Gaming Unplugged: Puerto Rico

May 20, 2011

Andreas Seyfarth’s Puerto Rico (published in the US by Alea, with editions by both Rio Grande and Ravensburger) has been one of the top-ranked games on BoardGameGeek pretty much forever, including several stints at #1 (currently #2). Originally published in 2002, it is a complex strategy game that has stood the test of the last decade. It may not be the prettiest game at the table, but its lasting appeal cannot be denied.

Puerto Rico supports from three to five players (an official 2-player variant also exists), who each receive a board with two sections: an island made up of green squares, and a city made up of purple rectangles. A central board contains the buildings that can be purchased, broken up into four levels; nearby are the cargo ships, colonist pool, and victory point (VP) chips in amounts dictated by the number of players. Each player receives a number of doubloons (one less than the number of players) and initial plantation tiles are dealt out according to turn order. The first player receives the Governor tile, which passes to the left after every round.

The main mechanic in Puerto Rico is role selection, which inflicts a variable phase order on all players. There are six main roles to choose from: Settler, Mayor, Builder, Craftsman, Trader, and Captain; each role has a general action all players take and a special privilege offered to the player who selected it that round. A seventh role, Prospector, is available only when playing with more than three players (two copies if five) and affects only the player who selects it. Unselected roles at the end of a round each have one doubloon placed on them, which accumulates until someone finally takes it and receives the cash bonus although it is rare for a role to be unselected for more than two consecutive rounds. The role you select each round is crucial to success, although you have to anticipate what your opponents are likely to select and plan accordingly. Keeping in mind who will be Governor next round is also important; on a round in which you are Governor, there will be a long wait until you get first pick again and it is easy to inadvertently set up a situation where one or more of your opponents profit from your decision before — or instead of! — you.

The Settler role allows each player to take one of the randomly-available plantation tiles (corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee) and place it on their island; a quarry tile is also available to the privileged player. The Builder allows each player to purchase a single building and place it on their city; buildings provide VP at the end of the game as well as enabling players to break certain rules or otherwise gain advantages, but only if the buildings are staffed by a colonist. Selecting the Mayor role distributes colonists from the colonist ship to each player as evenly as possible, with the privileged player receiving an extra from the pool (in addition to the fact that the distributing begins with that player, so any uneven amounts reward him first as well); colonists are then assigned to plantations and/or buildings to activate them, with any surplus colonists being placed in the San Juan space as a holding zone, and the colonist ship is then restocked with a number of colonists equal to the number of vacant building spaces on all players’ boards or to the number of players, whichever is greater.

The Craftsman role does nothing unless a player has occupied one or more plantations, and all plantations but corn also require a corresponding occupied building; players who have the required occupied tiles produce goods, and the privileged player produces one additional good of any one type he produced. These goods can be sold via the Trader action (the privileged player receives one additional doubloon) or converted into VP via the Captain action (with one additional VP for the privileged player); both of these actions have specific restrictions on how they can be executed that might (and often will) force players into either sub-optimal plays or shutting them out of the action completely. The Captain action in particular is mandatory, and once all players have shipped as many goods as possible they lose all of their remaining goods save one unless they have a storage building to contain the others. A player opting to Prospect for the round simply receives one doubloon (plus any that have accumulated on it).

The game continues until one of three conditions are met: one, the colonist pool is exhausted (as the result of a Mayor action); two, a player has filled all twelve spaces in his city (via the Builder action; note that there are some large buildings that occupy two spaces); or three, the VP pool is exhausted (additional VP beyond the initial pool is still awarded as necessary). Once one or more of these events occur, the current round is finished and total VPs tallied. Ties are broken by the number of remaining goods and doubloons. 

A game of Puerto Rico is usually around 90 minutes in length, although the experience levels of each player is a major factor in play time due to the number of factors that must be considered each turn. Even with all but the most insanely-prepared veteran players there can be a significant set-up time as well, especially when it comes to counting out the VP and colonist pools. Between the bare-bones presentation and the weighty strategy it can be difficult to get new players interested in the game, but those who do appreciate this kind of strategy will quickly find themselves hooked. This is definitely a game you want to try before you buy (probably a few times), but is generally available for between $30 and $40 dollars if you want to add it to your collection.