Clubbing – Puerto Rico

Previously on Board Game Clubbing… I have never played Settlers of Catan. Catan, along with Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne, are understood to be the gatekeepers to the fabulous world of board gaming. Play these board games three to pass through the doorway made of the decaying flesh of the nerdiest-nerds. These rancid nerds scare off the people trying too hard to look cool but those of us who care not about such vanity are rewarded to a joyous new life with new possibilities.  

Yet know this, gatekeepers! I snuck past you, Catan!!! You look as boring as bland jokes about having wood. A lot of people don’t seem to like you as much as your PR says you do, Catan. Getting onto The Big Bang Theory will not save you from the growing rebellion. Notes have slipped out over the walls away from your gaze warning all those who dare enter. I climbed over the wall. Your time is up, Catan! We have a new champion for a gateway trading game.

People who play Puerto Rico end up loving Puerto Rico. It’s set on some island or other, I forget the name, and you build upon your land to grow produce and buildings so you can whack goods on a ship and sell it on. As usual, I’ll explain the game as simply as I can but you can skip to the next section and just find out what I think of it…

MECHANICS *does the robot*

Initially it can look a bit daunting all set out on the table. Rather than having one focal point of the island, like in say Catan, you each have your own board to build upon. At the bottom of the board are spaces representing the fields you can start plantations growing corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco and coffee. At the top are 12 spaces to place buildings that you buy to bring you extra perks on your turn. You buy with money you earn but you play to win by getting victory points from selling your goods on (mostly).

In the middle of the table you set a large board filled with the buildings you can buy. They are separated into 4 columns and as you go from left to right the price of the building increases but the more useful or potentially potent for victory points they are. In the first three columns these are mostly production buildings that let you harvest certain plantations or give you perks like getting paid a little more for selling goods. There are only two of each building available so if you really want one of them you have to be quick to get it before they are gone. In the last column are larger buildings that take up two spaces on your board. They offer special conditional ways of getting lots of victory points at the end of the game. On some occasions you can build quarries rather than plantations and they drop the cost of buildings so you can stand a chance of getting the expensive ones.

A round starts with a player chosen to be the Governor. This doesn’t do much but say you get to choose from one of the role cards first to dictate what action players can do now and what little perk you get for choosing it yourself. Once everyone has done them actions the next player chooses a role from what’s remaining. Once all the way around the Governor moves around one, a coin is placed onto the unused roles to make them more tempting, and the other roles are re-added for the next round.

*sigh* I’m not going to list all the roles or go into the rules. does a pretty good job of going into slightly more detail without confusing. But simply put role cards say if you’re going to be buying buildings, getting settlers from incoming ships to place onto your plantations or buildings to activate them, planting fields by taking tiles from the randomised pile, harvesting fields and storing them, selling goods, putting goods onto the ships to be sailed off, etc.

The shipping goods with the Captain role is quite interesting. You get to place the barrels of goods you’ve made onto the available cargo ships but they can only take one type of good and every ship must have a different type of good each. The person who chooses the Captain role gets to place one type of good first, then it goes around one type of good at a time. If you can’t get all your barrels onto a boat then they all perish but one. If you have goods that can be put on they must be put on, even if it means having some spare. The ships are all different sizes and you probably can’t fill it yourself so you have to work out how the whole round will probably go in your head before placing your goods.

The game ends when someone has filled their building spaces or all of the settler pieces have been used up. The victory points are counted and calculated. A winner declared.

Wot I Fink

The killer feature of Puerto Rico is the number of possibilities it raises with such a small, disciplined set of rules. In my last game I went for a building strategy. I wanted the big, bad buildings with huge victory point awards at the end of the game so I focused on building quarries for cheaper buildings. I shipped no goods and only reaped victory points right at the end for a hard to predict nail-biter finish. My purest method didn’t win out in the end and I was beaten by someone with a more balanced outlook on how to play. Oh well…

I’ve seen multiple approaches to the game, usually a mishmash of ideas depending on what plantations they grow early on, and they’ve all had a valid chance of winning. One was just producing the cheapest product of corn that required no building to harvest. Pure corn. It didn’t matter that lots perished. They still got loads of victory points every time the Captain role was played. They nearly won it too. As soon as you’ve finished a game you’re already thinking about what approach you want to take the next time you play.

Oddly for a “trading” game there is no real trading. No buying or selling with other players. No auctions. Little direct interaction at all. The game is all about indirect interactions. All the decisions you make aren’t just to benefit you. You have to way it up by how much your decision will benefit others. You may want to get your goods onto a ship and see them set sail to get your victory points now, but there could be one or two other guys who will benefit just as much as you do from that action. You may want to get that building that spews out end game victory points before someone else does, but to do so will allow someone to buy their last building that could still mathematically win.

Last week I knocked Tikal quite heavily for long periods of downtime where you’re busy waiting for others to take their turn. Puerto Rico has similar periods. The first time you play you’ll notice than on the first few rounds might be a bit of a yawn while waiting for your go. This will never happen again!!!

You spend your time hoping for others to make certain choices, or planning ahead for every eventuality so you can carry on with your master-plan. Every decision made is weighty and it turns what could be an isolated game turn into an exciting, knife-edge sequence of events that could turn the game for anyone at the table.

Wallet Time

Puerto Rico is a beautifully balanced game. It scales wonderfully between 2-5 players. The number of coins you start the game with, one less than the number of players, and just by affecting what you can start buying from the off changes the game just enough to make the game just right. The number of cargo ships and available roles also scales so well you don’t even notice. The game also doesn’t outlive its welcome with a 4 player game of thoughtful people wrapping up a game in less than 2 hours. I often see tight scores at the end, and have been told of brilliant sessions of similarly close scores many times, but never has it felt like luck was involved. The best person still won. The best strategy won out. And you’re never going to know who or what is better until the bitter end.

Puerto Rico is a classic and should be on everyone’s board game shelf. The only complaints I hear about it is that it’s so popular that quite a few people have already played the hell out of it. A bit late for a review I suppose. But don’t worry…they’ll still come back for more and enjoy it. If you’re one of the few people who don’t have Puerto Rico you can usually find it for £32-£36 at pretty much every decent board game shop*


*there is an Anniversary Edition around for £60-£70. Ooh, it looks nice. The pieces in the regular box are pretty good but oooh …in the Anniversary Edition the money is made of metal! I hear that they aren’t making any more of these and when they are gone they are gone. Ooooooh…..

AK Bell –  Twitter: @AK_Bell – Google+: AK Bell

Author: AK Bell

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  1. Oh, it’s a terrific game alright, but a *gateway* game?

    It’s way too daunting for a gateway game. There are too many rules. The turn order alone is enough to cause the typical newbie’s face to glaze over. The dizzying choice of buildings. All those different pieces.

    Catan, on the other hand, has a reasonably compact set of rules; not too much to absorb in one go. People who don’t like it are usually geeks who think too much, are fixated on winning, and get frustrated when the dice rolls don’t follow a perfect normal distribution curve (due to there being too few dice rolls for that).

    I prefer Puerto Rico to Catan, but Catan is the gateway game. I hear in mainland Europe it’s a mainstream family game like Monopoly is here.

  2. I played it once at London on Board, and loved it so much I bought it the next day! Even playing with some very experienced players I didn’t feel like I was getting lost or overwhelmed.

    Sadly I’ve never played my copy since :(

  3. I don’t think the rules are too complex. I might look initially overwhelming but after a few turns it clicks easily enough.

    It’s easy to work out what you want to do next. Conceptually the goals you want to achieve are easy enough to work out.

    The only real complication, and I admit it’s a bit of a doozy early on, is working out what role you should pick to what you want to do. This may take a few rounds to get the hang of.

    But once the role is chosen then the actions you must perform before are very simple too (not counting making strategy).

  4. Lovely review.

    Puerto Rico was the second game I bought after getting back into ‘serious’ boardgaming about 4 years ago (first was TtR), and it still gets played more than any other game in my collection.

    Conicdentally, I’ve put my copy of Settlers of Catan up on eBay this week. It’s only been played three times in four years.


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