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Puerto Rico – A game about trading the elephant in the room

Hello and welcome to this inaugural review and blog thing that I am now trying to throw my hat into! Before I begin I would like to make one thing clear, every singe game that I am going to write (Or eventually talk about) is a game that I love, every single piece (Or eventually video if I go down that route!) will begin with a review of whatever game I am talking about that I will try to keep politics and analysis free. Criticising the things that you love is important and doesn’t mean that they are not great, it just means that you can see where they stumble and where they could be improved!

Anyway, on with our first review: Puerto Rico, a game about trading the elephants in the room. Just to show how Board and Sword always has its finger on the pulse of modern boardgaming we decided to review a game that is 17 years old at time of writing.

Puerto Rico is a great economic euro game, perhaps one of the best I have ever played, set during the 15th century. You all play as merchants building up a vast swathe of plantations and developing the isle of Puerto Rico, competing for victory points that come from plenty of sources; be it building, sending goods back home, building special purple buildings that are different from the other buildings that you are building and give you victory points depending on whether you were basing your strategy around building or sending goods back home… Its a remarkably straightforward game that is, at its core, one of the most infuriatingly well made puzzles in Eurogaming.

Every single turn of the game will bring your brain to a grinding halt as you try and weigh what is more important at the time. Do you want to build more buildings, get more “colonists”, plant more plantations, trade goods for money, ship goods for victory points, get those plantations you have planted to actually produce things (With the help of the buildings you have built) or, if you have a large enough player count, run off into the hills to prospect for more coins. To make the challenge even more difficult whatever you choose to do all of your opponents also do, with you picking up a small bonus for being the one who picked it, and every single system feeds into every other system, even if sometimes those systems make little sense thematically, the way in which they interact is maddeningly wonderful.

To give an easy example: When you ship resources you have to put them on boats (which makes sense). Each boat can only carry one type of good (Which makes some sense), and all resources that you have not shipped or put in a warehouse (Bar one) are immediately thrown into the sea at the end of the Captain phase. Even if the idea of merchants frustratingly throwing all of their goods into the sea is funny, mechanically this causes one of the most vicious aspects of the game. No matter the goods they are always worth the same amount in victory points when sent home but different amounts of cash when sold in the trader phase. And, due to the weird laws of this alternative history Puerto Rico, if you can put goods on a boat you have no choice but to do so. Combined with all (But one) left over resources being thrown into the sea, this means the Captain phase isn’t just a great way of getting you victory points, it is a great way of denying them (You know who they are!) from getting money. However, In order to mitigate the damage of the captain phase you can buy expensive warehouses, which let you store your goods, or a wharf, which lets you have your own infinite capacity boat to ship things with!

Without doing a deep dive into the mechanics and why I love them, the explanation of how three different phases feed into the same phase and the simple decision to send goods home for victory points can cause your friends to hate you clearly outlines that Puerto Rico is a bloody great game.

Now its time for the nitpicky negatives (Remember that bit where I said I love this game and its important to be able to criticise what you love? Please keep that in mind). The artwork is not great. At all.

Modern games are much more beautiful and this is a change I definitely welcome, boardgames are not particularly cheap and it is nice to have a beautiful object. The buildings are simply different coloured tiles, the boards themselves that you will spend a lot of time staring at are uninspired. Hopefully the artwork will be made as beautiful as the rest of the game with a modern reprinting at some point. The other small issue I have is the naming of the phases: The colonist phase is the phase where you plant plantations, the mayor phase is the phase where you get more “colonists”. I have seen this cause issues with new players, its just a mildly irksome decision. This could be fixed in an instant by renaming the colonist phase the “Plantation Phase”, because it is the phase when you plant more plantations, and renaming the colonist phase the mayor phase, because it is the phase in which you get more colonists.

On to the politics and me justifying spending thousands of pounds on a sociology degree. If you don’t want that, stop reading here. If you do, please read on.

Puerto Rico, as a Spanish Colony in the Caribbean, was at the heart of the transatlantic slave trade. As the island was first colonised the native Tainos were immediately enslaved, as colonisation and plantation farming grew many people were imported (I use that word with extreme distaste, you import goods not people: They were forcibly kidnapped and transported) to the colony to work until they died. Caribbean slavery was some of the worst slavery in the Americas, if you can rank the idea of people being owned by other people and disposed of at the whim of a master. Deaths were common from tropical disease, malnutrition, beatings and hundreds of thousands died before even making it to the Americas as a result of being transported in horrific conditions.

As a game Puerto Rico simply refuses to address this. From the happy white sailor on the box (I guess he does look grumpy), the euphemistically named “Mayor” phase, calling the little brown discs you put on your plantations to make them produce goods “colonists”, the game simply never bothers to address the elephant in the room. Despite that elephant being the driving force behind the engine you construct during the game. Without the “colonists” you have no workers for your plantations, without the “colonists” none of your buildings function, without the “Colonists” the colony you are constructing on Puerto Rico simply doesn’t exist.

Its impossible to ignore and part of a wider trend within boardgaming of simply ignoring issues that you do not want to address. Slavery was intrinsic to the Spanish Colonies and is the basis upon which they were built, pretending it never happened like this particular game does is dangerous and sanitises history. Those forcibly ripped from their homes might have been colonists in the broadest sense, in that without them the colony simply wouldn’t have existed and they were the foundational point upon which the colony was built. They can be called colonists by the game but the vast majority of players will understand they are slaves and, although they might ignore the implications in order to play the game (I know we do), the game is dishonest in trying to hide it.

The question here becomes one of “Is it bad”. Is it bad to ignore the history of slavery and “Just make a game”.

Well…

It depends?

Sometimes the inclusion of a mechanic might not necessarily be in a games favour. Galaxy Trucker is amazing fun without considering “But spaceships are 3 dimensional and also an asteroid would do a lot more than knock a little bit off if it hit a spaceship, also asteroids are big and the spaces between them are huge so how would a spaceship even be threatened by an asteroid anyway, its dumb!” The thing is, none of those are intrinsic to the entire game. Puerto Rico, as a game, has you colonising the Caribbean island in some time period between the late 15th and I guess the 18th century (it is not clear). You are building plantations and putting people to work on those plantations in order to sell goods for both profit and glory. There is a little Spanish flag on the ship on the front, making it clear it is set within “Our world” and we are colonising it as the Spanish.

Ignoring the slavery in Puerto Rico is ignoring the trucks in Galaxy Trucker.

I mentioned earlier that games have a tendency to ignore what makes people feel uncomfortable and for this I will reference another euro-classic: Settlers Of Catan! In the original printing of settlers of catan the game is very clearly set within the age of colonisation (Like Puerto Rico), with the art style definitely referencing American colonisation. But, although its to a more minor scale, Settlers is firmly based within the myth of a clear and virgin land, without any pesky natives in the way of your efforts. This idea is based twofold: Within myths of lands perfect for Europeans without any non-Europeans there but more insidiously within the idea that the people inhabiting these lands don’t really count as people. The virgin lands of North America had plenty of people living in them, the sad fact is the people of the time didn’t give a damn about their rights and slaughtered them regularly (Heres a video that directly references it whilst debunking common talking points)

Puerto Rico is similar in its ignoring of the realities of the past, the difference is Catan Studios realised their mistakes (Or someone made them realise their mistakes) and the setting was changed to pseudo-viking-era-but-not-quite fantasy land (With accompanying book now!), leaving the players to either ignore the theme (Like most people do) or accept the theme as colonising an actually green Greenland (Or this mythical island of Catan.)

The core difference here is Catan doesn’t exist and never existed and once it was reskinned slightly into a more palatable form, the only people who can glare at Klaus Teubers classic are bored sociology majors who run board game stores and have too much time on their hands. Puerto Rico is firmly placed within our reality, with the players colonising a real place in the real ways that the real people there colonised the island (With the exception of me seriously doubting angry landlords throwing crops into the sea because there are only three boats to ship them on and one of them has a single abstracted unit of corn on it).

Honesty here might make the average gamer uncomfortable, it might make the designer uncomfortable that he created an economic game about exploiting literal chattel slaves, it might make it harder to stomach what you are doing which all just ends up asking the question “Why do it then?”. Puerto Rico is a great game mechanically that might just need a reprint and a reskin. Setting the game in a fantasy universe perhaps, or turning it into a game of space colonisation in some far flung future would at least add distance to the reality of what you are doing, could easily make this core criticism goes away. Its abstract enough that putting quantum fish on a matter-transporter wouldn’t really change a single thing.

But pretending everything was fine and harmonious is not ok, ignoring the elephant that drives your engine within the game is worse.

1 thought on “Puerto Rico – A game about trading the elephant in the room

  1. Thanks for addressing the historical issues here, and since you mention Settlers of Catan, this will likely interest/horrify you (the rules are downloadable):

    https://www.catan.com/game/settlers-america-trails-rails#

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