Händler der Karibik (AKA Port Royal): A four-sided game review

Handler der KaribikHändler der Karibik is a small box push-your-luck card game. It was sold for a minimum donation of five euros at Essen 2013 to raise funds for the Austrian Games Museum. An English edition with some slight variations will be released this year under the name Port Royal (adding a fifth player).

The original game takes two-to-four players about 30 minutes to play, needing only the 110 cards that come in the box. The game is simple to learn and is certainly at the lighter end of the gaming spectrum, but the way the cards come out and the amount people try to push their luck leads to a surprising amount of variation.

The cards are of good stock with a linen finish. The game has, as you may have guessed, a nautical/pirate theme and the cartoony artwork is colourful, fun and perfectly in keeping with the game’s feel. The rules are only in German, but they’re downloadable in English via Board Game Geek.

Teaching

Handler card typesAs with most of the best light filler games, the simplest way to teach Händler der Karibik is to play a turn. However, it’s probably worth quickly running through the four card types before you get going (as not all may show up in the first turn).

To win the game a player must have completed at least one expedition and have a total of 10 victory points (this may change a little in Port Royal). Expeditions are worth 2-5 points, people 0-3, so it doesn’t take long to be in a winning position; as long as you’ve nailed an expedition, of course – and there are only five in the deck.

Handler people cardsThe bulk of the deck is made up of ‘people’ and ‘ship’ cards. Ships give money, which you spend on people to add to your tableau.

These will do a variety of tasks (more later), from helping see off ships you’re not interested in to helping complete an ‘expedition’ – the third type of card. The final card type is ‘tax increase’, which makes it risky to hoard money (if you have a lot of cash when they come up you lose half – much like the robber in Catan).

The first part of your turn is to ‘discover’, followed by ‘hire’ and/or ‘loot’. Turn over the first card of the deck: if it’s a taxes card resolve it; if it’s an expedition it is put to one side and can be claimed by the next player (including you) who can meet its requirements. In either case, flip the next card.

Handler ship cardsUsually though it will be a ship or person card. If it is a person, and you have enough coins, you can ‘hire’ them; if it’s a ship, you can instead ‘loot’ its coins (1-4, with cards from the deck used face down as currency); otherwise, you can push your luck and draw another card.

You can continue to push your luck until you’ve drawn two ships of the same colour; if this happens, your turn immediately ends with you being empty handed.

But importantly, once you’ve stopped and bought a card, in turn order, each other player can then also buy one of the remaining cards. On the plus side, you will get one of the coins they pay with; but on the other, you’re giving up cards to your opponents on your turn. So how far do you really want that middle row to grow?

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: For such a light game, Handler der Karibik packs in a lot of interesting moments. People stay invested because they know they may get a shot at hiring or looting every round, while the shuffle really mixes things up. No expeditions early can make things tense, as you simply don’t know what to go for, and while the theme is pretty pasted on the colour and art really helps make it an enjoyable experience.
  • The thinker: There’s more game here than at first meets the eye. Ships have a battle value, so by collecting soldiers with ‘sword’ symbols you can fight off low coin ships you don’t want – or high coin ones your opponents will. But they’re not directly helping you towards the expeditions. Will you have time for the long game? Yes, it’s swingy as hell, but its a filler with decisions to be made and I enjoy the game.
  • The trasher: In Handler der Karibik you can keep pushing your luck for that one big turn; because if you manage to get four or five different coloured ships drawn in one turn, you can buy two or even three cards in one go (rather than one) and perhaps swing the game. Fortune doesn’t often favour the brave here, but when it does its great! All it needs is an expansion with some ‘screw your neighbour’ cards.
  • The dabbler: Turns are really varied; you may flip a four-coin ship and end your go immediately, leaving your opponents with nothing as they groan at your luck; or you may flip 10 cards or more as the others egg you on to even greater risks – preferably in pirate voices. You can add super quick set up and pack down to the simplicity, plus the small box, and what do you have? A real winner, me hearties!

Key observations

Handler der Karibik boxHandler der Karibik doesn’t come in for too much criticism; if anything it is damned by faint prize with ‘nice’ coming up a lot. But for a filler this is pretty much par for the course.

Some say it can be too slow, which we have experienced once or twice. But more seriously, and related to the speed complaint, is that you’re not always going to get a reliable game experience.

I do have some sympathy with this position. I’ve seen games where you simply never get a shot at an expedition, making winning impossible – or where a string of dull cards come along in a lump making for five minutes of boring turns.

But this is a 20-30 minute game revolving around a single deck of cards; its inevitable and, frankly, not the end of the world for most people. You’ll know if this is the kind of thing that will irritate you and your group and if it is, you should probably steer clear.

Conclusion

Handler der Karibik coin cardsI picked up Handler der Karibik on a whim at Essen. I liked the idea of supporting a board game museum and there was a pile of promos being given away with it too. What could go wrong? As it happened, I got a fantastic little card game.

In fact, I’d say this has knocked previous favourite Archaeology: The Card Game off its perch as my go-to filler card game. That also suffers from the occasionally bad experience due to the luck of the draw, and while it has more fun in the take-that department I think I prefer the push-you-luck of Handler right now. The artwork is streets ahead too. This may change over time, as we’ll have to wait and see quite how much legs the game has, but so far so good.

Handler der Karibik is hard to get hold of but the new version, Port Royal, is available for around £10. There are a couple of small rules changes, but if anything they make the game a little better. If you like to have a few push-your-luck card game fillers in your collection I would certainly recommend picking this up, as it rather elegantly does exactly what it sets out to do.

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  1. Pingback: My top 50 board and card games | Go Play Listen

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