Over the last few years I’ve slowly been updating, expanding, and revising my series of articles on Alea games. If you’d like to catch up, you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four.
This article brings Alea into the mid ’00s with a look at the transition from their old Small Box series to their new Medium Box series. It covers San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV.
Small Box #5: San Juan (A+)
San Juan returned to the gameplay of Alea’s prize-winner, Puerto Rico. On your turn, you pick a role that everyone benefits from, and you try and use the benefits of that role to build production buildings and special-power buildings that will ultimately earn you the most victory points.
Strengths: Innovative Cards
San Juan’s biggest innovation and its biggest strength lies in the the idea that cards can be used either for what’s printed on them or just as a resource. Generally, I find it an amazing idea. First, it notably decreases the effect of luck in a card game, because you only care about what’s printed on about a quarter of your cards, meaning that you have a lot more choice than you would if you used every card. Second, it introduces a lot of variety to the game, because on a given play you’ll only see a small number of the cards in actual use; it may be many, many games before you’ve played everything.
San Juan built upon this strong basis by adapting the basic roles of Puerto Rico to its new card paradigm. Now, many of the roles focus on different ways to draw cards: through selfishness (the Prospector), through overdrawing and discarding (the Councillor, who also includes another mechanism for reducing the luck of card draws), and through a more complex production-sales mechanism (the Producer and the Trader). It’s an excellent example of simultaneously innovating and holding onto classic play. Continue reading