Port Royal is a gem of a filler game. At its heart, this is a push your luck game where you decide how many ships or people you will allow into your harbour by drawing one card at a time and placing it face up in the play area. However, should two ships of the same colour (nationality?) enter your harbour, every card you have in your harbour is wiped to the discard pile and your turn ends with nothing to show for it.
This may sound like standard push your luck, but Port Royal distinguishes itself by also lightly implementing other mechanics; you can buy people who act as resources for large victory point payouts later in the game, or give you extra abilities each turn such as the ability to repel ships, choose an extra card or gain money, all of which build your engine in your bid to become the greatest harbour master at the table.
Players also open their harbours to auction at the end of their turn. Each player around the table has the opportunity to buy a card for its cost and pay 1 extra coin to whoever owns the harbour for the privilege. Whilst not truly an auction, this mechanic is a great addition as you often find yourself longingly eyeing the perfect card in someone elses harbour, you just have to pray it doesn’t get taken before the auction reaches you!
These mechanics both work well but the true magic of this game is very much in its push your luck. Almost constantly, this game will present you with an agonising decision of risking your entire turn on one more, potentially valuable card, or settling for a ship worth a measly 1 coin.
It might seem that this makes the game purely random with the winner basically whoever drew the most valuable cards without striking out. However, there is actually a fair amount of strategy. This is where the mechanics I mentioned above come in, do you go down an engine building route, making sure each of your turns is generating you money and the ability to repel ships (and avoid striking out) or do you stock up on resources for expeditions which grant you large amounts of victory points. Or perhaps some combination of the two, or just take the best card available and let the cards dictate your path. This little deck of cards offers so many paths to victory.
Remember though, this is designed as a filler game. There is no real brain burning strategic decisions or long-drawn out play-throughs. The whole game plays until someone receives 12 victory points which usually takes ~20-30 minutes and adding extra players rarely increases play time by much. This already short time flies by as there is little downtime and you are involved every turn during the buying phase. This almost invariably gives rise to calls of “Let’s play again!” after each play. Port Royal gives you so many moments of glorious success and crushing failures that the time disappears in an instant.
That’s the clincher for me, for such a small package of cards, this game really packs a punch. It’s fast paced, engaging, exciting and straight forward. For my money, there are few fillers which are this good.
9/10 Gold Doubloons