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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games


August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 10 of 21 Next
 

9. Puerto Rico 

Published by Alea and Rio Grande Games

Type: Three to five player colony developing board game.

Depth: Very high

Designed by: Andreas Seyfarth

Luck factor: Low

Description: The players strive to produce the most victory points through the development their own portion of colonial Puerto Rico. This is done by building plantations and buildings, manning them with colonists, using them to produce goods, then shipping those goods back to the Old World.

These things happen when a player takes an appropriate role. When a role is taken, all players, not just that one, can perform that action. The player who takes it does get a small bonus, and also gets to act first in that phase. Clever players use those privileges to pull ahead of opponents.

Play Summary

In the few short years since it first saw print, Puerto Rico has seen an amazing rise in popularity. It polls highly among the patrons of the website BoardGameGeek. Its play contains very little room for luck, but despite that, the events of the game tend towards unpredictability.

Sometimes players can win by picking a plan and sticking with it, but about as often they will have to take advantage of situations that arise. Despite the many approaches to success and considerable interest in the game, no one strategy has been found that overpowers the others; many tactics will win in some cases, but lose in others. This makes adaptability essential.

The object of the game is to amass victory points. They are earned by shipping goods on the ships and purchasing buildings, with a bonus for building and manning large buildings at the end of the game. Each of these steps requires a considerable amount of coordination, and usually some inadvertent help from the other players.

There are six roles to choose from (more with more players) in each round. On each round each player selects one of them, and each role can only be picked once. Picking a role means that all the players, not just the one who chose the role, can perform some matching action allowed by that role, but the player who chose it gets a small, but significant, advantage, The roles are:

  • Mayor, which distributes additional colonists to all the players, and lets them move around any they already have. This is important because only those buildings and plantations with colonists on them function.
  • Settler, which allows everyone to chooses a new plantation to add to their board from a randomly-drawn set of options. Plantations are needed to make goods.
  • Builder, letting players buy buildings to place in their cities. Buildings are themselves worth points, but are more useful for promoting production of goods, granting special benefits that vary by building, and for some buildings large end-of-game bonuses.
  • Craftsman, in which phase goods are produced. The player must have a manned settlement and matching production building, except for Corn, which needs no building.
  • Trader, allowing a barrel to be sold to the trading house for money, but only if that type is not already in the house. The house has four slots, and empties only once it has been filled. Goods sell relative to their production building cost; Corn sells for zero. There are trading bonuses that can be earned, and that can make Corn profitable.
  • Captain, in which goods are shipped and score points. In turn, players load all good of a type onto one of three ships; one point is awarded for every barrel loaded, but the first barrel to go on a ship limits further barrels for that ship to the same type until it fills up and sets sail.

    So, the first Indigo barrel on a boat reserves it for Indigo alone until all its spaces fill up. If it's possible to ship in the Captain phase, players must do so; all unshipped goods spoil and are lost except for a single barrel. These facts make the Captain phase a favorite choice of cunning players seeking to screw over opponents, but incautious planning can give foes a load of victory points instead.
  • Prospector is only available in games with more than three players. It is a null role, providing no service. It does give the player choosing it one coin.

The players participate in an interesting system of concentric turn cycles. Each round one player, called the Governor and identified by a special card, gets first choice of role, with successive role choices that round proceeding clockwise. Within each role's phase the players also take turns performing the role actions, with the selecting player getting first choice.

Roles themselves can't be picked twice in a round, so players closer to the Governor have a better chance of getting the role, and the advantage, they want. When everyone has picked a role, Governorship moves one seat clockwise and everyone returns their role cards to be chosen again the next round. This may seem complicated but works smoothly in play; the Governor card and selected role cards help players keep track as to where they are in the various turn cycles.

Roles that go unpicked in a round get coins placed on them; the player picking a role gets all the coins on that role's card. There are not that many sources of money in the game, so this ensures that all roles get picked with reasonable frequency.

Many of the limitations of the roles can be circumvented by building certain buildings, many of which provide exceptions to the rules, but they cost money to erect and need a colonist to activate. Some examples: Office makes it easier to trade, Hospice and University provide free colonists for settling and building, and Warehouses prevent unshipped goods from rotting in the Captain phase. The Wharf lets players ship goods without having to use the public ships.

There are only two available copies of most buildings, freezing some players out of popular choices. Goods are also limited by supply; if all of one type of barrel has been distributed to players or is resting on ships, no one else can make any until some are removed from play through some means, freeing up those game pieces to be distributed again.

Although each player's board is autonomous, everyone competes for buying, shipping and trading opportunities. There are many subtle ways players can affect each other's progress. In addition to blocking the Trading House and ships, the players don't always get to pick the plantations they want, other players may buy the buildings they were hoping for, and they may pick Craftsman when there are already a lot of unshipped barrels circulating, to use the barrel supply limit to lock out competitors.

There are many other tricks as well. The game is a masterpiece of passive aggression; there are no direct attacks, but nearly every choice a player makes affects the overall game state in some way, and most can be used as a weapon at the right time.

What can we draw from this game?

Puerto Rico is a brilliant game. So many of its ideas come out of left field, and they interlock with each other so well, that playing it is bound to cause epiphanies for observant designers. The best suggestion I can offer is to play it, as soon as possible. It is difficult to overstate its importance. If any of you are new to German-style games, it demonstrates handily that a strategy game need not look like a war game, or like Monopoly, to be great.

All of Puerto Rico's various game systems interlock with each other, lending seemingly minor decisions great import. But not the same decisions in every game! The depth of the game is great enough that I don't feel qualified to explicate it satisfactorily. And yet it is not a complicated game to learn. Maybe offering some playing tips will help:

  • Money is important at the start of a game, and to deny other players a coin or two is good early on. Late in the game money is easier to come by, but less generally useful. A common mistake made by novice players is waiting too long to get production going, or not taking the chance to sell for money in the first turns. Another related mistake is gearing up for producing money too late, like in turn 10 or later. (Most games of Puerto Rico end around turn 12.)
  • The expensive large buildings, which award big score bonuses and nothing else, are a tempting target for players with a good early money lead. If you have that money to spare before turn eight it is usually a better deal to get one of the other expensive buildings, like Factory, Harbor or Wharf, and save the extra funds. Especially useful here is the Factory, which played well is a good source of income by itself. But many Puerto Rico strategies have exceptions, and here the caveat is to beware of other players buying the large building you want before you can, for there is only one of each.
  • If you need a role to be chosen, but it isn't important that you get the advantage or act first in that phase, try letting another player pick it if you think he might. Conversely, if you see another player needs a certain role selected to score big, try not to choose it. Make him use up his choice to score his reward, and conserve your choice for other purposes. Role-selecting agency is one of the most powerful resources you have.
  • A player sitting to the left of another player can be said to be "in his shadow." He will usually act after that other player in role phases, possibly a big disadvantage during Trader and Captain phases, and will usually choose roles after that player too, a big liability when choosing Craftsman. (The guys at BoardGameGeek have a name for this phenomenon: Craftsman fear.)

    Players should be wary of the state of the player on his right, and look towards blocking the player on his left. If the player on your right is an evil bastard, look forward to the turns in which you are Governor. Between the round before and the round of, you'll have two role selections without the player to your right getting any between. Make them count!
  • If Puerto Rico has a flaw, it's that newer players tend to greatly influence the flow of events. Experienced players are more familiar with the various types of blocking, and how to not hand their opponents free roles to score on. When all the players have this degree of savvy the game possesses a great level of tactical depth.

    All it takes is one newbie player to dispel that, passing out opportunities willy-nilly. Interestingly, often the other players will be so used to playing hardcore-style that this will throw them off-balance, and the newbie stands a good chance of winning! But the gods of the game seem to frown on this working more than once in a row.

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