San Juan Review

Shooting aliens is fun and all, but sometimes you just want to take on the role of a Spanish plantation owner, bringing prosperity and urban development to the newly founded colony of Puerto Rico. And if that first sentence doesn’t horrify you, then San Juan may be your game.

The San Juan app is a faithful translation of the San Juan card game, which is itself a shorter and simpler adaptation of a popular board game called Puerto Rico. (Ravensburger has also published a Puerto Rico iOS app.) Both games are famous for their ‘role choosing’ mechanics, where winning depends on the special powers you choose during each turn.

In San Juan, you start the game with a small plantation and a few cards in your hand. Your goal is to score victory points by building more plantations and buildings for the colony, and the cards represent things you might be able to build.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Cards also represent your money, because each card you play forces you to discard one to six other cards from your hand. Most of the game revolves around finding efficient ways to draw lots of cards so you can afford to play the cards you want.

How you play your cards depends on the roles that you and your opponents choose. There are five roles in the game, and each role has a special power. If it’s your turn and you choose the Builder, then everyone gets to play cards to build a building… but your buildings cost less. If you choose the Councillor, then everybody gets to draw cards… but you get to draw more.

The rules are simple, and the app does a good job of teaching the game. The challenge is in learning which cards work well together and how to anticipate your opponents’ choices. Play your cards right and you’ll benefit from every player’s turn. Play them badly, and you’ll be stuck building cheap little smithies while your opponents raise monuments to their own greatness.

A full playing field.

There’s plenty to engage the mind in San Juan, but there’s not enough candy for the eyes. As with other games like Scotland Yard, Ravensburger has designed the San Juan app to look and play just like the original game. The problem is that games like Scotland Yard have colorful boards and pawns, while San Juan is a bunch of cards with simple line art on them. The game screens are clean and efficient, but the game looks dull.

Fans of San Juan may also be disappointed by the weak computer opponents. Even the ‘expert’ AI can be counted on to make moves that are not in its own best interest. After you’ve seen a few bots end the game in ways that guarantee that they will lose, you’ll be relying on the multi-player modes for real competition.

You can play other humans locally using pass-and-play or online using Game Center. The game runs very smoothly as a multiplayer game, but the relatively small player base means you’re likely to have trouble finding an auto-match opponent. There’s also no asynchronous multiplayer, so you can’t just fire off a turn and come back to it later.

Again, these are limitations that show up in other Ravensburger games. In the larger and more popular games, they’re not much of a hindrance, but they’re a problem for a lesser-known game. That’s too bad, because San Juan is fun and has a lot of strategies to explore. If it were just a little flashier, it might attract the audience it needs to become a long-term addition to players’ devices.

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