Wednesday, February 21, 2007

San Juan? - No Thanks!

I had the pleasure of spending a good portion of the past week, hanging out with old college buddies in sunny Puerto Rico. Not one to miss a gaming opportunity, I brought along a few games to show off.

San Juan – How could I pass this one up? Puerto Rico is too big to bring on a plane, and would have been a bit much to spring on my non-gaming friends.

No Thanks – This is my go-to game for non-gamers, its small size makes it nice and portable.

Bang! - I brought Bang! and its expansion, Dodge City as I thought the theme would work well with our group of five.

In the end, No Thanks was the big winner, being played at least seven or more times, stirring up much discussion. We got in one play of San Juan which went over “OK”, and Bang! never made it to the table.

I’ll start with San Juan, as I have less to say about it. While I find it a fun little game, I think it doesn’t do the great game of Puerto Rico justice. There is still a significant luck of the draw on how the cards are distributed. While an experienced player can sometimes overcome it, it is harder for newer players to know how to compensate. For example, I had no production buildings in hand, even after choosing the councilor phase twice (well the second time I got a second indigo plant). However, I did manage to get the aqueduct and market stall early in the game so was able to eventually sell both indigo plants on a regular basis. I find the aqueduct and market cards to be far too powerful. Players that get both, can always earn two good and sell them both, without having to even choose either role. This adds up over the course of the game, making it difficult for any player who does not have one. This is probably mitigated in a two player game, as more cards are available, but in a four player game one player is guaranteed to not have each card. In our game, I started behind due to a lack of production buildings but was able to catch up in the late game. One of the biggest surprises of the game for me was that the only other gamer present often hit minor bouts of analysis paralysis. I think it may have been BECAUSE he had played Puerto Rico before, and he was reading more into San Juan than was actually there. I realized after I had won, I perhaps should have tried to play so as to give someone else the win (and increase the chance it would be played again) but I rarely see these guys so it probably doesn’t matter in the long run.

No Thanks!, however, was fairly successful. After a minor amount of foot-dragging everyone started playing and caught on quick. It is always interesting to watch people learn the game and develop strategies for playing. As all these players were college chums, they are very smart (I went to a nerd college) and were quickly analyzing the relevant aspects of the game to try to develop a winning strategy.

The development of play went through stages that I now consider quite common in people learning the game. Initially, the playing chips were undervalued and everyone tended to let the cards load up on chips. A twenty five card might get ten chips on it and still be considered nearly equivalent to a fifteen. After just a single play, everyone saw the value of chips and began to plan out their needs for the whole game. A significant portion of good-natured threats to screw each other over was also present, preventing anyone from running an unwanted card (to all but one player) too many times around the table. One player was fascinated by the value of chips and was trying to assign value to them, hoping to be able to assign an optimal expected value for a given situation. If chips have a certain value, then a chip/card combination could be set that would always be a good decision – similar to betting tables for Video Poker or Blackjack that show the optimal decision for each situation. As everyone soon learns, however, in No Thanks! the value of a chip fluctuates during a game. At the start of the game, they are more valuable, as they can prevent one from taking a bad card later. At the end of the game, they simply have the negative one point value and that’s it. If nothing else, I was surprised at how quickly everyone developed from beginning players to very good strategists. What typically takes many plays to develop was found and adopted within just a few. By the end of the first night, everyone was balancing card and chip values fairly well, and the cards were almost always picked up off the table right when everyone else was “about to pick them up”. Even the endgame was vicious as we all kept track of our chip needs, devaluing them as the deck wore down. (One of the biggest faults I see in somewhat experienced players is how they fail to devalue chips in the last few rounds. Putting a chip on a 5 card is a totally valid move if there aren’t many cards left in the deck.)

With everyone playing in such an efficient manner, I was once again struck by the elegance of the game mechanics. Sure, there is a huge amount of luck involved due to the 9 cards removed from the game, but there are also some very nice balancing mechanics to prevent one player’s strategy from dominating. One good strategy is to take a reasonably high card early, and then hope for more to come up in the sequence, sending them around each time they appear to glean even more chips from one’s opponents. However, this strategy is self-limiting as players will eventually run out of chips – you can’t milk a dry cow. This can be even more significant, if players are valuing the chips differently. If you have only a few chips, it may just be worth it to take a fairly high valued card to be back in chip-flush territory again. This can be even more worthwhile if by taking the card you break another player’s sequence. Thus, if there are a few chip-scarce players around, sending a sequence-joining card around the table can be a risky proposition. I even came across a new strategy to consider. While the idea of “not running out of chips” is fairly straightforward, I did observer the power of having a single chip left. If you have no chips, you have to take whatever comes up. Having even a single chip, can mean you cycle a bad card one more time around, making sure that you aren’t forced to take a card several times in a row. While it may be obvious to some, I realized that the difference between one chip and no chips is significant enough to modify some of my choices as I get close to running out of chips. Being the great universal game that it is, No Thanks played an even larger role in our evening relaxations… since it comes with a small baggie of chips we conveniently used them in several games of poker.


huzonfirst said...

Actually, Matt, I don't think San Juan is a very good game to show to non-gamers, even smart ones. There's too many types of cards to have to learn about, not to mention the unusual role selection mechanic. It has a bit of a learning curve, which isn't really what you want in that situation. Great game, but one I usually reserve for those with at least some gaming experience.

Groupthink almost always plays a big part in SJ and your session sounds no different. I think this is the first time I've heard anyone opine that the Aqueduct and Market Stall (actually, from your description, I think you mean the Trading Post) are overpowered--usually that complaint is reserved for other cards. Sounds as if your group was doing a lot of production and trading. Lots of games don't feature that and that makes those cards less valuable. It's a nice combination, but hardly unbeatable in my experience. If someone does have a sweet combo like that, the key is to make them choose the production and trading roles as much as possible.

San Juan does have a reasonable luck factor, of course, but I find that sound play and experience usually win out. That, combined with the fast gameplay, really makes it shine. It isn't Puerto Rico, of course, but that isn't and shouldn't be its goal. I think it's a great member of the Alea line.

No disagreement about No Thanks, though. Just a brilliant design and perhaps the best gateway filler game ever created. It's really neat that such simple rules can lead to interesting gameplay. It always goes over well and works great with a group of non-gamers.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Yeah, I wouldn't normally pull San Juan out on uninitiated gamers, but these are pretty intelligent folk... and it was either that or Puerto Rico. (If I'm going to San Juan I felt obligated to do one of them!)

I could see the Aqueduct & Market Stall as not overpowered, however they are very powerful in the midgame, particularly with new players. (We did force the other guy with the pair to choose those rolls frequently or they didn't go off. However, remember this was a 4 player game so one or the other - production/selling - had to occur at least once a round.)

What other cards are considered overpowered? I know the 6-cards are usually necessary to win, but there are a variety to choose from...

One mitigating thing about luck is the use of the Councilor role - a player can go seeking the types of cards he or she needs if necessary. However, this is only a mitigating thing if the players have played before and know what cards they need. In a game of 1st time players, that "luck mitigation" isn't as useful...

huzonfirst said...

What other cards are considered overpowered? A lot of beginners focus on the Guild Hall, but that's before they figure out how strong the City Hall is. Prefecture is sometimes mentioned, as is Library. I've heard a number of complaints that such-and-such a card unbalances the game.

I actually think the cards are pretty well valued and usually try to work with whatever cards I draw. Probably my favorite combo is an early Carpenter and Quarry, as that gives me a Purple building machine. Even if I can't draw a City Hall, I usually do very well, particularly with Monuments. But there's lots of ways of winning and plenty of strategies that can work.