Published by: PEGASUS SPIELE & EGGERTSPIELE (also by Gigamic and Stronghold Games)
Designed by: Wolfgang Kramer & Michael Kiesling
For 12 years old and upwards Porta Nigra plays to completion with 2-4 players over 90+ minutes - the box says 60-90 minutes but our experiences have shown that because of the player's options during their turns it is nearer to 90-120 minutes but don't be put off if you don't like 2 hour games because the time flies past due to it being such an excellent game.
From the beginning I had two surprises about PORTA NIGRA; one being that I had actually visited TRIER, where this magnificent building is, some years ago on vacation but had been mesmerised more by the fabulous Dom Cathedral of St. Peter, which is awesome to behold. I remember thinking that the great black archway was impressive but it was overshadowed by the Dom. I also now think back to that day and remember explicitly wanting to think that it would be a great opportunity to create a board game featuring the archway. But of course I never thought that - it is only wishful thinking now. The main surprise I had was that there was not a GAME of the YEAR award plastered all over the box lid.
PORTA NIGRA comes with a host of components plus two full colour rules booklets, one in the German language and, thankfully, one in English. I would imagine the Gigamic version would include French rules and the Stronghold version only in American. The components are wood (markers and Roman meeples) and cardboard (everything else). The colours for the players IDs are Red, Black, Yellow and Blue and each player is given a small collecting board, a set of cards and a Master Builder movement piece (looks like a knight on horseback) each in their own colour. The building bricks, similar to those seen in many European tower-building games, are all grey. When a tower is built the player puts one of their colour ID Roman meeples on top of it to show ownership; this works exceptionally well and is easy for computing scoring in the intermediate and end run.
The board is square with a circular view of the city. It is split into four quarters using its natural bends and folds to determine each region. Centrally located above the quarters are illustrations of famous Roman buildings; the Amphitheatre, the Basilica, the City Wall and of course the Porta Nigra itself. These are not merely decoration as they appear on the building cards and are well invested in the final scoring of the game - you are expected to collect sets. Every card is a "set" worth 2 points, two dissimilar cards together are valued at 6 points, 3 dissimilar cards are valued at 12 VPs and finally a set of 4 different building cards gives 20 points, all at the game end. Cards are collected by building in the area shown on them when such a building card is available on the 6 card display, so timing your building is essential if you are wanting to maximise your scoring.
Players are allowed to build according to the card they play for the turn. Every player has the same set of cards, though of course marked in their own colour, but as each of these decks is shuffled and then a hand of two cards, per player, is dealt from them, the likelihood of all players having the same options exactly every turn run into the astronomical; 7 or 8 to the power of 4 as there are 7 cards per player in a 4 player game and 8 in a 2 or 3 player game (one cards is specifically marked to be removed there is a full compliment of players in the game). Each of these "action cards" has either 2 or 3 torches on the bottom row, these denote how many actions the player of the card has when the card is played. The actions available are shown in the main section of the card, above the torches. These may be collecting money from the bank, gaining a scroll or a torch, building or gathering building blocks. There are also supplemental actions that are allowed buy using a torch counter (which allows the player an extra action from the card played) or a scroll (or scrolls) which allow players to buy Honour cards.
One of the truly great things, in my opinion, is that, for example, if on your turn you have a card that gives you three actions plus you own a scroll and a torch counter. You may use the torch counter (or an action) to collect a second scroll, then spend that scroll with your other one to buy an honour card. Then you can immediately use that Honour card plus take your other actions using the torches at the base of the card - when you use an action you place a marker on it. You can also move your Master Builder around the board, 1 sesterces every time you cross a border, act on the quarter stopped on, move again, do another action etc. etc. all on the same turn. You can also spend torch and scroll counters to gain cash should you need it for movement or building block buying.
Building blocks are always the same cost: White 5, Yellow 4, Red 3, Blue 2 and Black 1. Blocks are available from two places; the centre of the board and the main supply. You can gain them from the main supply via the Honour cards or you can buy them from the central reservation, but apart from White which is available from any quarter, you may only purchase blocks from the shops in the quarter marked with the colour you require. There is a minor confusion in that each region/quarter is coloured one of these colours Yellow, Red, Blue and Black which are also the same colour as the player pieces. It isn't really a problem but it has been brought up on two separate occasions by different player groups so it is worth a mention.
The player's action cards, as already explained, show the actions available. These may include buying one or two building blocks from the "shops". These may show Grey shops, which means you can buy a block from any colour shop as long as your Master Builder is in the correctly coloured quarter, or they may be one of the 4 coloured shops which allows you to only buy that specific colour block from the specified quarter. The coloured shops also allow you to buy a block of any colour if the specific colour shop is empty of blocks and the Master Builder is in the quarter of the colour required.
Before I confuse you I should explain about the building blocks; they are all coloured Grey, but I have referred to them by an identifying colour. If you buy a block from, let's say the Red quarter, then that block (or blocks) are considered to be Red blocks and can only be built in the Red building lots in the quarter where you intend to build. You score VPs according to where you build, plus for every multiple of three blocks you build (accumatively) in a quarter there is a bonus applied; shown on the board for each quarter. White blocks are the most expensive and bring the higher rewards when built in the few places where there are specific White Building Lots; so to make White blocks more useful they are also "jokers" and can be used as any colour. Whenever you want to build a tower you must have a Roman available to place atop of it otherwise you cannot build it. You only begin with five Romans plus a supply from which you can gain extra pieces. The bonuses from building in certain quarters give an extra Roman, plus they are also available from Honour cards.
This really is as near to the perfect game as I have played. We all love and enjoy games where you are left hanging and frustrated because of your decisions on what actions to take, but some of those games are often illogically frustrating. You know what I mean, you play a card and gain some money, for example, but because you gained that money this turn you cannot spend it until the next turn, that sort of thing. PORTA NIGRA allows you to do whatever you have the availability to do, and that's what makes it different from so many other games.
When you buy blocks you can immediately use them to build or you can save them on your player board which has five arches in it, one for each colour block. I have already mentioned that you can buy building blocks from the central supply shops, but only if they are available - the shops can, and regularly do, sell out. To supply the shops in the beginning and then to resupply throughout the game there are 10 supply cards which determine which shops are supplied. To setup the game you turn over these cards from a face down stack and add blocks to the shops according to the colours marked on the card. When you have 14 or greater blocks in the centre the game is ready. At the start of every player's turn you check three area of the baord before they begin. You ensure there are six Building cards on the display, you check that there are 14 Honour cards on their side of the board and you check that there are more than 6 (at least 7) building blocks in the central shops. If there are at least 7 blocks the player takes their turn, if there are less than 7 blocks you turn over more cards and add blocks until there are at least 14 blocks available.
This gives players a chance to maybe upset the plans of the other players by leaving just enough blocks to prevent a restock until you are ready for it, but remember the other players can use money to move round the board and use coloured shops on their action cards as Grey shops if they can get to the necessary area. So although you might be able to stifle them a little you may not always manage to screw up every play they have available, or you may open other doors for them by forcing actions they may not have thought of.
I have never played a game before that gives the players so much freedom and so many options on every turn, even the latest "great" games like "Caverna" and "Agricola" don't offer as many options. Perhaps Friedemann Friese's "Copycat" gets closest, but good (or "great") as that is, and we really do enjoy playing it, Porta Nigra tops even that.
Do I have anything negative to say about Porta Nigra? Well yes there is one thing I would have preferred to have in the game. It is as near perfect a 4 player game as you could likely imagine, and I believe it could sustain that playability and enjoyability by including the cards, tokens and pieces to include one if not two more players.