The San Juan board game has held up for quite a while, but has the app?
Android & iOS
# of Players
1 - 4
San Juan is the classic card game based off of the even more classic Puerto Rico board game. San Juan pits two to four players against each other in a hand management and set collection race to earn the most victory points (VPs) by building up their city into a point generating machine. A game lasts about 15 minutes once the rules and cards are understood, but will vary based on the number of players.
San Juan is a classic engine building game. You need to build up your ability to quickly generate cards and turn those cards into building which provide VPs. The game ends at the end of the Builder phase in which one player plays their 12th building.
San Juan starts by the first player (the Governor) selecting one of five roles to perform and then carrying out the action associated with the role. The player selecting the role gets a bonus, but all players can perform the action associated with the role (except for Prospector, as noted below). Each player picks a role, then it’s action is carried out until all players have chosen a role (in a 2p game the Governor gets two roles per turn). At this point the Governor changes to the next player and the process repeats. The available roles:
Builder: build a card from your hand at the cost of other cards from your hand
Producer: produce a good on one of your production buildings
Trader: trade goods for cards
Councillor: draw cards, keeping one while discarding the rest
Prospector: the player who chooses this role draws a card, other players do nothing.
There are two types of buildings in San Juan: production buildings and the very unimaginatively named Violet buildings, which appear on violet colored cards. The production buildings come in five different colors, each producing a different good. Goods get traded at different market values based on their type and what the value chart currently says. The goods from highest cost building (Silver) will always have the highest trade value. Sometimes it will be tied for highest, however, so paying attention to their value when choosing what to sell is important to ensure you “sell high” for optimal returns. The Violet buildings either give you special abilities (such as the ability to trade an extra good or draw an extra card) or are geared directly towards producing more VPs. Every card in the game gives at least one VP. The Violet monument cards do nothing besides provide points and the elite six cost violet cards provide VPs based on specific criteria for that card. These six cost cards are often the difference between winning and losing and are a source of much of the strategy in the game. There is a card which rewards bonus points per each production building, for example, so getting that card early could lead to a production-heavy approach the rest of the game.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward once you get the basics down. Produce cards to build stuff to get make it easier to get cards and ideally you go on a point generating explosion before the game ends. This is a good introduction into the genre but not a game with nearly as much depth as, say, Race for the Galaxy which has very similar mechanics in play. Like most games of this ilk, a common complaint is that it can feel like multiplayer solitaire. Your mileage will vary with this one depending on how you feel like games in the genre, but it works quite well as a gateway if you want to try it out.
Barrier to Entry
San Juan comes with a tutorial and a rule book. The rule book is quite extensive, going into detail on what each card does and pointing out the differences between the app rules and the board game rules, along with covering all of the gameplay aspects. I've skimmed the rules but never found it necessary to give them a full read because the tutorial does a good job of explaining the rules and this isn't the heaviest game around.
The tutorial walks you through the options and controls for a few turns before letting you finish out the game on your own. It takes about 20-30 minutes but much of that is dependent on how much detail you go into when reading the various cards. San Juan is a streamlined and very straightforward game in its genre so, while there are multiple paths to victory, I never felt overwhelmed or lost by those choices.
Pretty Basic Title Screen
Starting a Game vs. Juan & Salvador
Choosing what I want to build
Look and Feel
The app has been around a while and you can tell. The visuals fall short of some of the striking work we've seen in recent apps. Although a bit dated, the app remains functional in every way. Like most card game apps it does a great job of providing a usable overview, if you are comfortable with the game you will rarely need to zoom, but the option is there and is well implemented.
The cards are colorful and readable. One nice addition which we always like to see is a setting to set how quickly the digital cards get pushed around the playing area. Going from the slowest to fastest setting will have a considerable effect on the length of your games.
More bonus points for adding some small visual effects that make a big difference. Some cards you've built will have effects that kick in at various times during a turn, as your number of buildings grow it can be tough to remember what extra effects you have in play. In this situation, the game will highlight a card which has an active effects so you know what is happening. It's one of the small visual cues this game does very well
The app looks a little dated but is great as far as functionality goes. One minor complaint is that the app takes a while to load when in the menus. The same itself runs smoothly, but there is noticeable delay when trying to head to the game creation screen.
I find myself in a bit of a conundrum here. San Juan has multiplayer, different types, some options, and even leaderboards. But, what do I say about it if I can't actually find anyone to play against? I've had this app for a while but never ventured into online play after initially being scared off by the Google Play based matchmaking. Turns out, I was right to be afraid. I've tried on multiple occasions over a week of prepping for this review and have been unable to find a playing partner. If this were a brand new game I'd make a friend or another Pixelated Cardboard writer buy the game so we could test it out. However, this game is far from new and simply appears to have no online user base. As such, I simply can't vouch for the multiplayer aspect of this game.
You can invite friends and I suspect it will deliver a good gaming experience, but I can't try it myself. For the record, the rulebook notes that Quick Online Games are only two players and has a 60 second timeout. The rules don't specify any timeout, or lack thereof, for Online Games which can be 2-4 players, allow you to invite friends, and add AI opponents. Since the Android version does use the Google Play Game services, San Juan isn't truly cross platform.
On a brighter multiplayer note, there is a pass and play mode so you can use the app to play your friends locally.
Since multiplayer isn't a true option, that puts a massive emphasis on single player, specifically the challenge the AI can present. You can play a single player game against one to three AI opponents with three skill options: Amateur, Experienced, and Expert. A quick shout out for not using the common Easy/Medium/Hard. Like many games, the Amateur Bot is deliberately bad, it is best used for learning the game but chances are you won't be playing that bot for long. Experienced provides a decent challenge, you can expect to lose if you make a few mistakes.
Expert AI is truly a tough challenge and is by far the best feature of this app. Playing one on one versus Expert is really quite difficult. If your strategy doesn't pan out perfectly and you're forced into a wasted turn, you can be sure Expert Bot will make you pay. The difficulty here is really the reason to play this app. If you enjoy the game you will be challenged for a while. I've had the app for a few years, although not playing constantly, of course, and I still lose to Expert more often than not. I've found my best chance of beating Expert is to play 3 or 4 players with an Amateur Bot thrown in. This isn’t to say a highly experienced San Juan player will find a challenge here, but coming from a novice with quite a few app plays under their belt, I am impressed with the Expert Bot.
This Game is Just Getting Started
I'm Governor, Time to Select a Role
Tie-breaker Win vs. Expert Salvador
Not a lot more to add here. The app doesn't include any expansions. There was a set of new buildings and events released for the board game as a part of a larger expansion bundle (called Treasure Chest), and those new buildings made their way to a recent version of the physical game, but none of the above have been released to the app.
The Android version of the game uses the Google Play Game system so there are a slew of achievements you can unlock in the same way you would unlock them on an Xbox game. This adds a little incentive to try to reach certain goals and is the true benefit of Google Play Games integration.
The Wrap Up
This app isn't going to be for everyone. For an experienced player in the hand management, set collection, engine building world, San Juan will be a little too light. For those wanting to play the game against an active online player base, San Juan misses the mark.
What the game does do well is work as a great introduction to these types of games and provide a tough AI which will likely remain difficult to a new player for quite a while. The app is well made without glaring issues. We recommend San Juan for what it is; a great gateway game in the genre that has been well ported and provides a challenging single player experience.