Designer: Andreas Seyfarth (2002)
Publisher(s): Ravensburger (Alea), Rio Grande
# of Players: 3-5
Play Time: 90 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #2/8.18
Category: Gamer’s Game
I’ve been involved in the modern boardgaming hobby for about 5 years or so, and for most of that time, Puerto Rico has been a bit of a mystery to me. I missed its heyday by 3 or 4 years, and it was already entrenched at the top of the BGG charts long before I even knew what it was. I felt left behind by the PR bandwagon and was a little intimidated by the idea of trying to catch up when I had heard so many times about how a new or weak player practically ruined the game for those with more experience. And added to that, I also found myself feeling a little resentful of Puerto Rico and its renown, especially as compared to games that I actually did have experience with and loved dearly.
So, heading into 2011, I’d have to say that I was actually predisposed to dislike, or at least be indifferent towards, Puerto Rico.
Over the last few months, however, I’ve received quite an education about it, and this is what I’ve discovered…
Game Basics (click here for complete game rules)
The goal of Puerto Rico is to score the most victory points (VP), which is primarily done through some combination of constructing buildings and shipping goods back to the old world. Producing goods starts with plantations, but with the exception of corn, goods also require a particular building to process them. So, for example, in order to generate Coffee, you must have a Coffee plantation as well as the Coffee Roaster building. Buildings must be purchased using doublons, which are usually acquired through either selling goods or from choosing roles that weren’t taken on previous rounds.
The game is played through a series of rounds where each player in turn chooses one of the available Roles. The interesting thing about this is that while the choosing player gets an extra special bonus, every player will get to perform the core function of that role. And really, knowing which role to choose at just the right time is what the game is all about. So let’s go over what these seven roles do:
- Settler – There are always a number of plantation tiles laid out equal to the number of players + 1, and when the Settler role is chosen, every player gets to take one. The player who chose the Settler either gets first choice of the tiles or can take a Quarry, which is a special plantation that reduces the cost of buildings.
- Mayor – However, plantations and buildings must be occupied by colonists in order to work. Starting with the person who chose the Mayor, all of the colonists on the colonist ship are distributed to the players, who can place them in any open spot on their plantations and/or buildings. The player choosing the Mayor then also gets one extra colonist from the supply.
- Builder – When the Builder is chosen, each player may construct one building, and the person choosing this role pays one less doubloon to do so. In addition to the production buildings, there are several violet-colored buildings that grant all sorts of benefits. Plus, each building is also worth some number of VP. Along with knowing which role to choose each turn, deciding which buildings to construct is probably the most important thing that you do when playing Puerto Rico.
- Craftsman – When this is chosen, all players produce goods based on their occupied plantations and buildings. The player choosing the Craftsman gets one additional good of any type that she produced that turn. This is probably the most dangerous role to take, though, because it’s very easy to set up the next players to get a far bigger benefit from it than will the person who chose the Craftsman (since they will get to use their goods first).
- Trader – The Trader allows players to sell one good to the Trading House. Goods pay out doubloons based on their value (0 for corn, 1 for indigo, 2 for sugar, 3 for tobacco, and 4 for coffee), and the player choosing the Trader gets one additional doubloon. However, there are only 4 spots in the Trading House, and players may not sell a good already present there, so there’s a lot of manipulation possible that could prevent some players from being able to sell any goods at all.
- Captain – Three cargo ships are available each game to ship goods back to the Old World. Their size depends on how many players are in the game, but each one can only be loaded by one type of good, and no two ships can load the same goods. Starting with the player choosing the Captain and going around the table, players must load all of one type of good on a ship if possible. This continues for multiple rounds until all players have loaded all the goods that they can. Each player gets one VP per good that they load, and the one choosing the Captain gets one additional VP.
- Prospector – The player choosing the Prospector gets one doubloon, and unlike the other roles, no other player gets any benefit from it.
In all my plays of Puerto Rico, the one thing that stands out most to me is how thoroughly interactive it is. Every single decision you make is going to have a significant impact on all your opponents, either to help or hurt them. And try as you might to avoid it, you will inevitably help them from time to time. But you have to keep your eye on what everyone else is doing, have a decent idea about what they need to accomplish this round, and be able to estimate (or calculate) how beneficial any move you make would be to both them and you before you do it.
And if you really have your finger on what the other players are up to, you can sometimes even set yourself up to benefit from the roles they will take while also getting benefit from the role you choose on your turn.
What surprised me most about this game is actually how nasty is can be. There are so many ways to screw over other players, which I learned really early on when someone chose the Captain role and made my ship the Coffee I was planning to sell for loads of money. These “attacks” are still somewhat subtle, however, and may not be obvious to new or casual players. Most of them have to do with knowing how to block your opponents from getting the role, building, or other benefit that they want, so is usually comes down to the timing of who chooses what role.
Timing is, in fact, probably the most important thing to get your head around when playing Puerto Rico. In addition to the turn-by-turn decisions of knowing when to take which roles, there is also a distinct strategic arc to the game. Early on in the game, generating money should be your most important concern, because it allows you to buy the buildings you need to assemble your “engine”. Through the midgame, you have to begin shifting your focus, however, eventually spending all your effort in the late game on actually running that engine to produce lots of VP’s.
But it’s not always easy to feel your way around this transition, let alone manipulate it to your benefit. Again, this fluidity of timing and shifting priorities in Puerto Rico makes it incredibly dynamic and almost somehow organic. Every game feels like it takes on a life of its own, where the decisions of the players build on each other and generate this unique fingerprint of circumstances. In my dozen or so plays so far, I’ve of course encountered similar kinds of situations from game to game, but I’d say that the particular set of decisions I’ve faced in each game is always unique and fresh, making the game incredibly replayable despite the relatively minimal random elements. Part of the fun in the game for me is just getting into it to see what sort of journey it will take us on, and hopefully, to see how much I can influence where we end up!
For the most part, I’d say that Puerto Rico is a heavily tactical game. The most important decisions you make each turn must take into account the short-term benefit that they will grant to you and everybody else. But the real challenge is that in the midst of all those small tactical decisions, you must also be working towards some sort of larger strategy. You can’t necessarily walk in to the game with a preconceived notion of what you will do, however, because everything from the starting order (and the plantation you get to start with), the building decisions of the other players, and even what goods the players to your right and left are producing will influence which strategies are truly available to you.
And while I’d say that I’m somewhat proficient at the game by this point, mostly because I’ve sort of got my head around the tactical side and timing of the game, I still have a lot of trouble manipulating the game situation and the other players enough to get my strategy working like it should. The really cool thing is that, while I often find myself frustrated by being unable to win a freaking game, I’m still having a really great time learning all these lessons.
The 2-Player Variant
Recently, I’ve also had the chance to introduce Puerto Rico to my wife using the official 2-player variant from Alea. It’s mostly similar to the regular game (with a smaller number of VP’s and colonists, as well as pulling out a few plantations and goods of each type), but the biggest difference is that players takes turns choosing 3 roles each during the turn. In our last game, we changed this a little to where the Governor gets to choose 3 roles and the other player chooses 2, which I think works a little better.
So far at least, I’m very pleased with the variant. It’s certainly not as dynamic as the regular game with 3-5 players, but it still mostly feels like Puerto Rico, and I’m pretty satisfied with the experience. My wife seems to like it a lot, so that’s always a plus as well.
Puerto Rico is an incredibly interactive and dynamic game that totally lives up to its reputation. Even if you feel left behind and intimidated by it, you really owe it to yourself to give this euro powerhouse a chance.
- Rules: Once you understand the roles, you understand the game, and that’s not terribly difficult.
- Downtime: Almost none, because every player benefits from every role selected. Occasionally players (okay… I) can get caught up in a little analysis paralysis about choosing the right role.
- Length: The box says 90 minutes, but most of my games are 45-60,the shortest being 27 minutes and the longest was 82.
- Player Interaction: As I said above, interaction is what the game’s all about!
- Overall Weight: Medium Heavy (more for depth than complexity)
- GamerChris’ Rating: 10 (on the BGG 10-point scale)