Review: Puerto Rico – #1 for a Reason
Puerto Rico is pretty much the Euro-style game. Though nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, it was not selected as the winner. However, I think the jury missed the boat. It has been number one on BGG for almost the entire time it’s been available (it was briefly knocked into second by Agricola, but has since returned to the top spot). This game is all about strategy, maximizing potential, and, of course, growing crops. And I absolutely hated it the first two times I played it. Find out why my initial impressions were wrong, after the jump.
The Basics. I’m not sure what the players are in Puerto Rico. City managers maybe? In any event, the goal is to grow crops, and then either sell them for money to buy more specialized buildings, or ship them off to the home country for victory points. There is a tension there between those two items. Ship too early, and you’ll start to be left behind as the other players grab more valuable buildings that give them a leg up in the late game. Too late, and you won’t have the points to win the game.
The complete rules are well beyond this review. Puerto Rico can be pretty involved. But one of the mechanics is especially noteworthy: Each round, someone takes on the role of Governor. They are the first to pick one of several jobs (number available depends on the players). Each time a job is picked, everyone does that action, but the person who picked it gets a special bonus. For example, if the first player picks Builder, then everyone at the table gets to build a building if they choose, but the person who picked Builder gets to pay one less as a discount. Then the next player picks a role, and so on. Once all players have selected a job, the Governership passes to the next player and he gets first choice in selecting roles.
This mechanic is awesome for two reasons. First, it adds a layer of strategy. Whatever you pick will lead to your opponents also taking actions. So you want to pick the role that helps you the most, while helping them the least. Further, sometimes it’s beneficial to take a role that would provide a little less benefit to you, in order to keep it out of the hands of someone who would benefit a lot more from it. And, secondly, it ensures that there is very little downtime. Each player is doing something on every player’s turn. You don’t take your turn and then wait five minutes before getting to act again. That is one of the chief strengths of Puerto Rico.
I hated Puerto Rico the first two times I played it. Hated it. First, I played with a very experienced player who sat to my right. So he always was able to select a role before me. And while he is a dear friend, he is a cut-throat competitor. A certifiable blood ninja. So, whatever job would help me the most was always selected by him first. Not exactly a good first experience.
And second, it took me a few plays to grasp the concept that the goods were functionally useless in and of themselves. In most games, obtaining goods are the ends (such as the points derived from grain or vegetables in Agricola). Or at least they do not expire prior to their use (Power Grid). In Puerto Rico, those goods are only valuable to either sell and get money, or to ship and get points. And if you don’t use them, they may be discarded when someone picks the Captain role. So my initial strategies of amassing large amounts of goods were really not appropriate to Puerto Rico.
However, once those initial hurdles were cleared, Puerto Rico really became one of my favorite games. Though it can be a bit “gamey” for non-gamers, I’ve gotten my family to play it a couple of times and my wife sort of, kind of, likes it. She’ll tolerate it at least.
Components: 5 of 5. Every component is stellar. The colonists and good barrels are painted wood. The role cards, which get handled and shuffled a lot, are on a thick cardboard stock. The artwork on the player boards is also very nice. I tend to put my quarries down by the rocks, and allow the cool ocean breeze to flow over some of my crops.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. There is very little luck in Puerto Rico. The only luck is when the settlements (that grow your corn, indigo, tobacco, and coffee) appear. They are randomly selected and this often determines which strategy you will employ. Further, it’s important to try to grow something that no one else is producing. Cornering a market is often the best bet.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. Elegant. That best describes this game. Every player takes a turn, and every role is valuable. You need colonists to work your buildings, you need buildings to take special actions, you need crops to grow goods, and you need to captain ships in order to send them off. Plus, each role that isn’t taken in a particular round gets a coin placed on it, thereby making it increasingly attractive in later rounds. The rulebook, too, is very clear. For a relatively involved game, it does a good job of explaining things in a straightforward and easy to follow manner.
Replayability: 4 of 5. This game hits my table again and again. As a classic, we return to it every so often and have a blast. There are a variety of different strategies that are effective. Adopting a shipping strategy, acquiring certain buildings, and even selling goods can be very advantageous. And, different players adopt different techniques, so it keeps things interesting. Plus, for a Euro game, there is a lot of interaction. Whatever role you take will impact everyone on the board, so you must choose wisely. But, perhaps because of its success, Puerto Rico has been played semi-professionally. If you look around online, you can find tons of strategy guides. And, like blackjack, someone who knows all the strategies can tell you that there is almost always a “correct” move. So, if you take Puerto Rico to any serious players, you might be in for some hurt. And, as a smaller negative, Puerto Rico does suffer from mild analysis paralysis problems.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. Sometimes the best move on the board is not one that helps you, but one that hurts your competitor. For example, maybe if you take Mayor, you can get three colonists to your opponent’s one. But that leaves Captain on the board. If you take Captain, you’ll be hurting for colonists, but you can get four points while your opponent only gets two. If you leave Captain for him to take, maybe he’ll get eight points, while you get none. So, even though you personally might get a better benefit from Mayor, it makes more sense to be spiteful and take the role that would benefit your opponent.
Overall: 5 of 5. This game reeks of awesome. It forces you to watch your opponents develop their strategies so that you know which roles will help or hinder them. In this way, it’s almost like playing Puerto Rico several times in one sitting. You can see how your strategy compares up against the others. And, I’d definitely recommend giving this game a few plays. And if it’s your first time, be sure to sit to the right of the biggest blood ninja. That will really help your experience.