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PORTOBELLO MARKET

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Playroom Entertainment, 2-4 players, ages 8 to adult, 35 minutes; $38)

 

Setting up stalls in the bustling Portobello Market of Victorian London is the setting for the aptly titled Portobello Market, the new game designed by Thomas Odenhoven, and distributed here in the Untied States by Playroom Entertainment.

Portobello Market comes with a mounted board showing lanes that can handle anywhere from 2 to 6 stalls per lane. There are 96 market stalls (wooden blocks in red, yellow, green and blue), 4 reference boards, 4 scoring cubes, 11 “customers” (5 each of gray and pink, 1 black) and a bag to hold them, a wooden “bobby” piece, 4 sets of action tokens (values of 4, 3, and 2) and 8 neutral action tokens (four valued at “1” and 2 each valued at “2” and “3”) and 4 pages of rules (in English, Spanish and French).portobellomarket

Players begin with their own color-coded set of pieces: a reference board, scoring cube, market stalls and action tokens (in values of 2, 3 and 4). The neutral action tokens form a stack, running from 3 (on top) down to 1. All of the customers (except for the black one) are placed in the bag; each player’s scoring cube (used to chart Victory Points) begins on space 10 on the board’s perimeter scoring track. The player going first places the bobby on any of the bobby spaces (found in the center of all the market districts) and takes his turn.

Generally, a player chooses ONE of his action tiles and flips it over. This determines how many action he can take that turn. It costs one action to:

1. Place a stall in a lane adjacent to the bobby. When placing stalls, you may place one or more (each placement costs an action) but you must start from one end of a lane and continue “building” from there. No skipping spaces or starting at the opposite end. Players may add stalls to lanes already started by themselves or other players. If the bobby is not in a position to your liking, you may move the bobby (this doesn’t count against your actions). However, it can be a bit costly.

Crossing a lane where only YOU have stalls or at least the majority of stalls in that lane is free. If a lane is totally empty, you pay 1 Victory Point for the crossing. Should another player have the majority of stalls, you need to pay him 1 VP for “crossing rights”. There is no limit to how many areas a bobby may cross.

2. It also costs one action to place a customer. When doing that, the player draws a customer from the bag and may place it on ANY unoccupied intersection on the board regardless of where the bobby happens to be. Customers come in three varieties: the gray “citizen” (which I call the “man in the gray flannel suit”), pink aristocrat (my “pink lady”) and black (Black Baron) who only makes an appearance in the endgame. Attracting the right combinations of customers can result in large batches of Victory Points.

Once any lane is complete AND has a customer on BOTH ends, that lane is immediately scored. Stall spaces carry values (ranging from 1 to 3). These values have no effect on placement but they DO have an effect on scoring. The values of the occupied stalls are added. That figure is then multiplied based on the type of customers at both ends. Two gray customers multiply the value of the stalls by 1; gray and pink doubles the value, two pinks triples the total! And there is another way to score too!

The 2 and 4 action tiles of each player have an additional power: they can double OR quadruple an area! On a turn, instead of doing the standard stall or customer placement, a player may instead “claim” an area of the board by placing his 2 or 4 piece face down on it. Now, each stall of his color in that entire area (and ONLY his color) is counted (stall values are not considered, only the number of stalls there) and then either doubled (if the 2 piece is used) or quadrupled (if the 4 piece) is used. Once an area is scored, it may no longer be scored by any other player. Also, that action tile is lost and replaced by the top neutral piece on the neutral piece stack.

As the game progresses, customers fill in the 11 intersections on the board. Once the final (tenth) customer is drawn from the bag and placed on the board, the Black Baron is placed in the last remaining intersection. A gray-black tandem triples the values of stalls in that lane; a pink-black tandem multiples stall values by FOUR! The game end is signaled when a player has placed his last stall. That round is then completed so everyone gets an equal number of turns. Unfinished lanes are not scored EXCEPT if the Black Baroporobello3n is in play. The Baron is powerful; lanes bordering the black customer get scored even if incomplete The player with the highest final tally wins!

As the game unfolds, you can easily see how this could have started life as a railroad game, from the layout of the board to the locomotive engine shaped player reference cards but I commend the change in theme which is different and works very well. With two players, only two colors are used. I recommend the full complement of four players for maximum effect so, as the game unfolds, you can revel in its psychedelic serpentine splendor. The use of your doubling/quadrupling power of your action tiles requires you to sharpen your timing. Use it early and you may not be able to maximize its full VP scoring potential. Early on, you may only have 5 stalls so a 4x tile will gain you 20 points when, later, you might be able to build another 4 stalls and double your total to 40! But wait too long and the area with all your stalls may be already claimed, scored and now off limits to you. Another consideration is that your replacement tile from the neutral stack might limit your actions if you wait too long. You could conceivably replace your 4 action tile with one as low as 1 which can hamper your ability to score through stall placement. When and where to move the bobby is something you should keep in mind too. Unless you have a stall majority in a lane, you need to spend VPs to move the bobby to more advantageous positions. Part of the challenge here is to construct a “pathway” so you can move the bobby for free (or next to nothing), yet another factor for stall placement.

There is a certain randomness to the game since customers are drawn unseen from a bag. You can place a customer anywhere on the board so you’re not necessarily “stuck” and compelled to place him in an area unfavorable to your goals but you still lack total control. This is a characteristic of many family games and is certainly not a deal breaker here. But the rules suggest a variant (recommended) for gamers who want to increase control. With the variant, customers are placed off board in line (with the Black Baron placed at the end.) Players must place the customers on the board in that order. This is open knowledge and players can plan placements accordingly.

Portobello Market manages to do something many games cannot do. Because it is colorful and easy to explain with a nice balance of luck and skill, the game works well as a family game. Because it offers the challenge of planning and timing (and with the variant, minimal luck), it works well as a gamer’s game. Well done! – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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