(2015 – Stronghold Games, Pegasus Spiele)
Stronghold Games has continued over the years to release their games in distinct “lines”. Their Castle Line (large box games) includes games such as Survive, Space Cadets, and Dark Moon. Their Chrome Line (medium box games) includes Core Worlds and Code 777, while their new Pocket Line (small games) includes Diamonds, the upcoming Bear Valley (designed by Innovation/Glory to Rome creator, Carl Chudyk), and Stellar Conflict. There are other minor lines within Stronghold’s releases, but the one I wanted to focus on today was the first game from their new “Great Designer Series” line, entitled Porta Nigra.
Designed by esteemed visionaries Wolfgang Kramer (El Grande, Colosseum, the Mask trilogy) and Michael Kiesling (Vikings, Palaces of Carrara, the Mask trilogy), along with the always stunning artwork of Michael Menzel (Stone Age, Vikings, Legends of Andor, Bruges, Pillars of the Earth), Porta Nigra (or “black gate”) takes its name from the massive ancient Roman city gate, located in Trier, Germany. The location of Emperor Caesar Augustus’ residence during his reign included the Porta Nigra along with other wondrous structures. In the game, players will take the role of a Master Builder, attempting to plan and build four of these famous structures, including the Porta Nigra, for the Emperor. Each structure is located in a different corner of the game board, and includes building spaces which individually require a number of certain types of bricks.
Players will use action cards from their hand and maneuver their Master Builder from structure to structure in order to buy these various bricks, build sections of the structures themselves, earn influence that will allow them to take special actions, as well as earn money to purchase more brick material. Bricks of a structure are made up of 3D plastic components that stack on each other to present a visually representation of the four different structures. Each structure is unique in how they are built and how they will score points at the end of the game. Players will also earn Victory Points by completing sections of the structures themselves, along with collecting sets of building cards obtained when building these parts of the structures. The player with the most points at the end of the game has earned the Emperor’s favor and considered the Master Builder of Trier.
– Porta Nigra game board
– Player boards
– 3-D Brick tokens
– Supply tiles
– Building cards
– Action cards (a set in each player color)
– Honor cards
– Master Builder markers (one in each player color)
– Roman markers (a set in each player color)
– Player markers (a set in each player color)
– Influence tokens
– Torch tokens
– +100 & +200 Victory Point tokens
– Round marker
– Gold coins
The main game board is set in the central play area. The game board is sectioned into four quarters (top-left, top-right, bottom-right, and bottom-left) with each quarter representing a different building spot; the Basilica in the top-left, the City Wall in the top-right, the Amphitheatre in the bottom-left, and the Porta Nigra in the bottom-right. Each quarter contains rows of building spaces in which player will be working with to construct these major buildings throughout the game. At the beginning of a player’s Action Phase during the 1st Round of the game, the player will place his Master Builder in one of the four Quarters. The center of the board is considered the Brick Market and includes five different colored Shops where Bricks can be obtained from. Four of these Brick Shops correspond to the quarter they are connected to, with the central White Shop connected to all four quarters.
At the beginning of the game, players will shuffle the Supply tiles together and place them in a draw pile next to the main game board. These are drawn at the beginning of a Round when the market needs to be refilled with bricks for players to purchase. The various shops are color-coordinated on the game board, and the Supply tile will list which shop is to receive new bricks at the beginning of the Round.
Building cards can be collected by a player when the brick icon and building icon on the card match the building spot they control. Collecting sets of building cards will reward players bonus Victory Points at the end of the game. At the beginning of the game, these cards are shuffled together to create a draw deck, and the top 6 cards are drawn and placed face-up above the main game board.
Honor cards can be purchased with Influence tokens during the game to provide players with various items such as torches (which provides players additional actions on their turn), new Roman workers (needed to build), Bricks, and money, as well as Building cards and end-game bonuses. At the beginning of the game, players will shuffle the Honor cards into a draw deck, and draw the top 14 cards, placing them face-up below the game board.
Each player receives a player board in their color, along with the corresponding Master Builder, Romans (only 5 to being with), player markers, and Action card deck of that color. Each player also receives 20 Gold coins and a Torch token. One of the player markers will represent the player’s advancement on the Victory Point track, therefore at the beginning of the game, this marker is placed on the “0” space of the track that runs around the outside of the main game board. Players will shuffle their Action deck of cards together, drawing two cards from the top of the deck to begin the game with in their hand.
Next, the Round marker is placed on the 1st space of the Round track. In a 2-player game, players a session of Porta Nigra will consist of 3 Rounds, while in a 3-4 player game, it will consist of only 2 Rounds.
Finally all remaining components including the various Bricks, Gold coins, extra Romans, Torch tokens, and +100/+200 Victory Point tokens are placed in separate areas near the main game board. After setup is complete, the play area should look something like this:
Each Round will consist of players performing the actions listed on their played Action cards until all Action cards in the players hands have been resolved. Each player will be allowed to play 1 Action card on their turn, resolving all the actions listed on the card before it is then the next player’s turn. Each turn will consist of two phases; the Refill Phase, and the aforementioned Action Phase.
The Refresh Phase:
The Refresh Phase simply works as a step for refilling Bricks, Building cards, and Honor cards in between player turns. As the first step of a player’s turn, he will resolve his Refresh Phase. To do so, he will first check the number of Brick tokens in the middle of the game board. If there are less than 7 total, he will draw a Supply tile to add Bricks to the colored Shops at the Brick Market on the game board according what is listed on the Supply card. This step is continued until there are at least 14 Bricks in the Brick Market.
Each Supply card references the number of Bricks needed to be placed out, and the colored Shop they need to be placed on. Bricks are stacked on top of other Bricks already present in a particular Shop. While the plastic Brick components themselves are all gray, the immediately adopt the color matching the space where they’ve been placed. So for instance, taking a look at the picture above, we can see that the 1st Supply card drawn at the beginning of the game asked for +1 black, +1 white, and +1 yellow. The next Supply card asks for +1 black, +1 white, +1 blue, and +1 red. As you can see below, there are now 2 bricks in the black Shop, 2 in the white Shop, and 1 brick in each of the other colored Shops. The current player will continue to draw Supply cards until there are at least 14 Bricks available.
Next, the player will check both the Building card supply, as well as the Honor card supply. There should always be 6 Building cards and 14 Honor cards available to the player before he begins playing Action cards. Therefore, before he begins his Action Phase, the player will draw cards from the Building and Honor card draw decks and place them face up in their respective supply areas until there are a total of 6 Building cards and 14 Honor cards.
The Action Phase:
After the player has refilled the Brick Market and both card supply areas, he will now play an Action card from his hand and perform a number of actions on the card, depending on the number of “torch” icons on the bottom of the card. Each Action card will show a number of actions on the top portion of the card that the player can choose from, and a number of torches at the bottom of the card to show how many actions he can take. For instance, the Red player uses the Action card seen above, which contains three possible actions he can perform with it. But because the card only contains two Torch icons, the Red player can only choose to resolve two of these actions.
Each action on the card can only be carried out once, therefore when completing an action, the player will place one of this player markers over that particular action to show that it has been resolved and he can not choose to take it again. Players will also have a chance to collect Torch tokens throughout the game, and these can be spent to perform additional actions if needed. After completing his actions on the card, the player will discard the Action card and draw a new Action card from his personal draw deck. Each player starts with draw decks of the same set of 8 Action cards. Therefore the order in which they’ll decide to play Action cards from their hand is significantly important. Once an Action card has been resolved and discarded, the player will not see that card again until the following Round.
Players will also collect Influence during the game. In addition to Action cards, players can choose to spend Influence tokens on their turn (at any time during their Action Phase) in order to complete an Influence action. Let’s take a look at a couple of Action cards, and go through the different types of Actions available to players. Then we’ll take a look at the various Influence actions:
1.) Buy a Brick
Players can take an action by buying the colored Brick listed on the card. If the card shows a gray Brick with a “?”, the player can choose the color. The player can only buy a Brick of a particular color if his Master Builder is also in the Quarter that matches that color. Therefore, the player may need to move his Master Builder before buying the Brick. The white Bricks however are considered universal to all Quarters, and therefore can be bought no matter which one the Master Builder currently occupies.
Master builders will always move in a clockwise fashion around the board, one Quarter at a time. Each time he crosses into a new Quarter, the player will need to pay 1 Gold coin to the supply. Apparently the Master Builder stops for a snack every 15 minutes. So for instance, if the Blue player had chosen to play the above Action card that allowed him to buy a blue Brick, but his Master Builder was in the Basilica (black) quarter. He would need to move clockwise one Quarter to reach the City Wall (blue) quarter. Once there, he could then purchase the blue Brick from the Brick Market.
A purchased Brick is placed within the player’s personal board, according to its color. Taking a look at the player board, you’ll notice that a Brick costs a certain amount of Gold, depending on its color (black Bricks being the cheapest and white Bricks being the most expensive).
Using the previous example above, with the Blue Player needing to have his Master Builder in the City Wall quarter (blue Brick shop), we can see that when he decides to take the “Buy Brick” action, he would need to pay 2 Gold to buy a blue Brick. This is in addition to the 1 Gold he needed to pay to move from the Basilica to the City Wall. He would then remove a blue Brick from the Brick Market and place it in the supply space of his player board designated for blue Bricks. However, its important to note that if a player takes a “Buy Brick” action but the Brick Market does not currently contain the color shown on his Action card, the player can choose to buy any available color as long as his Master Builder is in the matching Quarter.
2.) Place a Brick Stack
Each Quarter on the board contains rows of various of buildings spaces. When decided to take this action, the player can remove a stack of Bricks from his personal supply and place them on a corresponding, empty building space. Once placed, he must also set one of his Roman meeples on top of the stack to show that he owns it. Therefore if the player no longer has any Romans, he can not perform this action. As with buying Bricks, the player’s Master Builder must be in the Quarter in order to build there.
Each building space contains a picture of the number of Bricks and required Brick color for that space. When placing Bricks on a particular space, all Bricks must match the color shown, however players can use their white Bricks as wilds (they can be used as any color). Each quarter is unique in what players will need to build there. For instance, taking a look at the Amphitheatre quarter above, the row of building spaces at the lower end of the Amphitheatre only require 1 Brick each, while the 2nd Row calls for 2 each, and the 3rd row calls for 3 each. What do you know, it looks like we’re building an Amphitheatre!
Once the player has placed a building stack on a building space, he will check that space to see how many Victory Points are scored. Using the same example above, we can see that when a player places a single black Brick on the shown space of the City Wall (far left, row C), he would immediately score 1 Victory Point. However, if he instead placed a stack of two black Bricks on the space above in row B, he would instead score 3 Victory Points. A yellow Bricks are much more durable and elegant than the cheap black Bricks, placing a single yellow Brick in row C would gain a player more Victory Points (4) than placing 2 black bricks in row B (3 points). So while the quality of Brick will cost a player when purchasing them, they will also score the player more Victory Points when placed.
The Building cards in the face-up supply can reward the player additional points when placing a building stack. Each building card references a colored Brick and a picture of one of the four Quarter buildings. If an available card matches the color stack that the player just placed, and the Quarter building he placed it in, he will take the card and place it in his play area. These are used for end-game scoring, and are scored in the following ways by sets (a complete set is a building card of each Quarter):
– One building card of a set is worth 2 Victory Points
– Two different building cards of a set is worth 6 Victory Points
– Three different building cards of a set is worth 12 Victory Points
Each of the buildings will also provide a Master Builder reward for every 3 Bricks that player places on the combined spaces of the building. The building in each Quarter provides a different Master Builder reward, and the player collects the reward as soon as he places his 3rd, 6th, 9th, 12th, etc Brick in the Quarter.
– In the Basilica quarter, a player is rewarded a Torch token and a new Roman as the Master Builder reward.
– In the City Wall quarter, a player is rewarded with a Brick from the supply (not from the main game board) as the Master Builder reward and will place it within his player board as a white Brick.
– In the Porta Nigra quarter, a player is rewarded with an Influence token and two new Romans as the Master Builder reward.
– In the Amphitheatre quarter, a player is rewarded with five Gold coins and a new Roman as the Master Builder reward.
3.) Gain Influence
When a player decides to take this action on his Action card, he will receive an Influence token from the supply. As mentioned before, Influence tokens are used to pay for Influence actions. At any time during a player’s turn, he can pay to resolve the following Influence actions:
I. Buy an Honor Card – Each Honor card costs between 1-3 Influence tokens. Once purchased from the face-up Honor card area, this card will resolve immediately.
Taking a look at the three Honor cards above, we can see that the Honor card on the left cost 1 Influence and immediately rewards the player a new Roman and a Torch token. The Honor card in the middle cost 2 Influence and requires the player to discard a complete set of Building cards. This will gain the player 30 Victory Points at the end of the game. If you’ll remember, the completed set would normally only score the player 20 Victory Points. Finally, the Honor card on the right cost 2 Influence and acts as substitute Building card for the player to use when completing sets.
II. Add a Roman – The player can pay 2 Influence to add a new Roman to his play area.
III. Place a Building Stack – The player can pay 2 Influence to place a building stack in a Quarter’s building space.
4.) Gain a Torch:
The player can take this action on his Action card to gain a Torch token. As mentioned before, this will allow him to perform additional actions on future Action cards than the normal Torches listed on those cards.
5.) Gain Gold
Money can be very important in the game when needing to move the Master Builder and pay for Bricks. Though there are multiple ways to earn money, players may take the listed action on their Action card that will gain them a number of coins equal to those represented on the Action card icon. It’s important to note that players can also forfeit Torches on the Action card and/or earned Torch tokens in order to gain 1 coin. This would obviously be a last resort, as you are basically turning in an Action for 1 coin, but may be in the best interest of the player in case he needs to move his Master Builder and doesn’t have enough money to do so.
After all players have resolved all of their Action cards, the Round ends. At this point players have an important decision to make. They will first total the number of their owned Bricks on the board in all building quarters combined (all Bricks under their placed Romans). They will then double this total amount and in turn order will collect a number of Gold coins and Victory Points that total this number.
For instance, at the end of the 1st Round, the yellow Player counts all of his placed Bricks on the board for a total of 8. Doubling this amount would give him 16. He then has 16 “spending” points and decides to gain 6 Victory Points and 10 Gold coins.
At the end of a Round, the player with the lowest amount of Victory Points appoints the new Start player, the Round marker is moved to the next Round space on the main game board, each player reshuffles their Action card deck and draws 2 cards, then a new Round begins.
The game can immediately end at any time when both the Brick market and Brick supply are completely empty, or if a player has placed his 15th building stack (each player has a limit of 15 Romans per color). If the game ends prematurely because of one of these two events, the player whose turn it was when the event occurred scores 5 Victory Points. All other player are then allowed to complete one more turn. Otherwise, the game will end at the completion of the 2nd Round (in a 3-4 player game). Player’s will then total their Victory Points in the following ways:
– Total Victory Points from end-game Honor card bonuses
– Players will score a Victory Point for each unused Roman, Torch token, Influence token, and Brick still in their play area
– Players will score a Victory Point for every 3 Gold coins still in their play area.
Each of the four buildings also award Victory Points based on certain majorities amongst the building spaces there. For instance, the Porta Nigra contains building spaces that each score individually based on the height level. When building the Porta Nigra, a player is required to at least place 3 Bricks on an available space, but can place up to a maximum of 8. The player with the most level 3 stacks here will score 12 Victory Points, with the 2nd most player scoring 6 Victory Points. The player with the most level 4 building stacks will score 15 Victory Points, the 2nd most scores 7. This continues to increase all the way to the maximum level 8 stacks. The player with the most of these scores a whopping 37 Victory Points, with the 2nd most scoring 18.
Each building scores majority in different and unique ways. Scoring the Basilica is a bit more simpler. Rows A and B are scored separately, with the player with the most Bricks in each row scoring 12 Victory Points, and the player with the 2nd most scoring 6 Victory Points.
Before I get into any discussion about the gameplay or applicable mechanics, let’s start with the look of Porta Nigra. Visually, this game is absolutely stunning. From the board layout by Michael Menzel, to the stacking three-dimensional plastic bricks, the game emits the pleasurable experience of watching the four unique structures come together as the game moves along. From the towering Porta Nigra itself to the outer City Wall, Basillica, and Amphitheatre, each structure stands on its own and helps invoke the theme of players roles as master builders for the Caesar.
As with many of the games designed by Kramer and Kiesling, Porta Nigra is a light-weight Euro with streamlined, intuitive mechanics. Because of the stack of Bricks in the center of the game board, the attached colored shops for each Brick, and the building spaces containing the printed Brick quantity/color combination on them, it’s quite easy to players to learn where they’ll buy Bricks from and where they’ll need to place them. The strategy then becomes, how efficiently can you build compared to the other players? Because a player’s master builder must be in a quarter location to not only buy a particular color of brick, but also place brick stacks in a building space, player’s will need plan their actions in advance.
The fact that each player plays with the same exact deck of Action cards removes some of the randomness that can usually be found in drawing action cards in hand. Players also have an interesting choice in that they can’t perform every action on a card (unless playing collected Torch tokens), and must choose which actions to take and which ones to pass on. Passing on an action can be risky since once that action card is used, it won’t come back into the player’s hand until the following Round. And a 3-4 player game only consists of two Rounds in total.
Porta Nigra is a smooth, streamlined Euro and one that meshes together action selection, set collection, area control, and city building in a neat way. The game probably would have been enjoyable anyways, but the brick components themselves go a long way in helping to carry the theme and separates Porta Nigra from many other city building-type games. Having a board game line dedicated to new games from acclaimed and distinguished designers in our industry is a wonderful idea, and if Porta Nigra is any indication, I’m looking forward to what’s next to come in Stronghold’s Great Designer Series.