Posted by Thomas Deeny as Modern Board Games
The computer game Portal is an interesting puzzle game with the player using a portal gun—a device that creates wormholes on walls—to navigate through a (usually) trap-filled testing chamber controlled by a demented AI who promises cake at the end. Portal is one of Valve’s award-winning games and a flagship product on the Steam gaming service. In 2012, the computer game company began to develop a tabletop game based on Portal, eventually teaming up with Cryptozoic Entertainment in 2013 to continue development of the game. Now available for pre-order, we’ve had a chance to play the game.
Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game is a game for 2-4 players, each heading up a team of test subjects. Three rows of hexagon-shaped test chambers are connected to form the board (the “laboratory”). Each turn, GLADoS (the active player) removes a test chamber from one edge of the board, and places it at the other end. The effect is an infinite board, much like Thunder Road. When a test chamber is removed, whichever player has a majority of test subjects on that tile gains the rewards listed on the tile which might be the ability to move a gun turret, adding one or more test subjects to the laboratory, or slices of cake. All test subjects are removed from that tile, so you’re sacrificing test subjects to possibly gain a reward. If there is any cake on that tile, it is incinerated. As soon as one player has no test subjects on the board, the game ends. The winner is the player with the largest number of cake slices in the laboratory.
The cards in Portal have “play now” abilities on the front (“Aerial Faith Plate: Move one test subject of any color to an adjacent chamber”), and characters with abilities to be used by all on the back (“Cave Johnson: To earn cake from an activated chamber, all test subjects in that chamber must be the same color.”). Play that card and it sits on top of the discard pile with a character from the game and a rule that stays in play until that character is covered up. So: how to best play the two cards in my hand to not give the other players a powerful ability they can use right away?
The game is all about positioning: With only three test subjects on the board, can I maneuver them to a position where they will be picked by GLADoS? Should I have a test subject pick up my opponent’s cake slice and merrily run a tile that will be incinerated or should I pick up one of mine and move it to a safer room? That’s where the puzzle of this game comes in: positioning and moving your test subjects around.
I can see a bit of analysis paralysis creeping up in this game. Even with a small number of test subjects for a player to manipulate, the player can only choose one chamber’s test subjects to move. Take Ticket to Ride as a counterexample: TTR has only a few things a player can do on your turn, just like Portal does. However, Portal has the chance to trigger AP in some players due to the size of the board and the immediacy of GLADoS removing test chambers.
Speaking of GLADoS, there’s a standee counter for it which you’re supposed to use to indicate which chamber is being removed, but in practice it’s completely useless. Also speaking of completely useless: throw away the insert. The insert is usable as long as you don’t actually remove anything from the punchboards: no place to store the useless GLADoS standee, the cake pieces, the test subjects, or the portal markers. (We’re talking the Asmodee edition of Mission: Red Planet bad.) Cool companion cube and turret figures for the game (even if one of the panels on the turret seems to have arrived broken).
Our two-player games were around twenty minutes long. We’re going to give this a spin with three players later this week.
The game itself is fun and filled with a lot of short-term strategy decisions. I was going to recommend it, but… the MSRP is $50. Quite frankly, it doesn’t feel like similar games at that price point. The packaging has a bit to blame for this: the box has faux-aging on it, like it’s been beaten up a bit and well-loved/used over the years. The back of the box features a bland photo one might see on a family boardgame from the early 1970s. While it all fits to recall the computer game, the boardgame’s exterior has that look from a time before games cost $50; the physical design of the game says “cheap”.
I’m also irrationally upset with that insert.
But that’s balanced by the gameplay. We found it fun. Gameplay is also strategic (which I really enjoy). And the game does come with a Steam code for Portal 2, so…consider this a $40 game with a $10 computer game bundle, I suppose.
A copy of Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game was provided free for review by Cryptozoic Entertainment