Dale Yu: Review of Porta Nigra

 

Porta Nigra

  • Designers: Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling
  • Publisher: Eggertspiele / Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 90-120 mins
  • Times played: 3, with review copy provided by Stronghold Games

POrta Nigra box

I was first introduced to Porta Nigra back in April 2015, as a very interested fly-on-the-wall at the meeting at the Gathering of Friends where Stronghold and Eggertspiele were agreeing on doing the game together.  I had a chance to get the rules explained to me by Peter Eggert, and then a first-hand seat at how to play the game well from the same person.

I have been looking forward to seeing the published version of the game ever since.  From my first two games in April, I felt that this was a throwback game of sorts; a reminder of how games used to play back when I first entered the hobby in the early 1990s.  Unsurprisingly, the designers of this game are the same pair of gentlemen that did in fact design those previous games that I have grown to love.

In this game, players compete with each other to build up the ancient Roman city of Augusta Treverorum, now known as Trier.  Each player has a Master Builder token that moves around the four different quadrants of the city, assisting in collecting building materials as well as overseeing construction of different buildings in the city.

The board

The board

As I just mentioned, the city is split into quadrants, each with a different colored brick marker in the center.  There is a special white brick market which is in the very center of the board and belongs in all quadrants.  The actual brick pieces are all grey plastic – but they take on the color of the location that they are found in…   There are buildings cards in a display on one side of the board and honour cards displayed on the other.

Each player gets a personal player board, 20 coins, 1 torch token and 5 Romans (more on what all of these do in a bit).  Each player also gets an identical action card deck.   This is shuffled and each player draws a hand of 2 cards.  Your master building token will be placed in any quadrant of the board on your first turn.

The overall format of the game is simple.  A start player is chosen, and then each player takes a turn in clockwise order (using an action card for each turn) until all players have played all their cards.  There is an intermediate scoring round, and then the action cards are collected, shuffled and re-dealt.  A second round is played just like the first, and then there is final scoring after all players have again played all their action cards.

Action cards from the blue player

Action cards from the blue player

On each player turn, there are two distinct phases.  First you make sure the board is refilled.  Second, you play a card and take an action.  Once your action is complete, you draw a card from your deck to bring your hand back up to two cards.

In the refill phase, you must make sure that the board is set up for bricks, building cards and honour cards.  First, you count up the total number of bricks in the central markets.  If there are less than 7 total, you must add cards.  You draw a supply card which tells you how many bricks to add of which colors.  You draw cards and place bricks until there are at least 14 total on the board.  Next, you make sure there are 6 building cards available to be chosen from.  If not, draw from the deck until there are 6.  If the deck is exhausted, shuffle the discards to make a new deck.  Finally, make sure that there are 14 honour cards on the other side of the board.  Unlike the building cards, once the honour card deck is depleted, there will be no further new honour cards placed.

Examples of the honour cards

Examples of the honour cards

In the action phase, you play one of the two cards in your hand.  The top portion of the card gives you a number of different action options (as many as 5).  The bottom portion of the card tells you how many different actions you get to take with that card – displayed as a number of torches on the bottom of the card.  Each action can only be done once, and you cover the particular action icon with one of your wooden discs so that you don’t try to do that action again.  You can also use a torch token to take an additional action in addition to those allotted to you on the bottom of the card.  Finally, during your turn, you can spend influence tokens to take special influence actions.  Confused?  Well, let me explain the different actions…

Buy a brick – this action could specify a color brick to buy or have a grey colored wild brick.  This action allows you to buy a single brick of the specified color.  If the card specifies a particular color and that color market is empty, the icon then acts as if it is a grey brick and you can choose the color of brick that you want to buy.  First, your master builder token must be in the matching quadrant – he only moves clockwise, and he must pay one coin for each border crossed.  Remember that the white bricks market is in every quadrant.   Then, once in the correct quadrant, you pay the fixed cost for the brick as noted on your player board.  The grey plastic brick is taken from the market and placed in the stall of matching color on your player board.

Here we have a yellow and a black brick

Here we have a yellow and a black brick

Place a building element – there is a major building in each of the four quadrants, and each of these has multiple possible building spots.  This action allows you to build on any single building spot – so long as your master builder is in that particular quadrant (if not, you can pay to move him to the right quadrant).  The space on the board tells you both the number and color of bricks required – well, when building in the Porta Nigra, only the color is specified – the player can choose and number of bricks between 3 and 8 to place on that space.  When you place a building element, you must have a Roman token in your color to place on top of it.  Then, you collect your rewards.  First, you score VPs equal to that written on the space on the board.  Second, you check to see if you gain a building card – if one of the 6 cards displayed next to the board shows both the building that you just built in as well as the color brick that you used, you take that matching card.  Finally, you check to see if you get a master builder reward – triggered each time the total number of bricks that you have placed in that building reaches a new multiple of 3.

Building cards

Building cards

Take an Influence Token – grab an influence token.  You can then use these to take Influence actions during your turn.

  • Add a Roman to your player board from the supply for 2 Influence tokens
  • Take the “place a building element” action for 2 Influence tokens
  • Once a turn, you can buy a honour card for the cost of Influence tokens printed on the card

Take a Torch Token – add a torch token to your player area.  On a later turn in the game, you can use this torch token to either take another action depicted on your played action card (in excess of that allowed by the card) or it can be turned it to take a coin from the bank.  (Note, that you can even use a torch icon from your card and use its “action” to take a single coin from the bank).

Take coins – take the displayed number of coins (generally 3, 4, or 5) from the supply

Here is what the game looks like in play.  (Thanks to PZS69 from BGG)

Here is what the game looks like in play. (Thanks to PZS69 from BGG)

The round continues until all players have played all of their action cards, and then there is an intermediate scoring round.  Each player gets 2 points for each brick that they have placed on the board at that point.  These points are then converted to either coins or Victory points in a 1:1 manner.  The players can choose how they want to split up their point total between VPs and coins.

Once this has been done, the player with the fewest VPs gets to choose the new starting player for the second and final round.  Each player shuffles their action card deck, deals themselves two cards and the second round is played in a similar manner as the first.

The game ends prematurely when one of three things happens:

1) The brick reserve and brick market are completely depleted*

2) A player plays his fifteenth and final Roman marker to the board*

These tiles help you refresh the brick markets

These tiles help you refresh the brick markets

The active player who triggers option #1 or #2 scores 5 VPs for ending the game prematurely, and then each other player in the game gets one more turn.

The game ends in the regular fashion if all players have played all their action cards.

There are four parts to end game scoring

  1. Building card sets – score 2/6/12/20 points for a set of 1/2/3/4 different building card types
  2. Honour card – some Honour cards lead to end game bonuses – score the VP total written on the card
  3. Component scoring – 1 VP for each Roman / influence token / torch token / brick / 3 coins
  4. Majority scoring – each building offers slightly different ways to reward the players who have built the most bricks in a building or region of a building.  Points are generally awarded for first and second place.  If there is a tie, the player who has used the more valuable bricks to build breaks the tie.

My thoughts on the game

As Jonathan Franklin quipped on our internal email list – “ Hey, 2000 called and wants its game back.” – this is actually a statement which seems to ring true.  And not in a pejorative sense at all… Porta Nigra definitely feels like one of the games that I cut my teeth on way-back-when, a return to the fairly complicated, mostly abstract with theme painted-on games that used to dominate the market.

Though the rules seem complex at first glance, they really are not.  On you turn, you only have 5 different possible actions to take, and each is rather straightforward.  The main challenge in the game (at least for me) is similar to what Princes of Florence gives you: how to maximize your plays to get what you want.  In a 4p game, you will get exactly 14 card plays – and they will be the exact same cards as your opponents.  Sure, there is some variability in the order in which the cards come up in – but for the most part, you will be able to take your actions when you want to take them.

Though there really is one main mechanism in the game, acquire bricks and then use them to build, there are multiple ways to approach the building…  You could choose to go low-cost and try to build lots of black and blue buildings – taking more building score as well as hopefully triggering more master builder.  You could try to focus on building in one site to get the end game majority bonus or you could go for diversification and score points through the building card bonuses.  As an extension of that strategy, you could then vie for the honour cards which give even greater endgame bonuses.

With the multitude of different ways to score points – with many of the points coming in the final scoring – it’s honestly a bit hard to predict the final scores.  So much so that I think it cuts down on some AP because a lot of the bonuses can change based on each play, so there simply is too much to calculate each turn and that hopefully leads to people not trying to do so at each stage of the game.  Sure – you could try to work it out in the last or penultimate round, but earlier than that, I just don’t think you can really foresee how the bonuses will pan out.

Timing and planning is key to the game; being able to maximize the positioning of your master builder will help you save coins (from not having to pay as much to move it) as well as saving you actions (as you will not have to take as many “grab coin” actions and can instead use them on other things).  It’s surprising how many times a single coin or two prevents you from doing what you want – because you’re one brick short or one city section short of where you want to be.

I like the gamble in the intermission when you have to choose between VPs and money for your reward.  You could possibly set yourself up with coins so that you may not have to use any actions on that in the second half of the game, but those VPs are hard to come by – so it’s difficult not to take at least some of your bonus in points….

I like the artwork in the game – again reminiscent of older games – but this is very much Menzel’s style.  I have always been a big fan of his work, and this game does nothing to dissuade me of that.  The icons are easy to follow, and this helps keep the game running along smoothly.  I don’t mind the all grey color of the plastic blocks, though I know there are some that wish they had been colored to start with.

Our games have been coming in around 90 minutes.  Many of the turns go quickly, but there are times when you simply have to scout the board out and see what your best options are.  Thankfully, your card choice is narrowed to 2 at most – and most cards offer similar actions – but you do need to choose carefully to give yourself the best option.  It’s hard to fully plan ahead because you need to wait to see what the board situation is before you can really decide what you are going to do, but you can usually get a good sketch of your next turn while waiting for it to come around.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Larry (2 plays of the prototype):  Here’s what I had to say after playing the prototype at the Gathering:  “If I showed you this game and didn’t tell you who designed it, odds are you wouldn’t have any trouble guessing it was by Kramer and Kiesling.  It’s all there:  a game about constructing buildings, a majorities aspect, action points, tight and interesting gameplay, just unmistakably K&K.  And another thing you’ll probably recognize—it’s really good.  In fact, this might be the most promising title from the timeless duo in the last ten years or so (right up there with Palaces of Carrara).  If you’re a fan of Kramer and Kiesling games (and who isn’t?), you should definitely check this out when it gets released.”

 

Just as an aside, I didn’t think the game felt old fashioned at all.  The elements were familiar, but I thought the gameplay felt fresh and quite in line with 2015 sensibilities.  Maybe that’s because I’m a fan of the duo or perhaps it’s because *I* go back quite a ways.  But more likely it’s because K&K have stayed abreast of the times and can still crank out a damn good game after all these years of working together.  In any case, I’m really looking forward to playing the published version of this.

 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Larry L, Chris W.
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral. Jonathan F
  • Not for me…

 

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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