The board game “Puerto Rico” begins after everyone around the table receives a mat printed with the verdant interior of the game’s namesake island. Players are cast as European tycoons who have trekked across the Atlantic at the height of the Age of Exploration. “In 1493 Christopher Columbus discovered the easternmost island of the Great Antilles,” read the back of the game box that once sat on my living-room shelf. “About 50 years later, Puerto Rico began to really blossom.” To win, one must “achieve the greatest prosperity and highest respect.”
In practice, that means the mechanics of “Puerto Rico” are centered around cultivation, exploitation, and plunder. Each turn, a player takes a role—the “settler,” the “builder,” the “trader,” the “craftsman,” the “captain,” and so on—and tries to slowly transform their tropical enclave into a tidy, 16th-century imperial settlement. Perhaps they uproot the wilds and replace them with tobacco pastures or corn acreage, or maybe they outfit the rocky reefs with fishing wharfs and harbors, in order to ship those goods back across the ocean. All of this is possible only with the help of a resource that the game calls “colonists,” —represented by small, brown discs in the game’s first edition, which was published by Rio Grande Games and is available in major retailers—who arrive by ship and are sent by players to work on their plantations.
So that’s “Puerto Rico,” the game. In Puerto Rico, the real place, the Spanish empire started enslaving the indigenous Taíno people shortly after Columbus arrived on the island during his second voyage, in 1493. The first African slaves arrived in 1517. By 1560, the total population of captives numbered about 15,000, and in 1560, plantation holders started branding slaves’ foreheads with hot irons in order to adjudicate any potential kidnapping cases. It’s all a little uncanny when you set down a brown “colonist” marker, but the original instruction manual for “Puerto Rico” offers no commentary on the terror of human displacement that it echoes. The game’s animating principle—as much as it has one—is that this island was empty and dormant until the West arrived, bringing with it a golden age.