The iOS implementation of San Juanis a bit expensive for a boardgame app at $7.99, second only to the best-of-breed app Carcassonne among adaptations of existing physical games, but at least San Juan can point to a very specific value the app offers to justify that cost – some of the strongest AIs I’ve come across yet in any of these apps. While that’s in part a reflection of the simplicity of the game itself, it means the app offers replay value that ranks among the highest of any of the boardgame apps I’ve tried. (I reviewed San Juan’s physical version three years ago.)
San Juan is the card game variant of the highly popular boardgame Puerto Rico, a slightly complex strategy game that has consistently ranked near the top of Boardgamegeek’s rankings (which are skewed toward complex games), making San Juan more of a gateway title that’s easier to learn and to play than the original. The entire game is built around a deck of cards that show various buildings players can construct, with the cards also standing in as goods to be produced and sold and as currency to be used from the player’s hand to construct those buildings. The physical game’s only other required pieces are five small boards showing commodity prices for the five goods players can potentially produce, with prices fluctuating slightly from turn to turn.
Strategy in San Juan is fairly straightforward – players get points for buildings constructed, and there are four ways to earn bonus points through specific buildings, three of which award points based on what else you’ve built, while the fourth (the Chapel) awards points for stashing cards under it over the course of the game. In most games the winning player employed one of those four cards and pursued the strategy from early on in the game; occasionally, a player can win strictly through aggressive construction of high-point buildings and filling out his space early, but I’ve found that requires some luck early on in acquiring and constructing the production buildings that make it possible.
The limited number of strategies likely helped the developers in crafting the AI players, but having played at least twenty three- and four-player games against AI opponents, I can vouch for the quality of their efforts. The expert-level AIs identify strategies early and pursue them strongly, with only the typical AI weakness of an inability to identify the human player’s strategy, thus sometimes making moves that help you more than the moves help the AI player itself. I’ve only found one game with AI players that take that aspect of gameplay into account, the aforementioned Carcassonne, which is one of the reasons that app remains the best of its class.
The graphics in San Juan are outstanding, clear and easy to read and navigate on a smaller screen, and gameplay itself is simple, mostly requiring drop-and-drag motions, with relevant information available through a single tap to zoom in on your own hand of cards or to see what buildings a rival player has constructed. I’d like to see an Undo option after a player selects a role – on each turn, you select whether you want to be a Builder, Producer, Trader, or one of two roles that involve gaining cards – although that wouldn’t be feasible for the Trader role once the commodity prices for that turn are revealed. I’d also like an option to speed up some of the graphics that waste time between turns or the time lost announcing who the Governor (first player to move) is on each turn, which would improve the game’s already significant replay value. Overall, I’d call this app a pleasant surprise given the price; for a spinoff of a generally superior game, the developers added value through graphics and strong AI play that make the cost pretty reasonable.
I’ve also purchased and played the app for Reiner Knizia’s Qin, but after encountering a bug I’ll wait for the next update before reviewing it. The game itself is very good, but I couldn’t finish one particular match because of repeated crashing.