Port Royal review

Port Royal (2014)

Game Details
NamePort Royal (2014)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [1.61]
BGG Rank420 [7.15]
Player Count2-5
Designer(s)Alexander Pfister
Artist(s)Klemens Franz and Atanas Lozanski
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's basically okay!

Note (8/11/2018): There’s some question mark over whether I played this incorrectly or just wrote it up clumsily. This post was written about 18 months before publication and so I’m not sure myself what the answer is. I’m going to revisit Port Royal at some point in the future to see one way or another. I don’t think it would alter anything in terms of how the game ends up being judged, but at the very least I can clear up the text properly.

I mentioned in our Merchants and Marauders and Jamaica reviews that I cannot be relied upon to exercise due detachment from any game that is themed around pirates. Pirates are awesome. Not the real pirates of history of course – they were basically sea-borne terrorists. The fictions of the golden age of piracy that we have collaboratively constructed within society though – that’s my jam, son. So you might be expected to exercise a little cynicism when I review a game like Port Royal. After all, for a significant chunk of my tweens this was my home city – the port from which I always sailed when digitally enjoying the adventures of Cap’n Blackmeeple, sloop-based scallywag of the Spanish main.

Port Royal box

Yo Ho Ho

Your cynicism is not really going to be necessary. Pirates are present, but the theme is veneer thin. Port Royal is a perfectly functional and pleasant game but it doesn’t mentally transport me to the sea-spray of the 17th century Caribbean. Actually, that’s not entirely true – it transports me exactly as far as is needed to get to San Juan. On the plus side, that means that you’ll get my views without them being distorted through a pair of Jolly Roger shaped love goggles. On the minus side, it means I won’t hesitate to keel-haul should it be deemed necessary for the morale of the crew.

San Juan and Port Royal share a number of significant features. They both treat currency in the same way – they’re face down cards that would have been purchasable resources had life gone another direction. Both San Juan and Port Royal permit you to change the economic equilibrium of play through the purchase of specialists. They are both highly bound up in creating a context in which players must master the momentum of the experience. Where they differ most significantly is in how they harness that momentum. San Juan is a waltz, with everyone attempting to keep their feet in a steady, predictable tempo. Port Royal is more like risky sex in a public place – quick, frantic, and often a terrible, terrible mistake.

Coins and Cards

Convenient for your wallet

At the start of the game every player is dealt three cards, each of which represents a shiny gold coin they can spend. After deciding who is to go first, the players in turn will draw cards and buy (or not) something from the things they draw. These cards will represent potential hirelings; or lucrative trade ships overflowing with booty; or expeditions that can be undertaken for victory points; or edicts of tax that make everyone at the table groan and mutter. That’s all you do – you draw cards, and you buy cards. So you begin – you draw one…

Draw a card

Our first intern

And then two…

Drawing a second card

Keep going…

And then three…

Drawing a third card

It’s all fine!

And four…

Fourth card being drawn

We’re going to need a bigger harbour

How many cards do you draw, you ask? Ah, here’s the thing. You can draw as many as you like. You have to draw at least one, but anything else is largely up to you. You just draw them until the harbour is as full as you want it to be. You can keep going until the perfect opportunity at the perfect prize comes your way.

A fifth card

MAKE IT STOP

Well, sort of. You can draw as many cards as you like, true. But only until two ships of the same colour are floating around in the harbour. At that point, you pushed your luck a touch too far and the entire offering, with the exception of any expeditions that have been drawn, is gathered up and discarded. They sail away, loot in tow, into a melancholy Caribbean sunset.

Six cards

This is fine…

This push your luck element is what makes Port Royal a meaningfully different game from San Juan, and it’s a lovely addition to an otherwise workaday experience of set collection and victory point acquisition. You want to give yourself enough of an offering to pick up something you really want, but not so large an offering that you run the risk of ruin. You want to make sure you have a juicy opportunity to buy, but you also want to make sure pickings are slim for everyone else around the table. That by itself is really nice, but Port Royal also does something especially excellent with how it eggs you on to work against your own best interests.

When you decide to stop drawing cards, you get to spend your accumulated coinage on the things you want. BUT HERE’S THE THING! The number of cards you can buy depends on how many differently coloured ships are in the harbour. If there are zero, one, two or three ships in the harbour you can select one card from the offering. If there are four, you can select two cards. If there are five? THREE CARDS. Three! Count them! Lesser souls might only receive a single card per round, but if you’re lucky you might get more. You might flip over the next card only to show you a step closer to really enjoying yourself with a spectacular orgy of acquisition.

Oh no - double ships

Here’s your boy

Or of course, more often you won’t.

But here’s the other thing! Once the active player has finished buying cards, every other player gets a chance to buy a card of their own. Everyone that takes the opportunity has to pay the active player a gold coin as a kind of ‘finder’s fee’. That’s nice, but not really the benefit of being the active player. What you need is the necessary iron core of will inside you to keep drawing until you’re getting two, or even three, cards to their one. Of course, you have to be lucky too but hey – life’s a lottery.

Every so often you’ll deal out one of the two special cards. One of these is an expedition, which stays in the display until someone buys it. To buy it, they need to trade in two employees with the symbols indicated along the bottom. They’ll lose the victory points associated with the human bodies they throw at the job, but they’ll profit considerably in the process.

Expedition cards

‘I’ll buy your missionaries. No questions asked’

Tax increases are resolved immediately, and have much the same force of impact we might expect from the robber in Catan – anyone that has accumulated a stockpile of twelve or more coins immediately has to discard half of their hard-won fortune. The player that meets the condition along the bottom is then given a shiny coin of their own. You don’t want to hold on to money for too long in Port Royal – the Caribbean is a trickle down economy.

Tax cards

The Port Royal equivalent of rolling a seven in Catan

There isn’t a great variety of cards that come out of the deck, but you’ll want all of them regardless. The ships that float into the harbour represent income. When you pick one of those during your trade turn you get the number of coins indicated along the top. Income is important, because you’ll want all the other cards too. You’ll want traders, for example:

Traders

It’s a job lot

Each trader you have in a particular colour increases the cash yield of those ships by one for the owner. A black galleon that would be worth four will be worth six if you have two galleon traders in your employ. So you’ll definitely want them to get the most out of your endeavours. Also though you’ll want to keep the harbour free of matching colours as long as you can. If you want to keep a good thing going, you can repel any ship that you draw before it’s placed. For that, you need to have a number of swords in your employ equal to the sword rating on the bottom. To get swords you’ll need sailors and pirates. You’ll definitely want to buy a few of those. You can push your luck, in other words,under circumstances that are at least passingly favourable to you.

Pirates and Sailors

Yaaar

You’ll also want skilled specialists in your employ. You’ll want the Jester, who gives you a coin if there are no coins left in the harbour for you to take by the time you get your turn. You’ll want the admiral, who gives you a gift of two coins if there are five cards in the harbour when your time comes around to pick one. You’ll want the governor, you lets you take an extra card whenever your time comes around. And you’ll want the Mademoiselle, who offers a hiring discount of one coin. And the chances are you’ll want several of each of these. 

Settlers cards

Throw them in with the tobacco and spices

But you’ll also want to pick up the settlers, the captains and the priests – these are the human currency with which you’ll purchase expeditions, and expeditions offer gold to the person that completes them as well as a bushel of victory points. You’ll want lots of these fine people too to cement your claim to power in the Caribbean.

So that’s Port Royal. You want to draw a lot of cards, but not so many cards that you’ll go bust and lose your opportunity to buy anything. You get to buy a card each turn, or more if you’re lucky, and you’ll want to buy several of everything that’s on offer. Simple. Easy. Obvious.

Except you won’t be able to afford to that even if you could, so you also want to grab ships and convert them into money. Easy. Predictable. Safe.

Except if you do that, you’ll lose out on the expeditions that everyone else is raking in, and you’ll find your fortune of coins stripped away by the vagaries of inconsistent taxation. So you’ll want to spend that money on those people most able to fulfill the missions that are available. Oh god.

You want to do this all, every single turn. And so does everyone else at the table. You keep on doing this until someone has twelve victory points, and then the winner is declared. It couldn’t be simpler, although it could be a great deal easier. Nobody around the table is going to have an especially straightforward time of it because a constantly shifting, evolving puzzle is put in front of you every turn.

Different ships

Here’s a fleet of fun

The nature of the harbour means that you cannot rely on anything remaining available – not just because someone else might take it, but someone is almost certainly going to go bust and clear the harbour entirely. The harbour only clears away when this happens, so the chances of that very thing increases every single turn. People rarely want to take the little one coin ships. They linger around like unwanted guests at a party until they end up triggering a refresh at the least opportune moment. Sometimes you might want to trigger that very thing too if you have drawn a pile of cards that you know everyone around the table is salivating to pick up. If you can’t afford to deny them, there are other ways to make sure you undermine their efforts.

It’s a nice, tight game that plays quickly and cleanly and offers oversized fun for its undersized box. It gives you just enough hemp to have you happily knotting up your own rope collar, but not so much that you’re completely at the mercy of the deck. While it’s possible for your first card drawn in a turn to completely refresh the harbour, that’s rarely something you had no hand in engineering. You can trace back down the chronology of decisions and find yourself somewhere early on setting the context for your own failure. I like that in a game like this, although it’s not entirely successful in ensuring that’s the case.

However, while Port Royal is tight, it’s also very light and it lacks the deep interplay of elements that makes games such as San Juan such an enduring joy. So much of the game is interwoven with the randomness of the harbour that it’s difficult to really get meaningfully better at it – you can grow to more effectively intuit the risks and rewards, but in the end a lot of it is just down to who got lucky, and when. The compounding nature of special cards too means that if you have a few unlucky turns to begin with you’ll end up in a situation where you may not be able to catch up at all, and that’s rarely ever fun. That’s not a critical problem – as I say, in many ways you make your own luck. That thought depends on you have having time to acquire the tools to do so.

In the end Port Royal falls into the same oubliette in which I keep many of the games in this complexity space – I enjoyed the time I spent playing it, but I find it difficult to justify spending more than I already have. At a certain point, you end up draining any game of its juices. Some games lend themselves up to a prolonged exsanguination that can take exquisite years to fully complete. Port Royal, for me, isn’t one of those games. I’m looking at the box now, and all I can see is a withered raisin instead of the plump, juicy grape I might desire. That said, the grape while it was fresh, was delicious – and that might indeed be enough to justify the purchase.