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Best game with a morally repugnant premise: San Juan

It’s weird and creepy and colonialist but … well-designed.

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San Juan
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Board Game Geek rating: 7.3/10.0 (234th), San Juan; 8.1/10.0 (15th), Puerto Rico.

This is a card adaptation of the more popular game Puerto Rico. While the latter is played with pieces on a board, San Juan is structured as a card game. Real board game aficionados prefer Puerto Rico, but San Juan is considerably simpler and no less fun for it.

In both games, players control tracts of land on Puerto Rico during the era of Spanish colonization. The goal is to develop that land by growing and selling various crops such as sugar, indigo, tobacco, and coffee, as well as building other structures like chapels and aqueducts. Each building — including plantations growing crops — comes with a number of victory points attached. When someone has constructed 12 buildings, the game ends and whoever has the most victory points wins.

The colonialist theme is more than a little objectionable. In Puerto Rico, for example, plantations have to be staffed by placing small brown pieces (called colonists) on them, and more than a few board game fans have objected that the game, effectively, makes players slaveholders. That’s one reason I prefer San Juan, where the theme is much less important and the colonist pieces are not present.

Even so, San Juan may go too far in its focus of colonization, which is a shame. The game is very well-designed, and unlike Ticket to Ride, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to block or sabotage other players, meaning you do best when you focus on building up your own land rather than trying to screw over other players. That makes for a much friendlier game experience. As Arvid Nelson notes, there are plenty of non-offensive ways the game could have been themed (you could make it about terraforming and growing crops on Mars, say — to take a theme from another great game). I’d play a lot more of it if its publisher Rio Grande Games themed it around something else.

Buy at Amazon: San Juan ($34.99); Puerto Rico ($26.72).

Buy on iTunes: San Juan ($3.99).

Buy for Android: Condado (unofficial adaptation; free).

Play for Windows/OS X/Linux: JSanJuan (unofficial San Juan adaptation; free).

Play on Vassal: Puerto Rico (free).

Play online: Tropic Euro (unofficial Puerto Rico adaptation; free).

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