Puerto Rico

Oh, Puerto Rico. Such a great game, so deeply problematic.

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I know I’m picking off some low-hanging fruit here, but I thought it was a good follow up to Catan, as discussed more below.

It’s long been rated one of the top games on Board Game Geek. A pure strategy game with zero luck-based components, the gameplay is unique, challenging, and very well-designed–if you can get over the fact that you literally get little brown slaves off of boats and force them to work on your plantations for free. 1

Yeah.

That’s a thing.

I mean, it calls them ‘colonists’ not slaves, but not sure that euphemism makes it better or worse.

So yeah.

For those of you unfamiliar, Puerto Rico is a phase game where you play as a colonial governors settling Puerto Rico. Similar to Race for the Galaxy, only the phases selected by players at the beginning of the round happen that round. You grow plantations, build buildings, get slaves from the mayor to work on both of those (without the slightest acknowledgement from the game that this is or was problematic), and ship the goods you grow back to Europe for victory points.

It’s a game whose theme I don’t really know how to feel about, except kind of gross. Although since reading Greg Loring-Albright’s excellent First Nations of Catan alternative rule set I referenced in the last post, which modifies the Settlers of Catan game to acknowledge and accommodate the fact that First Nations people nearly certainly existed in Catan before white settlers got there, my feelings have evolved slightly. Or at least have gotten more confused.

Here’s the question I’ve been pondering for months: Is it better for a game with a historical or pseudo-historical theme that touches on problematic historical realities to just completely ignore the existence of that reality or to engage with that reality in a completely non-critical way? 2

I’ve been calling it the The Catan v Puerto Rico Problem. And fuck if I have any idea what the answer is. Please discuss.

Anyway. On to the ratings.

Race

This game is not set in Europe. So that’s worth some credit, usually.

But the entire game play is about colonising said non-European place for Europe. 3 So that’s less credit.

Plus the only human-depicting art of the game depicts a European man.

Native people appear to not exist at all in any capacity?

….and as discussed above, there is a slave trade. But it’s not engaged with in any sort of substantial way. Just casually there.

Yeah, I can’t quite bring myself to give this any stars for Race/Nationality. Any that I could pooooooossbily be convinced to give for the setting, I want to immediately take away for the implementation.

I’m giving it:

0 stars only because I can’t give negative stars.

Gender

Psssssssh. Don’t you know that women didn’t exist in the colonial era? Native women *definitely* didn’t exist. Nor do gender-diverse people, obvs.

Also, the first two pages of the rule book use gender-neutral language, but then inexplicably switch to exclusively using the generic he on page 3, which offends me both as a non-dudely gamer and as a former copy editor.

-1 star except I’m too lazy to figure out how to represent that pictorially so 0 stars.

Sexuality

Ha. Hahahahahahahaha. Oh, you’re funny. (Although I guess in a world where only men exist, some of them have to be banging each other, surely?)

0 stars.

Body

In Puerto Rico’s limited defense, there’s not much human art depicting any sort of bodies, only the one strapping young man we discussed earlier. But this was still a deliberate design choice, so:

0 stars.

Overall

Overall, things are grim for poor Puerto Rico.

Race ☆☆☆
Gender ☆☆☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ☆☆☆
Overall Average 0 (-0.5?)

 

Notes:

  1. THAT’S A REALLY BIG THING TO HAVE TO GET OVER.
  2. I mean, obviously, it would be better for the game to engage with the issue in a critical or informed way, but that’s apparently not the world we live in, so if you can only pick one, which would it be?
  3. “Hilarious” side anecdote. The first time I went into the grossest board game store I know in Sydney, it was to buy this game. I walked in and it was PACKED with nearly 100 dudes gaming (zero ladies or visibly gender-diverse people. RED FLAG ALERT.). Dude at the counter leered at me and asked if I was looking for something. “Puerto Rico,” I said. “Heh. Heh,” he said, still leering. “It’s in Europe.” I just stared and started shaking my head slowly while he continued laughing and looking at me like I was some dumb thing who didn’t get his SUPER CLEVER JOKE. “Get it? Get it? Because Puerto Rico? It’s in Europe…?” until I finally snapped, “It’s definitely not. Look at a goddamn map after you tell me whether or not you have the game and where it is.” and then he dutifully showed me the game on the shelf and rang up my purchase without making eye contact or saying another word.

2 thoughts on “Puerto Rico”

  1. Not that it actually improves the score, and please don’t take this as a defense of the game’s… Many, many, issues… But for Puerto Rico, does it actually depict heterosexuality at all? And if not, shouldn’t that be an N/A for not depicting sexuality, at all, even in the background? I no longer have a copy to double check, mind, so there might be implied heterosexuality (despite no women in art) somewhere.

    I tend to prefer included uncritically to ignored, the white washing of history makes me really uncomfortable, and including uncritically (without celebrating it’s existence) at least acknowledges the bad stuff happened, even if it doesn’t have the courage to risk alienating part of the audience to criticize it. But… I don’t think Puerto Rico does casually include slavery, uncritically. It seems to try to both casually include slavery, uncritically, by having you use brown cubes to work your plantations, and white wash history by referring to these brown cubes as ‘colonists’. It is, to me, combines both approaches into something that manages to combine the worst of both (Again, I absolutely am not defending the game here)

    1. You bring up a good point, and it’s something I debated for quite some time (both with myself and with my beta readers) when putting together the scale. We finally settled on the approach which is outlined in the scale:
      “All human/humanoid characters are straight-identified or straight-coded with no mechanism for a player to make choices that implicitly identify a queer sexuality.”

      Now, as I explore more in a footnote of the scale, assuming someone’s identity from coding is many way problematic. And everything about the societal assumption that default=straight and anything else must come with a giant coming out party is also a problem. But it’s also the reality, and accordingly, we’re proceeding with the assumption that if the game designer never in anyway communicated to us the characters were queer, they were intended to be read as straight. (Game designers, come debate me on this; I’d love to hear from a designer who totally intended a character to be queer but that I–who wants everyone fictional to be gay always–didn’t pick up on it.)

      Further to that point, our scale specifically looks at “no mechanism for a player to make choices that implicitly identify a QUEER sexuality” when looking for queer representation, not “no mechanism for a player to make choices regarding sexuality at all” for that reason.

      If you’re interested in this topic, there’s an excellent recent article exploring issues of queer representation in media, the ways creators do and don’t explicitly or implicitly identify characters’ sexualities, and when it takes for this to ‘count’ as representation. It’s called Schrödinger’s Queer: Does Representation Without Confirmation Mean Anything? (http://www.themarysue.com/schrodingders-queer-does-representation-without-confirmation-mean-anything/), which is also an excellent question.

      I don’t know if that helps clarify our position. It’s not a perfect one and there’s plenty to quibble with, but it’s where we’re at.

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