Sunday, June 4

Jack's Top 5: Number 2

It's the highest rated game on BGG, and it's easy to see why: the board and cards are well illustrated, the wooden pieces are great and the game has a wealth of strategies and excellent balance. At number 2: Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is a strategy game for three to five players set during the colonisation of the New World. Players compete building plantations, shipping goods to the Old World and constructing buildings. The game is largely deterministic, with few random factors, and features very little downtime between turns.

The good: the pieces and player mats are very attractive, the gameplay is solid and there are a wealth of strategies available making it an enjoyable play. The game is very well balanced, and the hidden nature of the VPs means everyone thinks they are in the running near the end so no-one gets left out. The bad: very little to be honest, the box isn't as well illustrated as the pieces, and (at least in the games I've played) the position you start in (relative to the player going first) will largely determine which of the popular buildings you get, which then has an effect on the strategy you choose.

The game takes a fair amount of time to set up as you sort the various counters and tiles out. The game is focused around a central board, and in addition each player has their own mat with 12 building spaces, 12 plantation spaces, a handy crib sheet for the player roles and a couple of spaces for spare men and the goods you have accrued. I really like it when game pieces tell you the information you need (like the crib sheet you get in Settlers of Catan), so you don't need to keep looking things up in the rules - that's a definite plus in my book. The central board has a space for the cash tokens and for the various types of building you can build - the buildings are laid out in order of the cost to build and grouped by the reduction you can gain from quarries - yet more information from spacial layout of the game pieces. In addition, there are five types of goods (coffee, corn, indigo, sugar and tobacco) with a limited number of barrels each, a trading house with four slots, a colonists ship, three trade ships, a pile of victory points and up to eight player roles. It should be noted that the little stained wooden octagonal prisms used for the goods are excellent representations of barrels, a far better use of them than as explorers in Tikal.

Once the set-up is complete the game proper gets under way. Choose a 'Governor' who gets to start the round, that player get first choice of the 6-8 roles:

  • Builder - Each player gets to build a building providing they can pay the building's construction cost. The player who chooses the builder pays one less for his building. Players who have occupied quarries instead of plantations on some of their plantation spaces get a reduction in the building costs.
  • Captain - Each player gets to ship goods to the Old World on the three ships. The ships are of varying capacity (3-player: 4, 5 & 6; 4-player: 5, 6 & 7; 5-player: 6, 7 & 8). You must place the most goods you can first, and cannot have goods of different types on the same ship, a type of goods can only be on one ship too, so later on you run the risk of being unable to ship goods. Just to make things more interesting, any goods you have left after everyone has shipped their goods get discarded (unless you build a warehouse) and only full ships are emptied limiting the goods supply until the ships are filled later. Players get one VP for each goods barrel they ship, and the player who chooses the captain gets an extra VP.
  • Craftsman - Each player in turn produces resources from those of their plantations that are occupied and have a corresponding occupied production building. The player who chose the craftsman gets an additional barrel of a type they produced.
  • Mayor - Each player in turn gets a colonist from the colonist ship until the ship has run out. These colonists are placed on buildings or plantations to 'occupy' them enabling them to be used. The ship is then restocked with as many colonists as there are unoccupied building spaces in the game. If this number is less than the number of players then the ship is restocked with as many colonists as they are players ensuring that each player will get a colonist next time it is chosen. The player who chose the mayor gets an additional colonist.
  • Settler - Each player may chose a plantation from the selection available (a random selection with one for each player plus a spare). The player who chose the settler may instead chose to take one of the eight quarries while they last.
  • Trader - Each player in turn gets one chance to trade a good they have to the trading house for cash. The goods have different base values (corn = 0, indigo = 1, sugar = 2, tobacco = 3 and coffee = 5), but this can be boosted by building markets which yield additional cash for trading. In addition, the player who chose the trader gains an extra coin.
  • Prospector - The number of prospectors vary depending upon the number of players (3-player: 0; 4-player: 1; 5-player: 2). The prospector gives the person who claims it gets a single coin, but no other players benefit at all.

When role is selected by a player they get to use it first, then every player in turn starting with the chooser gets to make use of it. Each player gets to chose a role in order, from those left by the preceding players, until all players have taken a role. Once every player has chosen a role and everybody has played it the turn ends. The remaining three roles that weren't chosen get a coin placed on them as a sweetener, and everybody returns the roles they chose. Finally the governor moves on to the next player.

The games ends at the end of the turn when either the colonist ship could not be refilled after it was emptied; the VPs have run out or a player has built on all twelve of his building spaces. The winner is the player who has the most VPs from shipping goods to the Old World (which are kept hidden) and buildings (each of which has a VP bonus associated with it increasing with the cost to build).

Buildings are key in Puerto Rico, each one has a VP value which is added to your hidden shipping score at the end of the game. In addition, each building provides a service if it is occupied. There are production buildings without which you cannot produce goods (exception: corn is produced without a building), and special purple buildings which allow their owners to bend the rules or gain a certain benefit. The most expensive buildings occupy two spaces and give a further VP boost at the end of the game only if occupied. Each building has only a few incarnations so if there is a building you are desperate for, you'd better hope you can get the cash together before one of your opponents gets their dirty mitts on it. The big, expensive buildings are singletons, making them even more valuable. Each building has a cost to build, and the more expensive it is the more quarries you can use to reduce its cost, up to a maximum of four.

The other method of gaining VPs is to ship goods to the Old World. This involves a careful balancing act as you need to get plantations (to produce the goods), build the corresponding production building, get colonists onto both to occupy them, produce goods during the craftsman phase and then ship goods during the captain phase. Since the number of goods barrels available is limited it is easy to get shafted when other players produce their goods before you and take all the barrels before it comes round to you turn. Also the nature of shipping means in the later stages of the game some players will get stymied, unable to ship goods due to the shipping restrictions. You generally want to be soon after the person who chose the role or the chooser, as being last in line can be very frustrating as you watch your opportunities dwindle.

Puerto Rico is a game of limitations: there aren't enough of the buildings you want; you frequently run out of goods in the later stages of the game; there are only eight quarries; the trading house and the ships have a limited number of spaces available and you never have enough money to build the buildings you want. To win the game you need to be able to choose a strategy which minimises the effects of these limitations on yourself. If your opponents are getting loads of plantations of a particular type choose something else - you'll not get the good later on if you choose the same thing. If you're the only one with the expensive goods trade them - they'll limit others ability to trade. The strategies are numerous, and you have to respond to those of the other players - if you don't they'll bite you later on.

Puerto Rico is an excellent game, the balance between shipping goods, building buildings and plantations is superb, and the hidden nature of the shipping VPs keeps you guessing until the last minute who will win - keeping the interest levels up for all players. I give it a solid 9 on the BGG scale.

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