In Puerto Rico players take the role of governors of the island during colonial times – their aim is to ship goods to Europe and to construct buildings; both of which give you victory points.
Each player starts with their own player mat and on a given turn, they will choose one of seven roles available to them: Prospectors (there are two) get money, the Settler gets plantations, the Craftsman produces goods from those plantations, the Builder allows you to build, the Trader allows you tell sell goods, the Captain allows you to ship goods, and the Mayor allows you to add Colonists to your supply. Why do you need Colonists? Because you’ll be erecting buildings, and without a colonist in them they won’t function.
Erecting buildings has a twofold benefit: firstly each building scores you victory points at the end of the game, and secondly each building (with the exception of some high-scoring ones that need a colonist to score at the end of the game) also gives you some kind of in-game benefit.
Crucially, however, when you choose one of these roles every player gets to take the action of that role; the player chooses it simply gets an additional bonus. So what seems – and is – a fairly straightforward system of play (choose a role; activate it) is countered by a real depth of strategy: do you really want to choose a role that is going to help somebody else a lot? Do you want to gamble on another player choosing a role you need, or play safe and pick it up yourself?
There are one or two other considerations too. When any player sells goods, they go into the trading house. Whilst that good is in the trading house (be it cotton, tobacco, corn, coffee or sugar) nobody else can sell the same good there until the trading house is full, at which point it gets emptied and reset for the next person to trade.
Conversely, shipping goods (using the Captain) only allows the same type of good to be added to one of three boats ready to sail from the harbour. If a boat has started loading corn, for instance, then the captain doesn’t want any sugar onboard; only more corn is acceptable! And because there are only three boats but five types of goods, you can find yourself temporarily locked out of the action here – until a boat is full: it immediately sets sail, to be replaced by a new empty boat.
When everyone has taken a role and actioned them, any roles that didn’t get used during the round have a coin placed on them as an additional enticement, and the used roles are returned to the pool.
There are three ways for the game to end: either a player builds so many buildings they have no room for any more, or the supply of Colonists or victory points runs out. Everyone totals up the value of their victory points in their hand plus the value of their buildings – big buildings need a colonist in them, remember! – and the player with most points is the winner.
If you’re after a whacky theme and luck-heavy play then obviously Puerto Rico is not your go-to game. However if you like a game of multiple strategies where you are trying to evolve your production ‘machine’ through these many thematic elements, then Puerto Rico – with accessible mechanics but real depth in the play – is an excellent option.
There is nothing that could be construed as spiteful in Puerto Rico - players are seeking to maximize their own points and you don't score anything for being combative. However part of your strategy should involve keeping an eye on what other players are doing and making sure you're not inadvertently assisting them too much!
The more you play Puerto Rico the less time you'll need to weigh things up. The first 2-3 plays may mean a bit of patience whilst players make decisions.
The depth of Puerto Rico is not the rules but how you implement them. Although some players may need time to think, ultimately there are six choices on each round, which shouldn't drive anybody insane.
The randomness in Puerto Rico comes from the players. There are no dice or cards to put things down to chance, but the role-choice at the heart of the game means it's different every time.