San Juan lies in the shadows of big brother Puerto Rico. However when it comes to elegance and streamlining, San Juan is better. Like Puerto Rico, each building constructed earns victory points, and your goal is to have the most victory points when the twelfth building is completed. Each card is a building and has a power that gives an advantage -- for instance, saving you money when building or permitting a bigger hand limit.
What is elegant about San Juan is that the game box comes with, cards, score pad, a few tiles, and a pencil. Because of these limited contents, cards are used as proxies for many things. For instance, when your factory produces a barrel of indigo, you place a face-down card as a proxy for a barrel of goods. When you sell that indigo, you get paid in cards from the draw deck. If you wish to build a building, you also pay in cards. Lastly, the Chapel allows you store one victory point per turn. What do you suppose we could use to mark victory points? You guessed it -- face down cards are placed under the Chapel as victory point markers.
San Juan has TCG-like feel to it; the game has basic rules that are superseded by the exceptions of rules written on individual cards. Anyone who has played TCGs will be familiar with the gameplay of San Juan.
There are excellent free fanwares of San Juan. I recommend JSan Juan by André Wichmann, because it is both bug-free and multi-platform. The Mac version by Jim Getzen is slightly better because it talks and has nicer interface, but the AI player in seat #2 does not produce when you choose Producer.
Alea, the publisher, commissioned designers to follow up with a card version after their success with Puerto Rico. Andreas Seyfarth, Tom Lehmann, and Carl Chudyk each submitted their designs. Seyfarth's submission became San Juan, while Lehmann's submission was redesigned as Race for the Galaxy (Space Juan) and Chudyk's submission became Glory to Rome.