Board game adaptations of videogames can be a hit and miss affair. Translating the frantic dynamism of a digital game into appropriate yet interesting analogue mechanics is difficult, and often the theme can get lost in translation. As a fan of Portal, therefore, I was slightly nervous when I found out it was being turned into a board game, and even more so when I found out Cryptozoic were the publisher, as the ratio of hits to misses in their back catalogue isn’t great. Also worrying is the strange absence of a designer’s name on the box (although credits at the back of the rule book note Matt Hyra as the lead). Fortunately Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game was a pleasant surprise.
Videogame to board game adaptations often tend to fall into two traps: either making it a very literally, and somewhat dry, recreation of what you do in the game, like Gears of War realised as a miniatures combat game; or a quick and easy reskin of a popular game mechanic, like the Resident Evil deck building game. Portal manages to avoid both traps by coming up with a rather unique mechanic that captures some of the charm of its source, whilst still being appropriately strategic. The board is laid out as a series of interlocking test chambers on three rows. In these rooms players will have any number of test subjects (lovely little plastic figures that mimic the instructional aesthetic of the game much better than the traditional board game meeple) and each turn a player activates a room at the right hand end of the board. The person with the most subjects in that room gets a bonus (usually more test subjects or cake) but then everyone dies and the room is flipped to a fresh side and placed on the left hand side of the tableau; and so your hapless test subjects are shunted ruthlessly towards the oblivion of the incinerator on a conveyor belt of destruction.
As the subtitle suggests the object of the game is to have the most cake slices (in the form of very cool moulded plastic tokens) of your colour on the board when all of a single player’s test subjects are killed. So if you’ve gotten a lead you can set about on a murderous rampage, or attempt to suicide your own subjects. It’s a neat concept, but what makes it truly brilliant is the fact that any subject moving from a room may carry a slice of cake, allowing you to attempt to scramble your cake to safety against the treadmill of the board, or carry your opponent’s cake over the edge into the incinerator, whilst cackling manically. Another clever twist are the double sided cards. When played these cards each allow a series of actions (like move the turret, which murders everyone on the tile it lands on), but when discarded each one also has an effect on the back that applies to all the player’s until it’s replaced, each accompanied by the image of a character from the game from Chell and Wheatley, to the good old frankenturret. It’s a clever use of cards that I can only recall being used in a similar way in the brilliant Archipelago.
Even though the actual Portals seem a bit of an afterthought – you can use your portal gun to move them around and make two rooms temporarily adjacent, although we found ourselves not using them very often – it only takes a glance at the hilarious image on the back of the box to know that the designers nailed the tone and aesthetic of the game. Making it clever and fun to play too is the cherry on the cake. Glados would be proud.
Designer: Matt Hyra (lead)
Publisher: Cryptozoic Entertainment
Play time: 60 minutes
Number of Players: 2-4 (best with 4)