Victory points are an amazing tool for balancing a boardgame. If you're making a game about, say, warfare and you notice that your generous trading rules makes it unfrofitable to fight you can adjust the victory points slightly so that military objectives are scored higher. Just by toying back and forth with the victory points you can create perfect balance without having to redesign the whole game.
But while victory points are no doubt great for the designer I can't help but feeling that they are an unaesthetic feature. Like a carpenter built a house but didn't remove the scaffolding. Or a painter put her charcoal sketches on top of the brush strokes.
Not only are victory points inelegant, but oftentimes they obscure the purpose of the game, making it harder to learn and to grasp.
Puerto Rico is the perfect example of a game that has lost itself in victory point extravaganza. When I first read the rules of this game I understood nothing. Then I read them again and I understood even less. It seemed to me that they weren't rules so much as a run through of a chain of events – they told you what to do but didn't explain why you should do it.
In all it's compact eurogame glory Puerto Rico is thoroughly non intuitive. It takes at least three full games before you can truly wrap your head around it. A gamer has to give this game many chances before she can actually fall in love with it. The problem is that you can't really tell who is ahead before the ritual counting of victory points at the end, and even then you can't actually be sure what you did wrong.
To be fair, the victory points are only partly to blame. Puerto Rico is a somewhat schizofrenic game. At first, the objective is to create an efficient economy, then at some unknown midgame turning point you need to make a one-eighty and try to convert all your assets to something else. This is in itself a strange practice and not really backed up by the theme, but if the victory points had at least been represented by something else the game would have been easier to understand: Say you bought techical upgrades or bigger ships, or the winner of the game was the first player who could afford a castle.
I'm not suggesting a redesign of Puerto Rico (although it could use a facelift). It seems to be appreciated in all it's qirkyness. But the victory point phenomenon is something for future designers to think about. Germany has revitalized the boardgaming hobby with their flood of easy yet clever games. Sometimes thy get a bit abstract, though. It's time to go to the next level now. Give the games back their soul. Lose the victory points and make winning conditions a little less obscure.