Puerto Rico was, for several years, the top-rated game on Boardgamegeek, and I’d argue it still deserves the top spot, as it’s just two-hundredths of a point behind a more obscure game, Twilight Struggle, that has only one-third as many votes. (That is, there’s something of a self-selection bias here: People who don’t like long, complex games like Twilight Struggle won’t try it, and won’t put low ratings on it, whereas Puerto Rico is popular enough that far more players have tried and rated it.) I’ve recommended a very good if unauthorized online version of Puerto Rico called Tropic Euro, but about two weeks ago the first official Puerto Rico app (currently on sale for $7.99) was released for the iPad, and after some weird non-recurring issues the first time I played, it’s been stable and fairly easy to play.
The gist of Puerto Rico, if you haven’t played the board game, is that you are trying to settle a new island by filling it with plantations, producing crops, and using the proceeds to build up your island, while also accumulating points from shipping crops back to the mainland. In a round, each player chooses one role to play and earns a particular benefit from it; any unused role earns extra money for the player who is next to select it. Roles allow players to add plantations or buildings, occupy them with colonists (they’re useless until occupied – but this is why one friend of ours calls Puerto Rico “the slave game”), sell goods, or ship goods. The rule that states that players must ship all available goods during the shipping phase despite limited space on the cargo ships, with unshipped goods discarded entirely, is the key differentiator in the game – timing shipping is critical, and you can really boost yourself and/or screw an opponent by picking the shipper role at the right moment. The game involves almost no luck or randomness – it’s all player selections.
The app itself squeezing everything into a pretty brisk game, and the screen layout has improved since the earliest screenshots were released; it’s not intuitive, but after a game or two it’s pretty easy to figure out what you need to do. Descriptions of buildings are easily available with one click, and the app offers a hint feature that I’ve found gives solid advice, although it’s a little too skewed toward the Prospector role (one free coin but no action). The music and story animations are cute but I had to turn them off after the first game because they slowed everything down. You can control AI and animation speeds to keep things moving along.
The big negative is the screen itself; Puerto Rico’s mechanics are simple, but the game’s pieces and setup are complex, and there’s just a lot of stuff on the screen. Your island and plantations are in a column, stacked next to all of the other players’ islands, even though your icon and score are on the opposite side of the screen. You can’t tap on a building to identify it, but have to tap the question mark in the lower right and drag it across the screen to drop it on a building to get its name. The use of lit windows/doors in buildings to indicate when they’re occupied by a colonist is clever, but those lights are a few pixels tall and therefore it’s not immediately obvious whether a building is occupied. (Plantations are much clearer – they get a tiny icon if they’re unoccupied, but the square fills up once it is.)
One other minor negative is that the AIs are fairly easy to beat through a shipping strategy, primarily because (like most AIs) they’re not reactive. (Carcassonne is one of the few apps with an AI that clearly seems to be out to get you – and I consider that a good thing). I try to avoid the shipping strategy most of the time I play the Puerto Rico app because it’s a bigger challenge to try to win through development, and using multiple AI opponents with different strategies mixes things up to the point where I’m often forced to change plans even though the AI players aren’t specifically trying to block me. On the plus side, I’ve never caught any of the better AI options doing anything stupid or suboptimal. But they’re not enough alone to keep me playing for long – I’ll either use the multiplayer feature or I will end up backburnering the app behind ones that offer stronger single-player experiences, like Carcassonne or Samurai.
If you like the board game and expect to utilize the Game Center multiplayer options, I’d recommend the Puerto Rico app. It would also serve as a good introduction to the game for anyone who’s never played the board game version before, since that’s just over $30 and requires a minimum of three players. I’m just not sure this will have staying power for me beyond multiplayer because the AI players just aren’t strong enough, even though I’m nowhere near an advanced player.