Designer: Thomas Odenhoven
Artist: Michael Menzel and Christof Tisch
Publisher: Playroom Entertainment
I have been selling my newer games and purchasing older ones. I have even reacquired some older games that I previously let go off. Gaming preferences are not static and choices are dictated by your stage in life. I’m going through a nostalgia phase which may actually become semi-permanent in the foreseeable future given that my child is growing up and we are aiming for simpler games over the weekday evenings. Portobello Market sure fits the description of a simple game, but boy, what a mean and nasty little beast of a game with 2 players. The game came out with…. zero fanfare and I mean zero, from a relatively new and unheard of designer. That Playroom entertainment published the game in the US without any marketing or promotion did not do it any favor (same goes for Ilium from Knizia or Livingstone from Benjamin Schwer of Hadara fame). Luckily, I think the game can still be purchased from the secondary market at a cheap price. It’s worth doing that because I think it’s an excellent at lower player counts.
Portobello Market is a simple design that harkens back to the old school German designs of the 90s’ and early 00s’. It features a few pages of rules, minimal wooden components, a shared common board and a couple of cardboard tokens. From there, players take 5 minutes to learn the rules and another 30 to play the game. Simple and short, but with discernible depth coming mainly from tactical maneuvers to position market stalls.
The board of Portobello Market consists of multiple triangular regions of disproportionate shapes and sizes placed side by side. Each of sides of the triangle are cobble stone roads flanked by 2-5 empty shop lots depending on the length of the sides with some adjacent triangles sharing a single road. At both ends of every road are intersections where customers are located. Each intersection is essentially a convergence of multiple roads.
During the game players will play market stalls onto the empty lots and score points based on the preprinted values on the board. Placement of each stall is an action and depends on where the Bobby is located. The Bobby is placed in a triangular region and only the stalls on the three streets that flank the region will be in play for placement. However, one can move the Bobby around as often or as far as needed for different placements, but at a cost (depending on the majority ownership of stalls on the street the Bobby is crossing) of victory points. Fortunately, moving the Bobby is not an action.
Deciding how many actions are available each turn is an important tactical part of the game. Each turn, players will select one of 3 discs depicting either 2, 3 or 4 actions. All players start with the same set of action discs and once each disc has been used once, they will be unavailable until the entire set is exhausted and subsequently flipped over and rejuvenated.
Not all shop lots will be of equal value and placement must start at one of the two ends of the road and continue uninterrupted. Usually high value shop lots are either at the ends of the road or in the middle depending on length. This usually means it is advantageous to start a new road. However, if the road is not completely filled with market stalls, it does not score. Scoring does not happen automatically and depends on customers that flank both ends of the road. There are 2 types of customers, pink and grey. The pink customers are high value customers while the grey are the cheapskates. If the road is flanked by two grey customers, it has a x1 multiplier while a hybrid grey-pink combination, the multiplier is x2. If both pink customers flank a completed road, the multiplier is x3. There is also a black Baron that comes out at the end of the game and gives even a bigger multiplier effect. It will occupy the final junction and happens end of the game if that is the final customer in play.
Overall, You want to aim for high-value scoring opportunities while preventing the customers from the getting them. However, the game doesn’t start with any customers. As an action, players fish out customers from a draw string bag and place them on any intersection. There is some considerable luck here as one can either draw a pink or grey customer, but these meeples can be placed on any intersection on the board so one is not locked into a specific placement. In fact, placing grey customers in opponents streets is advantageous if only to prevent high scoring moves.
The tactical nature of the game is at full display because the Bobby moves around and one has to decide if it’s worthwhile paying a penalty for movement to get a favorable stall placement. Because the customers are limited, there is a fight to place the valuable pink customers on intersections where a player has heavy presence on the adjacent roads.
Honestly, the game is much harder to describe than it actually plays. So a picture is probably worth a thousand words. In short, players just have to decide where to place market stalls each round, which is guided by where the Bobby is and the placement value or decide to place a customer instead. Again, a run down of the rules do not do the game justice.
Like many other German designs, the strategy in this game is heavily dictated by opponent choice. One has to react to the shifting landscape and make the best of the situation. With a zero sum two player game, defensive play is just as valuable as scoring points. Just moving the Bobby around to areas that are less accessible to your opponent is good strategy. Placing grey customers to block a high scoring play can be devastating. To play well, defensive considerations in Portobello Market is a must. That may turn off some folks because the game is structured to favor aggressive blocking.
The game is short but still requires a surprising amount of thought because one has to react to the board. So while longer term planning is possible, you may not get to pull it off. Much depends on how you take advantage of the current situation to set yourself up for a future play, assuming that it won’t get blocked. This type of play provides a unique challenge that is different from, say Thurn and Taxis where there is slightly more long term planning. If you enjoy a short, tactical knife fight, then Portobello Market is worth a look. If you prefer games with more a longer and more strategic framework, this may not be your cup of tea. I like it.