TABLEGAME REVIEW: Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game

When I reported that Cryptozoic was making a Portal board game (well over a year ago) I was fully expecting to get hold of a copy in time for Christmas. The game was being developed in conjunction with Valve, who themselves seemed very happy that Cryptozoic had really captured the spirit of their revolutionary video game puzzler. However, December 2014 came and went without so much of a hint of the ‘uncooperative’ game being actually released. I eagerly looked around for it at the UK Games Expo in the Summer time. Nope. Nada. Nix. Zilch. Well – better late than never – I finally got to read the following on Cryptozoic’s website:

“With a grinding of gears and some uneasy rumbling, Aperture Laboratories has resumed testing! Your team of Test Subjects have entered the Lab and are ready to perform all sorts of important, dignified, and dangerous testing procedures… all in the pursuit of Cake! It’s a fun and funny fast-paced fight to the finish. And by finish, we mean your team probably died.”

Oh yeah, baby! A friend snagged a copy for her husband a couple of weeks ago as an early Christmas present, and I was only too GLaD(os) to help them play-test it. Join me on the other side of the POrtal to see how we found the experience.

The first thing you need to understand is that POrtal: the Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game makes no attempt to duplicate the play-room physics puzzles of the computer game. There really is no way to achieve those in a tactile medium, so get that notion out of your head, deal with it, and then move on. What Cryptozoic do instead is to give you a conveyor-belt-to-destruction race to grab as much of GLaDos’ mythical cake as possible, while pulling every shirt-pulling dirty goddamn trick you can find to sabotage your opponents. Once you’ve gotten to grips with the rules, game-play is fast, fun and has a surprisingly wide variety of tactical twists to keep you on your toes for game longevity.

The box seems larger than necessary for the components inside but it doubles nicely as a secondary playing surface thanks to a handy Playmat inside. The stains, scratch-marks and foxing on the box may make your heart lurch a little after you’ve forked out forty-odd quid for the game, but rest assured, they are purely cosmetic and in keeping with the crumbling aesthetic of Valve’s video game. Aside from the instruction manual and Playmat, you’ll find 18 Test Chamber tiles (which form the primary playing surface), 20 Aperture/Character cards, 4 POrtal Gun cards, two POrtal tokens, two cute models (a Companion Cube and a gun Turret), four teams of 8 Test Subjects, four cakes of 8 Slices, and a cardboard GLaDos token.

Initial set-up.

Set-up. Image from GeekDad. http://geekdad.com/2015/10/portal-board-game/

Set up is quick and simple, which is always a relief to discover in a table game. Nothing worse than people hanging around and huffing while you try to figure out what goes where! Each player gets a different coloured team, consisting of Test Subjects, Cake Slices and a POrtal Gun. Having shuffled the Test Chamber Tiles, they are laid out in three connected rows of five to form a Laboratory. The Aperture Cards are shuffled and placed where labelled on the Playmat. Team members are placed at one end of the Lab, while the portals are placed at the other end. GLaDos is kept nearby, as are the Turret and Companion Cube. So far, so good.

A turn gives a player the opportunity to deploy Aperture Cards/use the POrtal Gun, move a number of test subjects, claim any prizes they can grab by activating a test-chamber, then shifting that old conveyor belt down another notch by recycling a piece of the Laboratory from one end to the other. Your first couple of turns will start you jostling for position and getting hold of a card or two before the real battle begins. Once it does, POrtal-lovers won’t be surprised at how vindictive the game can get but you may be pleasantly surprised at how finely balanced it is. Each deployed Aperture card gives a one-off advantage to the person playing it (e.g. Companion Cubes prevent prizes from being given out, while Turrets kill everyone in a room) but using it means turning it over to reveal a character who will, more-often-than-not, give an equally powerful benefit to all of the other players.

PortalBoardGame3

Secondary playing area, including Aperture cards, Character cards and Incinerator. Image from Purple Pawn http://www.purplepawn.com/2015/09/second-look-portal-the-uncooperative-cake-acquisition-game/

Tactics begin to develop along several lines, which you can switch between as the game progresses. Each test-chamber has symbols on it, representing prizes that will be won by the player with the majority of Test Subjects in it at the point of activation. One tactic, therefore, is to figure out which rooms are worth the most to you and dragging your team there to snag the gear. You’ll need to be careful how you manage them though because if your entire team is removed from the lab at any point, it signals the end of the game. Of course, this leads to some interesting occasions where you are deliberately trying to kill off your own people (Test Subjects – they’re just Test Subjects) to secure that win before anyone else can grab some more of that sweet, sweet cake. Other tactics include building up a stock of Aperture cards so you can sabotage others at the most opportune moments; carrying opponents cake towards the incinerator to get rid of their advantage; and obviously using the POrtal Gun as a way to manoeuvre your way around the Lab quicker.

Most of my criticisms of the game are cosmetic rather than structural, and I can live with all of them. I’ll list them here though, in case any are a deal breaker for you: First up it seems silly with colour coded teams to have one be reddish-orange and another be a reddish-purple. The Yellow and Blue are clearly distinguished and are fine with either one, but surely they could have found a fourth colour easier to distinguish – particularly as the game is supposed to be fast-moving. Secondly, the lab tiles could do with a little work. They serve their function fine, and the fact they are double-sided ensure a good variety of prizes and set-ups, but the way they fit together is unsatisfactory. There is a pseudo-jigsaw connection meant to hold them together. It is supposed to be relatively loose to enable easy shifting and recycling of chambers, but we found the middle row continually presented difficulties, with parts snagging and dragging accidentally. Catan style hexes may have served better.

My final criticism was going to be that for all its adoption of elements from the world of Aperture Science, it doesn’t feel very POrtal-ly to play. I stress the word was. You see, up until now our experience of the world has always been from the point of view of the Test Subjects, forced through dangerous experiments at the whim of a mad computer. And there she is, sitting at the end of the game doing nothing much but marking which Test Chamber has just been activated. Considering she’s such a vast part of what made the video game so popular in the first place this seems like a token gesture (if you’ll pardon the pun.) And then it occurred to me that the reason I didn’t feel particularly attached to my team, the reason I was prepared to murder them all and do any number of other underhand things to get hold of another slice of cake was because I had become GLaDos. We all had. This is her game. I mean, look at the tiny rooms! See how interchangeable the Test Subjects are! They’re not alive, not really. All that matters is playing the game. All that matters is getting cake.

So I take it all back. This is a spin-off worthy of POrtal. It might not be as mind-blowing as its namesake in terms of game play and dark humour, but it has more layers, more tactics and more longevity than I would have believed on the first couple of run-throughs. The price point is at least a tenner more than it should be in my opinion, but how’s about this for bonus content? It comes with a digital download of the brilliant Portal 2 video game on Steam (currently valued at about £14) to use yourself or gift to a friend. The latter is more likely, given you probably already own it. Am I right? Well, I guess it’s too late by now to get a copy for Christmas, but you’ve probably got some gift vouchers or cash burning a hole in your pocket. You could do a lot worse than spending some at Aperture Science.

Take it away GLaDos…

GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak

GS Rating: 3.5/5

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