One of my absolute favourite games is No Thanks, and I will mention it any chance I get as far as recommending games to people. So, I love a good push your luck game – and lo and behold, when a designer whose work I love designs one, I am doubly in love! Alexander Pfister seems to be just as at home with small card games as he is with heavier Euros, and I appreciate his style, his design features and choices that truly make a game hum.
I had tried and loved Oh My Goods shortly after it was released, which was the year after Port Royal, a reimplementation of Pfister’s own Händler der Karibik. Oh My Goods (originally Royal Goods) was an intriguing mix of shared (slight) push your luck and tableau building to create an engine for points – multiple use cards featuring prominently. It was like a Euro game made miniature, and I’ve been enamoured with it – and its expansions and companion game Tybor der Baumeister – since. Prior to 2017, Port Royal was only available via Europe through Pegasus Spiele, so I tried a friend’s copy, immediately interested in giving another small card Pfister game a whirl. Needless to say, I’m glad it’s gotten a wider release thanks to Steve Jackson Games.
Play of the game is deadly simple, and can be quite swift even with its maximum player count of 5 – a turn consists of flipping cards from the deck into the middle of the table, creating a “marketplace”. A player keeps flipping until they bust (two of the same flag of ship) or choose to stop, and take card(s) from the marketplace; once that’s done, each other player has the option to take a card from what’s left if they pay a fee of one coin to the active player – a great choice in gameplay that forces that choice of “I really want this thing, and it could advance me nicely, but do I really want to give this person money?”. Early in the game these choices are fairly straightforward – stopping to take down a ship will give you money (cards from the deck, face down to show the coins on their back), and if you choose to, you can spend money to hire a variety of characters in port. Characters hired will create your tableau and allow you certain bonuses and abilities going forward, helping build up an efficient machine to balance money and start to rack up points (first to 12 wins).
These abilities can be as simple as a bonus every time you trade with a certain country’s ship, or ruffians with swords to fight back ships, you can also set yourself up nicely to get bonus cash if someone busts or the marketplace has a decent number of cards. My favourite of all is the Governor, who allows you to procure two cards on your turn, which can really start to escalate your money gathering and the size of your tableau. There will also, every so often, be a “tax increase” card that pops up – if you’ve been hoarding coins, this can hit you hard – but also offers a bonus for people based on their points or the amount of swords wielded in their port. I like these as they can be a good way to keep players in check from zooming ahead and offer a little catch up for those struggling, but there’s not so many it skews the game wildly.
While every card that’s added to your tableau has a point value that contributes to your score and can trigger game end, there’s also another part of the game that you can work towards to quickly bump up your point value – Mission cards. Mission cards will be available for all players to claim as they appear through card draws – by surrendering cards that show the required icons (some combination of log houses, crosses and/or anchors) on the Missions, you’ll gain a bonus of coins in addition to the points on the Mission card. These can take a little while to work towards, but can be just the leap in points you need to get near (or over!) 12 and win the game.
Steve Jackson Games made very few changes to the game, just some slight tinkering of the ship cards art – I’m not entirely sure why, as I was just fine with the types of ships as I am with ships from various countries – but it doesn’t change the gameplay at all. Perhaps just dates it more to a colonial time than before; the rest of the art has that regular old sort of Euro palette to it. But the same game is there, with push your luck, cards with (basic) multiple uses, and some quick and dirty tableau building with a fun escalation of points that keeps you on your toes and looking out for what other players are doing. It’s just the right kind of light engine building game with a dash of randomness and tactics to be a perfect chaser to a heavy Euro or a kick off at the start of game night.
I know in the European release of the game, expansions that add types of cards, a solo variant, and a campaign similar to Oh My Goods have been released, and sound terrific. While Steve Jackson Games currently have no plans to print any of these expansions, I hope they reconsider. While I love the game and have no troubles getting it to the table and enjoy introducing it to new players, I’d love some flexibility to keep replay fresh for me. And I’m intrigued by a solo game! Regardless, it’s a must-have for me now and lives in my Quiver card case pretty much full time. I expect it’ll be up there in my top played games for 2018 – if you see me at a convention, flag me down to sail the high seas!
Port Royal plays 2 – 5 players in 20 – 50 minutes. Now published by Steve Jackson Games, art by Klemens Franz and designed by Alexander Pfister.