It‘s been one of the longer running quirks of eurogames that they tend to often be named after towns, cities or regions. The usefulness of this naming scheme should be obvious. Naming a collection of disparate game mechanics after a place is as evocative as it is non-descript. It‘s not just a tile-laying game with an area scoring mechanism, it‘s Carcassonne! It‘s not just set-collection game with goofy art, it‘s St. Petersburg!
Porto is not the game to break with this habit. While the art on the board is practically bursting with drawings of Porto‘s landmarks and references to its culture and history, the card game that takes place on top of it, doesn‘t really evoke the city. To be fair, there are very few games that are actually about what it says on the box.
Porto is a card-driven game about constructing buildings at the promenade in, well, Porto. The game‘s pitch is as straight-forward as it is punchy. On your turn you either take up to three cards into your hand, or you construct buildings by playing two cards from your hand and score points. The game enters its final round when a certain number of buildings has been fully constructed. It‘s quick, easy and you kind of know what you‘re getting yourself into.
The game‘s pacing is connected to player decisions, which benefits tremendously from having a narrow set of options. You either move the game forward slowly or rapidly. Because Porto is a delightfully interactive game. Not in the old school kind of way where dice, event cards and take-that mechanisms let you tear down the carefully laid plans of your opponents. It is interactive in a way that only few eurogames still manage to pull off these days. Every player decision opens up new opportunities to score, keeping the game state in a suspenseful state of flux.
And there are many ways to score in Porto. From buildings, to personal objectives, to public contracts to scoring tokens spread out on the board. It may seem like point-salad overkill at first, but instead of smothering any nuance and turning the game into an open buffet of VP, it creates an inviting web of incentives for you to go after.
Designer Orlando Sá has created a neat system of interlocking goals, which give the game a steady pace towards its conclusion and keep your attention throughout. This is not an easy needle to thread. While a lot of gamers like having too many appealing options and not enough actions to do all of them, it’s not the most pleasant experience as such. For one thing this scarceness opens up the game to mental back and forths as you try to settle on an action, or as it’s more commonly known: analysis paralysis. At best you end up with indecision fatigue, when you tire of having to choose between mutually exclusive incentives and just “play it by ear”. Unfortunately this often means you disengage from the enjoyable puzzle of playing a eurogame. It‘s a trap that a great many high interaction games fall into. Once player decisions become too dependent on one another, and the network of interactions too dense to quickly figure out during your turn, the core of the game shifts. What promises to be an intricate puzzle becomes white noise. Instead you‘re looking at an open-ended series of experiments that you run through, trying to figure out a workable play script to execute in future games. The more opaque the connection between action and reaction, the longer you will have to experiment.
Luckily, Porto wants you to have fun in this game, not the next. To that end it presents you with merely two options to choose from, which neatly connect to one another. You can build to score points, but doing so will increase the amount of potential VP for players following you this round. On the other hand, to capitalize on every opportunity that presents itself to you, you first need to have the cards for it. Playing Porto is fundamentally about timing. When do you switch from filling your hand to raking in victory points? Should you go for the long build-up before repeatedly scoring points during the last phases of the game? Or maybe go for short, quick bursts and hope the sheer number of them will bring you victory? Before long you find yourself playing a strange game of chicken with the other players. Who will break first and grab the victory points on the table, but inadvertently give their opponent a leg up?
This in itself is not an unusual group dynamic to evolve in a eurogame. What‘s impressive is how few rules it takes to make it happen. Porto’s simplicity and ease of play mask an impressively robust design. Your attention will soon be drawn to other players, as opposed to reading the board and calculating the next action. Every decision any of you make will matter and enrich the puzzle of figuring out when to pull the trigger and score points.
That said the art, while charming and often humorous, is a little busy. The board while perfectly functional may be a little too big, unfairly raising expectations as to how involved play will actually be. Porto not only plays quickly, but is usually understood within the first game. But don‘t let that lead you to overlook the smoothly purring maths running underneath. The rules don’t hit you like a brick to the face, because Porto is a clean design. It will not revolutionize the hobby, but it is a very good example of what modern board games can do, when they don’t rely on gimmicks.