Of sugar cane and tobacco plants

Review of board game Puerto Rico by Pevans

I already have a strong candidate for my favourite game of 2002 – and I’m not alone in this opinion. Puerto Rico is the main 2002 title from German publisher alea, with Rio Grande Games producing an English language edition. The game was first seen – as a final prototype – at last year’s Spiel games fair. Alea’s track record meant that there was a long queue to play the two copies that were available and I missed out. The game was published at the end of March and I finally got my chance to play it.

Box art from Puerto Rico

The game comes in alea’s standard, A4-sized box and has plenty of bits. Small wooden discs represent colonists and everything else (money, victory point chips, the various ‘characters’, ships and so on) is in chunky cardboard. The game is for 3-5 players and the number of pieces used is carefully regulated according to the number playing. This should mean that the game plays much the same regardless of the number of participants. The official playing time of the game shown on the box is 90-150 minutes – half an hour per player. This is clearly a deep game.

The theme is colonising a Caribbean island and each player has their own board with spaces for plantations and buildings. The plantations produce raw materials, most of which need to be processed in the appropriate building (e.g. sugar cane plus a mill to produce sugar). Both plantations and buildings have to be ‘manned’ by a colonist piece in order to do anything. The end result is goods that can be sold for cash (doubloons) or shipped back to Europe for victory points. Points are also scored for the buildings in your town: the more expensive the building, the more points it is worth. While some produce goods, other buildings give players some sort of advantage (such as 1 more income when they sell something). There are also several large buildings, which provide bonus victory points at the end. As always, the player with the most points wins.

There is quite clearly a process in what players need to do: establish plantations; erect buildings; assign colonists to these; produce goods; sell them for cash; or trade them for victory points. Of course it’s not that simple. Each of the six actions I outlined is the remit of a specific ‘character’. Each turn, players choose which character they want to be (out of those not taken by preceding players). Everybody gets to carry out the actions, but the player who chose the card gets some form of bonus. For example, if I choose the Trader, everybody will get to sell one of their goods (subject to limitations), but I will get one more doubloon for mine.

One challenge is thus getting the best out of the process I outlined. I may want to have some colonists for my empty buildings and plantations, so that I can produce goods and then sell them to raise cash. If I’m lucky, I will be able to pick the Mayor and add colonists. The next player will choose the Craftsman and let me produce goods. And the third will go for the Trader and I’ll be able to sell. However, if the player before me chooses the Craftsman, I lose out as I have not yet got the colonists I need. So while each player has some control over what happens, s/he is still at the mercy of what the other players want to do. And you can bet they won’t do you any favours!

One of the clever mechanisms in the game is a way of handicapping the characters. At the end of each turn one doubloon is placed on those characters that were not used. This means that even if you don’t need to use that character’s ability, it soon becomes worth having just for the money. The game is full of carefully thought-out rules like this.

Now I have to backtrack a bit, as the game certainly has more than one strategy to it. I outlined the production process in the game, the ultimate goal of which is victory points towards winning. However, the other way of gaining points is through buildings. So my first strategy was to concentrate on the production process, moving through the steps needed to gain points by shipping goods to the Old World. The second is to put up lots of buildings, including a couple of the bonus points-scoring buildings. Doing this can certainly win the game. But you can’t ignore the production cycle – you need doubloons to buy those buildings and you need to pick up some points from shipping goods. Just as someone concentrating on production will need to put up some buildings as well as those producing goods.

Puerto Rico components

In fact, the key to the game is probably careful selection of the right buildings to use. The production buildings are an easy decision, depending on what commodities you want to produce. (Coffee is the obvious preference, given its relative rarity and high value.) But the decision on which other buildings to take will influence what you do from then on. Personally, I like the Construction Hut, which allows you to take quarries rather plantations when putting new ones on your board. The advantage of this is that the quarries give you a discount off the cost of buildings. Then there are the Markets. These give extra doubloons to the owner when s/he sells something – and you always need money. The problem is that there are only two of each of the non-production buildings (and only one each of the bonus point buildings). So you have to decide what you’re going for and grab it before someone else does. As always, there are too many things you want to do and not enough time or resources to do it all.

This is a game that allows players to have a strategy, but requires them to adjust their tactics to take account of what the others do. And there are plenty of tactical nuances for players to exploit. Each of the characters has specific rules on how they are used – for example the Trader only allows one of each good to be sold and a maximum of four. This means that careful use of the Trader may actually prevent other players from selling anything. Then the special abilities of the buildings come into play. For example, with the right building, you can sell the same good as someone else when the Trader is played. This is a game with a lot of depth and many different ways of achieving your goals. Despite the playing times suggested, I find that with four experienced players the game can be played in under 90 minutes. A definite 10/10 from me.

Puerto Rico was designed by Andreas Seyfarth and published in Germany by alea and in the USA by Rio Grande Games. It is for 3-5 players and takes 90-150 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review was originally published in Flagship 97 (June/July 2002).
The illustrations are taken from the alea website.

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