Modern Classics: From Puerto Rico to the Stars

A Board Game, two cards games and a dice game; 2 set in the West Indies, 2 set in Space. At first sight, this might not seem like a particularly obvious grouping of games to be looking at together, but hear me out…


These games all come from the same designer, and they follow a semi-linear development pattern that can be traced through…

No. Scratch that. Apparently they don’t come from the same designer. But stay with me…

The basic premise for these games is shared: broadly speaking, players choose from a set of actions – when an action is chosen, everyone gets to perform that action, but the person who chose it gets an additional bonus which only applies to them.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico came along almost a decade and a half ago now, in 2002. It’s a fairly dry, fairly heavy, fairly fiddly Euro game – players are trying to develop the island of Puerto Rico – the ultimate aim is to gather the most victory points, but in order to do this, you’ll need to develop a network of plantations around the island, and buildings in the capital, in order to allow you to get the most out of your actions.

The roles available are Builder (make buildings), Settler (plant plantations), Mayor (get colonists to work in those buildings and plantations), Producer (get stuff from your plantations), Trader (sell some of the stuff from your plantations, and Captain (ship stuff grown on plantations back to the Old World for Victory points).

Puerto Rico
Just a few components then…

Puerto Rico is a solid game, albeit one that’s feeling its age. It is, in keeping with the theme of these articles, a ‘Modern Classic’ of heavy Euros.

That said, Puerto Rico is not a game without issues. There’s a reason I got rid of my copy 4 or 5 years ago. The game is fairly long – a good couple of hours, it needs a minimum of three players (a challenge when most of our gaming is just my wife and me) and above all, it’s incredibly fiddly: piles and piles of different tokens, and the numbers you need vary depending on player count. For example, the little wooden colonist tokens: with 3 players you need 75 of them, 100 with 4 players, and all 122 with 5 (those figures are from memory, and may be slightly out, but you get the idea). It’s the sort of thing that’s mildly irritating when you’re playing at home, and a full-time nightmare when you’re demo-ing the game to the public.

In the end then, Puerto Rico wasn’t for us: I certainly don’t mind the settle and develop theme, but it wasn’t interesting enough to justify the time and energy involved.

San Juan

Fortunately, 2 years after Puerto Rico first landed, the people who made it released another game: San Juan. This is a game which has lasted far longer on my shelves than its elder brother, still gets played periodically, and I think it’s a remarkably clever bit of design. The basic concept is the same: you are an enterprising merchant on Puerto Rico, your end-goal is Victory Points, and you’re going to get there by producing Coffee, Sugar, Indigo, Tobacco and the like.

SanJuanCardsThe genius of San Juan, is how much is done with such limited components. The bulk of the game is a deck of cards:

  • Face up, a card is a building that you can construct in your city: it will have a cost, (usually) an ability, and a victory-point value.
  • Face-down on a plantation, a card is a type of goods – so if it’s on a coffee plantation, it’s some coffee, if it’s on a sugar mill it’s some sugar.
  • In hand, a card is money – if you need to pay 3 money to do something, you discard 3 cards from your hand. If you sell something for 4 money, you take 4 cards from the draw deck, and add them to your hand.

The basic structure of San Juan, like the overall aim, has changed very little from Puerto Rico. Each round, you choose a role. When you take a role, everyone gets to perform the associated action, and you get a bonus. The roles are simplified slightly (no colonists needed, so the Mayor role has gone), with the addition of a new “Counsellor” role (draw a couple of cards and pick one to keep, with more choice for the person picking the role) but anyone who has played Puerto Rico will instantly recognise what’s going on.

SanJuanRolesThere are cardboard tokens to represent the roles, and there are others to determine the prices of the goods you sell, but it’s still a very limited pile of stuff, which gives you a great return in terms of gameplay. It’s playable with only 2, which is a great bonus, although sadly it doesn’t stretch to 5.

San Juan isn’t a perfect game – there are some cards which are much more powerful than others, and a few lucky draws early on can give you a major advantage, potentially one that will prove impossible for the other player(s) to recover from. That said, it’s not too often that a game will be a complete whitewash, and even when it is, it’s so much shorter than Puerto Rico, that you don’t mind as much. Having played San Juan once, I never wanted to go back.


Race for the Galaxy

Given the way that expansions abound for modern games, I think it’s remarkable that there hasn’t been an expansion for San Juan…

(ok, technically this isn’t true. There were some new buildings and some events which came in a “Treasure Chest” promotional expansion. The Buildings then became part of the “2nd edition” of San Juan, released in 2014. However, I don’t think there has ever been a point in time where you could walk in to a normal shop, and buy a box that was just ‘extra stuff for San Juan,’ so I’m classing that as “no expansions.”)

… I think the reason that there haven’t been any expansions for San Juan, is because of another game: 2007’s Race For the Galaxy.

This is the Quick Reference card – so just a bit more complex…

Until I came to write this article, I’d always assumed that San Juan and Race for the Galaxy were made by the same designer: closer research has told me that this was not the case, but that the designer of Race had been asked by Rio Grande (the company who publish all these games) to design a card-game version of Puerto Rico, and that some of his ideas were ultimately incorporated into San Juan, which feels pretty close to “they were both made by the same guy.”

For a 1-line explanation of Race For the Galaxy, you can’t get much better than “San Juan in Space” (assuming the person you’re talking to knows San Juan). There ARE differences, most noticeably that everyone selects the role they want to take for the round, and reveals simultaneously, which adds an interesting element of guesswork to the start of each round, but you’ve still got the basic principle that when a role is selected, everyone gets to do the action, but the person who chose it gets a bonus. Likewise, the aims are the same: build a tableau of cards to generate income in the short-term, and victory points in the long-term.

Top-Left: Settlement Worlds, Top-Right: Conquest Worlds, Below Structures to build

Race is more complicated that San Juan: You can settle planets using different types of resources (normal or military); The different resources your planets produce have far more specialised interactions with the cards that produce and process them. It also relies quite heavily on iconography which is not entirely intuitive.

Overall, I think San Juan is the more accessible of the two – and by extension it’s probably a better game for people who want something light to dip in to. Race for the Galaxy offers more complexity and has various expansions which can take the player count up to 5 or 6, or even down to solo. The steeper learning curve can also lead to more mis-matched games between experienced and novice players, and generally I think that this is a game which has the most to offer a group of similarly seasoned veterans playing regularly.

Roll For the Galaxy

“If a game exists long enough, and is popular enough, eventually a dice version will come in to being” – That’s a statement I made up about 30 seconds ago, and doubtless there are many exceptions, but as a rule of thumb, I think it’s sound enough.

and we’re back to a million components

Roll for the Galaxy appeared in 2014, and it’s not a particularly challenging activity to spot the leap in imagination between the names of the two. I’ve not actually played Roll, so I’m not going to talk too much about it, but it’s certainly found an audience of willing fans. It currently has slightly less than 10,000 Reviews (as opposed to 31,000 for Race), but it’s been out for less than 2 years, rather than 9, so a lag in numbers has to be expected. More to the point, those ratings are positive enough for Roll to have overtaken Race in the Geek-Ratings.

At 45 minutes, the dice version isn’t just a light, quick alternative, it’s a fairly meaty game in its own right, so keep that in mind before you pick it up on a whim.

Final Thoughts

So that’s the family. For each of them, you can find people with plenty of good stuff to say, and plenty of people ready to slate it. For me, I think that San Juan is the best- it’s got the right ratio of complexity to play-time, and is accessible enough to be an occasional play. If you are a fan of big Euro Games, then you should probably have played Puerto Rico once, but I think there are better games out there to buy and keep.


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