Port Royal is one of my favourite games. It is such a simple and joyous experience of push-your-luck distilled into its purest form. 120 cards in a small box and some rules. That’s all you get. But I would say that Port Royal is as close to a “must-have” as any game can get. I love it. It's fast and a lot of fun. Simple to learn, teach and play. And it delivers some genuine moments of tension, suspense, and jubilation, just as any push-your-luck should.
He’s got a Pfister
Designed by modern-day design legend Alexander Pfister, Port Royal sits firmly within the canon of hits from the Pfister locker. Blackout Hong Kong, Great Western Trail and Isle of Skye are all considered very good games by most. And the list from Pfister goes on. There are no duds, but mostly they are medium-sized expansive games. But he does makes small box card games too such as Port Royal. And they are equally absorbing.
Since its release in 2014, there have been three main expansions made for this. One offering a campaign-style experience, some with just extra cards, and this one we are looking at here, which brings in more cards, a cooperative and solo option and the main event, contract cards.
Time to staff up!
Port Royal Just One More Contract offers the chance for players to compete for contracts. Added smoothly into the base game, both thematically and mechanically, the contracts add a new dimension to the game.
It’s an interesting expansion. Often, I judge expansions like this with a simple rule. Would I ever play the game without it now? And with Port Royal Just One More Contract I would. I regularly do play Port Royal without it. It is such a simple and fast game, sometimes that is all I want. But crucially with Port Royal Just One More Contract I feel this game needs to be judged not on its essential status, but more how it changes the game. If an expansion is not considered a must-have every time you play, I believe it needs to change the game to make it feel different enough to warrant a place on my shelf.
Port Royal Just One More Contract does this. The core game stays as is. Draw cards until your luck or courage runs out! But now, added into the mix of looking for different coloured ships to draw extra cards, or high-value ships to get more money, you are looking for certain cards to come up, so you can fulfil specific contracts. This subtle change is enough for me to make this work.
On your marks!
At the start of the game, you will randomly shuffle in four contract cards. Each Contract card will show an image of different characters, symbols, or certain cards. The first person to fulfil the requirements of each contract can place one of their coloured cubes onto the contract card to receive the reward. The earlier rewards are bigger so this is now a race as well as a push-your-luck game.
For your first completed contract in the game, your reward will be in the form of coins from the bank. For your second completed contract, you will get 1 victory point. And if you manage a third, you get a second victory point. You can never complete more than three contracts. So as much as this is a race to get in their first, one player cannot dominate all four available contracts.
This makes the game a little more engaging but can be a distraction for some. I do enjoy the purity of the base game. But sometimes it is nice to have this added focus and goal. It feels different enough to warrant having this expansion, despite it not being a must use expansion. And it is simple enough to bring in and out of play without adding too much complication of confusion for new players to be interchangeable in this way.
You think you know me?
It is nice how the contracts also push you to perhaps play differently than you usually would. The ‘Gamster’ contract for example can only be completed if you have four ships of different colours in the harbour display. I often go for this anyway to get the extra draws, but some I play with don’t. If you want a push-your-luck game that really encourages you to push your luck beyond your usual nerve levels, this is the contract card for you!
I will often play Port Royal by trying to acquire ‘swords’ as quickly as possible so I can repel enemy ships. But some don’t like this approach. In Port Royal Just One More Contract, one of the contract cards encourages this by asking you to repel one ship of each colour in order to meet its demands. I like this contract myself and find it a fun one to add in as it suits my style anyway.
The idea with these contracts is you bring four in at random each game, so if this came in for a player that doesn’t like to push their luck too far, I can see this added a new frustration. But we often pick one contract each rather than draw randomly, or two per player in a two-player game, so that we can tailor the contracts to our desires. And of course, drawing cards that may match our opponent's aversions!
But wait, there is more!
Included within this expansion, you will also find new ship cards which bring you three money like before, but now another player of your choice gets one extra money too. A nice little extra choice to make. There is also, three new character cards. Clerks, Gunners and Vice Admirals. All of which offer powers that enhance your trade and hire abilities. The expansion is giving you more money and more hiring skills to suit the Contracts element. They all work well together.
There is also a cooperative variant where player team up to try and complete a certain amount of contracts within a set amount of time. The time is not ‘real-time,’ more a separate card pile that when exhausted, ends the game. There are very simple rules to adapt this from one to five players, and easy ways to make it easier or harder by changing the size of the time pile. There are also score targets in the rules which I always like, showing you how well you have done. This is a very smooth and welcome addition.
Playing a push-your-luck in a cooperative way was a new experience for me. I don’t know many games that employ this. It adds so much tension to the mechanic. When you are not fully in control of the decisions, push-your-luck has a deeper edge to it. And when you are drawing on your turn, knowing the fate of your team depends on your luck, not just your own success, it creates an incredibly rich and rewarding experience. Full of highs and lows!
And here in lies the genius of Port Royal. I love push-your-luck games because of the tension they create. I want my choices to make a difference. I want the highs to be very high and the lows to be very low. But I don’t want the lows to be unrecoverable, or the highs to essentially win me the game. I want the push-your-luck element to be tense and exciting, but not game-changing as a result.
In some other games that utilise push-your-luck, I find the risk/reward is too high. And as such, players often play it safe. It may be that the chance to push your luck doesn’t happen in the game enough, or that the result of pushing too far is too much, or that the reward of pushing your luck isn’t big enough to make it worth the risk. Whatever it may be, it spoils the fun.
But here, in Port Royal, they have the balance just right. You are constantly pushing your luck. Going all the way and getting everything you want is so fun! But it won't guarantee a win. And succumbing to hubris and failing doesn’t end your chances of victory. And your next turn is always just a few card draws away. You will rarely fall too far behind or race too far ahead. The games are generally quite close and tense affairs. But even if there is a run-away leader, and one player just lucks out every turn, well then the games are also very quick and you can just play again. This is why I think Port Royal is a must have. And this expansion only makes these choices more varied, rich and rewarding.