Classics: Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico

Back when I only owned half a dozen games and £40 seemed like an awful lot to pay for a single boardgame, the games I owned saw a lot of play.  None of them saw more play than Puerto Rico though.  It was my wife’s favourite game and we would intentionally seek out friends who we thought might enjoy playing it to get in as many games as we could.

I got bored of playing many of those earlier games, but Puerto Rico never waned.  It somehow managed to feel different every time I played it.  Puerto Rico was the number one game on BoardGameGeek (BGG) for many years – and with good reason.  If you’ve never tried it, you’re in for a treat…

In Puerto Rico, players are attempting to grow crops of various types (corn, sugar, coffee, etc.) on their island with a view to either shipping them overseas for points or selling them for cold, hard cash.

The innovative mechanism that has been used in many games since is the action selection mechanism.  Players take turns choosing an action (take a new crop, harvest existing crops, sell crops, etc.) that everyone then gets to take.  However, the person who chose the action gets a bonus that no one else gets (eg. they could get an extra coin when selling).

The game itself is a fairly standard Euro.  You try to get an engine going, develop your island adding crops and buildings, then run your engine for as many points as you can before the game ends.  However, this central action selection mechanism adds so much interesting strategy and leads to one of my favourite kinds of interaction.

Given that everyone is going to be able to do every action that is selected, doing well in Puerto Rico boils down to making the most of the bonuses you get for choosing the actions and the order in which the actions are chosen.

You really care what everyone else is doing.

Choosing the action that helps you the most isn’t necessarily the best choice if it’s the action that also helps everyone else the most.  You really want to choose something that helps you and really doesn’t help anyone else.  This means that, while there is no direct interaction (like most Euros), you really care what everyone else is doing.

The natural order of actions to run your engine is to harvest crops, then sell or ship them.  But if you can save some goods when other people are shipping for example, it means that you can ship at the start of the next round when no one else has any goods.  Not only will you benefit from the action and the bonus, but no one else will get any benefit at all.

Since each action can only be selected once each round, shipping at the start of the round means that no one will be able to ship later in the round as the action will have gone.  This kind of timing of the action selection is key to victory.

You also want to pay attention to what other people are doing so that you can predict which action they’ll pick and be in a position to benefit from it when they do.  If you can look around the table and have a good idea what the other players are likely to do, you will have a significant tactical advantage.

You are playing the people as much as you are playing the game.

Unless they are doing the same thing and trying to pick the action that doesn’t benefit them the most, but rather provides everyone else with the least benefit.  Puerto Rico is one of those games where you are playing the people as much as you are playing the game.  Your strategy should depend not only on what the other players do, but on what kind of players they are.  It’s fascinating!

One aspect I haven’t mentioned yet is the importance of buildings.  Most of the buildings you buy give you a special ability, but they also give you victory points.  Building lots of buildings (which requires lots of money to buy them) is a viable winning strategy.

So the two main ways to win are either to produce lots of crops and ship them for points, or produce a few high-value crops, sell them and then buy lots of buildings (for points).  Specialising in one of these strategies is usually more effective than trying to do a bit of both.

The other interesting aspect you need to consider is when the game will end.  There are several end-game triggers such as when the VP tokens for shipping run out or when someone fills up their grid with buildings.  Some strategies (such as all-out shipping) will end the game faster than others.

There’s just so much to take account of in terms of the others players’ actions.  Are they going for a building or shipping strategy?  Given that, which action are they most likely to take this round?  Is anyone trying to ship as fast as possible to end the game quickly?  How many rounds am I likely to have to run my engine?

You can play and play Puerto Rico and still not feel like you’ve mastered it.

These layers of complexity mean that you can play and play Puerto Rico and still not feel like you’ve mastered it (or even really got the hang of it).  However, the truly great thing about it is that all those layers depend on other peoples’ actions.  For a game with no direct confrontation, there’s a tremendous amount of interaction.

Puerto Rico came out when there weren’t all that many quality Euros to compete with it.  Being able to play the same game over and over and discover more and more layers to the strategy each time you played it provided fantastic value for money.

At a time when many games lost their appeal after too many plays, Puerto Rico just kept going and going.  In my mind it entirely justified its place at the top of the BGG rankings.  It’s still ranked as the 14th best game in the world today and it still holds up very well against more modern Euros.

If you like a good Euro and you never got around to trying Puerto Rico, I highly recommend sticking it on your bucket list.  It’s a game that will remain in my collection for the rest of my life.

Have you played it?  How would you rate it?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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