San Juan is a admittedly a game with a good deal of luck involved. However the luck element seems to be emphasised when we play, as some of the cards seem significantly better than other cards of the same value. For example, given the choice we would always pick a smithy over an archive, a poor house over a crane or a prefecture over a carpenter.

Does anyone know or have experience of a variant that attempts to balance the cost-to-quality ratio of the buildings? Or is our perception wrong - are the buildings priced appropriately?

2 Answers 2


Have you played with the San Juan expansion buildings from the Treasure Chest set? While I agree that there are some cards that are simply better than others, the expansion tries to fix this.

For example, Park is a 3-cost building that gives you a discount of 6 instead of 3 if you overbuild it with a Crane, which might make the crane more enticing.

The Residence allows you to score points extra points for each set of 3 buildings with the same building cost. This could convince you to build some of the less-desired buildings to get the bonus.

And personally, I like the Carpenter -- I've had a few games where I bought a ton of purple buildings, and was able to refill my hand quickly. It could have been a few lucky draws, but the Carpenter is at least decent in my opinion.


While there is luck in the game, it is possible to minimize it. I find that not building if you don't have a good choice is sometimes good. If everyone else builds and has no cards left, you can usually try for another card and build quickly before they can do their own build. Usually someone who always builds no matter what is stuck with too many low point buildings. I've often won the game with only 10 or 11 cards, so you can let yourself get behind by 1 or 2 and still be okay.

Also, with 4 players, you know 4 out of 5 phases will be chosen, so you don't have to worry if a phase is skipped as much. This means Produce and Trade cards are a bit better.

On average, the winning score in the games I play is above 32. A score of 40 happens every 4 games or so, and I think we've had a high of 48.

If you want to remove as much luck as possible and if playing with only the original set, I would suggest the following rules:

  • When building, allow one to build any building they wish, regardless if it is in the hand or not.
  • If built on the same turn, you may exceed the card limits for specific buildings.
    • 3 people want to play Guild Hall at the same time, they all get to. After that, it can't be played.
    • 2 Wells have been played. A 3rd player wants to play it, so the 4th player must either play it now or not at all.

This takes the luck of the draw out of the game and focuses your play on a well designed schedule of building. You have to balance high point buildings with buildings that get you cards in your hand. I find that focusing on getting cards for the first 6 builds and then switching to high point buildings after that works best (even in the regular game.)

You would also have to tailor your strategy to how you think your opponents will select their phases. If they have the Aqueduct and Market Stand, they may choose Produce and Trade more often. If they have the Prefector, they may choose Consular more often. You can attempt to piggy-back your buildings on what they might choose.

Here's the best way to accomplish this variant:

  • Organize all cards so that you have 2 of each face up, left out of the draw pile.
  • Use 3 or 4 of the production buildings, depending on number of players.
  • With more than 2 players, when the face up stack runs out, attempt to replace it.
  • Favor production buildings when burying cards in the Chapel.

I've played this variant with 2 players a few times and it is quite fun. You really get a sense of which card combinations work best together. This helps when playing normal because you can spot good combinations more often if you've tried them. The average score with this variant is over 40.

  • Thanks! This is a really interesting suggestion. It looks like you can use something else as money and goods with this version? That would leave the cards free to be used as buildings.
    – tttppp
    May 20, 2011 at 6:53
  • You could. Only the count of cards in your hand and chapel and which production buildings have resources matter. Usually we just shuffle unneeded cards around to cover production buildings and to hold in our hand. Also, I suspect a near perfect build order could be found, but the randomness of the phases still exists.
    – McLeopold
    May 20, 2011 at 7:36

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