Monday, December 3, 2012

December Board Game of the Month: Puerto Rico

After an online narrative RPG, a party-oriented card game, and a month of gaming totally devoted to history puzzle-hunting, Board Game of the Month is back with the Euro-gamiest of all Euro games: Puerto Rico. Despite its reputation and prominence among board gamers, I didn't play it for the first time until a recent game night hosted by my friend Phil. After playing for the first time, I quickly developed a love-hate relationship with it: though it's very difficult for a first-time player to make any headway with Puerto Rico, it's easy to see why the game is so well-regarded in the community.

Style and Gameplay

Puerto Rico is a turn-based city-building game. You play the role of a territorial governor in colonial-era Puerto Rico, and your task is to build your city and its farms to become the most prosperous. The game uses a standard "victory point" mechanic, and both goods from your farm and buildings in your city count for victory points in the final scoring. There are strong similarities to both Agricola and Race for the Galaxy, and in many aspects, Puerto Rico plays like a middle ground between those two games.

The actual mechanics of Puerto Rico's gameplay are mostly straightforward: to build your city, you can create buildings and grow crops in plantations. Buildings cost money to create and require citizens to operate; you make money by selling the crops you grow, and a limited number of citizens immigrate to the island every turn. Certain buildings allow growing more expensive crops, while others make it easier to attract citizens or to build even more buildings.

Much of Puerto Rico's decision-making comes in deciding which crops to grow and when to sell them. Sometimes it makes sense to invest heavily in expensive crops, while other times, it's better to move quickly through lower-value ones; sometimes you need to sell crops for money, and sometimes it's better to trade them for victory points. Other strategies can get by without growing crops at all. Like all the best games in the genre, Puerto Rico strongly rewards formulating a consistent strategy and pursuing it through the end of a game; like all the best games in the genre, that's particularly difficult.

Analysis and Anecdotes

A (possibly apocryphal) story about Puerto Rico's development is that it and Race for the Galaxy grew out of the same development process and a disagreement between the designers. That's especially plausible having played both games. One core mechanic shared between the two is "phase selection," where each player chooses an action to perform (like "Explore" to draw cards or "Develop" to make a new building), and every player performs each selected action, with a bonus to the player who selected that action. For example, if one player chooses to "Explore," everyone draws cards, but the player who picked "Explore" gets an extra card. The result is a free-form and largely non-interactive game where each player can develop a strategy and not have other players interfere with it.

In contrast, Agricola, another game that has plenty in common with Puerto Rico, limits each action to one player per turn: only one person can take stone, only one player can build fences, and so on. Puerto Rico lies somewhere in between: while only one player can get the "bonus" from any given phase, all players can play in all phases. That makes Puerto Rico a less frustrating game in general than Agricola but one that requires more anticipation of other strategies than Race for the Galaxy.

Puerto Rico is not an easy game to learn, even for a player who's had experience with similar games. That was reflected in the scores of the very first game I played, with Raphael (who had the most experience with the game) winning easily and me (the only person playing for the first time) bringing up a miserable rear. Although it's easy to appreciate that winning the game requires a consistent strategy, it's not so easy to get an idea of what that strategy might be until you've played through the game a few times.

Something in particular that got me into trouble was not building toward the end-game buildings aggressively enough, and then not accounting for the need to move my citizens into my end-game building to "activate" it. Like Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, and a host of other Euro games, Puerto Rico's scoring ramps up in later turns, making end-game plays generally more valuable than early-game plays. The consequence is that it's important to anticipate the end of the game coming and to prepare for it in time to maximize the value of your late plays, another skill that's difficult having never played the game before.

Overall Impressions

There's a whole lot to Puerto Rico, and the most clever part of its design is that two players can be pursuing completely independent strategies and be successful in both--but interact just enough to impact how successful each of those pursuits are. Fans of Race for the Galaxy should appreciate all the similarities between Puerto Rico and Race; fans of Agricola or of stiflingly low-variance board games in general will be drawn to the utter lack of randomness in Puerto Rico. Along the lines of Agricola, it's a more proactive game than the more reactive Race for the Galaxy, so even though the mechanics are similar, the approaches to winning Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy are very different.

Regardless of personal preferences for proactive vs. reactive, or moderate vs. low variance, or interactive vs. isolated-strategy games, Puerto Rico is consistently in BoardGameGeek's top five best board games for a reason. At the very least, it's worth playing because it's a mainstay in the genre; at best, it's a game whose depth of strategy and multiple viable approaches will draw you in enough times to actually become good at it.

2-5 players, 90 minutes (or 120 if there are new players), $45 at a game shop or $29 on Amazon