Board Game Review: Porta Nigra – Medium Weight Greatness | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Porta Nigra – Medium Weight Greatness

The Great Designer Series from Stronghold Games has launched with a Kramer/Kiesling title: Porta Nigra. I’m not typically a fan of Kramer/Kiesling fare, but Porta Nigra seemed to have some interesting ideas. After giving it several plays, I can say this is the best offering from the K-Team that I’ve played. And it fits a particular niche for a medium weight accessible game that nevertheless provides a large strategic decision space.

The Basics. Players take on the role of builders masterfully constructing some of the great works of the Roman Empire. To do so, you simply buy and place the right colors of bricks in the right spots. Just like the ancients did.

Although all the brick components are gray, they are placed in one of five markets that give them their color. Black bricks cost 1 to purchase, blue 2, all the way up to the expensive white bricks which cost five. But you can’t just buy them from the stock. Each color (except white) is located in one quarter of the board. To buy those bricks, your master builder must be in the correct quarter. If he isn’t there, you have to pay a sesteri for each quarter you need to move before buying the bricks.

The player board reminds you which gray bricks are which colors

Once acquired, the bricks can then be used to build various Roman buildings. But, again, to build something, you have to be in its quarter of the board. And if you aren’t there, you will again have to pay the necessary sesteri to move your builder to the right location. There are also six building cards on display, each of which depicts one of the four structures and a brick color. If you happen to build that structure with that brick, you get the card. Collecting sets of cards nets end game points.

But you don’t get to just pick whatever action you want. Instead, the players are given a set of eight cards. On each card, a number of actions are depicted such as building, buying bricks, or gaining coins, influence, or torches. And each card tells you how many you can do. So on a card that lets you do three things, there might be five actions depicted. And a card that lets you do two things would have three. Further, players don’t get their entire set of eight. Instead, they shuffle it up and draw two. On their turn, they can play one and take the actions depicted on it.

Points are gained as players place bricks in various spots with more costly bricks generating more points. When players go through all their cards once, there is an intermediate scoring based solely on the number of bricks placed down. Finally, after going through their cards a second time, the game is over and end-game scoring is conducted based on who had the majorities in each of the structures. Most points wins.

A larger board than your average euro

The Feel. Despite the medium weight and easily understood rules, Porta Nigra is surprisingly deep. At first blush, it might seem that having only two cards or the relatively simplistic pick-up-and-deliver nature of the game would produce a mediocre title. Unequivocally, it does not.

Instead, the players are drawn into an experience fraught with tension at every turn. Getting high points for placing more valuable bricks is great – but may hurt you on intermediate scoring where brick quantity is key. Going the other way, though, may hurt your ability to compete for majorities at game end – which is also a substantial source of points.

Add in to that, that the building cards can often incentivize you to divert from your plans. Maybe you weren’t planning to build red bricks on the Basilica. But that building card is up and, if you grab it, might be worth eight end-game points. At the same time, you can’t spend too many turns lollygagging or reacting to particular cards because you only get two rounds.

The structures rise!

And the card action system is, frankly, inspired. I think it would have been easy to simply give each person one action and go around. I build, your turn. I buy a brick, your turn. But such would have lead to stilted and scripted gameplay. Instead, the cards allow you to do multiple things on a turn and sometimes that means grabbing the last brick and building in a coveted location before the next person. Sometimes it means grabbing influence and an honor card for a move that surprises opponents. But nevertheless, the cards themselves only have so many actions on them, and thus also constrain what you are able to do on a turn.

And the honor cards provide a nice escape hatch as well. One of the actions you can accomplish is to take influence. Those influence can then be used to purchase honor cards – 14 of which are available at a time. Those cards can give points, coins, allow building, bestow bricks, or do a number of other effects. They allow a player to jump out and do something that they ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. The whole system provides flexibility and is a critical component in surprising your opponents.

Honor cards provide needed flexibility

Even though there is a lot of strategy to consider, Porta Nigra is still a medium weight game. It isn’t really a brain burner and there aren’t a whole lot of moving parts to monitor. Non-gamers and casual players should be able to learn the rules and compete quickly. The trickiest aspect is planning for the end-game majority scoring and that can trip up first timers. But there’s nothing especially complicated that prevents reasonable people from grasping the game.

Mechanically, there are no negatives to speak of. I’m consistently impressed with how simple the game is in concept, yet the level of depth it provides in practice. If I had to pick a nit, it would be the stacking bricks. While they are awesome looking and provide a nice 3D look to the board, they are all gray. Which means, if someone reaching for a brick accidentally knocks a pile over, it can be difficult if not impossible to reconstruct the board. Still, it’s a very minor concern and the bricks are fairly sturdy. So even a modicum of care should avoid calamity.

Trying to tempt you away from your preconceived plans

Components: 4.5 of 5. Porta Nigra is pretty fantastic in this department. The cards are on good stock and the 3D bricks make the board pop. I also really like the larger board which gives plenty of room to build the structures. It’s a little unfortunate that the bricks, while referred to by different colors in game, are simply gray on the board. But otherwise things are stellar.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. Certainly there is luck in which building and honor cards are revealed and which action cards a player draws. But those are successfully balanced against player choice and strategy. With the action cards, the player gets to draw two, so they always have a choice. With the honor and building cards, they impact everyone and tend to turn over relatively quickly. Porta Nigra hits just the right mix of strategy and luck to provide a satisfying experience.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. I can’t say enough how well designed this title is. Every decision is filled with tension. Your choices are constrained which necessitates strategy, but you can still do enough on a turn that big, impressive plays are possible. Porta Nigra is almost the ideal design for the medium euro crowd.

Replayability: 3.5 of 5. Typically, games with simple rules end up with simple strategy and shallow depth. Shallow games always have deflated replay value. But that isn’t the case here. Porta Nigra is substantial enough to warrant multiple plays. Even after you get a handle of the balance between in-game and end-game scoring, there is a lot to explore. And the randomized nature of the action cards means that the challenge of incorporating them into existing strategy will remain fresh.

Spite: 2 of 5. While there are no “take that” cards, there are certainly spiteful moves. For example, you might buy the last of a color of brick because you know an opponent needs one more to build where they want. Or, since the brick market doesn’t refill until it drops below seven bricks, you might forgo a purchase in order to drop a skimpy market on your opponent.

Can never have enough money

Overall: 4 of 5. Coming in, as it does, as a medium weight euro, Porta Nigra is impressive. The simple rules make it accessible to casual players. The deep strategy provides enjoyment to more seasoned gamers. Nearly any gamer will enjoy this title and it is worth getting in a few plays. Stronghold Games’ Great Designer Series has gotten off to a fabulous start.

There are 2 comments.

  1. Mochan said on October 18, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    My biggest issue with this game is that the strongest strategy is without a doubt going for an 8-7 splay at the Porta Nigra quadrant.

    I don’t think this strategy can be defeated by any other strategy in the game. The best thing to do is to block it by buying up the bricks the hoarding player is buying up, but I don’t think any other strategy even comes close to being as efficient and high scoring as this strategy.

  2. GeekInsight said on October 23, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    I haven’t known that strategy to be overwhelming in my plays. Strong, sure. But there are other strong strategies – especially with garnering end game scoring majorities. But thanks for the heads up. I’ll watch out for it in the future.

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