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Review: Puerto Rico

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Puerto Rico was once the highest-rated game on Board Game Geek, and it currently occupies position #3 of all board games ever. But what with the recent reviewing “controversy” mentioned on BGG (and commented on by @Futurewolfie), how does one approach reviewing so stately a classic?

Well, at least on my end, being newer to the hobby, I approach Puerto Rico as a relative newbie, without the baggage of its longstanding reputation. So what did I think of this classic? Find out below!

How It Works

Puerto Rico is a role-selection, engine-building Euro game for three to five players that plays in around 90 minutes. The goal of the game is to earn the most victory points, generally through erecting buildings and shipping goods back to the Old World.

At the start of the game, players begin with a single plantation and a nominal sum of money and are turned loose to make names for themselves in Puerto Rico. The game is played in rounds. In each round, each player in turn order, starting with the Governor (who changes from round to round), chooses one role. When a player chooses a role, each player may perform the role’s action, but the person who selects the role gets a “privilege”—a bonus that rewards the player for choosing it.

The roles are Builder (trade doubloons for buildings), Settler (get new plantations), Craftsman (produce barrels of goods), Mayor (hire “colonists” to work in plantations and buildings), Captain (ship goods back to the Old World for VPs), Trader (trade goods for doubloons), and Prospector (free doubloon for the chooser). Privileges include setting up buildings for less, producing extra goods and hiring extra colonists, getting extra VPs, and receiving a better exchange rate for traded goods.

At the end of a round, whichever roles were not chosen (there will always be three) receive one doubloon from the bank to make them more enticing in the next round, and the Governor card passes to the left. Then the next round begins, and so on.

The roles, which are the heart and soul of Puerto Rico.

This is the basic gameplay, but each building has a special benefit that allow players to break the rules in some way. For example, the warehouses allow players to store unshipped goods after the Captain phase (usually these would be discarded). The markets allow players to sell their goods in the Trader phase for additional doubloons. The factory gives players doubloons during the Craftsman phase based on what they produce. There are four large buildings that give bonus victory points based on certain conditions. And so on. The buildings open different strategies for players, all within the choose a role, execute the phase framework of the game.

The game ends at the conclusion of the round when all of the loose VPs (gained during the Captain phase) are exhausted or when there are no more colonists in the supply. The player with the most VPs wins the game.

The player board, where the action happens.

@FarmerLenny’s take:

The first time I played Puerto Rico, I wasn’t too impressed. That’s it? I thought. Why is this game so highly rated? The game pieces are drab, the buildings aren’t even illustrated, and the gameplay seemed too simple to be engaging.

But this is exactly why (at least in some cases) we should play games beyond our initial impressions.

Puerto Rico is absolutely brilliant. It’s simplicity belies the depth present in the game. Yes, the game follows a very simple structure—choose a role, execute it, lather, rinse, repeat—but this is exactly what makes the game so great. It doesn’t take long to teach what players should be doing on their turns, but this allows even new players the opportunity for strategies to blossom and unfold. They can see right away that when they are the Governor, they had better use that first-player advantage to maximum effect. They can see that if only one ship is empty and they’re the only ones shipping coffee, they had better make a mad dash for the Captain.

Each ship can only contain one good, and the trading house doesn’t accept duplicates. Ripe ground for strategy and interaction.

But the game also has its subtleties. Should I choose a role that isn’t super beneficial in order to gain the passed-over bonus doubloons, or should I choose a role that might be more necessary? Should I choose the role that most benefits me, or one that prevents my strong opponent from getting what he needs? How can I best piggyback off of my opponents’ roles to ride their coattails to victory? Because the game is so mechanically simple, the real game—the analyzing, the guessing, the bluffing, the double-bluffing, the fine-tuning—takes center stage. It might not be so apparent at first, but it’s there, and it really is pretty magnificent. All of this leads to a Euro game with lots of interaction. Because each choice you make affects each other player (because they can execute roles after you), the players must be on their toes. Puerto Rico may not have much “take that”-style aggression, but players who don’t consider their fellows will not fare well.

I also like the game’s balancing mechanisms. Each role can only be chosen once per round, so it’s unlikely that one player will ever monopolize a privilege. And since each player gets a chance to be the Governor, each player is guaranteed to have one time when they can choose from the full range of roles. I like the sweetening mechanism that makes unchosen roles more attractive. The Trader is a role that I usually pass on, but it’s hard to do so when two or three bonus doubloons await the person to finally give the Trader a chance. It also helps that each ship can hold only one kind of good, and each good type can only occupy one of the ships. This keeps the corn monopoler (coined term?) from getting all the berths and gives leverage to the humble sugar farmer. Also, since each of the roles is performed in turn order and all of the components are intentionally limited (and privileges that involve extra stuff from the stock generally happen after all players have executed the role), this keeps players engaged while making decisions.

A bummer about Puerto Rico is that it requires three people to play (though there are some two-player variants on BGG, with one even implemented on Board Game Arena—but the box’s three to five players is recommended). While this number is harder to hit outside of a gaming group, Puerto Rico is nevertheless a game worth keeping around because it is so worthwhile when I do get a chance to play. It’s also remarkably easy to teach, though some of the subtleties may be lost on first-time players. This was certainly the case with me, which is why I didn’t think the game was that great after my first play. But as I considered that play over the next several days, and how I might have done things differently, I found myself itching to get it to the table again.

The central game board with doubloons and buildings

I also find Puerto Rico to be a fairly ugly game. The box colors don’t grab new players, and especially the text-only buildings are kind of bland. Of course, if you don’t already have a copy, you could always spring for the ten-year anniversary edition (which looks awesome). But, again, the gameplay covers a multitude of sins, and I forget the game’s ugliness when I’m trying to plot how to get those loose VPs before my opponents do. I even forget the boring theme.

Puerto Rico can take a while to set up, and I haven’t yet found a good method for cutting this time down. This isn’t such a big deal, since the game isn’t lunchtime length anyway, but I do wish it were easier. (Anyone with tips feel free to comment!)

Puerto Rico, in short, is a game that does not disappoint. The rules are simple, the gameplay is clever with lots of good choices, and the game feels balanced. I’m disappointed it took me so long to discover this gem. But now that I’ve found it, I don’t think I’ll let it go.

@Futurewolfie’s take:

Like most Euro games, Puerto Rico does not excite me. It’s no secret I’m more of an Ameritrash gamer—I love heavily thematic games, as well as ones tending toward tactical strategies over economic ones. Not that I don’t enjoy a good Euro game, it’s just not the kind of game that gets me jumping up and down. I say this so you know where I’m coming from and have a context for judging my comments.

The different plantations and goods available.

The experience of Puerto Rico honestly doesn’t stand out to me from the myriad of other Euro-style games, although it does have some merit in that it is perhaps one of the patriarchs of the genre. It’s certainly a well-crafted game. You have interesting choices. Role selection is great—although as in most role-selection games, I always feel like I’m a step behind all the time. It seems like the role I want to choose helps the other player just fine, and the roles they choose are no good for me.

While there is some level of interactivity—there is a limited supply of goods, limited space to ship them out, and limited roles to choose from, so everything you take may prevent someone else from getting it, and things they take are removed from your grasp—the game boils down to each player pursuing a strategy and hoping they can pull it off more quickly than the other players.

Not that that’s a bad thing, but the tough part is, if you fall behind you’re pretty much stuck behind. Since everyone gets to do every role, you will always feel like there’s nothing you can really do to slow your opponent down. It’s almost impossible to rally the troops with a come-from-behind move. So if you are inexperienced, or you make an early mistake, you can spend the whole game trailing. Fortunately, you don’t know what points everyone else has, so you may not feel too bad.

Even more fortunately, once you grasp the game a bit better, it’s not too hard to stay up. And there are multiple strategies you can pursue—you can go all out on production and shipping, or you can try to build a bunch of extremely useful buildings (some of which will reward you greatly at the end). And you can’t buy every building, so you can play around with which buildings you pursue in order to succeed. Multiple strategies are possible, so that player with the pile of point tokens may be edged out by a few well-purchased buildings at the end.

Sweet, sweet victory points. That’s what it’s all about.

There’s no doubt: Puerto Rico is a good game. Its rules are clear and make sense; the game flows, and everyone gets to participate the whole time. There’s a lot more subtlety in it than seems at first glance; with an intentionally limited goods system, you do have choices to help yourself or hinder your opponent. There will be tension in the last few rounds as the game visibly draws near to an end and you try to arrange your abilities to maximum effect.

Of all the Euro games out there that blend together in my mind so easily—I enjoy playing them, but it doesn’t really make much difference to me which one i play—Puerto Rico is perhaps in the top three. It loses a few points for the lack of engaging art (and quite frankly, a theme that doesn’t draw me in—I prefer space and fantasy over old-world harvest markets), but it is an engaging, tense experience. If you’re like me, you’ll probably enjoy it, but it might be best left to your Euro-fanatic friend to own it. And we love that friend for keeping us well-grounded with a variety of gaming styles.

Summary

  • Farmerlenny's Rating 9
  • Futurewolfie's Rating 8.5
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 9
    Your Rating:
Summary

Pros

  • Simplicity in the rules, depth in the gameplay
  • Clever with many good choices
  • Engaging experience
  • Very well balanced
Futurewolfie says:

Pros

  • Good, well balanced game
  • One of the best Euros
  • Clear, simple rules
  • Good game flow
  • Everyone gets to participate the whole time
  • A lot more subtlety and depth than a first glance reveals

Cons:

  • Drab and ugly looking (unless you buy the expensive 10 year anniversary edition)
  • Can take a while to set up
  • Unfortunate that it does not support 2 players

Cons:

  • Dull components and drab theme
  • Early mistakes are impossible to recover from
  • The game doesn't really draw me in
8.8 Very Good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion6 Comments

  1. I think I agree more with @futurewolfie here. My big complaint is about the importance of developing a strategy in the early going: one ill-considered decision near the beginning of the game can put you behind, and if you fall behind against an experienced player it’s pretty much impossible to catch up again. Since some roles give you nothing at all if you’re not prepared ahead of time (the trader, builder, and captain), you can find yourself crippled for a good portion of the game, watching opponents suck up VPs while you’re still building your engine.

    This is something that I thought Eminent Domain did really well—if you can’t take advantage of another person’s role choice, you at least get something (a card draw) out of the deal. Even if it doesn’t help you catch up all that much, it lessens the psychological sting of getting your butt kicked.

    I still like Puerto Rico and will happily play it when it comes up, but I’ve always been a little surprised at how much people love it. It overemphasizes the “pick a strategy and execute it” style of play a bit too much for my tastes, I guess.

  2. Kevin, you agree with Wolfie? Then clearly you are wrong.

    But seriously, I don’t think Puerto Rico is necessarily a “pick a strategy and stick to it” kind of game. Sure, you have to have some semblance of strategy, but in order to maximize your choices, you have to follow the flow of what the other players are doing. It doesn’t matter if I decide, “I’m going to go the production route.” If someone else takes all the plantations I want before I can get them, strategies change fast–and that doesn’t mean that the first person will win or that you will lose. Part of Puerto Rico’s charm is using the choices you have for the maximum effect. This is why choosing an “off role” for the bonus doubloons can be super effective, even if the action and privilege are worthless. Also, since all of the roles are interconnected, you can’t ignore any piece of the puzzle, which is another way of saying you usually can’t ruin yourself early in the game to the point that you can’t make it up later through shrewd playing. “I’m going to go heavy doubloons!” Well, you can’t if you don’t produce anything. “I’m going to buy lots of buildings!” You can’t if you don’t have doubloons, and not supplementing your strategy with any shipping is a recipe for disaster. Generally gameplay is balanced with each player choosing a minor specialty through their choices of buildings. Are there exceptions? Sure, but most every game I’ve played has had a pretty tight score, with first and second place within 10 (and usually 5) percent of each other.

  3. I don’t know, maybe this is because I’ve played the majority of my games online, a venue that tends to make me much more sharply aware at all times of how everyone is doing relative to everyone else. In the games where I’ve slightly miscalculated, I’ve always done my best to stay in it, only to fall short by that crucial 10% you mentioned. The problem for me was, I could sense for most of the game that I was going to come up short. I felt that I was playing to minimize the margin of defeat rather than to achieve a come-from-behind victory, and I couldn’t think of anything I could have done much differently other than that early mistake. Switching strategies midstream is possible, but in my experience such adjustment has to happen in the early game to be effective. After that point, if you realize that you’re on a suboptimal path, it’s too late to change course without losing crucial time. The VP and colonist pools will continue dwindling and the valuable “large” buildings will disappear while you struggle to tweak your production.

    Puerto Rico’s greatest strength is that it’s a game of subtle advantages, but the downside here is that one small mistake can reverberate through the rest of your game and make it unwinnable for you as long as the other players don’t screw up egregiously. In that way it’s similar to Settlers of Catan—if you make a bad choice with your starting settlements, all the canny playing in the world won’t save you against competent opponents.

    I don’t think this is a fatal flaw, necessarily. I enjoy going back over a game with people afterward, identifying the one play that turned the tide for or against somebody. But there are other games that allow for that style of play (e.g., Agricola, Power Grid, even Dominion) without engendering that sense of futility when one falls behind.

    Or maybe I just suck at Puerto Rico. That’s also a possibility. 🙂

  4. Kevin, I think the online venue changes the enjoyment of the game. First because you don’t have the wooden bits in front of you. Second because you feel the pressure to take your turn quickly. (The online version takes 35 minutes or so, and not all of the time lost is upkeep.) Third because you are much more likely to be at the table with an “expert.” (Think about it: who are the ones playing online? And when you’re drawing from a larger pool of players, there’s a greater chance for you to run into an expert. It’s like in high school quizzing. Generally the places with the best teams had a larger source to draw from, so they got the cream of the crop; the rest of us had to work with what we had.)

    I’m sorry you don’t care for Puerto Rico, though. If there are games you enjoy more, by all means, stick to those! 🙂

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  6. I tend to assess a game by how well I remember it the day after. Did it deliver any great moments – points in the game that were, or seemed, pivotal? Puerto Rico delivers those memories, but they are always moments where I made a mistake – and in Puerto Rico, it is always one that I could not recover from, no matter how sound my gameplay was after the mistake. Maybe another player also made an error that allowed me to catch up some, but the moments that stick are the bad ones.

    Now, I’m a glass half empty and what is there is piss kind of guy, but I dearly enjoy a game that delivers a good redemption moment. It doesn’t have to be through brilliant gameplay, it can be luck, but when it happens, it’s exhilarating, fun and memorable. Memorable.

    Puerto Rico has no redemption, short of someone else screwing up, too. It is a game where the failures stick with you for the entire, long experience of the game. While I admire the elegance and mechanics, I don’t really enjoy playing it. It’s the same as bowling for me – you go for a perfect score, and if you fall behind, you only catch up if the other guys goof a frame. I don’t like bowling, either.

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