PRET-A-PORTER (Portal, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 90 minutes; $64.99)    

   This game has an interesting back story.

   Good games are always fun to play but the best of them always have the serendipitous effect of educating the participants in some way. Apparently, this quality was recognized by the people who run the National Bank of Poland. It seems that these good folks wanted a game created that would teach players the ins and outs of finance and economics, basically to teach young people how to handle money. So they decided to approach a Polish games company successful in making games. The company they chose was Portal. However, Portal, in general, and Ignacy Trzweiczek, in particular, have dealt in games with topics far afield from finance: think of Neuroshima Hex (Fall 2007 Gamers Alliance Report) and Trzweiczek's own 51st State (Summer 2011 GA Report), games of weaponry, robots and post-nuclear destruction! But where there's a will, there's a way, and Trzweiczek decided to shift his designing talents into another arena of less blatant - but often just as ruthless - competition: the world of fashion. And fashion takes to the table in his latest release: PrÍt-A-Porter.

   PrÍt-A-Porter comes square boxed with lots of high quality components including a large mounted board, four sets of Action pawns (in different colors), player boards, wooden cubes (in six colors representing six different Materials used in creating fashions) and lots of cards which power the game.

   Each player begins with a player board representing that player's company and provides room for keeping track of maintenance costs, employees, design type the company is known for and more. Players also get a set of three Action pawns and a starting bankroll of 40 thousand.

   The Design deck is shuffled and each player dealt two cards. Design cards indicate a particular style: sportswear, children's wear, Boho (Bohemian), evening wear and vintage, the type of clothing to be made(skirt, top, sweater, pants, dress), materials needed to make the item, and how much the item is worth once shown and sold at a fashion show. (Some Designs also have "profit icons" . Players who receive any cards with these icons in their initial deal return them and are dealt another.) Now, four Design cards are placed in their reserved position on the board.

   There are three other important card decks in the game: Contracts, Buildings and Employees. The final turn cards in each of these decks are removed with the rest of the decks shuffled separately and three Contracts, Buildings and Employees cards are placed in their respective board positions. The game is played in 12 turns (each turn representing a month of the fashion year with "showings" in the 3rd, 6th, 9th and 12th months). With the turn marker set to January, the game begins.

   In order, each player positions ONE of his Action pawns onto one of the possible "fields" (areas) on the board. Basically, there are nine areas of interest. Money can be tight in this game so a player may decide to place one of his pawns in the "Bank field" and get a "credit". The amount of money a player may be credited with is based on the number of Designs that that player can potentially put together in a collection for the upcoming fashion show. 10% interest must be paid on credits received EACH month until the credit is repaid. Pawns placed in the Contract, Building or Employee areas may choose one of the exposed cards there and either place it next to their board (in the case of a Contract or Building) or beneath their board (replacing a lesser valued employee already there). In the Designer's field, players may choose another Design to create to add to their line for a future fashion show. But bringing design ideas into reality requires Material and that's where additional fields come into play.

   Three fields serve as sources for the needed Material. A pawn placed with the Local Manufacturers allows a player to buy any number of Material pieces of 1 selected type (at a price range of from 2 to 8). One Quality token is received for this purchase. A pawn in the Warehouse allows for the purchase of one of EVERY type of Material in the game (at a higher price   range of from 3 to 12), indicating better quality and getting 2 Quality tokens to show for it. Finally, the most expensive Import field (price range of 4 to 14) allows the purchase of any number of ONE type of Material while receiving 3 Quality tokens. Gathered Material (colored cubes) is placed on the Design cards matching those colors.

   The final field is Preparations where players may choose 2 Quality tokens, 1 Public Relations token (PR), 1 Trend or 5 thousand in money. (All of these choices can be valuable and each of them is available to every player who visits there.)

   Once all fields are resolved, players may opt to "train" their employees or upgrade buildings, one at at time, in turn order, by paying the required costs.    Buildings, in essence, give a player the benefit of placing an Action pawn in an area without using a pawn (!), with abilities varying from randomly picking a Design (for free) to switching two already placed Action pawns on the board and more. Employees can help by adding Stars , Trend or PR tokens to a fashion show and even adjust a Design to match any other Design. Training and/or upgrading increases the benefits of Buildings and Employees. Once done, maintenance costs (employee salaries, Building maintenance, interest on credits received etc.) must be paid. Don't have enough money to pay your debts? In that case, players automatically receive a 20,000 loan from a "private lender". These compulsory loans operate in a similar fashion to a bank credit (with interest paid each month) with one glaring difference: after a fashion show, these loans MUST be paid back at face value PLUS an additional 8000! Any cards remaining on the board unclaimed are discarded. A new set of cards is drawn and made available for the next round. This routine is repeated every month EXCEPT for those in which the fashion shows are held.

   During Fashion Months, players display fashions they have created in order to earn "Stars" and money. (Stars earned in previous fashion shows are converted into "golden bills"  - the flip side of the green chits used to represent money -  to indicate the "Brand Name" value of a player's company.) And fashion shows are handled in a very interested way.

   There is a fashion show card deck and, as part of the initial setup, the four "last quarter" cards are removed and the remaining cards shuffled and randomly arranged in rows of 1, 2 and 3 cards. These cards indicate a city and the different features a fashion collection may have - Quality, Public Relations, Trend and Quantity - listed in different order from top to bottom. For the first showing (March or the third round in game terms), only the card is row one is used and all four features are judged. The second showing results are based on the two cards in the second row (but only the top three features are judged) while the third show uses the three cards in the third row (with only the top two features judged). The fourth and final show uses the four last quarter cards with all four features being judged. (These cards actually depict only two features but the second one only comes into play if the "Journalist" Employee card is active.)

   A player may present only ONE collection in a show. A collection consists of any number of finished designs (e.g. design cards that have the correct Material cubes placed on them) that share a common style (Boho, Vintage etc.) Collections are compared based on several different features: Quality, Public Relations, Trend (all indicated by the number of tokens of these type collected from the Design cards, Building and Employee cards and Material purchase) and Quantity (the number of finished designs being displayed). For each feature judged, the player who has the most (or second most) of that feature receives Stars. Then, the collection is sold.

   Each Design card in the collection has a certain monetary value on it. This value is enhanced by the number of Stars won in that show to the tune of 1000 per Star. (So, if a collection, for example, garners 7 Stars, the value of EACH sold design from that collection is 7000 more!) Displayed cards (and their tokens) are now discarded. (Design cards that have not been shown remain in players' holdings.) And, of course, as in other turns, maintenance costs are paid. Contract cards acquired in the turns preceding the fashion show operate in a similar fashion as Building and Employees; they too give a player the benefit of placing an Action pawn in an area without using a pawn! They can also allow a player to sell excess Materials (and acquire some extra needed funding) and pick up Quality or Trend or Public Relations (PR) tokens that are very useful when showing their clothing collection. Once the fashion show is resolved, however, unlike Buildings and Employees, all current Contracts expire and. like the shown Designs, are also discarded. (If a player has the Negotiator card in play though, he may extend the Contract for an additional quarter although extended Contracts, while still worthwhile, are not as valuable as before.)

   Regular turns and Fashion show turns continue until the 12th and final turn (December). Stars earned from the final show are converted into "gold bills" (Brand value). Gold bills and money (less any financial penalties incurred) are totaled. The player who has amassed the greatest fortune wins!

   The box art of Pre-A-Porter by Tomasz Jedruszek portraying a sexy cutting edge model in modern fashion is eye-catching to say the least and conveys the feeling of looking in at a high class fashion show. And speaking of that, the fashion show "judging" mechanism is clever, forcing players to plan ahead. and you need to plan carefully. As mentioned, money can be in short supply. As a result, players will tend to depend upon loans and credit so smart cash management should be the cornerstone of any winning strategy. (But keeping track of interest payments and remembering the differences between credits and loans can be a pitfall when learning the game.)

   Pret-A-Porter is well crafted with an unusual and interesting theme which smoothly blends the familiar Euro game mechanisms of worker placement and engine-building. Choosing which Contracts, Buildings and Employees to recruit to your cause presents significant choices; being able to extend Contracts, improve Buildings and train Employees adds additional layers to the decision-making process. The downside to this, however, is the cornucopia of cards - there are just so many of them, their number, in effect, doubled by their abilities to be enhanced or extended. When this game was only available in Polish (in its first edition), the game's reach outside Poland was problematical because of language dependency. The second edition comes in English augmented by a whole slew of icons to aid in digesting it all but, even so, the vast volume of cards and their possibilities creates a fairly steep learning curve.

   If the financial wizards at the National Bank of Poland wanted to target casual game players, they may have made a risky investment. Casual gamers will have no trouble maneuvering their pawns onto appropriate fields but might find it a bit difficult to assimilate all the information contained on the cards into a smooth running engine which is precisely what the game requires you to do. But will hard core gamers and devotees of engine-building games (think of Agricola [featured in the Winter 2008 GA Report] or Le Havre [Winter 2009 GA Report] or even Trzweiczek's 51st State, to name a few) find this game to their liking? They sure will and you can bank on it!  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Herb Levy


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