Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
It's been a while since a game has had buzz this strong and favorable. Preview descriptions from Nuremburg had readers salivating in anticipation, and when the game finally hit store shelves the raves flooded in. Not only is Puerto Rico a hit, but it may well be the strongest title in Alea's small but formidable line and it's my early pick for the best game of this year. Designer Andreas Seyfarth dropped off the map after winning Spiel des Jahres for Manhattan in 1994, but he's obviously put the past eight years to good use.
Like the rest of the Alea big-box line, Puerto Rico is a gamer's game. Its complexity stems from the interaction of a number of subsystems and the many special abilities available during play. Remarkably for a game like this, the abilities are well-balanced and augment rather than overpower the flow of the game.
The setting is a slightly sanitized version of the early colonization of Puerto Rico. The game's "colonists" and "craftsman" were originally "slaves" and "overseer"-- accurate for a game involving the operation of plantations, but no doubt deemed too politically incorrect for the American market. As the game unfolds, players gradually acquire plantations and buildings-- all of which require colonists to operate. Plantations produce goods, which can be sold for cash or loaded onto ships for victory points. Cash doesn't count toward your score, but is merely a tool for purchasing buildings (which do count toward your score).
Everything is driven by a fabulously elegant job-drafting system. The same seven different jobs-- mayor, builder, settler, etc.— are available each round. A player begins his turn by selecting a job, and then all players get to perform the action that job allows-- purchase a building, gain new colonists, produce goods, and so forth. The chooser of the job performs it with a small but significant bonus— a cheaper rate, an extra colonist or good, etc. If no player chooses a particular job, nobody can execute the corresponding actions that turn.
The icing on the cake of this system is that these leftover jobs get sweetened with a little cash for next time. We've seen this before to equally good effect in Vinci, but the frequency of the draft in Puerto Rico makes the importance of this mechanic stand out. Often players will choose a job just because of the extra cash it brings them, even though they'd prefer a different job's bonus. Leaving the cash for someone else to collect is painful. This cash buildup guarantees that all jobs get chosen throughout the game.
The settler allows players to grab a new plantation from among the 4-6 currently on offer. Plantations come in five flavors-- corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee-- and all but corn require a player to purchase and operate a specific refinement building before they'll produce anything. Those refineries are of varying cost, with the result that early production tends to center around the cheapies-- corn, indigo, and sugar-- while the more expensive tobacco and coffee come into play later. The player choosing the settler can forego a plantation and take a quarry instead, which makes buildings cheaper to purchase. Quarries are in limited supply and tend to go quickly, since players want to get that discount as early as possible if they're planning to buy many buildings.
The builder gives everyone the chance to buy a new building, worth 1-4 victory points. There are essentially three types of buildings: refineries, special abilities, and end-game victory point bonuses. Special abilities tend to riff on the job bonuses, providing similar but permanent effects, but some provide benefits unavailable elsewhere. All are in limited supply, so one aspect of the game is a race to acquire desirable buildings before they're snapped up by opponents. Ideally your building choices are shaped by your overall strategy, but it can also work the other way around.
The mayor awards players new colonists, which are needed to operate plantations and buildings. An organic and effective system ensures that more colonists become available when demand is high, and fewer when demand drops.
The craftsman triggers production, causing each active plantation/refinery combination to yield a good. Supplies are limited, however, and it's common for players at the end of the rotation to be shafted and get nothing— a tactical consideration that can be exploited.
The trader gives players a way to get cash. Each player in turn has the chance to sell one good. The five commodities range in value from zero (corn) to four (coffee), providing players with incentive to get their tobacco or coffee production going quickly. The catch is that the trading post only has room for four items, and it'll only accept something it doesn't already have. It's generally a bad thing when the player to your right starts producing the same kind of goods as you, because he can trade his best one first and potentially lock you out. The trader doesn't clear his stock until all four slots are full, so he often gets gummed up with corn, indigo and sugar in the early game until tobacco or coffee production comes online.
The captain converts goods into victory points. Three ships of different sizes are available. Each can hold only one kind of good (whatever gets loaded onto it first), and each kind of good can only be on one ship at a time. Which means only three of the five commodities can be shipped on any one turn. If a player can ship something, he must-- and he must ship as much of it as he can. Each shipped unit earns a victory point. Loading proceeds around the table until all ships are full or players run out of shippable goods. Players must discard all but one unshipped unit back to the general supply-- a crushing loss of potential cash or victory points.
If a boat fills up with, say, sugar, all the loaded sugar is returned to the general supply (to the joy of players interested in producing more). If even one empty space is left on the ship, however, nothing gets returned. The next time the captain is chosen, only one sugar can be shipped-- anyone left holding more can only shake their fist as they dump their inventory.
New players often miss the implications of the shipping system-- until the first time they throw away their wasted goods. A player with a monopoly on a kind of good would love to load them into the largest ship, thus effectively reserving the remaining spots on that ship for himself. It doesn’t matter how much indigo you produce if opponents load other types onto the ships first, preventing the indigo from being loaded. Opponents might also fill up a small ship by loading one or two indigo each before a player heavy into indigo can load his multiple units. Timing is everything.
The final job is the prospector, who gives a gold to the player choosing him and absolutely nothing to anyone else. On the surface this seems like the weakest job, and yet it gets chosen far more frequently than you might expect. Aside from the obvious benefit of the cash, there are times when all other choices would help opponents more than yourself.
The order of job selection is very important. To get coffee, for example, a player must first get a plantation and a coffee roaster via the settler and the builder. Then he must man them with colonists from the mayor. Then the craftsman must trigger production. If these steps come out of order, such as the mayor coming before the craftsman, the player won't make coffee for at least another turn-- possibly two more turns, if the craftsman gets chosen before the mayor again next time! What job players choose is influenced as much by their own needs as by the ramifications their choice will have on opponents.
Every job selection is an opportunity for players to improve their position. It stinks to watch an opportunity pass you by because you have no goods to sell, or you lack sufficient gold to buy a building. Players must keep an eye on these conditions to prevent them from happening to themselves and capitalize on chances to foist them on opponents.
There are two main paths to victory points-- shipping goods and purchasing buildings-- and much of the Puerto Rico discussion has centered around the extreme strategies for each path. The shipper is focused on quick-to-market corn, getting as many corn plantations as possible and turning corn into victory points at every opportunity. The builder finds his victory points in buildings, taking quarries early and often and getting tobacco or coffee going as soon as he can to generate cash. I don't agree with those claiming the builder is impossible to beat. I've won with a variety of strategies, including many in the middle of the spectrum. One of Puerto Rico's biggest strengths is the breadth of the game space in this regard.
Winning margins are often slight, making every decision absolutely critical. Yet the game never bogs down and remains compelling throughout. Player interaction is subtle but constant. Puerto Rico is one of those games you lie in bed thinking about after your first play, mulling over building combinations and possible strategies, eagerly anticipating the next opportunity to play. Congratulations to everyone involved in this superb design. A
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (firstname.lastname@example.org)