Race for the Galaxy
Tom Lehmann helped design quite a bit of San Juan, which all 3 of us own and rate highly. Race For The Galaxy takes all the mechanics were stripped out of San Juan and expands them into a more complex game, still well worth the effort.
San Juan has a set of five role cards where each player takes a turn choosing a role, and then all players execute it, with the player that chooses the role getting a bonus (picking Builder means you build at a discount, etc.). In Race For The Galaxy, all the players have a set of role cards, and roles are selected simultaneously. Every phase that is picked executes (so not all phases execute every round), and you get the bonus in the phase you selected. That's a major change. No longer is turn order a major consideration - I rarely felt constrained by the cards in my hand, and never broke the hand limit of 10 cards (San Juan's limit is an oft-painful 7).
Also, in San Juan, all the players have an identical starting setup, while in Race For The Galaxy, the starting planets handed out at random have different powers.
Production and trade mechanics have also been tweaked, with the addition of victory point chips gained during the "Consume" phase of Race For The Galaxy.
Our game finished with scores of Todd 47, Chris 46, and R.J. 37 or so. We all used different strategies that all appeared viable. The cards are almost all different, so spending cards means you're likely to never see the card again, unlike in San Juan. It also feels like the pressure to build every phase, no matter what, has been removed. Bluntly, I love this. We spent a lot more time than a San Juan game, perhaps 90 minutes compared to 30-40, but the variety of cards and upgrade paths made the longer time enjoyable and reasonable.
We weren't totally without issues. R.J. missed the rule where we were supposed to only have 12 victory chips out per player, which was minor. Chris is fairly color-blind, and that was a big deal. He managed to get by, but many of the Settle and Produce cards involve tiny colored icons, which was a challenge for him...
Speaking of icons, the cards are a sea of them, and it's hard to see from across the table exactly what is going on with your opponents' abilities, broken down by round. San Juan makes this easier because the smaller number of cards, lowered uniqueness, and simpler powers all make for faster association with powers. Of course, this also makes the San Juan winner and loser cards easier to spot and easier to get in every game.
It's also worth noting that expansions for Race For The Galaxy are in the works. That'll make it even harder to get a grip on things for new players, but enhance replayability even more.
My rating after 1 play: 8 out of 10, compared to my rating of 10 on San Juan. If Lee can sit through an explanation of Race For The Galaxy, and likes playing it, I'll bump my rating a notch.