When we heard news that Cryptozoic were developing a board game based on the awesome Portal games our excitement levels went through the roof. A chance to work your way through Aperture’s infamous laboratories and earn that delicious and moist cake? Yes. Very yes, please. Better yet, having spent some time playing the copy we were sent for review it’s a very fun game to play in under an hour, even if it doesn’t quite grasp the humour from the games themselves.
The game plays out on a board initially made up of a randomly selected 5×3 grid of hexagonal tiles, each tile consisting of a test chamber and clipping together to form a starting board which will rarely, if ever, be the same twice. Each player puts 4 of their test subjects on the left hand side of the board (the new edge) and a couple of portal tokens get dropped onto the right hand side (the old edge). As this is a “Cake Acquisition Game” whoever has eaten cake most recently goes first; after all, you wouldn’t want a Portal game to do things the normal way would you? To take a turn there are no dice rolls, instead you can choose to move one or more of your test subjects into an adjacent chamber, with the intention to make it over to the right hand side where all the action happens. You can also, if you prefer, only move a single subject and pick up an Aperture card instead, which has various actions of their own – more on these later though.
Once per turn you can activate a test chamber on the right hand side by placing the GLaDOS piece into that space. At this point all of the test subjects on that tile (if there are any) are toast and get taken off the board, but whoever has the most subjects on the tile also gets to carry out the features on in the chamber itself, which can be gaining more test subjects into the laboratory, picking up another Aperture card or gaining one or more slice of cake, amongst a couple of other actions involving the turret and companion cube (again, we’ll look at that later). So despite the most over-used phrase in gaming history suggesting otherwise, it’s not a lie, there’s really cake. The problem is, other players are out to try and incinerate your cake by dropping GLaDOS onto the chamber with cake on, and once the cake is destroyed there’s no getting it back. In fact the whole point of the game is to finish with the most cake once one player no longer has any subjects left on the board, with that quite often meaning you’re doing all you can to wipe out your own people before someone comes along and swipes your cake from you.
The aforementioned Aperture cards give an interesting twist to proceedings, acting as a double edged sword in your mission to irritate the arse off your opponents or just cause some general chaos around the place. On the one side of the card you have various actions or instructions which you carry out immediately, actions such as the Companion Cube card which (surprisingly) brings the companion cube into play, or the Repulsion Gel card, allowing you to move all subjects in one chamber to an adjacent one, even if they’re not yours; all cards which are clearly designed to help out the holder of the cards. But most interestingly, once these cards are discarded face down you’re left with a character card staring up at you, which changes the rules for every player until a different card is placed, giving the game a different set of rules every few minutes. They changes aren’t huge, but it might be that each player can swap an Aperture card with another player, or destroyed cake is no longer incinerated but goes back into the earnable cake reserves. And as only the final turned card gives a new character there can be quite a bit of strategy involved in deciding which order to play your cards (or indeed, whether to even play them in the first place) in order for the most useful or annoying character modification to be in play.
I’m starting to use the words “annoying” and “irritate” a lot, and with good reason. Most of the joy of this Portal game is being as uncooperative as possible and trying every bit as much to ruin someone else’s game as attempting to win it yourself. It’s fair to say if you have a fragile relationship with those you’re playing this with you can probably clear a space on your Christmas card list, because it’s not likely you’ll be loving them a great deal more after a couple of games. But for most people it’ll be great fun actively trying to make life difficult for others, and the idea of doing everything they can to make life tricky for the other players will sound really quite appealing.
There are other considerations too, such as the portal guns which each player has. When playing an Aperture card, you can choose to ignore the card itself and instead use your portal gun, allowing you to place the portal pieces in two chambers and hope between them, covering larger distances in one go. There’s also the companion cube, which prevents players from earning the rewards in an activated chamber due to their subjects being distracted by the cube. Finally, the turret does what you’d expect – if it ends up in the same chamber as some subjects (or if you cunningly move some subjects into where the turret is) they’ll get gunned down and taken out of the laboratory, in a deadish kinda way. Despite the amount going on, it’s all surprisingly simple to play.
The build quality is pretty pleasing all in all. The cake pieces are fantastically made and painted, and the subjects, turret and companion cube all feel solid too. The cards are made with beautiful quality card, and certainly don’t have the cheap feel that some games’ cards end up with. It’s a shame GLaDOS is just a card in a stand, and the fact she doesn’t have any part to play other than show which tile is about to be wiped out seems like a wasted opportunity to inject some of the classic Portal humour into proceedings. The board hexagons also don’t all fit perfectly, but I was at least able to drag the board round the table without it coming apart a great deal, so considering you’re working with what is effectively a rolling game board it does the important job right, and still has an awesome 3D look about it when sat at the right angle. All in all it’s well made, and should last you through a good number of high-agro games before the cards end up either slightly scuffed or inserted violently into one of your friends (which is probably the more likely scenario).
So the Portal board game does a great job to give an amusing, enjoyable and manageable experience while engrossing yourself a little more into the world of Aperture Laboratories. Games aren’t excessively long – most of ours took about an hour at the most – and if you can get the full quota of four players there’s a sizeable amount of anguish to be both dealing out and dealing with. Fans of Portal should be all over this, and anyone else looking for some fun over Christmas and beyond shouldn’t shy away either.
Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game
Available Now, RRP £39.99
Find your local stockist here