Friday, December 26, 2008

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:


Anonymous said...

Funnily enough, your review actually reminded me of something from the Bible.

Now, wait a sec and just hear me out.

In Moses' day, while he was up a mountain speaking with God the Israelites got bored and went and formed themselves a golden calf to worship since they thought that Moses was taking too long. And when Moses came down from the mountain and saw what they'd done is when he smashed the tablets God had given him to share with everybody. Now, God had seen all of this too and told Moses to come back up the mountain and get some new tablets (the second set is what had the ten commandments, nobody's sure what was on the first set).

But here's where the interesting bit comes in - God told Moses that what the people needed to do to repent for building their false idol was to grind up the entire thing and eat it. That's right, the people who'd worshiped the false, man-made god had to grind it down and mix it into their evening manna.

Here's where it all comes together. Puerto Rico, from the way you describe it, is a false game. And just like that silly golden calf, no matter how good the false thing is, it just doesn't really compare to the real thing.

So go ahead and grind down that sacred cow of a game and force feed the truth to people about it. Moses wasn't always the most popular guy either, but he was usually right. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I, also, hate this game. I hate it as much as Roger Ebert hated North. I hate it as much as the Brits hate dentistry. I hate it as much as my Jewish Grandmother hates my swastika-themed Christmas sweater. I hate it as much as Paris Hilton hates anonymity.

I'm not much of a fan of Puerto Rico.

Tired said...

Thank you for putting into words what gets me about Puerto Rico. It's a good game, just not great without much tension.

Strangely enough, I enjoy Race for the Galaxy but I think it's because it's so much faster. In Puerto Rico, you end up playing the game for an hour and a half and it feels it, whereas RftG is much faster and more fun I find.

Anonymous said...

Excellent and honest review, Matt! I love reading the comments regarding your review on BGG. Popularity of a game doesn't mean everyone has to like it. Sometimes games just don't "click" just like movies or watermelon salsa. :)

Anonymous said...

I think I should play with commander and pirate the way you suggested. Good review as always, Matt!

Jason said...

Hrm, if ya don't like the abstract strategy stick to the Ameritrash and avoid the euros :P

Puerto Rico has had incredibly broad appeal in my play group (and beyond) and certainly deserves a top-10 spot on BGG. If you're looking for more pirateyness, try Pirate's Cove. If you want civil unrest and incredible simulation of the socioeconomic state of the colonies circa 15xx, try some game with lots of cardboard chits. :P Couldn't tell you what game that'd be - THAT game would bore me to tears.

Anonymous said...

Mm hmm, well that's...very good...for a first try. You know what? I have a ball. Perhaps you'd like to bounce it?

Matt Drake said...

Jason and Douche, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your comments. In fact, you've inspired me. I'll need a sequel to this post very soon. It will give us all something to anticipate.

Ronac said...

I love your reviews!!!

And this game is exactly like that for me. Perfect game, but for somebody else. I enjoyed playing it, but I always felt like there are no really backstabbing or cruel moves.

Execelent summary!

Anonymous said...

If I'd have known I was destined for fame in a future post, I would have stuck to my first draft. It began, "Dear Moronic Asswipe..."

Matt Drake said...

I sure wish you would clarify who you're talking to, HD. I would hate to lampoon you as harshly as I'm planning if you're not referring to me as a moronic asswipe. For that matter, I'm not sure what that ball thing was all about, either.

Though I kind of hope you are. It's way more fun that way.

Anonymous said...

Given the shallow intellect you revealed via your Puerto Rico review, it doesn't surprise me that you don't know when you're being insulted.

Matt Drake said...

Now you're just doing it on purpose. It was one thing when you were incomprehensible and odd, but now I suspect a plant. My friends all know how much I love to insult mouthy assholes. I think someone is just giving me a late Christmas present.

Matt Drake said...

Oh for crying out loud, you're not even trying. Hahn, is that you?

Pete Miller said...

Matt Drake said...
"Oh for crying out loud, you're not even trying. Hahn, is that you?"

That is the funniest thing I've read all day...