Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Ah, Puerto Rico. There have been hundreds of reviews and dozens of strategy articles written about the game. There is little I can contribute to writing a review of Puerto Rico and so I will try to circumvent the rules as much as possible. Still, I wanted to pen a few thoughts on the game. Puerto Rico was the first bona fide Euro smash hit that came out in the US, as far as I can remember. It was published only a few years after I started my personal Euro board gaming journey. Back when Seyfarth published this gem, I wasn’t aware too much of the designer. It was much later when I acquired Thurn and Taxis that I found out Seyfarth also designed the award-winning Manhattan. Every gamer I knew got into a tizzy over it and perhaps it wasn’t wrong to say that Puerto Rico provided the kindling, fuel and oxygen to push the board gaming scene into the Golden Age. Published in 2002, Puerto game was sold out in many places and it was lauded as one of the best Euros ever designed. This was certainly reflected on BGG where gamers kept Puerto Rico as the #1 ranked game for multiple years before being dethroned. Everyone I knew was playing Puerto Rico or at least hoping to play Puerto Rico. I certainly jumped on the band wagon early on and loved the game. However, as I recall, I never owned a copy of the game until much later. By then, the hype had died down and Puerto Rico began appearing on mass market shelves. My copy was purchased through a Christmas sale at one of the seasonal kiosks. Because Puerto Rico left such an impression, I still distinctively recall where my copy came from. That’s probably not true for most of my games.
Puerto Rico first introduced me to the variable phase order action selection mechanism. Before that, I do not recall any other game which employed such a novel way for selecting actions. A quick look at BGG indicates only a handful of games published before 2002 featured this mechanism and notably, Wallenstein which was published around the same time as Puerto Rico also used the variable phase order action drafting mechanism. Even if Puerto Rico did not invent this mechanism, it certainly helped popularize it. It’s safe to say that while Wallenstein is a highly regarded game, it never quite achieved the superstar popularity of Puerto Rico. For those unaccustomed to this mechanism, variable phase order is just a fancy way of saying that each round, the actions taken are not in a fixed order. If player A chooses captain to start the round, player B may choose builder in the second round. Hence, no two rounds may look alike and some actions may not be available when it is your turn to choose. For me however, the variable phase order part isn’t exactly that groundbreaking. It’s that for every action chosen, ALL players get to perform the action with the selector getting an extra benefit. This part of the action selection kept everyone involved throughout the game. There is negligible down time as all players get to participate in each and every role selection. To me, this was the breakthrough mechanism. Prior to Puerto Rico, many games still feature once around action selection with limited participation between turns. Again, this comment come with a huge caveat since as a gamer, I haven’t played nearly as many games as other die-hards.
In my recent replays of Puerto Rico, I was struck by how efficient the game is in introducing depth. With just a few simple actions to choose from, the game consistently forces you to make hard decisions. It’s not just that the benefits for each action you select, but also the trade-offs for not pursuing other actions. This game cleanly epitomizes the opportunity costs for choosing one action over another. Puerto Rico does it better than others because benefits, including money and individual powers for each role are tagged on the primary action. Choosing one role means forgoing all the benefits from another. This makes each selection critical and is particularly true early on in the game when resources are tighter and when different paths are still available for consideration. For example, deciding which initial building to purchase or not purchase is very critical and sets the tone for the rest of the game. Each early action seems useful on its own but the variable phase order creates enough uncertainty that it is also important to anticipate which actions maybe desirable for some players.
There are lots of glowing reviews for the game but many veteran gamers have also voiced their dislike of the game. This usually comes when someone has sat down and played hundreds of sessions and knows the ins and outs of Puerto Rico. One of the most common complaint is the “handedness” of Puerto Rico and how important it is to identify the skill level for the player sitting on your right and left. Since Puerto Rico is a game of skill, there is some truth to that. The variable phase order means that the action one chooses will also impact other players directly, particularly the person on your left since they will be next to choose an action. The best example is the craftsman action. For every craftsman action that you choose, the next person will have a variety of options available to them and none that would go well for the person that chose the craftsman option. If they choose to Captain, then you would be the last to ship. Similarly, if they chose to trade, there is a strong likelihood that you may not even get a chance to trade. If you are sitting to the left of a newbie that constantly selects craftsmen, then you would be the biggest beneficiary of getting the new goods. It’s hard to knock that “flaw” in the game especially if you play with a mixed crowd. I think it can be true if the circumstances are right, but it doesn’t always happen. To be clear though, I think this is more a feature than a bug for the game. In an equally matched game where everyone is well-aware of this quirk, this is not at issue. Timing the production and shipment of goods is a large part of the game. This issue only crops up if a mixed group of players sat down for Puerto Rico. Sharp players or veterans would immediately pick up on the importance of timing the selection of these role. I’d argue that “handedness” issue is possibly true for many other games that feature action selection. Highlighting this pitfall to newbies may help alleviate this problem somewhat.
Mr. Seyfarth’s Puerto Rico quickly rose to fame and hung around the top for a while. Like every other game, it eventually came down from the rafters. Curiously enough, as popular as Puerto Rico was, the variable phase order as seen in Puerto Rico did not appear in many subsequent designs. Apart from San Juan (which is a spin-off from the same designer), Race for the Galaxy, Twilight Imperium 3rd edition and In the Year of the Dragon (which features a similar but not identical mechanism), I am truly hard-pressed to recall many highly-ranked games that incorporates this mechanism. This is somewhat surprising given parallel mechanisms that came out right after such as deck building by Dominion or Worker Placement by Caylus really dominated the scene and spawned many copycats even up till today. As for Mr. Seyfarth, the publication of Puerto Rico really made him a household name in the board gaming circles. While he won a Spiel des Jahres for Manhattan, Puerto Rico fell short and lost to Villa Paletti in the 2002 Awards. It did however won the German Game of the Year Prize as well as the International Gamers Award: two awards which are commonly considered as a seal of approval for more serious gamers. I suspect that Puerto Rico would have handily won the Kennerspiel des Jahres had the award been around back then. As it stands, by 2002, the SDJ jury had already started leaning in favor of lighter, family style games and abandoned the heavy weights such as El Grande, Tikal and Torres from the 90s’. Ironically of course, Mr. Seyfarth won the SDJ in 2006 for Thurn and Taxis, a much lighter, more approachable albeit less critically-acclaimed design as compared to Puerto Rico.
Speaking of Thurn and Taxis, it’s really too bad that Mr. Seyfarth’s publication record dropped off dramatically after Puerto Rico and Thurn and Taxis. In 2007, Airships came out without a lot of fanfare. I myself haven’t played the game. Given his track record, I expected to see many more wonderful designs from the talented husband and wife partnership. I personally felt a little dismayed that gamers vocally voiced their disappointment with the publication of Thurn and Taxis which followed Puerto Rico. It’s true that Thurn and Taxis is a lighter route-building game that did not share the same complexity as Puerto Rico. That said, it’s an excellent game that still remains in my collection and is worthy of the 2006 SDJ. I hoped that the negative reaction toward Thurn and Taxis did not become a turn-off for the designers. That would have been a shame. Coincidentally, I thought that William Attia also suffered a somewhat similar fate as Mr. Seyfarth with Caylus, the game which sparked the Worker Placement revolution (with apologies to Mr. Breese). After the publication of Caylus, people were expecting a game that moved heaven and earth. When Spyrium was published, there was a general sense of disappointment that it wasn’t Caylus+. In all honesty, I thought that Spyrium easily stood on its own and is on par if not better than Caylus in some aspects. I know I am the minority voice here. Ultimately perhaps, both Mr. Seyfarth and Attia fell victim to their own successes. Both Puerto Rico and Caylus are modern day classics and the hype and expectations for their designers were sky high if not impossible to match. These two designers developed and popularize gaming mechanisms that are still being employed today and provided giant shoulders for future games to stand upon.
Final Word: Great!