One of the great things about all these board games being ported over to the iOS is that you can see with fresh eyes how well games have held up. Or haven’t held up, in some cases. San Juan, for instance. It’s a card-based lightweight version of Puerto Rico, a classic board game. Both games share the same 17th century Caribbean motif and the same gimmick of players taking turns selecting roles. But whereas Puerto Rico is still a lean mean resource management Euro-machine, San Juan is a relic of the days before games like Race to the Galaxy, Dominion, and Ascension. I have no idea why anyone would still play it.
But don’t necessarily hold that against Ravensburger’s competent iOS port. It’s a convenient and effective way to get your San Juan on in under ten minutes. It’s a bit surprising that Ravensburger so rotely ported it from the card game, especially given how they completely revamped the playing pieces for their iPad version of Puerto Rico. No such thing happens with San Juan, which is just a straight-up reproduction of the card game, right down to the artwork on the roles. This means you have to learn which card art means which purple building. Is that an archive or a poor house? Better tap on it to find out. Or not, since the game so conveniently flags everything you can do when you can do it. It’s particularly helpful how cards light up when their abilities kick in, and how the little tags representing resources are visible in the corner when the rest of the card is obscured.
Maybe San Juan is too simple not to do well, but Ravensburger has done well with their just-the-cards-ma’am approach. Cards are constantly moving around the screen to show who’s doing what. You literally finger through your fanned out cards when you refer to them. The discard pile is a little messy.
The AI is fine, which is again probably a matter of the game being too simple to not do well. But a central fact about San Juan is that you’re playing against the shuffle more than you’re playing against the other players. If you’re willing to draw out a ten-minute solitaire game into however long your asynchronous matches take, San Juan has multiplayer support. And even if you’re not into multiplayer, it has a nifty take on leaderboards. Gamecenter tracks the points you’ve earned across all your matches and compares your total to your friends’ totals. You may not be better than them at San Juan, but you can beat them by just playing more.