Review: Puerto Rico

A slight tangent before I get into this week’s review– Last week, popular reviewers Shut Up and Sit Down released a six-part special feature in which they took on the BoardGameGeek Top 100 in a single week, providing brief thoughts on each game and linking to many past reviews. It goes without saying that this was right up my alley.

In the feature, reviewer Paul Dean suggested some potential flaws with the BGG Top 100 ranking system. In particular, he asked whether older games may benefit from rankings at a time when there was less competition (specifically in his discussion of Stone Age). Despite this theory — or maybe because of it — he claimed to have never tried Puerto Rico, a game published in 2002 and still sitting in the top 15 a decade and a half later. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Puerto Rico, one of the very oldest games in the Top 100.

Rewriting History

Before getting into what I like and dislike about Puerto Rico, I’d like to give a brief overview. Puerto Rico is a 2-5 player game which transports you to a colonial era farming and trading operation on the island of… you guessed it, Puerto Rico. Based on the game’s portrayal of history, we get a pretty clear idea of how colonial traders operated in Puerto Rico.

Welcome to the land of Puerto Rico.

The climate in Puerto Rico only supported five types of agricultural goods: corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco and coffee. So naturally it was a pretty competitive market for these goods.  All of the trading companies in Puerto Rico kept a close eye on each other, and mimicked each other’s actions so as not to fall too far behind.

For instance, when one company chose to plant a field, every other company also planted a field, although the specific type of field may have varied. The same general idea went for erecting buildings, producing goods, loading cargo, visiting the trading house, and even “recruiting colonists” for unpaid labor (as we all look around and ask “wait, did they just…?”). The only action that others couldn’t follow was going up into the mountains and panning for gold. We’re talking about a small Caribbean island here, not exactly the Sierra Nevadas.

How did those discussions go when they talked about how to approach the topic of the slave trade?

In this dog-eat-dog world of Puerto Rican colonial trading, every company wanted to be known as the best. And it wasn’t just about who could make the most money. Did you think that’s what companies cared about back then? No silly, they just all wanted the Europeans to be proud of them. That’s why victory was measured by ‘points’ that were accrued primarily by shipping goods back to Europe for free. But also through constructing special buildings to call attention to particular accomplishments. Like “hiring” lots of “colonists”.

So as you can imagine, every little choice matters in the race to gain some competitive advantage. In a specific game of Puerto Rico, maybe Company A chooses to grow coffee and tobacco while everyone else grows corn and sugar. A few years later if half of Europe is addicted to caffeine and nicotine without a bag of kettle corn in sight, Company A will be laughing its way to the bank (the victory point bank, not the actual bank). It is in this way that Puerto Rico allows you to rewrite history each time you play. And I’m not just referring to the way they completely gloss over the issue of slavery.

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They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

So now you’ve hopefully learned a little bit about Puerto Rican history… or at least the concept of the eponymous game. But the question remains: is Puerto Rico worthy of its high ranking in the BGG Top 100, or is it merely a good-but-not-great game that benefits from older, softer ratings?

There’s a lot to like about Puerto Rico, especially for those who love Euro games. It feels like the designers just found that perfect balance in so many regards. There are a variety of buildings to accommodate different strategies, but not so many that new players can’t compete (shout out to Bryon for recently beating all of us despite being the newbie of the group). There’s no single strategy that always tends to win — more often than not it’s about taking the high-value opportunities based on what your opponents are doing.

Fun fact: In Puerto Rico, most buildings are painted purple.

One mechanic I really like is how the rotating first player chooses an action type, followed by each player getting to perform an action of that kind (with a slight advantage to the first player). It’s a simple but brilliant way to litter weighty choices throughout the game, interspersed with simpler (yet still important) actions for each player. It keeps play moving and keeps everyone engaged, while still offering a satisfying level of strategy.

In terms of things that could be improved, the edition I’ve played is a little bland looking, especially compared to newer games. But really, if that’s the only significant issue I can think of to raise, it speaks to how good of a game Puerto Rico really is.

The BGG Top 100 certainly has its flaws and biases. It reflects the tastes of the BGG user base, so it tends to lean towards heavier games and away from games that are considered too ‘mainstream’. However, I don’t buy the theory that older games are rated on a more lenient scale.

The long tenure of Puerto Rico in its position is actually highly unusual for its age. You’d have to go all the way down to #50 to find an older game. And when you watch the rankings from month to month, there tends to be a steady decline as games age, except for a special few that hold their position a bit more steadily than the rest. Puerto Rico is one of those games.

If you are looking for a game that is heavy in conflict and theme, then Puerto Rico may not be for you. But if you love Euro games and have not yet tried Puerto Rico simply because of its age or initial appearance, you’re doing yourself a disservice. In my personal opinion, this game is worthy of its spot in the BGG Top 100.

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