Tabletop Review: ‘Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game’
Nothing like a recognisable brand to move a board game off the shelves, one of the reasons this became a hard to find set following Christmas ’15. We’ve given it a couple of plays lately and we can say this for certain: the cake is not a lie.
Stylistically based on the cult video game series Portal, this takes the setting, in-jokes and design of the world without touching on the story. Every player works for Aperture Laboratory and competes to have the most cake in the testing area at the end of the game. The testing area is made up of 15 testing chambers that interlock to form 3 rows with the left end being the ‘new’ testing chambers and the right being the ‘old’. During each turn the players can use special items they’ve collected and move their test subjects through the chambers before selecting an ‘old’ chamber to Activate and then Recycle. This means the player with the most test subjects in the chamber scores the bonus items (test subjects, cake, item cards, Companion Cubes, turrets) pictured in the chamber before the chamber is destroyed along with everything on it and rebuilt at the ‘new’ end.
Essentially the play area is on a constantly moving conveyer belt. Test subjects are reusable so if they get ‘recycled’ on an Activated test chamber they go back into your hand to put back into the game at a later point, putting you in the mindset of a callous scientist. Cake, on the other hand, remains permanently destroyed making them a valuable resource. Once a piece gets placed in the laboratory you have to protect it by having test subjects carry them away from the ‘old’ chambers and keep them away from other player’s test subjects. If all 8 pieces of one player’s cake pieces get incinerated or they have no test subjects in the laboratory the game immediately ends and the player with the most cake in the lab wins.
It’s a game that keeps you on your toes as you need to be managing the number of test subjects in the lab, moving them into the chambers that give you the bonuses you need, protecting your cake, and taking the chances to incinerate opponent’s cake pieces. On top of that, there are the items that you can deploy to add more cake, move pieces around, move the Companion Cube (renders bonuses inactive) or move the turret (kills test subjects) and attack opponents. In addition each item, when deployed, adds a new rule that immediately takes effect. This can change the mechanics of movement, collecting bonuses and so forth. PLUS you can spend the item cards to use the Portal Gun, moving the two portals around the lab to facilitate quick movement.
With so many factors at work there is the potential for the game to be frustrating. It rewards the players for their ability to adapt to the constantly changing play area and random new rules being introduced and dropped (sometimes in the space of a turn). Long term strategists will not enjoy the game for this reason, and most tabletop enthusiasts like that aspect of gaming. It’s not so much luck based, but rethinking your plan every time your turn comes up. The more players involved (up to four) the less chance there is of any planned move coming to fruition. We recommend two players going head to head.
Then there’s the mechanic of Recycling test chambers, which involves physically detaching a jigsaw piece section of the board and reattaching it to the other end. It can be fiddly and while the designers have done their best to make it work there’s rarely a perfect fit between the pieces. Over time the game is going to show rapid wear and tear. Plus, if you’re playing in a small area you must constantly slide the laboratory space up the table to make room for the adjustments. This can be an annoyance.
Design wise the game is a treat for fans of the series. The test subject pieces and cake slices are well crafted, and the Companion Cube and turret minis are of fantastic quality. Everything is based on the video games, which were always incredibly well designed. The test chambers themselves are based around an optical illusion, which is a fun idea. The only thing that would make the design perfect would be GLADOS mini rather than a cardboard standee. For a fan of the series this would be worth the price of the game.
So it’s not a great game, but it’s got some fun mechanics. The rapid pace and changing circumstances make it unique and those tired of drawn out strategy games may find it a fun, brain tickling challenge. Fans of the game will enjoy the references and overall design as well. Even the packaging is done in a funky retro style. We recommend it as something different for 2 player matches.