Defending Puerto Rico, Deriding Caylus

In appraisals, boardgames, mechanics on March 3rd, 2008 at 12:46 am

After a prolonged hiatus, Jonathan Degann has just put up a new article on The Journal of Boardgame Design. Jonathan is among the best writers of boardgame criticism that I know of, so a new essay by him is always something to look forward to.

My joy at his new piece, “What is this board game about?” sank a bit when I thought it was going to preempt the first post of my series Elements of Elegance (yes, really, it is coming). It turns out that its focus is different enough from what I want to talk about, though, that I will only have to reference Jonathan. My article will be more than a link to “What is this board game about?” with a note saying “read this.”

Even after this relief, reading his new piece what not the same unalloyed pleasure it usually is. The main thesis is interesting, although I would differ in a few particulars. As always, Jonathan refers to particular games in his analysis, though, and I disagree strongly with the point he is trying to make with two of his examples. I think he gives short shrift to Puerto Rico, and I think he gives Caylus far too much credit.


The central mechanism is the road, which players build upon and which provides the actions players must choose from. The road is also where the “provost” moves, and he can wipe out some players’ actions depending on where they lie on the road.

“Players take actions on the road which gives them commodities, and then they use those commodities to create more buildings on the road (as well as the castle) to earn victory points.” That’s the whole game summed up in 32 words.
—Jonathan Degann, “What is this board game about?”

At first, the suggestion that the road is the focus of Caylus’s design was incredible to me. Isn’t it obvious that the designer’s focus was on the worker placement mechanism? I even thought it was cute how he dismissed the castle with that parenthetical reference.

After a little more thought, however, I realized that Jonathan was right, and if I didn’t already rate it a 4 on BGG, this realization would have sent me running to my computer to change it to reflect my new perspective.

In that parenthetical comment about the castle, Jonathan dismisses one of the game’s two major strategic alternatives, a significant percentage of points scored, the principal way of accessing the important “privilege” system and one of the major game-timing mechanisms. And it is all in a part of the game that makes no direct contact with the “focus” of the design, the road. Suddenly, Caylus’s kludginess took on an entire new dimension. I would never point to it as an example of a game that has a strong central concept.

Am I the only one that thinks Jonathan’s 32 words are inadequate?

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico” by Andreas Seyfarth may be the great enigma when it comes to the notion of game concept. There are many facets to the mechanics. Each one is essential and none seems to dominate. Is the game about the role selection? The selection of roles is a central and original concept, but I think it dominates the game much less than does the road and the selection of actions in Caylus. The specifics of the actions – which building to buy, where to put your colonists, your choice of plantations, trading and shipping – are all critical, balanced, and tightly woven. What is the game about? Well, it’s an engine building game, of course, but it’s about the whole package. To the new player, Puerto Rico is sort of a fascinating mess. To the experienced player, the game is its own concept.
—Johnathan Degann, “What is this board game about?”

I enjoy playing Puerto Rico, but I am not one of its ardent admirers. My quibbles with it have more to do with personal taste than any flaws in the design. (Well, the buildings could be a little better balanced, I guess.) Jonathan’s analysis – I only quote the part that is most relevant to my criticism – is far enough wide of the mark that I, only a tepid admirer, feel compelled to set the record straight, though.

Role-selection is clearly the focus of the game. When I start teaching the game to a new player, I always start there, because it provides the structure that holds the rest of the game together. It is the game’s spinal column. Once that is out of the way, I can quickly move through each of the individual roles.

Further, most of my agonizing when I play comes over role selection. Aside from the Builder, most phases go by quickly once they are chosen. Prospector is automatic, and Craftsman and Trader come quite close. Most Captain phases require a bit of calculation at the start, but then proceed automatically. Choosing which calculable series of events is the most advantageous, on the other hand, is often hard to figure out.

In his diagram of the structure of the game, he also glosses over the bonus doubloons, which are the fuel that keeps the opening phase of the game in motion. They are a tactical factor that, through the first half of the game, shapes a lot of the role selections. Because they tie directly to the role selection mechanic, they are an elegant solution to a couple of design issues.

I think Jonathan makes this error is because “role-selection game” is a meaningless description to a non-boardgamer, so he does not think that it is a coherent description of what PR is about. This inadequacy is a product of culture, though, not a fact of the game’s nature. If the history of boardgames made “role selection” a household phrase in the same way that “auction” or “wargame” are, I don’t think it would hold him up so much. PR’s success stems from how focused it is around its core, though.

  1. To your failure to appreciate Caylus, I say, “Bah”. 😉

    But I think that Jonathan is mostly correct about Caylus, especially if you consider “royal favors” to be another type of commodity. If I were really in the mood, I could probably make that case. In fact, I consider worker placement to be similar in feel to programming your robot in Robo Rally. Yeah, that’s a weird connection, but there it is. You “program” your turn, and then you see what happens. The chaotic results of players jockeying for position for their workers just adds to the burning sensation that we call “fun”.

    And, as far as Puerto Rico, I agree that role selection is the spine of the game. However, when I teach the game, I actually start by discussing production (One Plantation with a colonist + one production building with a colonist=one barrel of the appropriate color, which can then be sold or shipped). Then I can tie each of the roles to the production chain (Settler gives you plantations, Builder gives you buildings, etc.) Then I spring the surprise on the new players (whatever you pick, everyone does.)

    So, while role selection is key to the game, you’re also building an economic engine, and those choices aren’t strictly linked to role selection. Um, let me clarify that. Good PR play isn’t just about knowing which roles to pick when, but it’s also about knowing how to make effective economic choices within each of those roles, regardless of who selected it.

    So, while I’d be comfortable summing up Caylus by talking about “programming” the road, I’m less confident about summing up Puerto Rico as “superior” role selection.

  2. Seth,

    Say “bah” all you want, I still say that Caykus succeeded because it’s strengths shine in spite of its problems, and that it could have been a much better game (if not, necessarily, one that I would enjoy wholeheartedly) if it had been better focused and better developed.

    And, with respect, I do not see how considering Royal Favours another commodity (which, surely, they are) does anything to alleviate the fact that the castle building is a huge distraction from the game’s core, the road. The chaos of the worker placement and bribing the provost is another issue entirely, and one which I am happy to ascribe to taste, not flawed design.

    Teaching methods are highly personal, of course, but I do not launch into plantations (and the Settler phase) until after I have explained role selection, since i think understanding the basic structure of the game helps put off a lot of the “what about?” questions that individual phases can provoke. YMMV.

    And, not to split hairs, but you build a better economic engine in PR by making superior role selections. More often than not, once a role has been chosen your actions are a foregone conclusion.

  3. Gerald,

    Actually, with my comment about Royal Favours being another commodity, I was agreeing with Jonathan (and you) about the road being the core of Caylus. After all, there are other ways to get Royal Favours beyond building the castle.

    >And, not to split hairs, but you build a better economic engine in PR by making superior role selections. More often than not, once a role has been chosen your actions are a foregone conclusion.

    LOL. I’ll grant that this is often the case.

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