Puerto Rico

Rio Grande Games, 2002, 3-5 players, ages 12 and up. A lot of popular board games seem to have eminated from Germany recently (El Grande, the various Catan games, et al) and up to now I'd been pretty underwhelmed by the lot. Not so with Puerto Rico. This is a mind-bogglingly brilliant achievment in game design. The game takes place in Puerto Rico during the time of Columbus. Players strive to win by acquiring various plantations and the immigrants necessary to work them. They must use money to erect buildings which they can then use to turn the output of their plantations into trade goods which can in turn be traded for money or shipped overseas for "victory" points. The game ends when there are no more immigrants available from the immigrant pool or someone fills up the allotted slots on their game board for either plantations or buildings. Players count up their victory points and the one with the most wins.

It sounds simple and it's certainly been done before, but there is brilliance in that simplicity and several clever game mechanics turn the whole thing into a very compelling gaming experience. I've always been a fan of the game mechanic whereby each turn is broken up into 7 or 8 "phases" (buy, sell, build, fight, whatever) and players can only participate in 4 or 5 of them. Puerto Rico takes that a step further. Each turn there are 7 different activities a player might participate in: start a new plantation, hire immigrants, produce goods, erect buildings, sell goods, ship goods overseas or "prospect" (essentially a safety net community chest for cash-strapped players), and, in clockwise order around the table each player selects one. The player currently selecting an activity gets to perform it first, receives some bonus related to that activity (for example, a seller gets a little extra money for his transaction), then each other player in turn gets to participate in that same activity (sans the bonus). So, if there are 4 players, each player gets to participate in 4 different activities in a turn, but only one of his or her own choosing. The order of selection changes each turn with a "Governor" card that rotates around the board.

The various buildings each provide different bonuses and special abilities and add that wonderful "pain now, benefit later" tactic to the game. Selling and shipping are cleverly limited in ways I won't bore you with here, and all-in-all, the game just clicks like a well-oiled machine. The game pieces are extremely nice - nice sturdy punch-out counters and wooden pieces. The rules are fairly extensive and expect to spend about 20 minutes going through them before getting under way. However, they are very nicely organized and easy to understand. And, amazingly enough, the game is so clean and well designed that I can hardly recollect having to re-reference them more than a time or two after we got going. Unheard of! Games go by pretty quickly, lasting maybe 90-120 minutes, depending on the number of players. We got in 3 brisk sessions during an evening's gaming. Puerto Rico is a tremendous game and one to which I give my highest recommendation.

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