There was a time when Puerto Rico was the undisputed king of hobby board gaming. Roughly ten years ago, there was no design so well-loved and analyzed by board gamers. One of those fans was myself. Puerto Rico was among the first hobby games I purchased, and I played it many times with my friends. We learned about the strategies and grappled with the circuitous mechanics that make the game so interesting. But something happened after a couple of years: I discovered my love for more high-luck, high-narrative games. The chess-like structure of Andreas Seyfarth’s classic design didn’t hold as much interest for me, and I traded it away without looking back.
Interestingly enough, I feel like this mirrors the general feeling around Puerto Rico today. It’s still as well-regarded as ever. Though it has long been supplanted as the #1 ranked game on Boardgame Geek, it remains in the Top Ten, the oldest game on a list of many newcomers like Pandemic Legacy and Star Wars: Rebellion. But it’s definitely a legacy pick, a game that is more well-regarded than well-played at this point. I myself hadn’t played it in eight years, until this weekend when I was at a friend’s house and it was suggested. I’m in a very different place now than I was when I traded the game. My tolerance for low-luck themeless Euros has increased dramatically, though it’s still not my ideal genre. I was interested to dive into the old classic once more.
This might be the first time I’ve approached a game after such a long break, and it was a very good experience. Mechanically and strategically, Puerto Rico is an absolute treat. The act of producing crops, loading them onto boats and shipping them, and erecting buildings to streamline the process has never been so well thought-out. The core of the game is the action selection, where players pick one action for themselves that can then be executed by everyone around the table. The player who picked the action gets a special bonus with it, but it still forces everyone to keep an eye on what the other players are doing. This isn’t the kind of free-form interaction more loosey-goosey players will crave, not like the alliances in Cosmic Encounter or trading in Catan. But it definitely means you are playing against human opponents more than you are playing against the game itself, something that more designers of eurogames need to take to heart. There are many moments where your best option is not your best option at all, because it will help someone else too much. A huge part of the metagame is anticipating what the other players will do and drafting off of their choices. This has been utilized in other games, particularly the card game lineage of Puerto Rico, which includes games like San Juan, Race for the Galaxy, and Glory to Rome. But Puerto Rico definitely has the most diabolical form of it. This is not one of those games where you can just do your own thing.
It’s also an extremely tight design, even though it’s a little more complex than the average euro. Everything feeds into everything else, and when the player prods at any one mechanical element the game offers fascinating strategic feedback that isn’t immediately obvious.There aren’t any little woolly bits to the design that feel like afterthoughts. This is a finely-tuned machine that is entirely admirable, even if it can be a little exhausting to contemplate too much. I rarely find myself admiring a game from a design standpoint so much.
Playing the game after an eight-year hiatus was a lot of fun. I remembered the game in broad strokes, though I did need to be reminded of a couple of smaller bits. Mostly though it was like riding a bike. I was by far the least experienced player at the table, but I was still able to stay within ten points of the winner. That was good enough for last place, but better than I expected to do. It’s fun to be familiar enough with a game to understand it mechanically, but to still be far enough from that experience for the game to be new and interesting again. It was also fun to play with people who were interested in dissecting the game afterward, since Puerto Rico lends itself well to mechanical postmortems.
There are some elements that might be different if the game were designed today. For one, the game’s relationship to colonialism is a bit uncomfortable. I don’t know if modern publishers would be more sensitive to this, but it would produce even more outcry than it already has if it were published today. Secondly, there is almost no luck at all in the design. I used to think this made the game feel kind of musty, but I don’t think that’s really the issue, since it does hinge on the actions of the players more than the system itself. But it does mean that the game has a wide disparity between skill and experience levels. A new player will get pummeled by an experienced one, much like in Chess. I don’t mind this exactly, but it does detract from the joy of learning a game.
But Puerto Rico has shifted enough from the spotlight that it might be due for a rediscovery. For my part I really enjoyed digging into it again, and I actually would like to play more. I even find myself contemplating getting another copy, because this is a vital part of board gaming’s history. It is surely one of the most important designs the hobby has ever seen, and it remains an engaging game nearly fifteen years after its release.