Solve Puerto Rico’s debts in the Promesa board game

The idea for Promised was born one afternoon in May 2017 when Mikael Jakobssen and Aziria Rodríguez Arce were playing a game of Porto Rico, a popular and award-winning board game. The premise is that players act as colonial governors and slave owners over the territory and island of the United States, and earn points by managing plantations, constructing buildings, and shipping goods to the United States. Spain. Jakobsen says Porto Rico originated from a 1990s board game “renaissance” in Europe that popularized themes of exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination in the industry.

“It’s playing oppression. It’s like historical fanfiction with all these games… You find an island and it’s yours,” says Jakobsson, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and research coordinator at the university’s Game Lab. “That’s a pretty shitty theme for a board game.”

To break the overly popular pattern, over the past two years Jakobsson has worked with Puerto Rican graphic designer Rosa Colón Guerra to create Promised, a new board game that more closely reflects the reality of the history and people of Puerto Rico. The game is based on the actual PROMESA law, which was established by the US government in 2016 in response to the island’s debt crisis, putting US lawmakers in charge of the country’s finances. To win, you must pay Puerto Rico’s bills and strengthen the country’s infrastructure, education, and social services.

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With its unconventional premise and solution-focused gameplay, Promised stands out from other options already on the market. For one, it takes place in the present to familiarize players with the challenges Puerto Ricans face today. “When a game is set in the distant past, I think it’s not to bother anyone… We don’t have to worry about human suffering,” says Jakobsson. “But we have to see that Puerto Rico is still real territory.”

To see exactly how this reframing changes a board game experience, I played a game of Promesa in late August. I’m no board game expert, but I’m competitive and wanted to see what Jakobssen’s idea of ​​winning was like.

Navigating disaster

The work on Promised is one of the most detailed and dynamic I’ve seen. Colón Guerra, currently a resident of MIT’s Visiting Artists program, has traveled throughout her home country to capture important local landscapes and ensure the visuals reflect the people there. Somehow she shrunk the 3,500 square mile island down to about a 4 square foot board. Lagoons, castles and sea animals dot the edges while a waterfall and ruins hold court in the center. A wharf, at the southwest corner, is painted like the Puerto Rican flag. If you recognize some of the landmarks, Jakobssen says it’s on purpose: They wanted the depiction of Puerto Rico to be familiar to those familiar with the island.

I’m sitting in the Game Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with MIT students Grace and Iris for a trial run of Promised. A pile of crystalline black gems is precariously balanced on a blue “raft”: these gems represent the country’s debt, while the raft symbolizes the blue tarps that still cover many homes on the island after Hurricane Maria. Our mission is to work together to slowly push the raft off the island without spilling any gems, otherwise other obstacles will get in our way. Throughout the game, we must invest in education, social services and infrastructure by adding gems from each of these categories (light green, blue and yellow) to the pile of debt gems on the raft. This reflects the cost to invest in these areas, and adds to the difficulty of moving the raft. At the same time, paying for education or infrastructure, for example, allows us to take certain actions, such as getting rid of debt gems or pushing the raft further from the island, which help us achieve the end goal.

Blue tarps were used to cover the roofs of houses, like this one in San Juan, damaged by Hurricane Maria. Ricardo Arduegno/AFP via Getty Images

“You three are now the lawmakers tasked with managing Puerto Rico’s debt crisis,” Jakobsson says to open the game. “Congratulations.”

We laugh nervously. “This game seems like a tough one to win,” Grace says with a faint smile as she rocks the gems on the raft to launch us into over a hundred years of colonial exploitation and economic burden. A few of the coins fall and we exchange glances as Jakobsson places two red backhand gems on the “catastrophe” scale. Once we hit five, disaster strikes. (The nature of the event is not specified, but Jakobsen alludes to some of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes that have damaged the island.) After the third disaster, the game is immediately over.

A few turns later, we reach our first disaster and have to give up five of our hard-earned education and infrastructure gems. Without it, we are no longer allowed to push the raft off the island – we must spend more on education and infrastructure and incur additional debt before Puerto Rico can progress.

“You still have time,” Jakobssen says, as we let out slightly anguished moans. “But not a lot.”

Win and lose together

From the start, Jakobsen says his idea was to show that the island’s debt cannot be fully repaid.

But it took several years of research for him and Arce, an MIT graduate student and consultant on the project, to reflect that nuance in a board game’s goals, rules, and construction. In the summer of 2018, Jakobssen received a grant from the university to travel to Puerto Rico, where they worked with scholars and colleagues to learn what residents were most concerned about and how these fundamental issues could be effectively integrated. in a game. After weeks of interviews and analysis, the team chose the theme of the debt crisis.

Promised went through many iterations, starting with a card game structure and then changing formats completely. Eventually, the manufacturers decided to dump the country’s debt on a raft, based on the images of the blue tarps they saw after Hurricane Maria. They wanted to send the floating raft back, metaphorically, to Washington, DC to “leave the debt where it belongs.” Once this part was established, the rest of the game went more quickly.

Ultimately, the structure of the game differs from anything that requires players to outplay others in order to win. It’s a collaborative and cooperative game: you win and lose together.

“A lot of games are built around mechanics that perpetuate certain ideas of western progress. It’s like, ‘might does good.’ It’s not about ethics, it’s about having a strong army or society or whatever makes you a winner,” Jakobsson says. “So we’re trying to challenge some of these ideas.”

Tabletop courses

So why spend so much energy conveying the story through a board game that’s supposed to be fun? Wouldn’t that kind of effort make more sense in a book or a documentary? Board games are a powerful medium, says Jakobsson, because we can engage with them in personal spaces where it may be difficult for other political messages to reach. Even if players don’t become experts on Puerto Rico’s colonial past, portraying a different kind of history is important on its own.

“I think there’s something about playing an issue rather than just reading about it or hearing about it that can grab you a little deeper, and maybe maybe a little more memorable” , explains Jakobsson.

You'll need to solve Puerto Rico's debt crisis to win this new board game
Artist Colón Guerra compressed the 3,500 square mile island into a 4 square foot map, complete with landmarks and sea creatures. Maria Parazo Pink

He adds that he doesn’t think the European games, with their fixation on conquest, are designed to be intentionally harmful. After all, they can be fun to play. But they still impact the opinions and actions of players in the real world. Games and other media, says Jakobssen, are cultural artifacts that shape our understanding of the people and places around us. “They are a reflection of the society or culture in which we create them. And culture, to some extent, reflects the games we play. So I think there’s a lot of learning to do in games.

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At the moment, the team is printing a limited series of Promesa. They have faced production and distribution challenges due to the pandemic and slowing supply chains, but in the future they hope to fund resources to support wider access to the game.

Jakobsson hopes that Promised can push game designers in a different direction of storytelling and cultural engagement. Even though the board game industry is booming, explicitly anti-colonialist games like Promesa are still rare. More games that buck traditional trends of “explore, expand, exploit and exterminate” will lead to more interesting directions, he says.

“The idea that games are just for fun and nothing else is already starting to be a little less common among younger gamers,” Jakobsson points out. Many of his students at MIT seek games that have more complex and mature themes about social issues. In his experience, “there is nothing strange about a board game about a political debt crisis.”

Earlier this summer, Ravensburger, the parent company that owned the original Porto Rico, have announced that they will be releasing another game this fall: Puerto Rico 1897. This new version, which marks the year the country gained autonomy from Spain, moves away from colonial themes: the goal is now to be the most successful farmer on the island. . But there is still no acknowledgment of the American takeover in 1898.

The end of the journey

It’s the final blow: Grace, Iris and I have a chance to push the raft off the island. We draw our last gems (not red, thankfully) and add them to the dangerously high pile. The edges of the silicone blue square resist the neoprene material of the board and for some reason my fingers are shaking. I hold my breath as I push, and it seems to be paying off – we’ve managed to get the raft into the deep blue waters of the Atlantic.

Jakobsson warned us that it would be a difficult journey, but after several rounds of luck, collaboration and, most notably, delicate pushing, we managed to resolve Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. After celebrating our win, Iris and Grace admit they didn’t know about the PROMESA Act before playing. Iris says that during each of her moves, she kept imagining what investing in infrastructure, education and social services on the island would really look like.

“Well,” said Jakobsson, “at least we did.”