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De-colonialised version of Puerto Rico game focuses on autonomous country

Previous editions perpetuated colonialist narratives.

A new version of the classic board game Puerto Rico will shift the tabletop title’s focus away from colonialist narratives and towards the country’s native history.

The upcoming board game has been appearing on various retail sites listed as Puerto Rico 1897, with an official announcement from Ravensburger – the parent company of the new game’s publisher, Alea – yet to be released. (Thanks BoardGameGeek.)

Puerto Rico 1897 will feature a very similar collection of components as the 2002 release, but – according to YouTube creator Jason Perez/Shelf Stories who has reportedly spoken with Ravensburger – the game will take place several years after the original during a time in which the country had secured autonomy from its Spanish colonisers. Slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico by 1873, with 1897 being the year in which Puerto Rico won autonomy from Spain, only to be taken over by the US government in 1898.

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The new version of Puerto Rico will focus on the country’s history during this time and, according a Ravensburger representative, was “created in partnership with a culturally diverse and representative team.” Unlike the original, Puerto Rico 1897 will not feature the “themes of colonialism,” that the 2002 edition has received criticism for by writers such as Luke Winkie, who wrote an article in July 2021 for The Atlantic about board games that have players interacting with colonialist themes without engaging with their history of slavery and violence.

“The original instruction manual for ‘Puerto Rico’ offers no commentary on the terror of human displacement […] the game’s animating principle is that this island was empty and dormant until the West arrive, bringing with it a golden age,” writes Winkie.

In the 2002 release of Puerto Rico, which was designed by Andreas Seyfarth, three to five players become colonial governors managing the plantations and trade of the country, with the goal of developing the most profitable farming and shipping business possible. The board game has players establishing their own business empires through building, growing and selling the goods they take from Puerto Rico, with each turn seeing a player selecting an available role and taking actions on their turn.

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Players can gradually earn victory points by constructing buildings, shipping off goods and managing the buildings they’ve overseen the construction of. Victory points can also be earned through obtaining goods and doubloons. Whichever player has the most victory points by the end is named the winner.

Puerto Rico is one of several board games that have players step into the roles of colonisers without any attempts being made to examine or critique the history of western colonialism, with other examples including the spin-off card game San Juan – which has players acting as governors on the capital of Puerto Rico – and Catan, a game about arriving on a mysteriously unpopulated island and laying claim to its land and resources.

More recently published board games such as John Company: Second Edition, a board game about the corrupt history of the East India Trading Company designed by Root creator Cole Wehrle, and Spirit Island – a co-op board game in which players control a group of deities dedicated to ousting the colonists terrorising the native people – have attempted to critique the history of colonialism through their themes and gameplay.

There is yet to be a set release date for Puerto Rico 1897, with the upcoming game releasing at a retail price of €45 (£38/$47).

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Alex Meehan avatar
Alex Meehan: After writing for Kotaku UK, Waypoint and Official Xbox Magazine, Alex became a member of the Dicebreaker editorial family. Having been producing news, features, previews and opinion pieces for Dicebreaker for the past three years, Alex has had plenty of opportunity to indulge in her love of meaty strategy board games and gothic RPGS. Besides writing, Alex appears in Dicebreaker’s D&D actual play series Storybreakers and haunts the occasional stream on the Dicebreaker YouTube channel.
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