Puerto Rico

Tabletop Tuesdays

Andreas Seyfarth

To continue a theme, my fondness for German board games is no secret. I’m hardly a Germanophile; it's just that the most complex, thoughtful, and engaging tabletop games seem to come out of that country. For the most part, they lend themselves to social gatherings, including family groups, are generally well researched, have far more substance than games like Trivial Pursuit or Taboo, and yet do not require the same commitment of time, study and focus of a game like Go. Ra, Modern Art, and Puerto Rico, the subject of this review, are among my favorites.

Like a well-written book, each playing of Puerto Rico reveals further complexities. A trading game set in colonial Puerto Rico, when ships had sails, the game tasks you, the player, with sending goods back to Spain. While there are several different mechanisms that become more or less important as the game progresses, there is really one way to win: amass the most victory points, something that's important to remember -- during a recent game, one of my fellow players adhered to what seemed like a foolish strategy, seeking out quantities of a commodity with no cash value, but won the game, having earned the most points by sending the most goods back to the Old World.

Puerto Rico comes with a well written, 12-page rule book; the best possible summary, which I will attempt, is a poor substitute for actually playing -- a few rounds are worth a thousand words. Each player has a small board, to keep track of commodities, plantations, buildings, points and money. There's a scoreboard, tiles representing different kinds of buildings, and tokens for the five commodities: tobacco, coffee, indigo, sugar, and the seemingly worthless corn.

The most interesting aspect of the structure of the game is the rotation of roles throughout. It's played in rounds, and at the beginning of each there's a new governor, who chooses a role for that turn of play: settler, mayor, builder, craftsmen, trader or captain. Each role affords a certain advantage, a particular function, and during the round, each player must fulfill that particular function. After each player has taken an action associated with the particular role, the next player picks a role card and players take the associated action as before. At the end of the round, the governor card goes to the next player in clockwise order.

Throughout the game, players can sell goods, purchase plantations and storage buildings -- which are necessary for amassing even more tradable goods -- load ships, and assign colonists to plantations and other buildings; colonial economies don't run by themselves. A player can get victory points for owning plantations, shipping goods, and for manning certain large buildings; money is need to acquire some of these things but does not in itself affect final score. The person who has the most victory points wins, as simple as that, although the manner in which a game is determined to be over is more varied: when the supply of victory points or colonists have been exhausted, or when any one player has built on all twelve spots on their board.

Puerto Rico is a game for 2-5 players; it works best with 3-4 (2 is less interesting, and with 5 it can take tediously long). It will take an hour or two to play and has only a small element of chance. It rewards strategic thinking, and while a bright teenager with a decent attention span (they do exist) would enjoy it, Puerto Rico is not a party game and is best suited to a somewhat cerebral crowd. I would also recommend play on a weekend afternoon rather than after a dinner and a bottle of wine. It’s the recipient of the Deutscher Spiele Preis and the International Gamers Award. A copy of the game does not come cheap; it lists at $40, although Amazon sells it for $33.99 and BoardGameGeek lists it for under $30. Whatever you pay, it's well worth the price.


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Puerto Rico with 5 players

Puerto Rico with 5 players who have all played a few times before is just fine. PR is one of those games where you must play a few times to get a feel for the various values of actions. Once you do, this drastically reduces the amount of time you take at each turn because it's far easier to determine quickly what choices are useful and which are not. PR really is a 90 minute game, and shouldn't take much longer than that if everyone is playing reasonably quickly.

Those with only a few plays under their belt should carefully study both the conditions for ending the game, and the restricted resources used (colonists and victory points): a common error amongst new players is to put too many of these in play to start the game, and also to not realize that if they want the game to end, they can hurry it along by using up these resources. With 5 players at the table, the Mayor action can be especially devastating, because it can occur quite frequenly that a Mayor action can give the Mayor 3 or 4 colonists to the 1 or 2 given to everyone else.

My copy is marked 3-5 rather

My copy is marked 3-5 rather than 2-5 players. I prefer 4 or 5 players as there are a couple of strategies which seem to dominate in the 3 player game.

That said, one of the things I love about this game is that it's possible to plan and carry out really unusual strategies, there's a kind of constant arms race in our group as each player finds new ways to exploit the rules which in the next game will obviously be spotted and countered. Whilst the rules can seem pedantic at first (lots of special cases for each building), they're actually really flexible, allowing many styles of play to be successful.