Reviewed by Frank Hamrick

PORT ROYAL (Steve Jackson Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 8 and up, 50 minutes; $19.95)


Of the nearly 400 game library of Tar River Gamers, only a handful are universally enjoyed by our group – and Port Royal is among that chosen few!

Port Royal is a light, filler, card game. It has a press-your-luck element, but also includes card drafting, set-collection, and a racing element (the first person to score 12 points signals the last turn of the game). Note: Though I call this a ‘filler’ game, it is on the edge of being more than that! Families may find it perfect for the main event of a game night.

What first attracted me to the game was the designer – Alexander Pfister. I thoroughly enjoyed Great Western Trail, wondered what else Pfister had designed, and discovered this little gem.

As for the theme, like many Euros this one is light, but does account for the various cards you will be collecting. In essence, you are a profiteer in the harbor district of Port Royal and you want to make the best deals, ending the game with the most victory points.

You will play with a deck of 120 cards (expansions add more) – and that’s it! The cards serve a dual purpose: currency and action.

On the back of each card (except for one special card used only in 5 player games) a coin is printed. This serves as the currency of the game. The other side contains many different types of cards (persons, expeditions, ships, and tax increase cards), which provide the activities/actions drive the game-play. Players will obtain cards, adding them Action side up to their personal display, or coin side up in their ‘currency stack.’ Cards in the currency stack may never be used for the Action printed on the other side and vice versa.

At the beginning of the game each player is dealt 3 cards from the top of the draw deck with the coin side showing. This is each person’s starting hand. They may ONLY use these cards for their coin value and are not to look at the action side of the card. The game is now ready to be played.

Game play consists of the active player 1) Discovering (turning cards over from the top of the draw deck and adding them to a “Harbor Display.” 2) Trading and/or Hiring.

Discovering: The player continues adding cards to the Harbor Display until he either decides to keep a card or ‘busts.’

Trading and/or Hiring:

When a player decides to take a card revealed in the Harbor Display, he will either “Trade” or “Hire.” and his turn will end. Each other player in clockwise order will then have a chance to take any remaining card in the Harbor Display (Trade or Hire). What happens when a player takes a card, depends on the type of card taken.

Person cards must be purchased (paid for) with coin cards from his Coin stack. This is called “Hiring” in the game rules, as you have now ‘hired’ this person to work for you. These cards generally provide the player with victory points toward the game-ending goal of 12 VPs. In addition, they often provide other benefits as well (increasing income potential, providing ‘abilities’ to repel ships, aiding in completing expeditions, etc.).

Ship cards provide immediate income in the form of cards taken from the draw stack. This is called “Trading” in the rules. The ship card is discarded and the player takes a number of cards from the draw deck as indicated by the ship card) and adds them to the top of his Coin Stack. Ship cards, however, have an element of risk. If you turn over two ships of the same color, you will bust, ending your turn immediately. Thus, the more ship cards revealed, the greater the chance a player will get nothing!  Ships may be repelled, however, if the player has enough ‘swords’ (provided by Sailors and Pirates) in his tableau to repel them. Ships have a ‘defense’ factor from 1-6 (and some may not be repelled at all!) As soon as a player reveals a Ship he must decide to either take the income from it (thus ending his turn); not take the income but continue drawing cards into the Harbor display; or ‘repel’ the ship if he has enough swords in his tableau to equal the defense factor of the ship. However, there is another element of risk at play with ships. If a player can draw 4 different colored ships into the Harbor Display, when he decides to Hire/Trade a card, he may now take 2 cards into his personal display! If he can get all 5 colors of ships into the Harbor Display, he may choose to take up to 3 cards into his personal display (provided he can pay for them if they are persons.)

Expedition Cards drawn are not added to the Harbor Display, but are set aside (above the draw deck) until a player has the ‘resources’ in his personal tableau (provided by certain persons cards) to claim them. He immediately discards the person cards providing those resources and adds the expedition to his tableau. These cards are important as they generally provide more victory points than person cards. When claiming an Expedition Card his turn doesn’t end, and he continues drawing cards until he Hires/Trades one or ‘busts.”

Tax Increase Cards interrupt a players turn and all players with more than 12 coin cards must return half of them to the discards. They also offer a small reward to the player with the fewest accumulated victory points, or to the player with the most ‘swords’ (provided by Sailors and/or Pirates) in their tableau. The player then continues drawing cards.

Once a player takes a card from the Harbor Display (and pays for it in the case of Hiring a Person), his turn ends. Then each of the other players is given a chance to purchase a remaining person card or take income from a remaining ship card from the Harbor Display. Once everyone has had a chance to trade or hire from the Harbor Display, the player’s turn ends. Any remaining cards in the Harbor Display are discarded and the next player in clockwise order starts “Discovering” cards into a new Harbor Display.

This continues round-by-round until a player has 12 or more victory points in his Personal tableau. This signals the last turn of the game. Each other player who has not been the Active Player this game turn, then gets a final turn (and all other players may still Hire/Trade at the end of his turn) until all players have had the same number of turns.

Players then count the victory points in their personal display and the person with the most points wins the game. Ties are broken by the player with the most Coins in their Coin stack.

One word of caution: There are several expansions to the game, but one of the expansions is called Port Royal Unterwegs! It is actually a weird animal in that it is a “slimmed down” version of the game, playable as a complete game. But it doesn’t contain the Expedition Cards and only plays up to 4 players. I purchased a copy online when a seller failed to clarify that this was the Unterwegs edition and NOT the base game. (After negotiation, I got a free copy of Port Royal as well.)

But Unterwegs has one saving grace. It contains additional ship and person cards that can be added to the full game (Port Royal). Of the 60 cards you get in Unterwegs, 20 may be added to Port Royal (a few more Passengers and Ships to the Port Royal game) and a new personage not found in Port Royal – a set of 5 “Wholesaler” cards that allow a player to keep (rather than discard) any ship cards of a particular color he trades with. Each ship card taken by the wholesaler counts as an additional victory point to the player who also collects the coins from the ship. We enjoy the game with the Unterwegs addition and will play it no other way.

Port Royal, as stated earlier, is a winner with our entire gaming group! It is easy to learn, quick to play, and has a very satisfying amount of choices. The ‘press-your-luck’ element is a great touch and provides some of the most exciting moments of game-play. Do I keep drawing cards to get that 4th or 5th ship so I can add more than one card to my Tableau? Do I keep drawing cards, hoping to get a better Ship card, or that last ‘Symbol” card that will gain the valuable Expedition Card? If I draw too many cards, I might help another player by drawing the card he wants. (I once drew 15 cards and could not get a single ship card offering more than a single coin! I finally busted, getting nothing. The next player immediately drew two straight ships offering 4 and 5 coins each. He stopped, drew 4 different colored ships, stopped, and took both of the 4 and 5 coin ships giving him 9 coin cards! But even such outlandish luck is acceptable -and actually enjoyable – due to the atmosphere provided by the game.)

In Port Royal,  players are constantly faced with agonizing dilemmas. Yet, it is not too heavy and any luck element is alleviated by the press-your-luck elements of the game. As I am sure you realize, I highly recommend this game for both heavy gamers and family game time. It is just plain fun. – – – Frank Hamrick

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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