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Review – Port Royal

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Port Royal - Box

I like to joke that I’ve learned German from Amazon.de. That’s because I spend so much time on there, looking for hard to find games and imports. A couple of years ago, I bought the “could only be found on Amazon.de” game, Port Royal, and paid more in shipping than the game cost. Now there are sellers on Amazon.com and elsewhere who carry it and offer reasonable shipping to boot. (Where were you people back then?) Further, Port Royal is coming to American shores later this summer with a reprint from Steve Jackson Games so everyone will be able to get it! 

So with that in mind, I thought I’d do a review of this imported gem. Wait, did I just blow the conclusion again? Darn. I don’t know why they let me review things.

How It Plays

Port Royal is a simple card game of set collection and pressing your luck. You are trying to earn the most victory points by earning income, hiring people who are worth points, and completing expeditions which will bring in even more money and points.

A turn is very simple. The active player draws cards from the draw deck, placing each card face up in a row next to the deck. He can draw as many cards as he wants, with the caveat that if two ships of the same color come out (and the player cannot repel the second ship using Persons from their hand), his turn ends immediately and all drawn cards are discarded (except expeditions).

He can stop drawing at any time, though, and take cards into his personal possession. (The number you can take depends on how many differently colored ships have been drawn and are showing in the row.) If the active player takes any cards, all other players also get a chance to take a card after the active player has made his choice(s). You must pay the active player one coin if you take a card. (It’s sort of like a tip. “Hey, thanks for pulling that card I needed, buddy. Here’s a coin!)

So what kinds of cards are you drawing and taking? There are four different kinds of cards and each helps/hinders your path to victory in a different way.

Port Royal - Characters 2
A few of the Person cards you can buy.

Persons provide abilities and victory points. Persons can help you complete expeditions, be worth victory points, and provide military might to repel ships so you can keep drawing cards. You have to pay the Person’s cost shown on the card in order to acquire him or her.

Ships are good news/bad news. They provide income when taken from the display, but they force you to end your turn if you draw two of the same color. They can, however, be repelled if you have sailors and pirates with strengths equal to or greater than that required by the ship. If you repel the second same-colored ship, you can keep drawing cards. 

Expeditions give you a chance to earn money and victory points. These are placed below the main row of drawn cards and remain in play even if the active player pushes his luck too far and has to discard all the drawn cards. Expeditions are fulfilled by having Persons with the matching abilities and discarding them to “pay” for the expedition. Only the active player can claim an expedition and when he does so, he gets the money and victory points associated with the card.

Tax Increases cost you money. If you have twelve or more coins, you have to discard half. The small consolation is that the player with the most swords or the least victory points gains one coin. It’s like Robin Hood has shown up and redistributed the wealth. Just not very generously.

Players continue taking turns until the end game is triggered when one player reaches twelve victory points. The round is played to completion and the winner is the player with the most victory points.

Should You Pillage Your Coffers to Buy Port Royal?

Port Royal was my first exposure to the designs of Alexander Pfister. He’s the designer of the recent heavy hits Mombassa and Great Western Trail, as well as the lighter games Isle of Skye and Broom Service. While I’ve tried most of his other designs, this is the only one that has consistently kept my interest. Why is that, when the other games offer so much “more” in terms of stuff and strategy? (At least on the surface.)

For starters, this game proves that you can pack a lot of game into a small box. Not every game has to have an enormous pile of stuff and a Frankenstein mash-up of mechanisms to be great. Sometimes simple is better.

Port Royal is nothing more than a box of 120 cards, but those 120 cards give you some interesting decisions to make. First of all, how far do you push your luck when drawing cards? Do you try to be greedy and bring out as much as possible so you can take even more, or do you exercise caution and stop sooner, assuring yourself of grabbing something? Or, put another way, if things aren’t coming out that you need, how far should you push your luck before you settle for something less than optimal but better than nothing?

Port Royal - Taxes & Captains
Expedition and tax cards.

If you do manage to pull a lot of cards, what do you take and what do you leave behind? Remember that your opponents will get to choose from any leftover cards, so you don’t want to leave them things they need if you can help it. Sometimes the optimal move is to keep drawing until you intentionally bust. It seems counterintuitive, but if you’ve brought out very little that helps you but much that helps your opponents, it’s sometimes best to just draw until you bust, removing all the cards from consideration.

There’s also the question of how you build your engine. Do you go for a a lot of money early and try to buy bigger cards later (hoping they don’t all come up while you’re fattening your purse, leaving just the dregs later), or do you go for the gradual build, just trying to put things together slowly? Do you sort of impose a mental time limit on yourself? “Well, if such and such card hasn’t shown up in two more turns, I’ll just get something else?” Do you try to fulfill expeditions, or let those go and get points in other ways?

And while you’re figuring that out, try to keep an eye on what your opponents are doing so you can slow them down by taking some of the cards they want, or by not drawing any more once you’ve got something you can work with. (Remember that your opponents can only take cards if there are any left after you take yours, so sometimes the optimal move is to just draw one card and take it.)

Port Royal - Ships
Ships!

Beware of the temptation to save up money to try to buy the most powerful cards and create devastating combos, though. If this strategy worked every game, the game would be broken because that’s all anyone would ever do. In the rare case where taxes are a good thing, the tax cards prevent this money-hoarding strategy from dominating. You can hoard money, sure, but if a tax card comes out, you’ve got to give half of it up. (And then I can pretty much guarantee you that the card you were saving for turns up immediately after.)

While it may seem like randomness dominates this game, it is possible to follow a strategy, at least in a general sense. You do have to be flexible and make the best of what you can get, but once you know the cards you have a sense of what’s been played and what has yet to be seen. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you need when you need it, but it is possible to think in terms of likely outcomes. Of course, those who hate all forms of randomness won’t care for this, but for a light game like this it feels fair.

Port Royal - Money
The card backs are also your money!

The thing I love the most about this game is that it flies by. Sure, the playtime itself is short (rarely over 30-40 minutes) and the turns are quick, but the time really flies by. You always have something to do, even when it’s not your turn. The nature of the card draw keeps you watching to see what’s coming out and whether it’s something you can use. If the active player doesn’t bust, you then get to pick a card once they’ve made their choices. This isn’t the kind of game where you get up and go make a sandwich when it’s not your turn.

Sometimes I wish games lasted longer, but the time feels right for the type of game this is. Any longer and it would overstay its welcome. As it is, it ends just about the time you say, “This is getting good,” so you immediately want to go again. At least I do.

Other good points about the game: It’s small, portable, and takes up very little table space. It’s a good travel game. The artwork is by Klemens Franz, artist of such games as Agricola, Grand Austria Hotel, Oh My Goods, and Caverna. His style never disappoints me. In another genius move, the card backs are also your money. Sure, the game could have offered separate cards and money tokens, but then the game wouldn’t have been as small and portable. Cards doing double duty reduces the footprint and fiddliness of the game. 

Port Royal - Characters
A few more Persons you can hire.

Aside from the randomness, the only other big potential negative is that if you’re looking for a pirate game, you won’t find the theme here to be that immersive. The artwork is attractive, but the theme could have been almost anything. And since this is an exercise in quickly accumulating points, it feels more math-y than pirate-y. You’re not thinking of the persons and ships as elements in a pirate game, you’re simply thinking of them as points, money, and what abilities they can give you. Unless you really work hard to imagine a theme here, it can end up feeling a little vanilla, particularly after you’ve played a lot and distilled the game down to its essence.

Still for a game this quick and light, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is, “Is it fun?” and to that I have to say a resounding, “Aye, matey!” (Pirate talk!) Port Royal manages to be a super simple game with a decent amount of decision making involved. Players are engaged the whole time and usually want to play again. Sure, big games with lots of stuff and mechanisms have their place and are impressive, but it’s far more impressive when a designer manages to pack a lot of game and fun into a tiny, simple game. In that respect, color me impressed with Port Royal.

  • 9.5
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Summary

Pros

Klemens Franz's artwork never disappoints.
Quick to play; time feels right for the game.
Always something to do; no downtime.
Excellent decision to simplicity ratio.
Portable and small footprint.

Cons

Can feel a little vanilla for those looking for something immersive.
Random card draw and push your luck will irritate those seeking perfect control.

9.5 Excellent

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I’m also one of “those people” who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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