Arrgh! Welcome to Port Royal, matey! It be here that you do trade with merchants, hire a crew and try to score 12 points before anybody else, just as the real pirates did, y’arrghhh.
(If I was Shut Up and Sit Down, I’d have said all that dressed in full pirate garb but seeing as how I can’t afford a pirate costume, have no talent and do written content instead of videos that traffic lots and lots of viewers, I’ll guess I’ll drop the pirate act and continue the review as normal.)
If you have spent a good amount of time in the hobby, then there is a good chance you know the name Alexander Pfister. He is one of the hottest designers in the industry at the moment, being the mastermind behind heavy Euros such as Mombasa, Great Western Trail and, most recently, Blackout: Hong Kong. Great Western Trail in particular launched his career to the stratosphere, a game that comfortably sits in the top 10 of BGG’s top 100 and is considered a must play if you’re into Euros and cows (I wonder what that Venn Diagram looks like).
For me though, Pfister’s best work is his lighter fare. I’m talking games like Broom Service, a pick up and deliver game of witches delivering potions that has a wonderful social dynamic, Oh My Goods!, one of the most satisfying engine builders I’ve ever played despite it being just a deck of cards, and Isle of Skye, a Carcassonne-esque tile laying game with an ‘I Cut, You Choose’ bidding twist. However, as good as those games are, my absolute favorite Pfister game is Port Royal, a push your luck tableau builder that is one of my favorite games of all time. Seriously. I know, because I once made a list of my top 100 games once because this is my life now.
Port Royal whisks you away to the titular port where you’ll play the role of the world’s nicest, non violent pirate and try to build a crew that can net you gold, complete missions and, most importantly, count as victory points to win you the game. It’s all played with just a single deck of cards, which is the first thing that I’ll rave about. I am beginning to really gain an appreciation for games that do a lot with very little in terms of components, and this is a prime example of that.
A player’s turn is split into two phases: the Discovery Phase and the Trade & Hire phase. In the Discovery phase, you draw cards from this deck one at a time. The cards are mostly gonna be one of two things: ships that can be traded with or crew members who can be hired to enter your tableau. You can stop at any time and enter the next phase of your turn, or you can keep drawing, adding cards to the ever growing display.
But be warned: this wouldn’t be a push your luck game without some sort of risk involved. Then it would be just a push your patience game or push your table space game. Nope, the ship cards I mentioned earlier all have one of five country’s flags on their card and if at any point there are two identical flags in the harbor, you bust. You completely forfeit your turn, everything you’ve drawn is discarded and the next player starts their turn. No one said a pirate’s life was going to be fair or easy. Haven’t you even seen Captain Phillips?
But let’s say you wisely end your turn before your head is taken off by a couple of cannonballs from British ships. You enter the Trade & Hire phase, which means you can now take a look at the display of cards you’ve made and take some for yourself. Here’s the twist: the amount of cards you can take is dictated by the amount of unique flags present on ships in the harbor/display. If you have 0-3 flags present, you can take one measly card. But if you have four of the five flags present? You can take two. If you managed to reveal all five of the countries’ flags without busting, you can take a whopping three cards, which can be a big game changer.
And herein lies the push your luck element that drives the draw phase. The moment a flag is present in the harbor, you’re sweating bullets. Losing a whole turn is rouuugh, and you’ll be double guessing every draw from the deck. Every time you bust you’ll be cursing yourself like Chris Farley in that SNL skit where he hosted the talk show, calling yourself an idiot and asking why you didn’t just stop drawing and go to the next phase. But when you manage to get four or five flags in the harbor, you feel like a pirate god, Blackbeard meets Jesus as he walks on water to do business with the myriad of merchants docking into port.
So let’s talk about the Trade & Hire phase, which replaces the push your luck found in the first phase with card drafting and tableau building. As mentioned, you take the cards you’re allotted, but what to choose? If you take a ship in the harbor, you gain the number of coins printed on the card. Alternatively, you can use coins gained from ships to hire crew members, who give victory points and a passive ability throughout the game. For example, there are sailors and pirates who give you swords which allow you to swat away low level ships in the Discovery phase like the annoying gnats they are, mitigating your risk of busting. There are Mademoiselles, who give you a coin discount on hiring any future crew members. There are Governors, who allow you to grab an extra card during the Trade and Hire phase. There are more I won’t bore you with, but suffice to say that there are enough characters and powers to allow a wide breadth of options and to cultivate a game flow where multiple players can follow their own strategies. What’s also cool is that these crew members’ abilities stack when combined with other cards of the same type. So if you manage to get four Mademoiselles in your crew? That is a four coin discount on all purchases, my friend.
But guess what. When you’re done taking cards from your display, everybody else around the table has a chance to grab a card from the display too! If that makes your blood boil like a Republican complaining that welfare is just lazy people making money off your hard work, don’t worry. If the players opt to take a card on your turn, they pay you one coin for doing business on your turn. So you can pump the breaks and let go of the Reagan bobblehead you were gripping in rage, bud.
This brings me to one of the things I really like about Port Royal: positive player interaction. Positive player interaction is where the decisions of other players can positively interact with things you’re doing on your own and not enough games feature it. Most games that feature interaction with players do it in a more negative and conflict heavy manner, where you take things from other players and destroy things they’ve built. I have no problem with this, area control is full of that and it’s one of my favorite types of games. But positive interaction is perhaps even better because it leaves things people feeling…uh, positively.
It’s nice to have a game where somebody does something and you can say “Thanks! That actually kinda helps me out!” instead of “I hope, when you least expect it, you stub your toe on something really hard.”
There are even crew members that have powers built around the idea of other players doing things. Take for instance, the Jester (ah, that old pirate archetype) who gets a coin whenever anyone busts on their turn OR if there are no cards left in the display by the time it comes to their turn to draft.
Then there is the Admiral, who gets you two coins every time the display has five or more cards when it’s your turn to draft. Meaning when you see somebody drawing card after card, you’re greedily rubbing your hands in excitement like a goblin for the payout that your Admiral(s) will give you. Sure, it’s not all a happy go lucky montage of everyone high fiving and patting each other on the back. This isn’t a cooperative game after all. There are times when opponents will take a card you really needed, but it’s rarely back breaking and never feels like they’re out to get you. Ultimately, this constant positive player interaction, from the aforementioned crew members to the payouts you get from players drafting on your turn, make a pirate game less about plundering treasure and ship combat and more about fair trade in a peaceful port town.
(Hmmm…maybe the theme is kind of thin here. But who cares, anything pirates and nautical is awesome in my book.)
The next thing I want to rave about is how many avenues to victories there are in this game. I have played this game more times than I can count and I’ve seen almost every strategy employed and each one has worked at least once. I’ve seen somebody go heavy into Mademoiselles so that they could buy whatever they wanted in the last portion of the game since everything was so cheap. I’ve seen somebody go heavy on swords so that they were able to fend off any ship that they drew from the deck, allowing them to search for the exact card they needed. I’ve seen somebody load up on Admirals and get so much gold that they were like a pirate Jeff Bezos. Any strategy is effective, it all comes down to how smart you are when you’re pushing your luck and pulling the trigger at the right time for the cards that will help bolster your tableau and push you to victory. This certainly isn’t a super deep game but seeing this many paths to victory in a game that is just a deck of cards and plays in less than an hour is always heartening.
Seeing as how this is one of my top five favorite games ever, I don’t have much to complain about. My only issues with this game are from the publishing side of things. I have the Steve Jackson Games copy, which was the version that was published in North America. The first problem with how they handled publishing this game is the box art. The box art is a detailed painting of a frowning pirate locked in a rigid action figure pose, sword in one hand and flintlock in the other. Not only does this dour looking pirate ready for combat mislead the player into thinking this is a more traditional pirate game of swordfights and ship raids, the art doesn’t match the art in the game AT ALL. Klemens Franz, who is easily one of my favorite artists in board gaming, supplied the illustrations for the cards and his warm, cartoony style is literally the opposite from the art on the cover, which is dark and dim with muted colors. The box art also looks incredibly generic, like it should be the front page of a menu at a pirate themed restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland.
The second sin that SJG committed with this game is even more egregious because it actually has ramifications on the game going forward. The European version of the game has expansions available, but they are completely incompatible with this version because: A) The cards are different sizes and B) the ships in the North American version have specific countries tied to their flags (as I mentioned a couple of times before) while the European version has flags that are simply colors. These two things mean that the European expansions can’t be played with the North American copy, making it feel like I have the inferior version. It wouldn’t be that big a deal, but according to comments on BoardGameGeek, SJG has no intention of publishing the expansions themselves. So yeah, that sucks.
Aside from these unfortunate publishing decisions for the North American version, there’s nothing I can criticize about this game. The push your luck is addicting, the tableau building allows for forging your own strategy and creating your own unique crew, and it’s all tied together by the wonderfully endearing Klemens Franz art. I’ll end the review with a quick story. I actually just played this game a few weeks ago, and there was a point where I looked over at my opponent who was just a few points away from the game winning twelve. I looked at the gold he had, looked at the gold I had and did the math to discover there was no way any of us could stop him from winning on his next turn. I was incredibly bummed. NOT because someone besides me was going to win. Nope, I was bummed because that meant the game was going to be over. I love this game so much I literally became depressed when it ended. If ‘this game is so good it’ll make you sad,’ isn’t a glowing recommendation, I don’t know what is.