As I’ve noted before on Board of Life, I’m a fan of digital board games done right, and until a few weeks ago, the only game I played on my phone or tablet anymore was Splendor, which I still consider not only a dazzling digital rendition of one of my favorite games, but also a great example of casual digital gaming that can be easily played in less than ten minutes. Recently, Ravensburger Digital was kind enough to send review copy codes for some of their games, and today we’re going to look at San Juan and Puerto Rico HD, which, while they haven’t stolen my affections for Splendor, have certainly stolen any of the time that I make to play board game apps.
Because I have plans to explore Puerto Rico in depth later on Board of Life, you won’t find an extensive review of that game here, nor San Juan, because while I do not currently own tabletop San Juan, the app is so fresh and engrossing that the card game has moved to my Wish Wall. Because, while I’ve stated often on Board of Life that Puerto Rico is one of my favorite games, I play the San Juan app more often than Puerto Rico HD because my taste for board game apps runs to strong tabletop simulations in a minimum amount of time. Tabletop Puerto Rico can take two to three hours, and even given speedy AI, Puerto Rico HD can take ten minutes longer than my ten minute sweet spot for board game apps. San Juan, on the other hand, is timed perfectly, and consequently I’ve played about twenty games of San Juan, and three games of Puerto Rico HD, over the last two weeks. Still, it’s been an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the two games, as well as whet my appetite for owning the tabletop version of San Juan.
San Juan, the card game version of Puerto Rico, has a lot of similarities to its predecessor, except these similarities are scaled back to create a kind of Puerto Rico Lite. For instance, in Puerto Rico, each player every turn picks from one of six role cards: Builder, Captain, Craftsman, Mayor, Settler, and Trader; while in San Juan, players pick from one of five role cards: Builder, Producer, Trader, Councillor, and Prospector. In Puerto Rico, you’re filling the island on the one hand, and the city on the other, while in San Juan this action is conflated so that you’re simply trying to play as many points as you can before someone lays their twelfth in a series of cards that represent both the production of the island and the civil structures of the city.
Puerto Rico’s most unique element, that of socialized strategy, is not only present in San Juan, but due to the streamlining of the other elements, it is easier to observe in action. By socialized strategy, I mean that on every player’s turn, every other player gets to act as well, following the lead of the player whose turn it is. No one gets to act in a vacuum on their turn, as they do in most other board games. Speaking less abstractly, we are speaking of when each player picks their role. When a player picks a role, every other player also gets to act on that role, but at slightly reduced effectiveness. So when each player takes a turn, they not only have to think how their action will affect their own strategy, but also how the action they choose will benefit other players. In this way, strategy—a solitary element in most other games—is socialized in Puerto Rico. While playing the Producer may be drastically effective for you this turn, if it also greatly benefits your opponent, you may prefer to play the Councillor, though you will receive less of a benefit. Alternatively, you may decide to go ahead with the action that is more important to you, even if it means that you watch your opponent thrive due to the unintended charitable side effect of your strategy.
In addition to being able to more easily contemplate this socialized strategy in simplified San Juan, the scaling back of Puerto Rico into its card game cousin also makes for a leaner game, which in terms of comparing the respective apps, means that the San Juan app takes about half as long to play as Puerto Rico HD.
I’ve been extolling a lot on San Juan‘s virtues, so what’s left for Puerto Rico? Well, while San Juan is the definite winner in terms of speed of play and a simplicity that makes it easier to grok the socialized strategy of these games, if I was using purely objective criteria, Puerto Rico HD would be superior to San Juan.
Puerto Rico HD
Puerto Rico HD has excellent cut scenes, more articulate music and graphics, smoother animation transitions, and the speed of play for the AI is still fairly rapid. Puerto Rico HD also has the advantage in online play, as it continues to find a match for you in Gamecenter while you are doing other things, or even playing a game against AI. San Juan will just back out of Gamecenter and tell you that it can’t find players. That said, it takes an interminable time to find other Puerto Rico HD or San Juan players through Gamecenter, so you’re better off recruiting your friends to buy this game so they can play with you online directly. Even if you can only get one friend to join in on a game with you, better that and filling up the rest of the table with AI than waiting and waiting for players to drop in.
Waiting for players in Puerto Rico HD. I took this screenshot at 10:30 PM, 6/19/16, and I was still waiting for a match.
Despite the discouraging online game waiting room in both of these games that has so far prevented me from enjoying an online game—which means that any of my deep thoughts on socialized strategy in Puerto Rico were ironically gleaned antisocially through interaction with AI—these are much more entertaining and intellectually stimulating than throwing birds at pigs or playing one of those many games with jewels in them. I recommend them for what they are. Because at the current stage of development for board game apps, the best that can be hoped for is that the tabletop enthusiast has a kind of a digital speed bag that they can hammer away at with great speed. The days in which we can satisfy our desire for a long form strategic tabletop bout with a cell phone or a tablet computer are not here, and they may never be, as the interface doesn’t seem to be the issue, but simply the fact that there aren’t enough, and will never be enough, players waiting to be joined to online games. They’re playing these games at game night, or in Meetup Groups, or with players they met on Reddit or in a Facebook group. Technology is bringing these players together in the real world.
You can buy Puerto Rico HD for iPad by clicking on this embedded hyperlink.
You can buy San Juan for iPhone or iPad by clicking on this embedded hyperlink.
Or you can buy the physical version of these games through Amazon:
Puerto Rico Game
San Juan Card Game
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