Got it working (as below) but am afraid to delete the install directory because it may prevent fixing a couple minor issues - php smtp and allow avatars:
Seems to have been permissions somehow. Had to tweak a LOT of settings.
Also had to extensively edit the config file in the /db/ directory to make php connect to my version of mysql correctly
maybe you are missing some basic php-packages.
(sorry the server is locked down and can't upload the phpinfo()) but it has:
The smtp failed according to the logs page, despite being available in phpinfo():
Also did not set permissions for the avatars, so need to do that.
The question is, I cannot play in the forums without deleting the install directory. If/when I delete that, will I still be able to change permissions/enable avatars and tweak the email smtp settings?