The Five Greatest Financial Board Games #1: Puerto Rico

To celebrate the week before Christmas (and give you a few great last minute gift ideas), The Simple Dollar is reviewing five board games that not only are a blast to play, but teach valuable financial lessons as well. All of these games should be easily found at a department store or a gaming specialty shop (check your local yellow pages). Other games in this series include The Game of Life, Monopoly, Modern Art, and Acquire.

Puerto RicoPuerto Rico
Rio Grande Games

Here it is, the ultimate financial board game. Many of you have probably never heard of it, and that’s a true shame, because it may be the most elegant board game ever created. It is a complete simulation of a nation’s economy packed into an incredibly fun and easy to play game that takes about an hour or so to play.

How the game works Each player is a capitalist on the island nation of Puerto Rico, back in the days when the island was first discovered by Europeans. The goal of the game is simple: collect the most assets before the island runs out of workers, the capital is completely civilized, or the market has geared up to full capacity. Sound complicated? It could be if the game wasn’t so elegant and enjoyable. The best part of the game is that there’s basically no “downtime” for anyone; all of the players are always involved in making decisions on every turn. No more waiting twenty minutes for Uncle Bob to decide whether or not to put another house on Park Place.

What can you learn from the game?

A successful business always has some cash on hand. In order to develop your city, you need to have cash to invest in buildings, but if you invest everything in a new building and things don’t go well, you might have to wait for a very long time before being able to build again. Thus, keeping some cash on hand ensures that you aren’t just running in place.

A successful business invests in itself at the right time. At different stages in the game, it makes sense to buy different buildings. Early on, you want to build buildings that will support your farms, such as the hacienda; later on, you’ll want to build buildings that are valuable assets on their own. Figuring out how to manage these changes in the marketplace is genius.

A successful business knows who to bribe. The players take turns fulfilling various roles on the island; each turn, a player selects a role to play out of several. The selected role affects all players; for example, if someone chooses to be the mayor, all of the players are allowed to bring in more workers to their farms and move workers to other farms (in order to produce crops, you must build a farm and have a worker on it). So part of the game is choosing which role to take on – and deciding whether or not other players can be convinced to take roles that benefit you.

A successful business knows how to game the market. You can monopolize the market on various crops and basically lock everyone else out of selling crops for a turn or two if you plan well. On the other hand, you can also lose all of your crops if you plan poorly. When do you sell and when do you store crops for the future? It’s another tricky balance.

Besides Acquire, this is probably my favorite board game of all time, and it’s more educational than Acquire because it is a stronger depiction of a full economy at work. The lessons that Puerto Rico can teach about the flow of money through an economy are countless, but what really matters is that it is a lot of fun. Very rarely do I enjoy a game so much that I want to play it four times in a row, but I’ve done that many times with this one.

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  1. Chris Farrell says:

    I have to say, I think you’ve picked some great financial games, and some great games (Modern Art particularly was a terrific pick). But you lost me on this one, I’m afraid. Puerto Rico is a great game, one of the best in recent times, but I’m not convinced of its financial credentials. Cash management is an important element of Puerto Rico, as you note, but cash management is a key element of so many modern games, Puerto Rico isn’t particularly notable in that respect.

    I think Puerto Rico’s problem for me is that too few of the game mechanics actually model anything. You say its good to game the market, but Puerto Rico’s market doesn’t give you any insight into why that’s good or how you would go about doing it.

    Never mind that gaming the market and bribing the right person is in most cases illegal.

    But, even though I’m not sold on Puerto Rico, I think you made some excellent choices (my fellow-gamers will deride the Monopoly and Game of Life picks I’m sure, but the way you presented them made sense to me).

    Here are some other great business games:
    Schoko & Co (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/57): this is a great game that models running a small business. You get to hire and fire people, bid on contracts, acquire raw materials, and manage accounts, in an accessible and fun package. One of the best business games ever made, but sadly out of print.

    Power Grid (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/2651): Build a network to supply power, manage your power plants, buy the fuel on the market, and balance your finances between raw materials acquisition, building new plants and expanding transmission lines.

    1825 (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/937): Invest in the railroads in the early days of British development. Manage your portfolio, watch for opportunities, and learn about limited liability. 1825 is part of a large series of similar games, but I feel 1825 is the best one for the casual gamer as well as the one that’s on by far the best fundamental financial footing.

    Pit: If you want to be a successful commodities trader, you have to be loud, aggressive, and fast!

    Buy Low, Sell High (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/146): Most financial management is based on managing risks. This short, simple, clever, and quick game can teach you to build a sensible portfolio.

  2. *shakes his head*

    I so agree with your top 3, that I’m still dazed as to numbers 4 and 5.

    Power Grid, Age of Steam, or 1830 would be such better choices for those.

    Yehuda

  3. coldfoot says:

    A refreshing choice. I figured Acquire would be #1 and Settlers of Catan #2, but I won’t quibble with your top 3 choices. I’ve never thought of Puerto Rico as a financial game, but I guess it does loosely meet that criteria.

    After seeing Life on the list, I must admit that I was monitoring your picks as if I was seeing a train wreck first hand. I’m glad to see a knowledgeable gamer was writing the list.

    Have a Merry Christmas.

  4. J.D. @ Get Rich Slowly says:

    Puerto Rico? Give me a break. This isn’t a financial game in any sense of the word. It has financial trappings, it’s true, but those are incidental. This game doesn’t reward sound finacial strategies. It rewards those that learn to game the system. I’m not saying it’s a bad game (most people love it, though I don’t). I’m just saying it’s a baffling choice for top financial game. It’s more like #76. Any of the many stocks and bonds type games would have been better choices.

  5. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Puerto Rico was a pretty clear #1 to me. It’s a pretty accurate depiction of the ebb and flow of a local economy in several different ways.

  6. J.D. @ Get Rich Slowly says:

    Man, I must have got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I re-read my comment and it sounds WAY more harsh than I had intended. I am baffled by the choice, though. But not in an aggressive way! :)

  7. nemoforone says:

    What about the possibility of pulling out of Iraq, letting Iran invade and lose resources fighting their own kind,
    and then come in and mop up the dregs?

  8. jeff eccleston says:

    Hey Nemo:
    I like that idea. That’s nice and cheap way to fund the war. I would also recommend getting the people to realize that these people want nothing more than wiping us out and then start a draft and send about a 2 million man army over there and take out the whole area starting with the Saudis, but alas we lack the will and American pride to do this. I guess this would make a good board game sorry about being off topic.

  9. Fritz says:

    If they reinstate the draft, the administration will be forced to relearn the painful lessons they learned in the 70’s:

    1) Their war is not as popular as they thought.
    2) The influx of reluctant draftees will sap morale and produce unrest at home
    3) Dispirited short-timers make lousy soldiers in an era of warfare that demands technical competence and a high degree of training to use its modern weapons effectively

  10. xashruak says:

    Air travel has become a major part of our society, with industries and individuals depending on air transport for their livelihood. But have you ever wondered what happens to the artifacts of our airborne culture when they’re no longer needed? More..
    xrtst303a

  11. Jeremy W. says:

    Hey Trent, I haven’t been back in a while, but I just want to say thanks for introducing me to Euro games. It was about a year ago when I recall you first posting about ticket to ride, I now have that, Carcassonne and a new one, Stone Age. I throughly enjoy the social and mind stimulating fun that I get from playing these games both with other friends and just 1 on 1 with my wife. much better than watching TV.

    I’m wanting to add Puerto Rico to my collection, but wasn’t sure how similar it was to Stone Age.

  12. rodgerlvu says:

    I’ve played this game! I really like it! I totally agree that it forces you to look at the whole economy and gaming the market prices.

  13. Mike says:

    Here is one that you may not have thought of: Axis & Allies. Yes it is a “war” game, but you do have to decided how to spend the “war chest” on men, tanks, bombers, or R&D (a little risky). Each “country” has is own advantages and dis-advantages. It makes more sense for the USSR to buy men (cheap) than the US (transport issue for US). It makes more sense for US to by bombers and invest in some R&D for jet power and heavy bombers. And sometimes it makes sense to hold back some money until the next turn. And of course the amount of money you get each turn depends on the amount of “territories” you control on the board. Of course it is a strategy game that usually last for many hours too…It will easily beat monopoly if you are looking for something to occupy a large block of time. Definitely somewhat slow (though you can plan your next move while other players are taking their turn). Also there is the art of negotiation with your allies. Do you make a sacrificial attack for their sake, or betray them (going back on a promise of support) to better your own position.

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