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Portal - title

Portal is one of the best and most successful video games ever made. In the current climate of table top board game manufacturers trying to license every property that they can possibly get a hold of, I guess it only makes sense that there would have been a board game based on the Portal video game. But what could a board game designer possibly do with the physics and gravity-bending environmental puzzle-solving concepts of the 2 Portal video games? Cryptozoic's answer was to not even really try. While they did manage to come up with a unique and novel board game design, it's a design that I don't feel really does justice to the title's namesake.

You will be tested, and then there will be cake

Portal: The Uncooperative Cake-Acquisition Game is based around a modular, evolving board concept. 15 tiles are placed on the table in three rows of 5. At the end of each player's turn, one tile is removed from the right edge of the board (the "Old Edge"), flipped over, and moved to the left edge of the board (the "New Edge"). If a player controls a majority of the test subject pieces in the removed tile, he or she is given a set of rewards printed on the tile. This may include being able to place additional test subjects in order to establish more control over the board, being able to place or move a turret or Companion Cube figurine, or placing a victory point token on the board (which takes the form of a plastic slice of cake).

Any player piece(s) on the removed tile are also destroyed. Test subjects are returned to the respective player's supply, but any cake slices (which are victory points) are placed in the "Incinerator", and are removed from the game permanently. The objective of the game, thus, is to place as much cake on the board as you can, while also trying to keep that cake away from the old edge of the board so that it does not become incinerated. What makes this a somewhat challenging puzzle to solve is that the conveyor belt nature of the board is constantly pushing everything towards incineration.

Tiles move from one end of the board to the other, like a conveyor belt.

Each players' test subject tokens can pick up a piece of cake (belonging to any player) and carry the cake with it when the test subject moves. This is how players protect their own cake from the incinerator, but it also allows other players to pick up a rival's cake and move it closer to being incinerated. Thus, the competitive and subversive element is introduced. Players must try to maximize their own resources, while simultaneously trying to minimize their opponents' resources.

Oh, and there's also a couple of portal tokens which allow test subjects to move long distances across the board (and potentially take cake with them). And there's also a GladOS cardboard cutout, which does absolutely nothing except to mark which test chamber tile is being incinerated and recycled. The actual portals in the game's namesake, and the primary villain of the games, thus feel under-utilized. The portals just provide an extra opportunity for long-distance movement, but the game is completely playable without including them at all. They aren't even remotely necessary -- let alone fundamental -- to the board game's design, the way they are in the video game.

Turret and Companion Cube are nice 3-D plastic models,
but GladOS is just a cardboard cutout.

It's also a shame that the GladOS token is not a 3-D plastic model. The turret and Companion Cube are both plastic models and look really nice, so it's a shame that GladOS didn't get the same treatment. If she had, I could easily see this game's pieces becoming part of a nice little display diorama on a shelf somewhere when they are not in use for actual play.

In general, the board game lacks the spatial puzzle-solving element of the video game. The board is constantly in flux, and so a large focus of the game is on manipulating the physical space of the game board, and there is a certain degree of spatial-puzzle-solving present. But from my experience, most of that manipulation feels pretty rote and predictable. While there are certainly the occasional opportunities for really creative plays (especially when ability cards are used to modify various game rules or give the player extra powerful actions), the bulk of the game is pretty straight-forward.

Instead of using the portals as the foundational concept of the board game's design, Cryptozoic opted to take the evolving and morphing laboratory from the video game sequel and turn that into the board game's core mechanic. To it's credit, it does translate that element of the game pretty faithfully. And the gameplay mechanics and flavor text of the box and instruction manual does provide some of the dry, cynical humor of the video game. So yeah, the video game inspiration is certainly there, but without a greater focus on the portals themselves, the board game just doesn't feel like the Portal video games. It's still perfectly functional and playable in its own right, but fans of the video game may be disappointed.

The titular portals feel under-utilized.

The cake is a lie?

I'm not really sure what the developers could have done to possibly make the board game feel more like the video game. I suppose it's possible that they could have included small puzzles that a player must solve in order to earn the rewards of each test chamber before it is incinerated -- ideally puzzles that require using portals to solve. But even with a strict time limit on those puzzles, such a mechanic would probably drag down the pace of the game.

The best thing about the Portal board game (besides its novel conveyor belt board design) is its relatively short length and simplicity. The game can be taught in just a few minutes and played in well under an hour. This makes it a great "warm-up" game that players can play once or twice prior to playing a bigger game, and for that reason alone, it's probably worthy of most board game shelves.

Games can end very quickly if players aren't keeping track of each other's test subjects.

While most games of Portal will clock in at 40 minutes or less, the fact that the players determine how long the game lasts means that game length can vary wildly. Games with first-time players often end very quickly (within 30 minutes or less), since those players often focus on collecting cards and cake, and don't think as much about replacing their destroyed test subjects. In these cases, the game might be over in 20 minutes when a player with only 2 or 3 slices of cake realizes that their only remaining test subject has been destroyed.

However, once players do know and understand the game, a single match can drag out for a couple hours or longer. The reason for this is that the game is kind of divided up into 2 unofficial phases. The first phase is essentially the cake-acquisition phase, as players maneuver their initial test subjects to the old edge of the board in order to claim the cake rewards. Games with new players often won't get past this phase, and the game will end prematurely. With more experienced players, the game will go into the second phase, after most of the cake has been deployed onto the board. This phase can drag out for a long time, as each player is working not only to procure their own cake, but also to slow down and subvert the other players and incinerate those other players' cake.

Some cards can end the game more quickly,
but they require the winning player to have a large lead.

Once a single player has a lead (probably at least 2 slices of cake), it's a good idea for that player to start to work towards ending the game, as dragging it out means that all the other players will be gunning for the leader's cake slices. That leader will want to try to move as much of their cake to the new side of the board, and then destroy all their test subjects, or another player's test subjects, in order to end the game and seal their victory. Otherwise, their precious cake will eventually wind up in the incinerator. The more players in the game, the harder it is to hold onto a lead, since the leader has to wait longer before being able to make a move to protect his or her own cake.

Interestingly, Portal makes a little bit of sociological commentary with this mechanic. If the game goes on too long, and if players get petty about incinerating each other's cake, then, at the end, nobody will get cake. It's a metaphorical lesson on the value of good sportsmanship, and on how cycles of greed and petty competitiveness ends up hurting everybody, including the petty and greedy individuals. Of course, you can still win the game with only 1 slice of cake, so the metaphor only goes so far.

If players become petty or vindictive about incinerating each other's cake, nobody will have any cake by the end.

Be careful about playing with players who might take competitive mechanics too personally. I can definitely see some more sensitive players feel like they are being "targeted" unfairly by other players, even if each player is roughly equally targeting opponents for subversion, or if being targeted is the result of the targeted player's own poor play. For example, if you're not putting some effort into moving your cake slices towards the new edge of the board, they are going to drift towards the old edge. Eventually, other players will have to pick the tiles with your cake for incineration, whether they want to or not. This might look like everyone is ganging up on you, but really it's just your own poor play.

You, [insert game name here] must be the pride of [insert company name here]!

Due to having smaller gatherings because of COVID pandemic, I've never played the game with all 4 players -- only with 2 or 3 players. I tried to hold out on writing this review until I had a chance to play with 4 players, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen any time soon, and I've already owned the game for over 3 years. I doubt that having a 4th player will dramatically change the game experience, but it will mean that the board will change more dramatically due to the 4th player's actions, and each player's future turns become that much harder to plan.

If I do ever get a chance to play with 4 players, and I find that the game feels completely different, I can always come back and post an update to this review.

I'm also already starting to notice a lot of wear on the cardboard test chamber tiles. The fact that they slot together like puzzle pieces means that sometimes they stick together, which means that the interlocking tabs often get bent or frayed while trying to connect or detach a particular tile from the rest of the board. It's not a huge deal, since we're never drawing random tiles from a deck, so it doesn't matter much if they are marked or damaged.

Despite being disappointed by the game's lack of similarity to the video game, I still give Portal: The Uncooperative Cake-Acquisition Game a tentative recommendation. If you're looking for more lightweight and casual games to play during family game nights or with some co-workers over lunch break at the office, then this game is definitely worth seeing rotation with other games like Dominion or Carcassone or One Night Ultimate Warewolf or the like.

A player will win, and then there will be cake. *Actual cake not included.

WHAT I LIKE

  • Unique conveyor-belt board configuration
  • Rules are easy to learn
  • Play length is generally short
  • Plastic turret and Companion Cube pieces
  • Possibly teaches a lesson about greed or pettiness
  • Includes a code for Portal 2 PC game on Steam

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Actual portals and GladOS character feel under-utilized
  • Game length can vary wildly
  • Test chamber tiles quickly degrade with use
  • GladOS is a cardboard cutout instead of a plastic piece

FINAL GRADE: C+

Manufacturer(s): Cryptozoic.
Lead Designer(s): Matt Hyra
Lead Artist(s): John Vineyard, Nancy Valdez, Erin Roach
Original release: 15 October 2015
MSRP: $50 USD
Player(s): 2-4 (best with 3 or 4)
Age Recommendation: 12 years old and up
Game Length: 30 minutes - 2 hours
Official site: www.Cryptozoic.com

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