A Review of Minecraft: Portal Dash (A Cooperative Game), Part I: Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

Wait, what just happened? When did Target become my primary store for cooperative games?

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Two weeks ago, we picked up and reviewed Horizons of Spirit Island (which we got from Target), then one week ago we picked up and reviewed Star Wars: The Clone Wars Pandemic (which we got at Target). We just happened to pick up two brand new cooperative games at Target today (October 16th 2022)! One we’ll review today (Minecraft: Portal Dash) and the other next week!

What Is Minecraft: Portal Dash?

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Minecraft: Portal Dash is a cooperative game set in the Minecraft universe. Minecraft is a phenemonally popular video game for most platforms: PCs, Macs, and video game consoles. This game is obviously trying to capitalize on the Minecraft Intellectual Property (much like Star Wars: The Clone Wars did last week but for Star Wars).

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In Minecraft: Portal Dash, 1-4 players cooperatively play as Minecraft miners running towards the portal trying to escape. All players must survive and escape together or everyone loses! It’s a cooperative game! Along the way, players mine, fight, move, upgrade, and uncover new areas. When players uncover the last room with the portal, they must fight the big boss! As soon as the big boss is dead, players win!

Mostly, this game is about fighting and mining, while trying to move to the portal at the end to fight the boss.

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Minecraft: Portal Dash is pretty standard sized: see the game and components relative to the Coke Can.

Each player takes a token with a colored bottom and corresponding colored board and colored items.

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I played my solo game with blue. Note that the character you choose has no special powers: there are no variable player powers here. (You only get better and different through the upgrades you get).

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All players start with all of their items on the top row: they haven’t been used yet: See above. Once an item is used, it goes to the bottom row and has to be “repaired” to be used again. See below.

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Every round of the game starts with rolling the Bad News dice (the white dice): there are two. (I personally call them the Bad News dice to note that they are advancing the chaos and badness in the game: Minecraft: Portal Dash just calls them the white dice, or the block die and MOB die).

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The first Bad News die (left) strips a block from the Resource Cube. Which block? Whatever the die tells you! See below!

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The bad news die force the players to remove one cube, their choice of color

This is Bad News because the game ends when The Resource Cube (above) run out of blocks … either completely out of blocks or blocks at the appropriate level.  So, stripping blocks from the Resource Cube is slowly bringing the game to an end.

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The other Bad News die (the MOB die) activates the MOBS (the Bad Guys) in the game. Above, we can see two of them are activated! The upper right corner of each MOB character has a number from 1 to 3: you activate all MOBS with that number, which causes them to move towards the characters.

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If there are no matching MOBS, you spawn a new MOB at the closest spawn point to a character on the board. The MOB at the front of the queue (see queue above) is what gets spawned.  You can always see what’s coming next in the queue!

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After the MOB move, they may attack!  If the MOB bad guys do reach you, they do damage: above, the magma cube is adjacent and hits me for 2 (-2 on bottom right of the MOB) damage.  The ghast is not adjacent, but has range (2 square) and does 2 damage!  Above was the very first turn of my game and I lost 4 hit points!!

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Hit points are at the top of your character sheet: I only took 3 damage because I had armor that absorbed the first hit.

After the Bad News is done, the active player (who rolled the Bad News dice) gets two actions of their choice:

  • Basic Actions: move 1 space, repair 1 item, mine 1 block
  • Use One Item: move item from active part to lower part, invoking its upgraded action

It doesn’t sounds like a lot, but the mine 1 block is quite interesting. First of all, you can only mine blocks that are exposed: A block is exposed only if its top is visible and at least two other sides are visible.  And then you can do cool things with the block!!! Geometry is important here!

 You can use the mined block to help complete the piglin task (see below):

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Recall that you can’t open the final portal until the piglin board is complete! And you can’t win if you can’t fight the boss by the portal!  So, it is necessary to mine as you play to fill the piglin board.

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The other thing you can do with the blocks: use a special power! See above!  These special powers can be game-changing!  Repair all items!  Heal full hit points!  Of course, mining a cube has a cost: remember that the game ends when you run out of cubes.

Using an item usually gives you an upgraded basic action, but at the cost of “breaking” the item so you can’t use it until its repaired.

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For example, using the pickaxe would allow you to mine TWO blocks (instead of one).

Note that the sword and the bow are the only way to engage in combat with the MOBS!  To take out a MOB, you have to be in range (swords can attack adjacent only, bows have further range: upto 3 spaces away for the bow above).  When you engage in combat, you roll the number of dice as per the weapon:

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Every X is a hit: MOBS need to be taken out in one shot: damage does not persist.

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When you defeat a MOB, you get two upgrades: you keep one and discard the other.  

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If you can move to the final board with the portal (after completing the piglin board), you fight the boss: if you can defeat the boss, you win!  If you run out of blocks at any point, or if anyone dies, everyone loses!

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Rulebook

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This is both simultaneously a good rulebook and bad rulebook.  It’s a good rulebook because it is complete (all rules are here) and it teaches the game.  It’s a bad rulebook because of poor organization and some glaring deficiencies (the inclusion of a few things would really flatten the learning curve).

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First off, the rulebook is very daunting: when you first open the box and grab the rulebook, it’s very heavy!  It’s 48 pages long and very big!  Internally, I thought “Oh No! What have I gotten myself into??  This looks big and complex!!”

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Well, the rulebook is large because it holds three translations of the rules: English, French, and Dutch (see above).  So, that drops the “relevant rules” to 16 pages.  Not nearly as bad, but it does seem long for a game aimed at ages 10+.

So, the first major deficiency was the lack of a components page: the game basically just “jumps straight in” assuming you kind of know what everything is.  I don’t!  This was one of the things that contributed to me calling this a “bad rulebook”.  There are a lot of components in this game, and I don’t know “what-is-what”.

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If you look VERY CLOSELY at bottom of each translation column on the back of the box, you can see a list of components. It’s tiny, almost imperceptible, and it doesn’t help you figure out “what-is-what” in the component sphere. It is NOT a good components list.

My next problem was perhaps more of a preference thing: I strongly prefer set-up on two pages with a giant picture showing the board and some correlating numbers/letters. This rulebook prefers to add components to the set-up incrementally without ever showing the final picture.

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I think this is an okay method for set-up (incrementally vs. seeing the whole picture), but I still wanted a final picture showing everything. Again, this may just be personal preference. Included below is my final picture for set-up for your enlightenment.

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The rest of the rulebook has the rules, but the Icons and special rules for a lot of items (The Netherite items, the Enchantments) are scattered through out the text.  It’s hard to find some of the rules/icons: they are there, and you can find them, but it feels harder to look up rules/cons than it should be.

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The summary in Part IV was pretty good.

The rules showed helpful pictures and examples (see above). That makes this a good rulebook. All the rules were there: that also makes this a good rulebook.

The lack of an Icon summary, the lack of components page, the approach to set-up, the lack of some other exposition, and some of the organization really made me grumpy. However, at the end of the day, I learned the rules. I just wish the rules had been easier to learn (especially for younger audiences).

Solo Play

So, the game box says that the game plays 1-4 players.  Interestingly, there is no real discussion of solo rules anywhere in the rulebook.  This is mostly because you don’t anything special for solo play, except  for choosing which side of the piglin task board to use.  One side is 1-2 players, the other side is 3-4 players: See below for the 1-2 player side.  

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Still, the lack of any discussion of solo rules seems weird. A single sentence would have gone far:

The solo game proceeds just like the base game except that you use the 1-2 Player side of the Piglin task board and the solo player only operates one character.

However, this was consistent with our issues with the rulebook:  The game doesn’t strictly need to tell us about solo rules, but a single sentence would have clarified that. So, Minecraft: Portal Dash does follow Saunders’ Law, but it’s just not 100% clear that it does.

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How did Solo Play go? Very well! I was initially annoyed that the game used the white Bad News dice to mark your two actions, but I came to understand why. The game flows so quickly once you get into it, you forget sometimes if you are in the middle of your turn or the Bad News turn! “Wait, have I taken both of my actions?” So, even though the description in the rulebook is terrible about describing how to use the white dice for notating the actions, using the two white dice to notate your two actions per turn worked pretty well.

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I kept the rulebook off to the side in a chair because I had to look up rules all the time … but the rulebook was just a little too big to keep on the table.

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I won my first game, handily defeating the Wildfire (see above). My basic strategy was to get all the Piglin task board filled, then sprint to the end. It worked great!

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I worry a little that all games will have this arc: solve the Piglin tasks then sprint to the final board. That strategy worked great for me and I am sure I would do that again.

One of the funner elements of the game is that you are always getting upgrades in the form of new items: every time you beat a bad guy (a MOB), you get two Items from the top of the Item deck: you choose one and discard the other.  So, you are constantly moving new items onto your character board: See below.

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I didn’t like one mechanism the game used at first: whenever you use an item, you “damage it”, moving it to the bottom row. See above. You have to “repair it” before you can use it again! I didn’t like this at first, but because there were so many ways to work with this, it became fun! You can:

  1. Repair it with a basic action
  2. Fix all broken items using a mine “grey” cube
  3. Change out an item when you upgrade: the new item starts refreshed
  4. Upgrade an item with an enchantment: that forces it repaired gain

There always seemed to be a lot of ways to do things: I felt like I had a lot of agency throughout my game.  The solo game was good and absolutely essential to teaching me the game so I can teach my friends.  Now that I have the rules internalized, I think the teach will go well: it just took a lot of work to get there.

Frustrations

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This is a weird game.  I am annoyed by the low quality of some components (the rulebook, the standees, some super thin boards), but fascinated by a lot of the mechanisms, especially the Resource Cube.

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The rulebook is pretty off-putting, but it does teach the game.  It’s possible that the three simultaneous translations (English, French, Dutch) contributed to that. If you put the effort into reading this rulebook, you can find all the rules you need, but it will require some work.  That was frustrating.

Another major frustration was the lack of an icon reference.  The game is pretty icon heavy, especially because it is for English, French, and Dutch players!  So, the game leans pretty heavily into those icons, but the definition of those icons is spread throughout the rulebook: you have to go hunting.  You can eventually find the definitions, but these searches can be cumbersome paging through the entire rulebook!  A one-page icon summary would have gone a long way, especially since this rulebook has a lot of whitespace (and the back of the rulebook is so sparse).

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Another frustration: I also don’t know who this game is for.  The rules say 10+ on the box: I can’t imagine a 10-year old kid fighting through these rules unless he is really into Minecraft.  To be fair, a lot of kids are really into Minecraft, but I feel both the rulebook and the complexity of the game will turn-off a lot of kids.  

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That’s not to say kids couldn’t learn the game: if you can get an older sibling or parent or relative to shepherd the kids through a game or two, then I think that kids could easily get into the game!  Once you internalize the rules to this game, Minecraft: Portal Dash does flow pretty well: for kids or anyone!  I just wonder how much work it will take to get to that point: this game may be too much for many people without having  a shepherd.

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My biggest concern for the Minecraft: Portal Dash is the game arc.  I feel like most successful games will take a similar arc: fight a few combats, get the ABC pidlin task board done all at once, then sprint to the end.  It makes the most sense to do the pidlin board  done up front when there are fewer bad guys trying to get destroy you!  It’s possible this strategy is a function of the boards that come out: perhaps different combinations of boards will help vary this game arc.   We’ll have to see: my biggest worry is that the game arc will have no variety.

What I Really Liked

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Once I got into the game, the game flowed pretty well.  It was pretty simple: roll two dice for bad news, then take two actions.  Repeat!  There were a lot of little things to look-up (icons mostly), but the basic gameplay was straight-forward: I liked that.

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What fascinated about the game was the dual-use blocks you mine from the Resource Cube!  See above!  One use of the blocks is as a resource to advance the Piglin tasks.  In that case, you have to worry about having enough cubes available (in that color) because of the mining rules.  See below for all three complete Piglin tasks and an almost depleted Resource Cube!

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But you can also mine a block for a special power: see below.

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The mining of a blocks is essential, because you have to mine to win the game (for piglin tasks). But every cube you mine brings you closer to the end of the game: if all 64 cubes are mined, you lose! Or if you can’t finish a Piglin task because you ran out of colors or cubes on a level, you lose! 

And you will lose a cube (usually) every turn because of the bad news die! See below.

So, the Resource Cube becomes a 3-D representation of the game’s state space!  What choices are available?  What choices can you reach?   Which blocks do you want for Piglin tasks? What blocks do you want for special powers?  What blocks can you afford to lose?  What blocks can you not access because of the geometry?

This Resource Cube is fascinating and probably the best part of this game. It’s new and different and I haven’t seen it in any other game.  I really want to explore this mechanism further: I find myself still thinking about it …

Conclusion

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I know what Horizons of Spirit Island is and I know who should play it . Similarly, I know what Star Wars: The Clone Wars is even after just a few plays. I feel comfortable knowing what those games are: we may not need a Part II for those reviews because all my initial thoughts stand. But, I still don’t know what I think of MInecraft: Portal Dash.

Like Disney Sidekicks, I think Minecraft: Portal Dash might be too complex (especially the rulebook) for its suggested lower ages. Also like Disney Sidekicks, I think a shepherd could make this game much more accessible: if someone can just teach the game, I think younger kids can learn and play the game, but I think that shepherd is fairly essential. So, I can’t quite recommend it for lower ages.

But then the component quality is pretty substandard for a lot of pieces. See above. It’s hard to imagine hard core gamers wanting to play this: it looks like an old 80s board game.

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Having said all that, the Resource Cube concept is so fascinating and deep, I think this one mechanism might make Minecraft: Portal Dash one of my favorite games of the year!? Or maybe it’s not nearly as deep as I think and I will become disillusioned with the Resource Cube? I don’t know, but I find myself wanting to play again and again to try out the Resource Cube! It fascinates me!!

As you can see, I am all over the place. I got the game for $39.99 at Target, so it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t expensive. It feels like the components should be better for the price (especially after seeing Horizons of Spirit Island for $29.99), but that Resource Cube stands out as one of the better components.

I can say that, right now, I like Minecraft: Portal Dash, despite the rulebook and poor components, but I feel like I need some more time with this game before I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Currently, I would cautiously optimistically recommend it.

Never has one of my reviews been in such dire need of a Part II.

2 thoughts on “A Review of Minecraft: Portal Dash (A Cooperative Game), Part I: Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

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