Tom Lehmann, Race for the Galaxy
Me: "Oh, Race
! I've heard good things. How is it?"
Rick: "It's like San Juan
Yeah, pretty much. San Juan is the Puerto Rico
card game. It's got no plantations (just factories) and no shipping (but it's still got trading), so you only get points from building things. Other than that, it's a pretty good adaptation. SJ preserves the main PR mechanic of every turn you choose a phase and everyone does that phase, but you get a special bonus (draw more cards, build for cheaper, etc). You pay for buildings (which are cards in your hand) by discarding a number of cards from your hand equal to the cost of the building; this means that anything you build, you have to actually want to build more than your other cards. It's good stuff.
So Race for the Galaxy is like San Juan with two major changes and a number of minor ones. The biggest change is that the role selection is now simultaneous. Everyone has their own set of cards for the roles: explore, develop, settle, consume, produce. Every round, you choose one role secretly and reveal simultaneously. Any role that gets chosen by anyone, gets done by everyone; the person or people who chose it get a special bonus. Any role that doesn't get chosen by anyone doesn't happen. Roles happen in a predetermined order. So in SJ most of the roles are going to happen, but you don't know when. In Race, you know definitely that card-drawing happens before building, but the only way to guarantee that you get to do card-drawing is if you pick it yourself.
The other big change is the return of shipping. In SJ all you can do with the goods you produce is sell them for cards. In Race, some buildings can turn goods into victory points. So you've got a bit of the shipping dynamic present in PR: the building up a bunch of goods and turning them into points, and the possibility of having something shipped before it can be traded for lots of cards in hand. Also, SJ ends when someone builds a twelfth building. Race can (and usually does) end like this, but it can also end when (like PR) the predetermined supply of victory point chips runs out. So someone with only seven or eight buildings can still manage to outscore someone who's rushing to get their twelfth mid-range building in play.
There are also about half again as many cards as SJ, and very few duplicates. In SJ you've got a bunch of identical indigo plants. In Race, those indigo plants are planets that produce 'luxury' goods, and each one does something slightly different in addition to producing. Add to this two different types of buildings (developments and planets), planets that you can conquer through military might, and big buildings (PR's ten-cost buildings / SJ's six-cost) that have incredibly useful in-game effects in addition to the ton of points they provide, and you've got one heck of a game.
And it plays in about half an hour, max, once you're familiar with the cards and the phases. A ton of decision-making compacted about as small as reasonably possible.
Race was my most-played game of 2007. This is particularly impressive considering that I only started playing in December.