Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: Valley of the Kings

I recently did a bunch of mini-reviews on deck-buildinggames and I found that I really focused my interest and attention on implementation of theme into the games. This is primarily since most deck-builders essentially play the same. Arctic Scavengers added new mechanisms to the game, which made it stand apart from the crowd. It also implemented them new mechanisms well into the theme of the game.

I am still a fan foremost of narrative play and theme, but I also am very interested in new and interesting mechanisms.

This picture makes the box seem larger than it really is.
Since writing my deck-building mini-reviews, I've played Valley of the Kings, which is a small box deck-building game which only has 56 non-starter cards in it. It also introduces new mechanisms to make it feel very unlike any other deck-builder game.

In Valley of the Kings each player ostensibly plays as an Egyptian noble in the time of the pharaohs and you are competing with the other players to obtain the best collection of artifacts and relics to be buried with. Each player has a tomb card and at the end of the game, they will only score cards that are placed under their tomb card.

Players begin each with the same starter deck of ten cards, drawing a hand of five of them. The stock (draw pile) is separated with Level 3 cards shuffled and placed on the bottom and then Level 2 cards shuffled and placed on top of them. The starter cards are Level 1 cards.

See? It's really rather compact.
Cards are then drawn from the stock to create the pyramid. Three cards are laid out as the base of the pyramid, with two cards placed above them, and one card at the top, forming a six card pyramid. Only the three cards in the base of the pyramid are available for purchase. When a card is removed from the pyramid, the pyramid "crumbles" and the cards above slide down to fill the missing space and a new card is drawn from the stock and placed at the top of the pyramid.

Each card has a gold value on it which can be used for buying new cards and an action on it, which can be executed instead of using the card for its gold value. On player's turn, he can do the following:

Buy a card from the base of the pyramid. This immediately crumbles the pyramid down. A player can purchase multiple cards on their turn, but each card is purchased separately and any gold value left over from the purchase of one card cannot be applied to the next card purchased.

Execute an action on a card. Cards which are played for their actions cannot use their gold value to buy cards. A player can execute any number of actions per turn from his hand.

Entomb one card under your tomb card. These are the cards that you will score at the end of the game, but you can only take one Entomb action per round. However, other card effects can allow you to place other cards in your tomb without using this action.

Each player then discards whatever cards were played and the remaining cards in your hand. You may discard them in any order your wish--this is important because some cards allow you to take the top card of your discard pile.

The pyramid crumbles like this:
I take the bottom right card and the cards
diagonally over the space slide down...
The player then rebuilds the pyramid by drawing a card from the stock for each missing card in the pyramid. If a player made no changes to the pyramid on their turn (did not buy or take any cards), he then must sacrifice (discard in the main discard pile) one of the cards of the pyramid, crumble it, and then draw a new one.

The player then draws his hand back up to five cards. And the next player takes his turn.

The game continues until there are no cards left in the stock, all cards have been removed from the pyramid, and all players have taken the same number of turns. This usually takes around 45 - 60 minutes.

Players then score the cards under their tomb cards. Some cards are worth a flat number of victory points (which is printed on the card), but most cards are part of a set. Set are things like Books, Canopic Cars, Statues, or Amulets and each set has a number of different types in its set, such as there are 7 different statues and 3 different sarcophagi (which is printed on the card). Each different card in a set adds to your set value. The value of that set is then squared and that is the number of victory points the set is worth. This means if you have 4 different Books in your tomb, then the set is worth 16 points total. If you have 3 Amulets, the set is worth 9 points. One Canopic Jar would be worth 1 point. You only count different cards in your set, so if you have two Books of Gates in your tomb, only one of them counts.

The winner is whoever has the most victory points.

...and it now looks like this.
Like most deck-builders, Valley of the Kings does not build much narrative. Using a Weres Amulet's power is just employing card mechanisms. There also is no reason why it generates gold if I don't use its power. But this is fine. This is standard for deck-builders, with a couple of remarkable exceptions.

However, where Valley of the Kings stands out is in the gameplay. There are tons of decisions to be made with every hand. Entombing a card is how you score them, but you can only entomb one card each round, so you want to get as many in your tomb at a steady pace. However, by placing it in your tomb, you are no longer able to use the gold value or the action on the card. So you have to decide when, or even if, it is best to entomb it. There are turns when you see a card that you can just barely afford, to purchase it, it will take your entire hand of cards... but you really wanted to entomb a card and play an action. Which will benefit you best?

The tombs of each player are public knowledge, so you can see what they are collecting. The player after you is collecting Books and has four in her tomb already. If you buy the Statue that you really want in the base, the Book will collapse down and be available for her to buy on her turn. Should you take the Statue, or should you try to stop her from changing her 16 point set into a 25 point set and take another card instead to leave the Book out of her reach?

Card lay out. It costs 4 gold (upper right),
provides 2 gold (laureled on the left), and
is part of the Sarcophagi set which contains
a total of 3 different cards (bottom left).
You'll find yourself trying to looking at your Heart of the Scarab, which has the powerful action to "Entomb a card from your discard pile" and you'll want to keep it in circulation as long as possible. But you have four Amulets in your tomb and the end of the game is nearing and you have to decide if you want to try to risk getting one more use out of it, or go for the definite points and use your entomb action on it, even though playing it would let you entomb two cards instead.

This is what I like about the game. I generally do not suffer from analysis paralysis, but I found myself pausing for a few moments in this game to really contemplate what to do because the decisions were that important.

Most deck-builders play on autopilot for me where it becomes obvious of what to buy and what to use. This game was a very pleasant surprise to see that I couldn't just play on autopilot, I really had to think about what I was doing. While those few moments of pause for me were very unexpected and very refreshing, I would probably consider hard before playing with a player who is prone to AP.

One of the things that I really like about the game is that you can set yourself up with a very thin, streamlined deck. Entombing Starter cards only gets you 1 VP, but it does get them out of your hand to keep the better cards appearing. Cards like the Outer Sarcophagus lets you put a card from your hand onto the top of an opponent's deck. This slims your deck while fattening theirs. This can streamline decks very quickly and you can keep drawing the same few strong cards.

The cards are of fair quality for us non-sleevers and the artwork isn't bad. There isn't anything dynamic of exciting about the artwork, but considering the theme, I really wouldn't expect it to. It is the mechanisms that makes it stand out, not the components. There is also a solitaire variant posted on the AEG website for those interested in honing their skills.

Displaying what is in your tomb.
The only real complaint that I have with the game comes from the scaling. As a two-player game, this game is phenomenal. It slows a bit, however, when you get to three players and it chokes even more with four. I'm not referring to just the downtime--the game moves swiftly enough. However, a lot of Level 3 cards are rather expensive. In a three and, even more so, in a four player game available gold becomes an issue. Since the card count remains the same, you simply have less turns to buy cards that produce gold and will end up having less time to entomb your weaker cards to make the deck more efficient. This means that when Level 3 hits, you may find yourself with your few 2 gold cards scattered throughout a bunch of 1 gold cards. This means that when the Level 3 cards come out, it may become impossible to acquire new cards when you cannot afford the 7, 8, 9 or 10 gold cost. I've seen a three player game where one player was unable to buy cards three rounds in a row. And the economy and division of these cards gets even worse with four players.

Overall, this is a great two player quick deck-builder. I'll play it with three still, but I would hesitate very much before playing it with four. I am enthralled by the choices presented in this simple game. It doesn't take over Arctic Scavenger's position as my favorite deck-builder, but its clever implementation of mechanisms, its wealth of decisions to be made each round, and the quick set up and break down time with a small footprint on the table makes it one that will easily become one of my go to games not just as a light filler, but for something to quickly whet my appetite for something a little deeper in thought and strategy when my wife and I have a little bit of time to play together.


  1. Charles

    Thanks for reviewing my game. If you find yourself at Gen Con, please look me up at the AEG booth.

    Tom Cleaver

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