings are played by discarding cards from the hand, cards are easy come easy go and cards are quickly drawn and discarded. At first I found this method annoying as I'm used to Magic The Gathering where each card is precious rather than something to be thrown away. However, now I'm used to the mechanic and find it an efficient and clean means of simplifying a potentially complicated process.

However, while I admire the game for its clean and efficient mechanics I also find it somewhat clinical and slightly limited. There is player interaction, in terms of the role choices, however, there is no means of changing another player's hand or buildings. Without any such additional options I find the game quite constricting.

San Juan also has a large dose of luck which is compounded by the speed at which cards are discarded and drawn. There appears to be optimal starting plays and I have found the starting player gets a significant (and unfair) advantage by choosing first - and playing a production building (the 4 cost Coffee Roaster is my favourite) or Prefecture (which allows you to keep an extra card when the councillor role is chosen).

Certain cards are also unbalanced: The Library is strong particularly in two player if you get it down early in the game. The Guild Hall is another game swinging and can give a uncatchable lead. It is often the player who draws and plays one or both of these cards who will win the game.

My last and biggest complaint with San Juan is that there are lots of cards that are simply worthless and I would never play through choice: Well, Statue and Archive are the worst offenders. The Triumphal Arch is also pretty duff, if all three monuments are controlled it scores a maximum of 6 points 8 points.

Conclusions:

Despite these complaints, San Jaun has fulfilled my primary objective. My girlfriend enjoys playing the game with me and appreciates the strategies and mechanisms involved. While neither of us are convinced by the theme, it is reasonably priced, quick to play and offers a good depth of strategy.

Furthermore I have found the game well balanced and having played with 2,3, and 4 players (on the computer game) I think it works well with each of these numbers.

I guess I can't really object to a game which has fulfilled most of my criteria.

In conclusion I find San Juan technically very good but lacking in fun, and while I will no doubt be playing it a lot - due to girlfriend's approval, I won't be playing through choice.

I give San Juan 6.5 out of 10 with 2 players

8.5 out of 10 with 3 players
 
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Arthur
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archivists wrote:
Certain cards are also unbalanced: The Library is strong particularly in two player if you get it down early in the game. The Guild Hall is another game swinging and can give a uncatchable lead. It is often the player who draws and plays one or both of these cards who will win the game.


Both of these cards have been discussed greatly here, and the conclusion is pretty much that they're strong, especially on first impression, but they are beatable. They are very powerful, though. There's lots of discussion on them in the Strategy section of this game's forums. Although, Andreas Seyfarth, the designer, has suggested the library be removed in the two-player game.

archivists wrote:
My last and biggest complaint with San Juan is that there are lots of cards that are simply worthless and I would never play through choice: Well, Statue and Archive are the worst offenders. The Triumphal Arch is also pretty duff, if all three monuments are controlled it scores a maximum of 6 points.


Why do you dislike the statue? It's just a cheaper version of a victory column or hero - there's slightly less value, because you give up the statue itself to build it, but it's a decent building.

Also, the triumphal arch scores 8 points if you have all three momuments. It goes 4-6-8.
 
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OldestManOnMySpace wrote:
archivists wrote:
Certain cards are also unbalanced: The Library is strong particularly in two player if you get it down early in the game. The Guild Hall is another game swinging and can give a uncatchable lead. It is often the player who draws and plays one or both of these cards who will win the game.


Both of these cards have been discussed greatly here, and the conclusion is pretty much that they're strong, especially on first impression, but they are beatable. They are very powerful, though. There's lots of discussion on them in the Strategy section of this game's forums. Although, Andreas Seyfarth, the designer, has suggested the library be removed in the two-player game.


I agree the cards are beatable. My complaint is not only that they are strong, but that they are stronger than other cards in the deck. This means there is often a race to draw and play them. I tend to like card games where every card has a function and usefulness in the right circumstance. However, for me, many cards in San Juan are simply dead wood. I think it would be a better game if all cards were useful, and you had to agonise over which cards to discard. As it is the decision of which cards to chuck is usually an obvious one.

Quote:
Why do you dislike the statue? It's just a cheaper version of a victory column or hero - there's slightly less value, because you give up the statue itself to build it, but it's a decent building.


I still think the statue is a poor card. I would rather play almost any other card unless it was the last turn and it was the highest victory points in hand.

Quote:
Also, the triumphal arch scores 8 points if you have all three momuments. It goes 4-6-8.


My mistake. I have edited the post to give the correct point value of 8
 
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Eric Brosius
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It's funny; I felt the way you feel at first, but San Juan has grown on me over time and I've raised my rating to '8'. I don't disagree that there are relatively few strategies, but the balance between them is fairly tricky and requires good judgment. It doesn't matter whether there are some weaker cards in the deck, because you can use them as cash (yes, sometimes your whole hand is made up of weaker cards, but that's fairly rare.) I admit that it can be a problem if some cards are unusually strong, because this gives a benefit to the person who draws them, but on the other hand, this provides additional incentive to take the Councillor so you get to see more options.

Interestingly, I often play the Statue as part of a purple building strategy. If I have Quarry, Carpenter, City Hall and Triumphal Arch, it's a terrific building that costs almost nothing to lay down and is worth 6 VP. Also, I avoid the Coffee unless I have no better options---I'd rather build Tobacco, giving me 2 VP for one card less, or Silver, giving me an extra VP and better production.

One game you may want to look for is Race for the Galaxy, which is coming out this summer. It's San Juan-like, but has a dizzying array of possible strategies. Almost every card is valuable for some of those strategies.
 
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Toasted Jones
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I have also found that San Juan has got better over time. Yes, there are certain strategies that are stronger than others, but they can be beaten if a pattern is spotted early. After a few games under the old belt, I find it fun to see, predict, second guess where new games will go and take best advantage of the cards dealt.

 
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Thanks for the feedback. I played with 3 today, and my opinion of the game improved a lot. I wrote a session report about it if you're interested.
 
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Warren Forrest
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Quote:
I have found the starting player gets a significant (and unfair) advantage by choosing first - and playing a production building (the 4 cost Coffee Roaster is my favourite) or Prefecture (which allows you to keep an extra card when the councillor role is chosen).

You know, I don't really have a preference, actually. Going second or third or fourth means I get more cards to choose from at the start, meaning a better chance to have a strong opening.

Also, in 3 or 4 player games, it means I get my second role-pick sooner. Thus I can often get out a powerful combo like 2nd Indigo + Black Market early.

For example, if I was playing in 3rd position in a 3-player game and you were player 1 and built a Coffee Roaster, I'd build my Indigo, then Produce on my turn. Then during round 2, player 2 would probably choose Prospector, allowing me to build my Black Market.

From that point on, I'd then have a significant advantage.


Quote:
The Guild Hall is another game swinging and can give a uncatchable lead.

That's a very common perception for most new players. The Guild Hall is very easy and straight-forward to use, hence why most new players perceive it to be overpowering.

However, once the honeymoon is over, most players start falling in love with the City Hall instead. It's allows greater flexibility, and because it combines nicely with the other big-points buildings it usually results in higher scores than the Guild Hall.


Quote:
Well, Statue and Archive are the worst offenders. The Triumphal Arch is also pretty duff

Yes, the Archive is useless. But I still build it sometimes anyway because I often have a Carpenter + Quarry + City Hall combo, which means it costs me 0 cards to build and scores me 2 VPs.

As for the Well, I completely disagree. I win a lot of games using the early production advantage of the Well. However, I admit it is one of the tougher cards to know how to use properly, whereas with cards like the Library or Prefecture it's very obvious how to use them.

Statue and Triumphal Arch are generally considered the B-List of points buildings. But since they combine so nicely with a City Hall they're still very useful. Plus, it's o-so-nice when you get all 3 Monuments + Arch + City Hall + Palace and score 50+ points!


Quote:
While neither of us are convinced by the theme, it is reasonably priced, quick to play and offers a good depth of strategy.

It certainly would be nice to have a strong theme, wouldn't it? I mean, I love San Juan, but at the same time it's really hard to persuade anybody about the wonders of a non-violent game where you are competing to build a 17th century city. laugh
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