I’m Being So Sincere Right Now
If I’m being entirely honest, my suspicion of Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game had very little to do with Cryptozoic Entertainment’s mostly-bad reputation. Nor did it revolve around my discovery, upon opening the box, that the pieces aren’t all that great, especially the hexagonal room tiles that don’t fit together nearly as well as they ought. Or the lopsided turret. Or the way the bendy-man test subjects are jet-black but for a narrow band of color, making them frustratingly slow to sort unless they’re already standing up.
No, it wasn’t any of those things. It was the license. As in, Valve’s ultra-popular duo of games of the digital persuasion, Portal itself.
Like pretty much every other human being who’s played Portal, I love Portal. I can sing the end credits songs of both games from memory. I can play The National’s “Exile Vilify” on piano, at least up to the bridge, where I get thinkin’ too fast I’m like marbles on glass. I played through both developer commentary modes, and drank up every sentence. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that a board game based on Portal just sounds so… twee. It’s right there in the title: a riff on GLaDOS’s peculiar way of talking, and — far worse — cake. Someone over at Cryptozoic didn’t think we’d been subjected to sufficient recitations of “the cake is a lie” since the original game’s release in 2007, so they decided to cram our mouths full of the stuff until we choked on it. So cute. Which is why, operating under the assumption it would stink, my sole goal was to find a way to pay homage to the originals without once saying anything about the duplicitous nature of the pastry.
The second problem is that Portal struck me as one of those things that wouldn’t survive the transition from digital to cardboard. The paranoia, the humor, the spatial puzzling, the aha! moments — none of it felt ripe for two-dimensional interpretation. At best we’d end up with sad snippets of dialogue from the game, printed as sad flavor text on sad little cards. Roll a five, draw GLaDOS, then read, in a depressing imitation of her voice, “Here come the test results: You are a horrible person. That’s what it says: a horrible person. We weren’t even testing for that.”
But picture this. I’ve got Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game on my table. I’m still grumbling at the gall of it all, the sheer gall. But then someone takes a move that makes me chuckle, a clever positioning of their pieces that gives them a fair shot at winning within the next couple rounds. That’s when I realize I’m having fun. Not just because it’s Portal, but because the game is, well, not half bad. It was a twist, not unlike the twist that transformed the original Portal from a pleasant puzzle into something far more subversive.
Well, a little unlike that. But close enough.
For those who care, the Cake Acquisition Game begins some point after the malevolent GLaDOS has accessed a vault of infinite test subjects hidden beneath Aperture Science. Now she’s running entire teams of hapless innocents through her death-encouraging maze, goading them on with the promise of cake, and somehow encouraging them to sacrifice their lives for science.
Okay, it’s a dumb setup. The result, however, actually does a decent job of capturing the spatial puzzling portion of Portal.
I’ll explain. Each player controls their own team of test subjects. The goal is twofold: (1) get some cake, and then (2) wipe out another group of test subjects. Already this makes for a hectic time. It’s easy enough to get some cake, which means everyone is vacillating faster than a Geiger counter in a breached reactor between gathering cake and going into full-on murder mode. If you don’t have the most cake, it’s your main goal to stay alive long enough to get some. Once you’re in the lead, every action revolves around killing off as many of those cutesy little test subjects as possible.
Meanwhile, the testing chambers are laid out like a conveyor belt. New rooms, test subjects, slices of cake, and other items drop onto the left side, while older rooms (and their occupants) get mulched on the right. The board, therefore, is constantly sliding towards its doom, and players must scurry their test subjects away from their inevitable incineration, hauling cake and avoiding turrets. That’s if survival is your goal, anyway. Often the inverse is true. See, when chambers are marked for destruction, they provide rewards for whichever team has gathered the most people there. Sure, your guys are going to die horrible deaths, but at least their sacrifice means you’ve been given a new influx of staff and cake. Striking a balance between your living and sacrificed test subjects soon becomes critical if you don’t want the game to end prematurely.
Those are just the basics. In practice, you’ve also got turrets mowing down entire rooms of test subjects, companion cubes distracting people from claiming their chamber prize before being submerged in a vat of acid, portals for moving between distant rooms, workers sprinting towards their deaths with an enemy team’s cake in hand, and cards that mess with, well, everything at once. Here, cards aren’t just used a single time, moving a line of test subjects or blasting a slice of cake or whatnot. Instead, they flip over and alter the rules until something else replaces them. So for a couple turns, rooms might award their bonuses to the player with the least number of test subjects. Sometimes your guys will turn into murderous psychopaths; at other times, you’ll be able to move around portal tokens at will. Get in the lead by a whole lot and one card even lets you burn up a couple slices of cake to immediately end the game.
If it sounds random, it is. Terrifically, perhaps even terrifyingly random. The result is somewhat mixed, the sort of affair where planning can occasionally pay off, but I wasn’t kidding about that occasionally. More often, you’ll get distracted by a companion cube right before you were going to get two crucial slices of cake, or have your last test subject disintegrated by a laser beam, or any number of other terrible things. And while I’m listing its weaknesses, it also runs a bit long for such a capricious experience.
In the end, I would never call Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game a masterpiece. I probably wouldn’t even use a more levelheaded description like “good,” at least not without a “pretty” in front of it.
More importantly, it’s far better than I expected it to be, providing a couple evenings of solid entertainment — which, given my initial biases against it, could be called a triumph. It’s light, humorous, and despite the shortcomings of its bits comes with some really nice cake pieces. My favorite thing to do is to merge them into a full cake in front of me, only removing slices when they’re finally placed on the board. And then I become angry when somebody tosses them into the incinerator, because it means I cannot assemble a complete cake.
Seriously, this is the most involved I’ve been with a game component in a very long time. In this one instance, I suppose the cake wasn’t a lie.