Puerto Rico: The Dark Side

Posted by: on May 14, 2010 | 4 Comments

Puerto Rico Ever get knocked out of your happy, little orbit? Happens to me all the time, when I least expect it. Take Puerto Rico, my favorite Euro game.

In it, you play a plantation owner in 18th Century Puerto Rico, trying to out-produce and out-ship your opponents. Sounds boring, but it’s not. That’s the essence of a Euro game: take an obscure little nook of history – no violence, no war – and make it utterly fascinating.

My brother joined the army about a year ago, and while in IET – that’s “Initial Entry Training”, the training you do after boot camp – he tried to get some of the guys together for a game of good ol’ Puerto Rico. Who wouldn’t love Euro games, after all?

Much to his surprise, and much to mine (here’s where I get knocked out of orbit) some of the guys, who were actually from Puerto Rico, weren’t so crazy about the idea of the game.

It’s sort of a dirty secret/joke that Puerto Rico involves the subject of slavery.

There’s a mechanic in the game involving little brown “colonists” who arrive on a ship from “Europe” overseen by the “mayor”. But those little “colonists” ain’t colonists. They come from overseas, sure… but not from Europe. And it ain’t no “mayor” shipping ’em over.

The euphemism didn’t seem so funny or cute or charming after my brother’s story. You can hardly blame those guys from Puerto Rico, whose ancestors had actually endured slavery, if they didn’t want to have anything to do with the game.

The argument “it’s just a game, relax,” actually holds a lot of water with me. But then again, I’m not Puerto Rican. If humor is in the eye of the beholder, then so is offense. I’m sure the game wouldn’t rub everyone with African ancestry the wrong way… but the people in my brother’s tale are army guys, and therefore presumably pretty tough. Not the sort who look for excuses to bitch and moan.

With that in mind, imagine you’ve got some friends over. You decide to whip out one of your Euro games, but one or more of these friends are black.

Would you choose Puerto Rico? Maybe so, but further suppose these are new friends. You don’t know them all that well. Would you still choose Puerto Rico? Really?

I don’t think the author of Puerto Rico had anything but the best intentions while making his masterpiece. And Puerto Rico is a masterpiece. Nothing can take away from that. I will continue to play and love it. The game is not “racist”; calling it as such would be absurdly histrionic.

But had the game been created by someone from the United States (which would be impossible, given how different US games are from Euro games, but that’s another story), it would never have involved slavery.

Part of what kills me about Puerto Rico is that the game could work just as well in almost any setting. You could set it in the Wild West, substituting cowboys for African slaves and horses and bison for corn and coffee. Hell, you could set the game on the moon; Race for the Galaxy and Twilight Imperium use a lot of the same mechanics are Puerto Rico.

So I guess, like a lot of things, Puerto Rico is “complicated”. While it’s a great game – among the greatest – it doesn’t change the fact that slavery is an excruciating, living legacy. It’s not a joke, and it’s definitely not a game. In a perfect world we’d all just take a deep breath and move on.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.


  1. Mark Hebert
    May 14, 2010

    Comics, and board games. You are my hero

  2. Rvid
    May 14, 2010

    Thank you, Mark! I live my life as a warning to others. 🙂

  3. Duc de Nevers
    May 17, 2010

    I love Puerto Rico – the last time I had a boardgaming geekend Catan sat unopened and unloved as everyone huddled round building their plantation empires. We’ve had some discussion about the use of brown pieces for the “colonists” in the past and the general feeling was that the way they are treated as a commodity, without comment, makes a somewhat effective point in itself.

  4. Rvid
    May 19, 2010

    That is a very interesting point. I hadn’t even considered that.

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