Does This Century’s Most Popular Board Game Teach History?

Dedicated Puerto Rico players care for their game. Pictured here is a custom-made Puerto Rico playing frame for the board & each piece type (the large group of round, medium-brown pieces in the board’s lower left constitutes the notorious “Colonists”). Beautifully designed by a player for personal use. (Photo credit Universal Head/BGG.)


Although I like the historically themed strategy game Puerto Rico well enough, I’m not among its very greatest enthusiasts. Given the enormous success that this game has enjoyed since it came out only a good decade ago, I’d like to analyse why.

The following has little to do with “political correctness”. I’ve no fixed agenda on the slave trade, nor any obsession with the subject, though it is among my interests. Slavery, like war or violence, is an endlessly fundamental issue for morals or ideology, but not for games, which – justifiably – have plenty of all this. Their job is merely to “work”, in some meaningful sense or other, as games.

Also (since I’ve taken some heat for this post over the years) I add that even so none of what follows will or should make much sense to members of the large, vocal – but on its own terms exactly as legitimate – school of games-as-entertainment-&-only-entertainment. Clearly however, I’ve never belonged to that school. Though a game certainly has to be entertaining too, or it’s dead on the spot, I don’t think I’ve ever played one single game session as entertainment only.

So you might say what I do obsess about, yes even for games, is some degree of historical correctness – plus a little measure, however open & inclusive, of didactic use.

Puerto Rico (see full reference below) was for a long time the most popular among the many board games published in the 21st Century. This is supported not only by its stellar rating on the main website for such gamers, BoardGameGeek (edit 2015: now 8.2/10 from almost 38.000 ratings), but also by the obvious qualities of the game itself. Its remarkable balance, discouraging ready-made strategies; its economy of means; its beautiful, understated aesthetics; finally, the pleasant flow of play.

This is a lot already. Yet something could be missing. That something might well be Puerto Rico itself.

The isle of Puerto Rico is a cradle of global oceanic discovery, showcasing both the glamour and evils of this phenomenon. The island was colonized by Christopher Columbus in person in 1493, and rapidly became an economic hub of the New World. It was for the sake of Puerto Rico’s European colonists that the Spanish government, in early 16th Century, legitimized the use of imported African slaves. By that time most of the local natives, hundreds of thousands, had died of mistreatment & Western diseases. The Africans were more robust, more willing to assimilate Western culture & were possibly, according to some accounts, treated with more lenience on Puerto Rico than elsewhere. At the time when the game of Puerto Rico is set, c1543, there were around 10.000 of these African slaves. They worked not only in the plantations, but also in the mines, which initially were far the most important economic driver.

From this early time to the eradication of the Atlantic slave trade almost 4 centuries later, the Caribbean would import 4 million slaves – about as much as each of the much larger areas of South America & of the US. Tiny Puerto Rico stands for a solid share of this figure, & to this day the nation’s culture, music, literature, & art is powerfully influenced by this heritage.

So much so that I’ve had it pointed out, by people (Puerto Ricans) far more qualified to open their mouths than I, that slavery in the Caribbean needs not be viewed as only tragedy or victimization. It happened, cannot be reversed, & today forms part of the area’s rich complexity, while everybody is busy moving on. Fair enough. Yet that’s still quite different from sweeping everything under a rug.

But before this discussion, a few essential words on the game mechanism itself.

Game Mechanics – From a Theme-Obsessed Viewpoint

In Puerto Rico the players simulate the buying, processing, & sale of indigo, corn, sugar, coffee, & tobacco. They also raise buildings which make these processes more effective – eg an indigo plant, a warehouse, or a university. As a key aspect of the game, the players choose & change roles – eg prospector, mayor, captain, settler – a decision which shapes their ability to trade & produce, & blocks other players from doing the same. Finally, there is sophisticated timing in when & how a given player sells or ships his/her goods.

Unfortunately however, all this stands more in relation to the game’s own universe than to the world outside.

The decisive issue in this context – again trading political for historical correctness – remains slavery. Without this dimension, I find it almost risible to “simulate” Puerto Rico old or modern, or give a flavour of the very special Caribbean atmosphere in general. The Puerto Rico gamers are thus a little cheated from the ruthless butcher’s hook of reality, deeply buried in actual life. Some players acknowledge this indirectly, refusing to call the game’s tan, so-called “colonist” pieces by that name, terming them slaves instead. I, the eternal historical pedant, initially resisted this, believing the African slaves only became relevant at a later time. After a little bookworming, I discovered that these slaves had in fact begun to arrive 3 or 4 decades before the year the game is set (1543), and were now already playing an indispensable economic & political role. In any case, before this, the local native Americans were treated no better, & often much worse, than black slaves. Yet to my knowledge there isn’t a single word or hint on slavery in the Puerto Rico game or rule book. Even an occasional slave revolt – though heaven knows it’s a hackneyed game ploy – could have added both tension & historical accuracy.

I leave entirely aside, like the game so readily does, the crucial mines, which brought in the capital & attracted the leadership, & were a precondition & backbone of the plantation economy.

Yet so what if there’s no slavery, when the game itself works so well? I submit once again that, in the Caribbean of all earthly places, slavery can never be a mere opt-in. It remains a foundational reality for the region, from the time of the game, up to modern consequences this very day. Why not, as game designer, simply merge it into the game? After all, slavery has long been an effective staple of most of the many flamboyant Caribbean pirate games on the market.

Of course, I do have a secret personal bugbear, hiding behind all this. Not slavery, but loosely fitting or even pasted-on game themes – ie, improvised after the game mechanism itself has been designed. It is here I believe the question of “meaningful” legitimately arises in the context of a game.

Some Limitations From a Didactic Viewpoint

Pasted-on, posthumous themes are the recurring snakes in the paradise of the otherwise excellent German games. Whether pasted before or after, if a game with a so-called historical theme eases itself out of simulating something essential about that historical period, it comes closer to what in gaming is known as a disguised abstract – like, say, a game of checkers, in which its inventor had merely decided afterwards to call one colour “France” & the other “Britain”. Only one top designer – Reiner Knizia – generally gets away with that kind of thing.

To be sure, Puerto Rico also “gets away”, though at times only just, from being a disguised abstract. Mostly because the aesthetics are so effective as to allow imagination to fill in the blanks. Pieces representing indigo are in fact (a beautiful & unforgettable) indigo blue, tobacco looks the colour of what aficionados might smoke in a hand-rolled cigar from the Caribbean. More important, the game does simulate, albeit superficially, the real economy & trading in the Puerto Rico of early modernity. Minus the mining, not to mention the slaves.

Yet there remains an even wider issue to us utilitarian gamers: whether the game – quite apart from limited insight into its own historical theme – teaches something.

Having been thoroughly entertained by a given game, having completely forgotten the real world (as well you should, so long as you’re still playing) you might want to leave the game table with… something. It needn’t be something useful in the real world – though personally I don’t see why not. But as a minimum, it should be useful for playing other good games. In other words it ought to impart something fungible, as economists would put it. General & interchangeable.

Yet so based is Puerto Rico on a knowledge of exactly the idiosyncrasies & subtleties of that very game, that it may be a poor teacher of other games – all the more so of life itself. It sounds provoking that a game ought to have such a role, & many gamers-as-entertainment will fiercely protest. But then again, “so many games, so little time”. We’re drowning in board games, many of which are even quite good. If it’s to be worth playing one game & not the next, the skills acquired in that game had better be – fungible. As with many of the classical abstracts (Chess, Backgammon, Go), which time & again are proved to augment intelligence & creativity, on or away from a board.

Themes, Archetypes, Mechanics – Not So Separate After All?

But here’s the concluding paradox: how could I argue so passionately for the credibility of a game’s individual theme (eg historical Puerto Rico in 1543) – now that I’ve also claimed that the skills required for a game should be transferable to realities outside that particular game?

Perhaps because a theme, if properly incarnated in the game, teaches us fundamentals that go far beyond the theme itself. This doesn’t apply only to themes from “true” history. One reason for the success of imaginary universes like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or A Song of Ice & Fire – as stories, well before they became games – is that they expose human urges in their most archetypal form. Only then do these credibly transfer to something as unreal as a fantasy or SF universe.

Likewise, from deep within the very logic of its subject, a well-themed game exacts skills like counting, concentration, speed, decisiveness, alliance management, spatial organization & restructuring; the ideal balance between trade & aggression or between short & long-term; the science of secrecy; integrating many variables into one stable course; merging tactical compromises with strategic continuity. In short: the difficult, fascinating art of acting on imperfect data. Precisely because such mechanisms unfold in a weighting & configuration unique to each period or imaginary universe, they pop up time and again through the general story of humanity.


Puerto Rico. Board game designed by Andreas Seyfarth. Alea, 2002. Page on BoardGameGeek.

Categories: History Unplugged, Simulated Worlds

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