Board Game Review - Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a very good game. It's got magnificent strategic potential. It requires an amazing amount of planning, maneuvering, and intelligent placement. There are tons of different ways to win - control buildings, ship goods, hire colonists, and lots more. In other words, it has all the makings of a nearly perfect game. There's a good reason it was #1 at BoardGameGeek for so long.

And I would rather have my teeth cleaned with a band saw than play it again.

In Puerto Rico, you're each in charge of a chunk of this paradise island in the colonial Caribbean. You take turns choosing specific people to help you - the settlers will build plantations, the mayor will bring in colonists you can employ, the craftsman will turn your raw crops into saleable goods, and if you're ever just short of cash, you can get the prospector to make you a few bucks. All in all, there are eight different people who could help you out on any given turn, and during the course of the game, you'll use every one of them.

In fact, every time you use one of these guys, so does everyone else. So if you call on the captain to ship some finished goods back to Spain, everyone else gets to ship their stuff, too. If you use the builder to put up a processing plant for your indigo fields, everyone else will have a chance to build coffee roasters or tobacco dryers. The reason picking a role is tricky is two-fold. First, different players will need different things at different times, so if you can sell to the trader when nobody else has any product, you'll hose everyone else. And second, if you're the one using the card, you get an advantage that nobody else gets, like cheaper haciendas or the option to start rock quarries or more victory points for shipping your goods.

So that's the basics of the rules for Puerto Rico (in a nutshell - there's more, and if you want some boring rules summary, find a boring game reviewer). You take turns using the services of these subcontractors, trying to plant stuff, process it, sell it and ship it. It's not that hard to learn, though you'll want the rules handy because there are lots of little rules that will pop up with the different building abilities and special stuff that happens with each assistant role. There's an insane amount of strategy and thinking ahead. It really is a very good game.

So now you're saying, 'But Matt, if it's such a good game, how come you won't play it?' And I'll tell you why - it's frigging boring. It's cerebral and clever, two things I usually love in a game, but it's also completely dull.

For instance, can anyone tell me what happened to Spanish ships in the Caribbean in the 1500s? Yes, little Tommy in the back of the class? That's right, PIRATES. And war with France and England and everyone else in the civilized Western world. And restless natives. And other stuff that was actually interesting, and yet makes no appearance at all in Puerto Rico (the game, as opposed to the island, where interesting crap has been happening for centuries).

Seriously, how does this little Utopia have any relation to the actual Puerto Rico? Sure, you grow crops and hire colonists. But there is absolutely no body count of any kind. You don't even discard a wooden colonist disc every now and then and pretend they just got fired from their day jobs. I mean there is absolutely no actual interesting action of any kind. These people don't even get the flu and call in sick.

And there's just no tension. You're never sitting there going, 'oh, man, I hope that guy doesn't grab that thing and hose me out of this other thing, but if he does, I'll come back at him with this killer move that will make him run home to his mommy and cry himself to sleep tonight.' You never feel like any particular move is crucial. Basically, you never get anything even resembling that rush of adrenaline you can get from lots of other games (I don't know about you, but when I've got a carefully constructed offensive in the middle of the board, and I'm hoping desperately that my opponent doesn't see the one move that will prevent me from taking his queen with a sacrificial bishop in two turns, my heart beats a little faster). You'll never need to take heart medication with Puerto Rico, though you may need NoDoz.

Another reason Puerto Rico is less fun than cleaning grout is that there is no opportunity to interact with your opponents. Five people sit around a table, each playing the game independently and rarely having a chance to actually compete with anyone else. You try to build faster, or time your actions to give yourself the best shot, or otherwise manipulate stuff to your advantage, but you never get to actually do anything to your opponents. I wanted to hire a bunch of dockyard thugs to go over and intimidate the factory workers into staying home for a couple days, or send some Portuguese pirates to intercept the ships and send all the indigo and coffee to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (which might not be in the Atlantic, but I don't really care).

Call me a neanderthal if you want, but when I play a game with other people, I want to interact with those other people. And I want stuff to happen. I don't care if there is a brilliant amount of strategy, or careful and meticulous planning, or any other awesome stuff, if there's no opportunity to actually play the game with other people. Puerto Rico, while inarguably a well-designed and tightly constructed game, feels like you're sitting around a table, all playing the game by yourselves and waiting to see who does the best at it. Hell, on your turn, you usually end up helping everyone else! I don't want to help everyone! I want to burn their crops in a slave uprising and send a cadre of elite shock troops to sieze their homes!

The worst thing is, I can think of a dozen things that could have made Puerto Rico interesting. You could even just add a couple more helpers. If I had my way, you would remove one of the prospectors and add two more guys - the commander and the pirate captain. The commander would let you hire soldiers to terrorize your opponents, and the pirate captain would let you steal goods from other people. That would be enough for me. That would make me choose - do I produce some goods right now, hoping that my next opponent doesn't see an advantage in swiping my barrels of coffee, or do I strike first, hiring a band of mercenary bloodletters to tear down an opponent's warehouse and burn everything inside? Now we're talking. Now we've got something interesting. Now we've got tension.

As I've said many times (and yet, I know some knee-jerk reader will still jump right over me saying it and get all pissed because I slammed their sacred cow), Puerto Rico is an undeniably good game. If you can enjoy a slow, intellectual game with very little interaction between the players, Puerto Rico should be at the top of your to-buy list. But if you like to feel alive when you play a game, or if you want a contest rather than a mutual exercise in resource management, or if you like games where people die, you might be better off watching paint dry.


Incredible strategy
Great opportunities for long-term planning
Absolutely brilliant

Extremely limited interaction with other players
No tension
Nothing actually happens

So you say you don't mind a game where nothing happens? You can get a copy of Puerto Rico right here: