In quite a curious departure from the adventuring fare typical of all things bearing the Dungeons & Dragons brand, Avalon Hill’s new board game, Dungeons & Dragons: The Yawning Portal, has players taking on the quiet role of tavern staff, trying to fulfil the desires of hungry and thirsty patrons.
The sheer charm of pairing this premise with such a well-established fantasy world piqued my interest ahead of launch. When I randomly saw it show up at a local store with zero warning, I was surprised – there was seemingly no anticipation or build-up to its release. Having now experienced several games of The Yawning Portal, both solo and with a full group of four, I realise that it’s probably a good thing the game is as subtly charming as it is, because there isn’t really a whole lot of excitement to it.
How to play The Yawning Portal
The Yawning Portal’s game board displays a row of tables with empty card slots where heroes can be seated opposite one another. In between these opposing seats, stretching from one end of the board to the other, is a row of slots where food tokens can be placed. Each player’s goal is to amass a collection of coloured gems which correspond to four different food types by matching the dietary demands of heroes with slotted food tokens.
An equal assortment of each food token is placed in the most central slot positions on the board at the start of the game, and each time a food token is placed by a player, it can only be done so adjacent to one already on the board. The number of starting food tokens, and the length of the actual board itself, scale up in relation to the number of players, from one to four.
The core loop for a player’s turn is quick and simple. Each player has four action cards, and a hand of heroes. On each turn, they must play the steps out on one of the action cards of their choice, flipping it over when they do. Their turn is over once all steps on the action card have been completed.
If any steps on the action card they wish to play cannot be completed, they cannot play that action card. There are different sets of actions on the reverse side of each action card, and they will be flipped again back to their starting side when played in turn.
When all of the food icons along the top of a hero card are matched, the ‘perfect match bonus,’ illustrated by the colourless symbols which run vertically on the upper right side of each hero card, is won by that player, in addition to the appropriately coloured gems scored for their efforts in completing the lineup. The hero card is then flipped, revealing one of the four coloured gems on its back.
The game begins its final round when each end of the food token slot trail has a food token placed in it. Each player’s total point score is then calculated by multiplying the number of each coloured gem by the number of corresponding gem card backs facing up on the board. Bonuses are awarded for players who manage to achieve any of the aggressively time-limited side objectives which are randomly generated from a small selection of cards at the start of the game – for having the most number of ‘sets’ comprising one of each gem, and for whoever has the most of any one single gem colour.
Various game conditions can generate white diamond gems, which get placed into the pile of whatever colour gem the player chooses, permanently becoming another of them. ‘Enchant food potions’ can also be created and played by certain action cards, the placing of which will grant the player that hero’s perfect match bonus instantly without the card getting flipped, opening the potential for a player to steal a perfect match bonus from another player, who they may suspect to be in the verge of completing that hero card.
That’s pretty much all there is to it.
The double-edged sword of simplicity
As the possibilities presented by each player’s action cards and the unique powers of each hero card are so varied and dynamic, the game’s action is largely focused on improvised tactics and adaptation, over any degree of grand plan strategy. The game’s overall simplicity pairs well with the quick-thinking, often reactionary nature of each player’s turn, as it keeps play thought-provoking, while never allowing it to become confusing or stressful.
As a solo game, that same simplicity makes The Yawning Portal a deeply unsatisfying and utterly uninteresting single-player experience. As someone who typically invests in board games that have some form of in-built solo play option – since I know that I’ll be able to get it to the table at least once – I was growing bored of it before the game had even ended, thanks to a complete lack of stakes. I can’t see myself ever wanting to play this game by myself again.
Overall, The Yawning Portal’s approachability and charm seem to position it as something that would be well suited for younger players. My group was able to learn the rules and rhythms of play within a couple of turns based solely on the combination of my awful verbal tutoring, and the clear and concise quick reference cards issued to each of them.
But for a game that positions itself at a price point slightly higher than others carrying the D&D license, such as Castle Ravenloft or Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, the kind of engagement you would typically expect to keep you coming back just isn’t there. It’s a game that sits more comfortably alongside family classics such as Monopoly – but at three times the cost of a basic Monopoly set, it doesn’t quite feel like it belongs there either.
The Yawning Portal is a breezy game, and there’s certainly value and a place for titles like this amongst your collection. But the consensus from myself and my playgroup was that the cost is a significant barrier for just how light the experience is.
3 stars: ★★★
Dungeons and Dragons: The Yawning Portal
Designers: Kristian Karlberg, Kenny Zetterberg
Publisher: Avalon Hill
A copy of Dungeons and Dragons: The Yawning Portal was purchased for the purposes of this review. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.