|This lonely photo does not include the Councilor role. He|
was too busy searching for a library to be present for the
San Juan is played in rounds. At the start of each round, the governor placard passes to the left, indicating the start player (this player goes first and has a few other housekeeping duties). The governor chooses first from a common pool of role placards--Builder, Producer, Trader, Councilor, and Prospector. Each role has a general action, which all players take, and a privilege, which only the player who chooses that role gets. (For example, if a player chooses the Builder role, each player may construct a building, but the player who chooses the Builder placard may build at -1 cost.) The game ends when any player has twelve buildings in his play area. (The rules, by the way, call the play area in front of each player a "tableau," but I couldn't get this to catch on in my household, my wife giggling or rolling her eyes each time I said it, and my friends just laughing at me.)
There is (or ought to be) a lot to like about San Juan. The game has an interesting way of managing cards, as each card has multiple uses. Each card is a building that can be played in his tableau...er, play area. Or each card can be used as currency to pay for buildings when discarded from a player's hand (a cost-4 building means a player must discard four other cards from his hand to play it). Cards can also be used, when they are placed facedown on production buildings, as trade goods, which players trade for more hand cards. I love this method of using cards because it forces players to consider how best to use the cards they've been dealt. "Yes, this building provides a nice bonus, but if I discard it, it can pay for a building with a better bonus..." I like that the game offers good choices (which necessarily involves trade-offs).
I like that every player participates no matter whose "turn" it is. Even if Jimmy chooses a role, I get to participate (unless he's a no-good, rotten player who chooses the Prospector role--which offers no action for all players, only a privilege for the player who chooses it). This keeps players invested in the game the whole game through. There is no player elimination (a la Bang!), so each player remains at the table (or tableau) for the duration of the game.
I also like that the buildings in the game offer many opportunities for combos. It's gratifying when you not only get to build for a cost of -2 (essentially, keeping two extra cards in your hand) but also get to draw a card afterward. The combos allow players to feel like they are doing things. The game effectively conveys the theme of city building.
But this leads to what I don't like about the game: San Juan offers some good cards, but the good cards are always good. A (the?) case in point is the Library. The Library doubles the privilege a player gets from choosing a role. (In the Builder example above, a player gets to build at -2 cost each time he chooses Builder if he has the Library in play.) It doesn't matter which strategy a player chooses to pursue in the game (and there aren't that many viable options); the Library is always a good card--and not just a good card, but the good card. In other words, while there might be "multiple paths to victory" (a big "might," in my opinion), there are still a few cards that each player desperately wants to win. And if a player doesn't get those cards (a distinct possibility in a four-player game, since only three of each violet building are included in the deck) and the other players do, he is hard-pressed to overcome his disadvantage. This would be fine if getting such cards was somehow chosen by the mechanics of the game, but drawing good cards is almost completely random. And if you're playing with mean players who draw and bury the good cards with their Chapels (which they've also buried beneath their chapels), well, you might be wishing for some player elimination (I know from experience--drawing only production buildings gets old).
All this being said, San Juan is a fairly enjoyable game, and it's easy to teach. It's a decent entry point to the world of board games that are fun. In fact, it has all the components of a great game, so it's hard to put a finger on why it fell flat with me and the people I tried it with. The best analogy I can think of is when one of my sisters used to cook gourmet meals for the family when she'd come home from school on break. I realized that what she was cooking us was probably better than what we typically ate, but I still would have rather eaten burgers or pizza. In the same way, I acknowledge that San Juan should be fun and is a decent game in its own right; it just isn't to me. After several plays, no one I played it with was anxious to get it to the table again. We acknowledged that the game was well designed, but for whatever reason, we would always choose something else over it. This is why I eventually traded it away for Race for the Galaxy, which I'll talk about next time.
(And all of you out there who love San Juan--please point out what I'm missing in the comments.)