Build Your Empire By Working The Land With San Juan: A Review

A lot of gaming has moved onto iOS. An argument has been made that it might be the biggest gaming platform ever. At least some of that growth is driven by traditional board games moving to the iPad. There’s the biggies like Magic: The Gathering of course, but also more obscure games like Settlers of Catan. Catan is likely the best known game in a genre called Eurogames. Another famous Eurogame is Puerto Rico, which focused on building a plantation in colonial Puerto Rico. San Juan is a card based variant of this game that was just released on iOS. There is an iOS version of Puerto Rico, but San Juan plays faster and is much easier to teach to someone while waiting for a table at a restaurant.

How do you play a board gaming using only cards

There is a great tutorial included with San Juan that shows you how to play through a single game very easily. This makes the process of learning San Juan take about a half hour, but you won’t have to stop at any point to check the manual. The structure of the game is pretty simple. The governor token is similar to the dealer in poker. This means a player is the first to choose one of five roles. These roles allow you to do different things:

  • Builder – This allows you to construct a new building at a discount; all other players pay full price.
  • Producer – Create crops that can be sold later; you can produce an extra item if you choose this role.
  • Trader – Sell products; you can sell an additional item if you choose this role.
  • Councilor – Allows you to choose from one of five cards, and then allows all other players to choose one of two cards.
  • Prospector – Allows you to draw a card.

After you choose a role, then each player gets a chance to build, produce, sell, or draw depending on what the Governor chose, and then the next player gets to pick their role. The game moves pretty fast, considering how much is going on. The cards are the only material in the game. They are, of course, the buildings you construct, but they’re also the crops and currency of the game. You slide cards from the draw deck under your production cards (more on that later) to stand in for your crop. When you sell them, you turn them in for cards that go into your hand. Then when you select a building, you have to select some cards from your hand as payment. There’s a lot to manage in the physical version, but the game does a fair amount automatically on the iPad. You’re still in charge of every decision, it just does the accounting. The game lasts until one player builds 13 buildings, and then at the end of that turn the game ends. The victory points are based on the buildings you chose, as well as any bonuses they may provide. The cards breakdown generally into four types:

  • Production – These are the engine of your plantation, allowing you to create and sell. Everyone starts with an Indigo farm, which only costs one card to build. There are also Sugar, Tobacco, Coffee, and Silver cards as well, which range from 2–5 cards to build. When selling the products they make, the values of cards change from turn to turn. The higher value cards are always worth more, but you may get lucky and get two cards for some of the lesser products.
  • Violet Cards – These are the non-production cards that give you various bonuses. The Marketplace card when built will allow you to sell an additional good during the Trader phase. If you build the Quarry, you pay one card less when building the Violet Cards. There is a huge variety of cards that allow you to tailor your bonus to your play style. This is one of the more complicated areas of the game; the possibilities allow for a lot of strategic thinking.
  • Monument Cards – These serve no special propose, but are worth a lot of victory points. If you build them with the Triumphal Arch, they’re worth a ton of points. Though that last one may belong more in the next category.
  • Caps – These are technically violet cards, but they are somewhat separate in terms of purpose. These are the Chapel, Guild Hall, City Hall, and Palace. The Chapel allows you to stash cards into it every turn, increasing the number of victory points. The City and Guild Halls pay bonus victory points based on the number of violet and production buildings you have, respectively. The Palace gives you a bonus victory point for every four. These cards are hugely important and should be the focus of how you build in the game.

There are a lot of rules, but once you’ve played the tutorial they’re pretty intuitive.

What fun is a board game without friends?

Every gamer has times where they’re accused of ignoring everyone around them. So it’s important to keep games around they can share with the group. San Juan is a good game for these times, as it supports up to four players. This can be a mixture of human and AI players. The pass and play system is very nicely handled with a prompt to pass it to the next player making sure you aren’t seeing everyone’s hands. The AI players on easy aren’t going to win very often, even if you try to let them. They become a lot more aggressive as you up the levels to Experienced and Expert.

There is online multiplayer included. The matchmaking is done via Game Center. The population still seems a bit sparse. I tried a few times to search for players, but there didn’t seem to be anyone online. This is a game that you really want to have someone on your friends list with the game as well, or you’re going to be waiting a long time for matchmaking. The online game still allows you to add AI Players and play with up to four players, but this requires the custom match option.

Looks nice, sounds boring

Early board games look pretty bland in iOS, but as Retina design has taken over these have gotten better. San Juan has a lot of design flare that shows the care that went into the look of the game. The background is a nice wood grain with grooves in the table for each player’s 13 buildings. The player indicators all have a nice worn look to them. The card art is minimal but well drawn, and it’s pretty easy to see what the buildings are without having to zoom in. It’s a lot of polish where it could have easily been phoned in.

The music, on the other hand, is just awful. After a few games the generic spanish guitar gets really grating. If it was just boring it wouldn’t be so bad, but the music never really forms into any songs. The guitar just sort of rolls around like white noise, and if you’re really into music it’ll drive you nuts. It’s pretty easily muted, but it was bad enough to merit a mention.


San Juan is complicated enough to merit a lot of deep strategic thinking, but is pretty simple to just pick up and play. The iOS game ensures that you can play this game pretty easily and quickly. The game only takes about 30 to 45 minutes to play, so just enough to get through lunch or a long wait for a table. The online games could use a lot more players, but this is not something you can ding the developers for. You should probably just go buy this so there are more people playing.

Mac geek? Gamer? Why not both? Mike is a writer from Wisconsin who enjoys wasting immense amounts of time on the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter.