The Cult of the Old

Puerto Rico

Words by Giles Bennett

20 February 2023

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There is one uniting truth about the bring and buy stalls at conventions. Well, two, actually. Well, three.

The first is that those who are selling large piles of games "to free up space" will inevitably be those who buy the most games with which to fill that space up again.

The second is that there will invariably be at least one copy of the original edition of Puerto Rico somewhere among the mounds of cardboard.

And the third is that said copy will be ridiculously cheap - usually at around the £10 to £12 mark - for such a wonderfully intricate game.

What perplexes me about its appearance isn't the price - that's a reflection of its age, the quality of its components, and its seeming omni-presence. It's why someone would be selling it in the first place that always raises an eyebrow because, in my humble opinion, it is one of the greats.

Broad, sweeping, generalisations such as that one cannot, I realise, go unsupported. So let's start with the broad brush.

The gameplay is deceptively simple and ostensibly bucolic. Each player has a board divided into two sections. On the bottom, the jungle area, with space for up to a dozen plantations (to grow one of the four crops) or quarries (to generate a discount on new buildings). On the top, the town area with space for up to a dozen buildings. The main game board is the marketplace from which those buildings are purchased, whilst dotted around it are cards for the incoming colonists, a trader to sell crops to, and three ships into which outgoing crops are loaded.

Each round sees players taking it in turn to choose one of the roles on offer, and taking the action associated with that role. Whilst (with one exception) all players get to take the action, the player who chose the role gets a small bonus - so if they chose to take the Builder role, every player gets to buy a new building from the building market, but the person who chose it reaps a small discount. The sole exception is Prospecting, which allows the choosing player, but no other, to take a solitary coin. Roles which remain unchosen in a round are laden with an extra coin to make them more attractive in the next round.

The end goal is victory points, earned by producing goods and shipping them overseas, and from buying buildings. Small buildings will also, when staffed by your colonists, give you benefits of differing kinds during the game itself, whilst large buildings (which are unsurprisingly expensive to buy and very limited in number) will score you additional points based on how much you've done during the game - how many of your plantation or town spaces you've filled up, how many colonists you have, and so on - but only if staffed by a colonist at the end of the game. And that's pretty much it.

Whilst it has, according to BGG, a suggested play time of between 90 and 150 minutes, to my mind those figures are woefully over-stated. Even at the max player count of five, and even allowing for new players amongst your number, once the first few rounds are out of the way the game rattles along at a decent lick and it's not unrealistic to expect a game to be done and dusted in 45 minutes to an hour.

That speed also combines with little to no downtime. Even when you're not choosing the role, you will still (Prospecting aside) get to do something. And whilst others are choosing what they want to do, you're not resting. You're plotting and planning. Because unlike many Euro games before and since, the opportunities to screw your opponents over are numerous - and if you don't take them, others will, and you'll lose.

Aside from how many victory points a player has earned (which you can keen a rough track of anyway), there is no hidden information in the game. You know, at any given moment, exactly what resources your opponents have, what resources they can produce, what benefits their currently-staffed buildings will get them, can make a decent guess at who will be able to sell what to the Trader, who's likely to be able to ship goods and who will have to throw surplus goods get the idea.

So whilst there is no direct player interaction, the indirect player interaction is not limited to the usual "I wanted to do that" you find in most Euros because if I, for example, choose to take the Builder role, you still get to build, it just costs you a little bit more. But if you were banking on that discount to be able to afford what you wanted...well...tough.

So often, in this game, in choosing what I do I can not just delay you in achieving your aims, but completely screw up your entire plan.

That wharf-full of coffee you were aiming to turn into freshly-roasted victory points? Well...I could be nice and ship my indigo first, leaving you the chance to get some victory points. But why would I do that when instead I can fill up the last space on the last ship leaving the shore, thus ensuring that your finest Arabica is left to rot on the quayside.

As I said, there is no down time in this game - if you think you're having some down time between turns then you're not playing it right. Your eyes should be frantically darting around the table whilst you run through the possibilities available, aiming to come up with a move that benefits you - and preferably only you - whilst ideally causing detriment to as many other players as possible. It's what chess would be if - with apologies to chess-lovers - chess were fun.

This is a game that undoubtedly works better at higher player counts - you do not suffer much of a time penalty for adding on more players. Indeed, there's something to be said for playing at the full complement of five because, if nothing else, you do not have to count out the requisite number of colonists and victory points when setting up the game.

But in truth, the more players in the game the more you can reap the benefit of - and suffer from - that indirect player interaction. With greater opportunities for cut-throat moves that scupper your opponents' plans, or your own carefully cultivated strategies, the darker this game becomes beneath its seemingly bucolic surface.

Unsurprisingly for a game which was so highly rated on release, it has left its fingerprints all over the scene. San Juan (named for the main town featured on your player board in Puerto Rico) is a card-based version that many recommend as an alternative to Puerto Rico at 2 players, whilst Race for the Galaxy takes the same mechanics and puts them in a space-faring environment.

Also unsurprisingly, it has been expanded on and re-released considerably since it first arrived on our tables. The original game spawned two large (relatively speaking) expansions - the New Buildings in 2004, and the Nobles in 2009, before being reissued in a 10th Anniversary edition in 2011, incorporating both expansions and significantly improved components. Then, in 2020, a completely new edition was released - as well as incorporating both large expansions, it included two smaller expansions (Festivals and Buccaneer) as well, but, most importantly, made a number of changes to address the elephant in the plantation. The colonists.

The arguments around this have been done to death, and won't be re-hashed in detail here, but, in brief, a large number of people over the years have become increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that the colonists (a) are brown, (b) arrive on ships, and (c) don't get paid - they are colonists in inverted commas, if at all, and to all intents and purposes are slaves.

On the flip side, others argue, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico long before the time period in which the game is set and that the colonists were just that - colonists arriving from the Spanish mainland - and could only really come in boats. And the choice of brown as their colour was ... a poor one.

The 2020 edition addressed this to a degree by purple-washing the colonists, and having them hired from a tavern rather than dragooned off a boat. But to answer my own (admittedly rhetorical) question earlier - distaste with the theme and its implementation is a one - very valid - reason why one might be selling the old edition.

Why else? I imagine many may find the minimum player count of 3 to be awkward - whilst variant rules have been published which allow it to be played by 2 (both players choose three roles, leaving one role un-chosen), these are truly variants, and make the game feel like a very different experience.

The component quality is not great - but let's face it, it's costing you a tenner, so don't be expecting gold-plating and inch-thick cardboard. What that tenner does get you, though, is an awful lot of game for your money. If the same range was applied to game weighting as to steaks, this would definitely be at the "well done" end of "medium-well".

But no matter how long you cooked it for, it would still be bloody.

Giles Bennett has no boardgaming claims to fame other than that he once accidentally purchased a copy of Keywood. He's a web developer who spends most of his time tied to his computer squinting at code.
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