Saturday, January 31, 2009

Puerto Rico Strategy Guide

As many who have read a chess book know, the best strategy in Chess is "control the center". Many games have a fundamental superior strategy that should be followed, often with lesser strategies as well. These strategies dictate your actions when there is not an important TACTICAL move that you must make.

In essence, strategy is about the long term, tactics is about short
term gain (or preventing the same for your opponents). "Tactics is
what you do when there is something to do....strategy is what you do
when there is nothing to do". Like chess, Puerto Rico is a highly
tactical game. Good tactical play and average strategic play will
beat ok tactical play and good strategic play most of the time.
However, if everyone plays well tactically, you will need to have a
superior strategic understanding of the game in order to secure the
win. You need to know what terms will benefit you most in the long
term, not just in the short term. And the long term plays are
sometimes much harder to see.

Before I get to the dominant Puerto Rico strategic, I'll talk a little
about tactics. Most of the tactics of Puerto Rico comes from your
role choices. If you look at the effects of the different roles you
could pick, generally with a lookahead of about 1-2 turns, and find
the one which works best for you/hurts your opponents, you will do
well. To do this, you will have to determine likely moves by your
opponents, and find the role which helps you given what they will
probably do. Also, look for choices which dont leave you wide open to
a big blow if someone chooses certain roles, since strong players will
often do this to destroy your position.

Here is an example of an important tactical play:

In a 3 player game, the game starts like this:

Turn 1:
Player 1 Settler/Quarry, player 2 takes corn, player 3 takes Sugar.
Player 2 takes builder/small market. Player 3 builds small sugar,
player 1 builds small market.
Player 3 takes mayor filling small sugar/sugar plant. PLayer 1 fills
quarry, player 2 fills corn.

Turn 2:
Player 2 takes (settler or builder or mayor).
Player 3 takes craftsman, producing 2 sugar.

You are player 1. You have the following role choices:

Settler/Mayor/Builder (minus whatever player 2 chose)
Trader w/1 dubloon
Captain w/1 dubloon.

You have no goods, and an occupied quarry. Player 2 has a corn,
player 3 has 2 sugar.

What is the correct play?

"Oh captain my captain".

Not choosing the Captain role is almost a guaranteed loss if player 3
is at least as skilled as you are, and will probably give them a good
chance of winning even if you are better than them.

But I dont even have a good to ship, you say!
It doesnt matter. Taking the captain isnt great for you, giving 1
dubloon. Thats not as great as the benefit you would have gained from
the builder for example, with your quarry.

However, not choosing captain allows player 3 to begin the next turn
by trading sugar, with 2 dubloons on the trader, for a gain of 2+1+2 =
5 dubloons! This will give them enough money to buy a coffee or
tobacco plant, a couple turns ahead of either of the other players.
This is an enormous advantage, as they will likely trade that good for
an even greater money advantage, and be the first to build buildings
such as the harbor or factory.

This is an example of a tactical choice where the wrong move will have
more effect than all of your strategic decisions throughout the game.

Now, on to the best Puerto Rico strategy.

Many players tend to think of the game as being about shipping versus
building. That is, that there are two main strategies, shipping or
building, as well as a 'mixed' strategy, hedging your bets between the

However, this veiw misses something important. Those 'strategies' are
ways to score points. They give you somethng to do which is
beneficial to you. Having some role which benefits you more than
others is key in Puerto Rico. If you are in a position where you gain
points by building, but you lose points (relative to others) when
producing and shipping occurs, then thats ok, but not great. You
could win if things work out well, and building comes out to dominate
the game.

However, you can do better. How? Its simple.....follow the dominant
strategy of the game of Puerto Rico. This strategy doesnt involve
shipping or building, it involves income. In this game, income is
king. If you are making money, you will be able to buy large
buildings, and score lots of building points. If you are making
money, you will be able to buy production buildings to make goods, and
shipping buildings like warehouse, harbor and wharf to ship your goods
effectively for many points. If you are making money, then you will
be able to put yourself in a position where both shipping AND building
will gain you points over the other players.

In most cases, you cant be the best at both shipping and building.
Unless all the other players are complete newbies, this just isnt
possible. Your goal is to reach a point where in shipping, you gain
over some of the opponents, but dont lose much to anyone, and in
building its the same. Thus, through a cycle of building and
shipping, you gain points over each opponent, some you gain over in
the captain phase, some in the builder, but overall you have gained on
everyone. This WILL happen if you have the best income potential in
the group, AND you have solid tactical play, so you arent missing out
on points and opporunities that way.

Often your position will become lopsided towards one or the other of
the point scoring methods. For example, in the course of playing
tactically, you just never had any good chances to choose the settler
and take any quarries, yet you managed to get several corn
plantations. Or vice-versa. In these cases, if you have good income,
what will happen is that you will dominate one of the point scoring
methods (your strength), while maintaining an average score in the
other. For example: The shipper who manages to afford a large
building, and dominates shipping. Or the builder with a guild hall
and another large building, who also had a harbor and managed to ship
for an average 25.

Usually in these cases as well, you will prevail.

So how does income have this wonderful effect on your game?

Several ways. Primarily, it allows you to purchase means of scoring
points. That is, money lets you buy production buildings, warehouses,
harbors and wharfs, as well as large buildings, with which to score
points. Generally, if you buy the appropriate building early enough,
it will pay MORE POINTS than you spent in dubloons to buy it.

At the beginning of the game, buying a coffee roaster is going to do a
tremendous amount of good. You are going to use it to produce a
number of coffee throughout the game. Hopefully, you will sell
several of those coffee, and ship the others. If you do this, you
will probably rake in 4*2.5 dubloons (2-3 trades, say 10 dubloons
average), and several shipping points. Using that 10 dubloons to buy
a large building later in the game will yield about 10 points. The
coffee roaster is 3 points, and you shipped 3 coffee. In total, that
coffee roaster gave you 16 points worth of benefit, for a cost of only
6 dubloons. The early you bought the roaster, the better it will have

The key in buying building is to determine the point at which the
benefit is no longer worth the cost. In the early game, that coffee
roaster may well produce 16 points of benefit. In the midgame, you
might only have 1-2 chances to trade the coffee, and only ship 1-2
goods. Maybe it provides 10 points of benefit. In the late midgame,
maybe you'll trade once and ship once, and get only 6 (and converting
that money from the trade into a large building, and occupying that
large building by the end was a hastle as well! And at the end, it
will probably be completely worthless.

Money is thus the best at the beginning of the game, where it gives
you the greatest return. 5 dubloons invested into a tobacco plant
near the start may well pay off 15 points worth by the end of the
game. Money is weakest at the end of the game, and completely
worthless once the game ends, except for tiebreaker. 5 dubloons on
the final turn will likely get you just 2-3 points off a building. 10
dubloons near the end could get you 10 or so points from a large
building, but you'll probably have to put effort into making this
conversion happen.
In the middle of the game, money and points are fairly balanced, and
you'll probably be able to get a 1 for 1 conversion of money to points
without effort. For example, you build a harbor and use it for a half
dozen bonuses throughout the rest of the game. Or you spend 10
dubloons on a large building, whenever building happens, and fill it
when the mayor happens. 10 coins -> 10 points with no effort. Later
on, this same conversion will likely take up 1-2 of your lategame role

So we can define the phases of the game like this:

Opening: Dubloons > Points.
Midgame: Dubloons = Points.
Endgame: Dubloons < Points.

I said that income was the dominant strategy of puerto rico. Well,
thats not entirely true. Its the dominant strategy for the first half
of the game. It dominant until the point where points start to become
better than dubloons.

So let me rephrase the best strategy like this:

"The dominant strategy of Puerto Rico is to focus on income in the
opening and early-midgame, to focus on converting money into a means
of scoring points in the midgame, and to focus on maximizing the use
of your point scoring method(s) in the endgame". Thus, in each phase
you focus on either money or points, whichever is better in that
phase. In the opening, you go for money, since its better than
points. In the midgame, you focus on means of converting money to
points. And in the endgame, you focus on points.

Generally Puerto Rico lasts about 15 turns or so. Sometimes a bit
less (if someone fills there building space up fast, to deny the
shippers their late game point scoring bonanza). That means that up
until about turn 5-6 or so (keep track!), income should be basically
your sole concern. (Of course, giving up 3 points to get one more
doubloon probably isn't great, but giving up 3 for 3 certainly is).
turns 6-8 should be the finale of your income searching, and the last
time you would consider buying that factory or large market. (And
possibly the last time you consider buying that coffee roaster as
well, if you don't have quarries). Turn 6-10 or so should see you
converting money to point scoring buildings like harbor and warehouse.
If you have several corn, and foresee trouble getting a corn boat,
wharf is a good choice, but often, warehouse will do almost as well
for much less. The endgame should see you playing tactically to
maximize the effect of your point scoring methods and minimize those
of your opponent. Money should only be important to you in blocks of
10, to build large buildings. (If you have a couple quarries, smaller
amounts could matter, so you can keep building smaller buildings for 2
points each)

You should practice foreseeing the end of the game, and preparing for
it. When you think that two mayor phases will likely deplete the rest
of the colonists, two build phases end the game through 12 buildings,
or 2 captain phases end the game that way, then you know you are in
the very late game. (Note: 40% of the shipping VP left often means
only 2 captain phases remaining, if people have a decent amount of
shipping ability). They can go really fast at the end!
Foreseeing the game end will help you avoid making endgame mistakes
(which are VERY common in beginner games, and are made moderately
often by all but the most experienced players)

For the following, "Builder" refers to a player whose position is such
that building is their means of gaining points over their opponents,
and "shipper" is a player for whom shipping is their means of gaining
points over their opponent.

All of the following are big mistakes in the late-endgame:

1) Choosing settler at any time UNLESS:
1a) taking it gets you to 10 doubloons AND you foresee that there is
time to buy and occupy a large building.
1b) you have hacienda and residence and 10 or less plantations, and
there was nothing better
1c) (maybe) there was nothing else great and an opponent needed the
doubloons on it to reach 10, and you want to deny them a large building

2) Taking the mayor when an opponent has an unoccupied large building
and you don't, unless it ends the game and you desperately need to end
the game now (before opponents buy more large buildings or the next
shipping round happens)

3) Taking the mayor when the colonists are running low and you are a
shipper, unless it gives you a BIG benefit compared to others. (i.e.
it occupies a wharf and you have 5 corn that would get dumped)

4) Taking the builder role when you are a shipper, unless it is giving
you a large building, and not giving a large building to your

5) Taking the craftsman when you are not a shipper.

6) Taking the trader unless it puts you over 10 doubloons and there
wasn't another way to get over 10. Even then, this can be a mistake if
it also puts others over 10 and they get to build large buildings
first and take the ones you want.

7) Taking captain as a builder in a turn where the captain would not
otherwise have gotten taken. (i.e. you are last to go), UNLESS doing
so allows you to score points and deny points to the shippers.

8) Taking captain as a builder such that doing so causes both captain
and craftsman to occur this turn, when otherwise only captain would
have been taken. For example: you are 2nd last in the turn, and
captain and craftsman are left. A shipper is after you, and you are a
builder. Taking captain lets you deny points to others. You take it.
Now the shipper chooses craftsman, and next turn captain happens
again, and you get crushed. Had you not taken captain, then the
player after you would have had to, and then next turn people don't
have goods yet. This one is quite tricky. It depends on exactly when
the game will end, the boats, the many factors.

Back to strategy...

The choice of which building to buy is often the most important
strategic decisions you will make during the game.
Different buildings become inefficient to buy at different times.

In general, income producers are best early, and are very poor at the
end of the game. Buying a coffee roaster on turn 4 of the game will
generally prove extremely useful, and provide money and points all
game. Buying it on turn 9 (a bit past the midpoint), and it will be a
struggle to gain more than what you put into it. Similarly, a factory
or large market should be bough fairly early if you are going to
benefit from it. If all you do from the factory is make back the
money you put into it, it was a bad choice. That money is worth less
later on, and so you aren't getting much out of it. Perhaps a harbor
would've been a better choice, as it would've paid back in points. Or
perhaps a large building, or just a small warehouse.

Points producers like warehouse, harbor and wharf are best bought in
the mid game. This is because you still have enough time to get a good
number of points from them, but there wasn't something better.
(Earlier, the income building was better, since its money was more
important, but now it isn't, so the point producer is the right buy).

Later in the game, large buildings are the best choice, as they give
all their points up front. The harbor needs time to pay off, and
there isn't enough time left to make it worth more than the large
building. Occasionally, a certain large building will be worth
getting in the late mid game....usually Guild Hall. In a position
where the Guild Hall can potentially score you many points, getting it
before an opponent does can be huge. This generally occurs when you
have 2-3 quarries and are producing one of 3-4 different goods, and
using building to score your points. (Harbor is good here too, but
which one to buy depends on how late it is, and how the shipping is
going. And of course,e in the best world you would end up getting
both, since you followed the dominant strategy well and secured a
solid income in the opening).

One of the most common strategic mistakes is when players buy
buildings at a time where it is too late to get enough use out of
them. Often you will see a player buy a harbor or wharf on turn 11 or
12 (or later!), with only a couple of shipping phases left, when they
had enough to buy a useful large building. Seeing an opponent in a
strong position make this blunder always makes me cheer. Buying
production buildings too late is a mistake as well. Consider a case
of a player with corn, indigo, tobacco and coffee plantations, and an
indigo and tobacco plant. The boats are decent for them, and they
will likely be able to ship two of their three types of goods each
captain phase. This player has 8 doubloons during a building phase on
turn 8-9. They buy a coffee roaster. This is a mistake! The coffee
roaster will likely produce 3 or so coffee during the rest of the
game. Lets say they manage to trade one and ship 2, for a benefit of
6+ 3 from the roaster is 9, but with the hassle of trying to trade
that coffee, find a boat for the coffee, and convert the money from
the trade into a large building to make use of it. What if instead
they had bought a harbor? In the three to four remaining captain
phases (probably), scoring 2 extra points each time, they get 6-8vp +
3vps for the harbor is 9-11 vps. That's as much or more as the
roaster, and with less hassle! (By hassle I mean possible used role
choices to trade the coffee and build and fill the building).

Had it been turn 6-7 however, that coffee roaster probably would've
been the right choice, especially if it looked like the coffee was
likely tradable, and the tobacco might have trouble people traded.

Along with building buildings based on what phase of the game we are
in, its important to correctly value doubloons on the different roles.
In the start of the game, these paying roles are HIGHLY important, as
the money is at that point worth a LOT, and the tactical benefit of
choosing a different role is probably smaller. (except in the case of
denying someone a big early trade for lots of money).
Also, in the early game, you can count on the money on certain roles
making them attractive to others as well, so you can fairly accurately
guess what people will choose,

In the mid game, the money becomes less important, and there more
balance between it and the tactical decisions. And finally in the
endgame, the money becomes almost worthless, and role choices should
be made based on their benefit to scoring you points, and tactical

So what happens when one ignores the strategy of focusing on income
early, point scoring capacity in the midgame, and then using that
capacity to score points in the endgame? They get into a position
where they have trouble finding roles which benefit them more than
others, and they get stuck always having their choices aid someone
else. They cant get ahead, and they find that their best course of
action is to end the game as soon as possible, since they lose more
and more the longer it continues.
Often, these players will have gained a lead early on, through a focus
on shipping corn, for example, while ignoring income. Perhaps they
wasted time getting some immediate gain of a couple more points, or
denying a couple points to an opponent, when doing so caused them to
miss out on several dubloons, and prevented them from establishing an
income source early. In the midgame, they find their advantage is
wearing out, and in the endgame they are gasping for air as everything
they do helps someone else more than themself.

If it is possible to get a lead in victory points while at the SAME
TIME securing an income source, then this should of course be taken,
since it will set you up with a lead and the ability to maintain it.
However, you should never sacrifice setting up an income in order to
score a few points short term, as it will kill you in the end.

Some examples of early game strategic mistakes:

Buying a large indigo plant or large sugar plant in the first few
turns, without 2 quarries. Here, you are spending two extra dubloons
on something which will not improve your income at all, but only
increases your capacity to score points by a bit. Buying a small
indigo or sugar plant would have provided the same possibility of
trade income. Early on, that extra capacity will be of small use to
you, as its hard to get the plantaions and people to use it. Spending
the two extra dubloons damages your ability to set up a good income
source early on. If you are getting multiple plantations of one of
those types, and want to produce the goods, the best course of action
is to buy the small plant early, then set up an income source
(coffee/tobacco), then buy the large indigo or sugar mill in the
midgame, when you are actually getting enough colonists to produce all
those goods. You will then be able to use this as a source of points.

This follows the rule: Income first and foremost, then use that money
to secure a point source, then use that point source as much as
possible to win the game.

Remember that income will be used later on to buy large buildings, for
big points. This means that when you are setting up income early on,
you are in effect getting money AND A POINT SOURCE. You spend the
income you get from it in the early midgame to buy MORE POINT SOURCES
(such as shipping buildings), and then you use the money you get from
it in the mid-late game to buy large buildings.

Thus, it looks like this:

Opening: use money to secure income (ex: coffee, tobacco, large
market, factory) (source of money + points)
Midgame: use money to secure source of points (you now have two
sources of points, your income and your point producer like harbor
warehouse or wharf)
Endgame: use money to buy points straight up (large buildings), use
point scoring buildings like harbor to score points.

As you can see, buildings like tobacco storage and coffee roaster,
bought early on, are amazingly strong because they help you in THREE
ways. They give you income from trading. This gives you point
producers in the midgame, which gives more points later on. It gives
money for large buildings in the endgame, for more points, and third,
it produces shippable goods, and thus is helping you to score points
in three different ways!

Look at this example. On turn 3-4, you buy coffee roaster, and get it
occupied. It produces 6 or so coffee throughout the game. On turn 5,
you get to trade the first coffee your produce for 4 dubloons. On
turn 7, you trade another coffee, and this pays for a harbor. This
harbor gives you two points per captain phase for the remaining four
captain phases of the game. (benfit 8+3 is 11 points for the harbor).
Of the remaining 4 coffee produced, you ship 3 and trade 1. The trade
helps pay for half of a large building that ends of scoring you 10
points (we'll call that 5 for that coffee). The shipped coffee are
each worth a point.

In total, that coffee roaster was worth 3 points for itself, plus 11
for the harbor is bought, plus 5 for half the large building, plus 3
shipped coffee is 22. And all for a cost of just 6 early dubloons.

Do you wonder why you got beaten by 15 points by that player who
bought a coffee roaster and held a coffee monopoly for the majority of
the game? THIS IS WHY! You went and blew your early money on a
hospice, got a few extra colonists which let you produce a few extra
goods, and save a couple bucks by getting your quarries occupied
immediately. You gained 2 for the hospice + 2 bucks + 2-4 goods you
wouldnt have produced is 7 or so, and he got 22 of the coffee roaster.
You sat there trading your indigo and struggling to trade your sugar
for 1-2 per time, when he was raking in the cash and buying buildings
that scored even more points with the proceeds.

You played fine the rest of the game, and so did he, and the fact that
his early coffee roaster was WAY better than your early hospice meant
that you were 10-15 points behind, just due to one strategic decision
in the opening...

THATS how important early income is, and why focusing on income early,
point scoring capacities in the midgame, and points in the endgame is
the dominant strategy in Puerto Rico. Whether or not you end up
shipping or building will be dictated by how things go, by tactical
decisions, by timing issues, by your seat, and how the plantations
fall. But as long as you followed the plan and secured your source of
income, then you will be in a position to win the game when it comes
to the end. The details will differ, and knowing how to make the most
of each position, and where to take the game from here, will come from
experience. But knowing the underlying plan and strategy underneath
everything you do in the game will always help your steer yourself
into a position of strength, from which you will be able to find role
choices that help you more than your opponents. And that is the key
to winning at Puerto Rico.