Shifting Sands – Valley of the Kings review

VotK Box

Since the arrival of Dominion and the ensuing wave of deckbuilders, the genre has quickly become one of the most popular around. They boast a longevity that many other game types just can’t match – even a base set of Dominion will last the average group of gamers a lifetime thanks to the impressive amount of combinations that you can make from the different card groups. The expansions for games Thunderstone increase the amount of layouts to a ridiculous degree, as well as making the boxes even heavier. I defy anyone to lift my Thunderstone Advance set without ruining their back (in fact, that may be one of the contributing factors to my current spinal problems…) so wouldn’t it be lovely to have a quality deckbuilder that you could fit in your pocket? A propos of nothing, what’s this I find upon my desk? Why, it’s a copy of Valley of the Kings from AEG! How very fortuitous!

Another release in AEG’s small box line, Valley of the Kings aims to do the whole deckbuilding thing in one-hundred (ish) cards while still providing a quality gameplay experience – and I’m delighted to say that it does incredibly well. As you’d expect from the title it’s set in Ancient Egypt, and though theme is never really the strongest part of any game in this genre there’s a few things in VotK that play up to this world of tombs and mummies. The idea behind the game is that you and your opposition are Egyptian nobles who seemingly have one foot in the grave, so they need to be looking to make their afterlives as comfortable as possible. To do so you’ll need to pack out your tomb with as many luxuries as possible by collecting sets of artifacts, with larger sets scoring more points. As is so often the way, the highest scorer will be victorious.

For the uninitiated, here’s deckbuilding for beginners: Starting with a hand of trash cards (called Level I cards here), you’ll draw from an ever recycling deck in order to get gold. This will be spent to pull in new cards that are ‘better’ – worth more gold, generally. Some cards may have special abilities on them which can be used to affect your actions rather than be used for their gold value, so decisions will need to be made. Every time your turn is over, the cards you’ve used and bought go to your discard pile. When you need to draw from your deck and done have enough cards, you shuffle your discards and make a new draw pile. Some cards will allow you to get rid of others, thinning out your deck and ensuring that your stronger, more valuable cards come around more often. It’s a beautiful engine for a game, and it’s done very well here.

Valley of the Kings does simplify the genre a little, but not to its detriment. Rather than having stacks and stacks of different cards, you only get to select from a line of three when your turn comes around. You’ll find a really interesting and unique method of laying out the cards in VotK – they’re placed in a pyramid formation with the available three on the bottom line, two above them and one on the top – and players actually have an element of control over getting the cards into that lower level. Called the ‘Crumbling Pyramid’ in the instructions, cards drop down a level when one is bought or moved out of the way; so if you want the card thats on the right on the middle level, you’ll need to buy either the middle or right cards on the lower level first, allowing the one you want to drop into that space immediately. It’s a really interesting method of working out your forward planning, though with a higher player count you won’t often have the same line-up of cards available by the time the game gets back around to you.

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So, if the Middle Sarcophagus in the bottom row is bought (for 4 Gold), either the Book or Statue drop into it’s place, with the Amulet then falling into the middle row and a new card taking its place. If the Ka Figurine is bought, the Book of Gates would fall, followed by the Amulet. Simple once you get it!

 

At the end of your turn, you get to ‘Entomb’ a card – in other words, set it aside for scoring when the game ends. Doing so is an important decision… do you stash a powerful card away in order to protect it, or do you leave it out to use during future rounds with the possibility of you not getting the chance to put it in the tomb before the game ends? With only Entombed cards counting towards your score, it’s a tough call!

As mentioned, you’re looking to collect unique sets of items in order to score points – having the same items (a pair of ‘Statues of Anubis’, for example) don’t count towards your end total. Each set is colour coded and the higher the amount you have, the larger your score will be – the numbers go up in squares, so having two unique cards of the same colour brings in 4 points while seven (making up an entire set) is a huge 49, though any game where that happens will be a rare one indeed. Some cards also have a small points value that should be added to get your final total. It’s a simple scoring system that means you can total up your points pretty swiftly once the game’s over and you’ve laid out your sets. In fact, it feels like everything in Valley of the Kings has been done to make your life easy – apart from when you’re playing, of course. Despite coming in a small box, this is a game that’s a spiteful as it is quick to play. Stealing cards from the pyramid, moving them around to put them out of reach of your fellow nobles… screwing with your opponents through manipulation of the pyramid is encouraged, which is surprising in a game from a genre that is often accused of having its fair share multiplayer solitaire efforts.

In short, Valley of the Kings is a wonderful little thing. It manages to present the whole deckbuilding thing to you with a tiny table footprint and a small box, but would it replace the copies of Dominion, Thunderstone Advance or (ahem) Tanto Cuore that sit in my collection? No, but it certainly deserves a place on the shelf as a fantastic accompaniment. AEG are doing some great stuff with this new small box line, and I hope that they continue to do so in future. Designer Tom Cleaver has shown that you don’t need a huge box to present a game that has a big feel to it and he’s done an excellent job within the constraints presented to him. I look forward to seeing what he and other designers come up with for future releases in this line.

Valley of the Kings was released in 2014 by AEG. Designed by Tom Cleaver with art by Banu Andaru, between two and four players can indulge in being Ancient Egyptians through the medium of cards. Games will take you around thirty minutes (including setup and breakdown) and a copy will set you back around £15 from the folks at Gameslore. Get yourself a copy today and keep it in your gaming travel bag!

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Episode 79 – UKGE 2014 Part Two!

A brand new episode of the show from the UK Games Expo brings another two big names from the industry to your ears! This time around it’s the Z-Man himself, Zev Shlasinger, the head of Z-Man Games. While I normally get to grab a few scant minutes with Zev every year over at Essen, this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to sit down with him and catch up with him properly, talking not just about his company’s latest releases but also the story behind Z-Man Games itself. Following that, I got to speak to Justin Ziran, the president of WizKids Games. Makers of this summer’s hottest and hardest-to-find release (Marvel Dice Masters) they’ve come under some heavy fire regarding the shortages. Find out why and more besides in this interview! And special thanks to Dani from Esdevium for sorting out the interviews!

Links:

Z-Man Games - http://zmangames.com/home.php

Zev’s BGG Page - http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgamedesigner/5610/zev-shlasinger

WizKids Games - http://wizkidsgames.com/

UK Games Expo - https://www.ukgamesexpo.co.uk/

 

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Dreamboat – Keyflower review

Keyflower Cover

It’s like one of those movies where the main character and their best friend (who is of the opposite sex and, of course, insanely attractive to everyone bar the protagonist) finally realise that, after all these years, they actually love each other. It sneaked up on them after years of their other friends telling them that they should get together, that they’d be perfect with each other – and so it was with me and Keyflower. Kind of.

Of course, the relationship between me and this box of cardboard and wood isn’t going to involve luxurious spa weekends and dinner parties, ending up with us spawning beautiful children – that would be weird, much like the whole beginning of this piece. It’s more like Richard Breese’s series of Key games have been around in my gaming world for some time, each one making me laugh (externally) and cry (internally) and think about what I’m doing more than many of the games I own. And it’s all built up into the first kiss in the rain moment that is Keyflower.

This may well be the perfect game, guys. I think I want to spend my life with it.

Right, enough of this rather silly extended metaphor. Keyflower, co-designed by Breese alongside the alarmingly talented Sebastian Bleasdale, is a stunningly wonderful game. I’ve honestly loved all of the Key games that I’ve played previously, but I seriously reckon that this one is as near to perfect a Eurogame that you could ever conceive. Alongside Agricola and Acquire, this is now up there in what I refer to as the Martini Class of games. I’ll play them Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere. There’s a reference for the kids to hunt down on Wikipedia. Lorraine Chase will be showing up next (no she won’t, that was Campari – Stealth Edit Michael).

Why is it such a winner? Options. So many of them. I’ve played this countless times now and every game has played out in different fashions, despite being a comparatively simple affair. Your aim is to score as many points as possible but with so many different ways in doing so, each time you play will spin out a new story. Oh, and it’s a glorious, devious, nasty bastard of a story at that – just the way I like my games to be.

Beginning with a single hexagonal Home tile laid out before you and a bunch of randomly drawn red, yellow and blue meeples hidden away from view, you’ll be looking to create an efficient little hamlet that will build up over the course of the game, finally exploding (hopefully) into a huge, many-point-scoring beast of a thing in the final round. However, to do that you’ll need to plan from the very start of play, react intelligently to other peoples’ decisions and generally be an equal parts clever and sneaky swine.

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This is the only Keyflower image I can find on my iPhone. I’d take more photos but I’m far too busy playing the game. DEAL WITH IT.

Once you’re ready to roll, the first of four rounds begins with a decision. The game plays out over the course of four seasons beginning with Spring, but before you get into the meat of things, you must look to the future – or the final round, at least – by checking out some of the tile options that will be made available in the Winter round. The aim of this is to give you something to plan towards as each of them are potentially worth a large amount of points, but remember – the other players will be doing exactly the same too, and if you’ve got a decent knowledge of what the game offers you could well start working out what they’re looking at using in that final round. The interesting twist is that despite the fact you have these tiles in your locker, when that final round comes you don’t actually have to use all of them. In fact, you could choose to put only one into the mix which is totally fine. Just don’t count on getting it…

I’ve kind of jumped the gun a little here, so it’s probably a good idea to wind back and look at the meat of how the game works. At the start of each of the four rounds, a random selection of hexagonal tiles are laid out (dependent on player count). As mentioned previously, players begin with their own sole central tile and a handful of coloured meeples. When your turn comes around, these meeples are used to do one of two things – either get placed ON a tile in order to trigger its action or placed BESIDE a tile to lay claim to it and hopefully add it to your home area at the start of the next round. One thing to consider – once even a single meeple has placed, that tile is locked to that colour for the rest of the round, so intelligent placement of one of your guys can truly mess someone up who’s been hoarding a different colour.

There are also tiles that represent boats, bringing in new meeples and skill tokens that can be claimed at the end of the round, so meeples can be spent laying claim to the picking order. This bidding process, whether for a boat’s contents or a new tile, is one of the lovelier elements of Keyflower; only the highest bidder’s meeples are returned to the bag as payment and the losing bidders have their little dudes returned. However, any meeples that have been placed on a tile in the central area that you’ve won get absorbed into your own clan for use in the next round. Managing to get your hands on a valuable tile might be costly, but you could get paid back in spades!

One thing of note (and again, it’s a rather lovely idea) – if you’re the first person to use a tile, it’ll only cost you one of your meeples. The next person will have to pay two, the third three… but it stops there. Three actions and that tile is spent for the rest of the round, so there’s this glorious element of trying to get your timing perfect – do you jump in on a tile that you know someone else will want to use earlier, forcing them to spend more meeples later down the line or, potentially, screwing them over by locking it down after using it for a third time?

Even better, those tiles that you claim and add to your little town? They’re still open for business. Other players may use them, despite the tiles now being a part of your home set-up. The same rules apply, a maximum of three actions per round, but – and it’s a big, wonderful but – any meeples on your town at the end of the round again become part of your every growing army. They’ll be pulling in resources, moving them around your town, upgrading the tiles to make them better (pay the cost and flip them over to reveal a more lucrative side!).

Eventually Winter will roll around and the boats are now empty – after all, who’d want to move house in the snow? However, they each offer a hefty bonus, so it’s still worth laying claim to them. The players add their selected tiles to the middle and see what everyone else chose, then the final bidding war begins. I’ve found that the last round of a game of Keyflower generally plays out pretty quickly in comparison to earlier ones; there’s less brain burning happening as you’ve generally got a plan in your head. The only thing is you’ve got to fight for it with your opposition and that can get expensive – prepare to sacrifice a lot of meeples if more than one player desires it!

As you’d expect, the game ends with points getting totalled up, bonuses from the boats and Winter tiles are added and hoorah, you’ve got your winner. However, for me it’s often been more about the play than who wins in the end. Sure, it’s always nice to add another point to the victory column, but it feels like just playing the game is a win by itself. Everything works so well in there. It’s like a finely tuned machine where every element functions to the best of its ability – not a single thing is broken and every dial is firmly in the green. Frankly, it’s a bloody wonder, and testament to the combined skill of Richard and Sebastian.

When I first got my copy, I must admit to being a little terrified by it – there’s a fair amount of setup in Keyflower and the rules don’t look like the most inviting game around – but when I bit the bullet and went for it it was just perfect. It’s a cute looking game that contains plenty of oomph, and when that “Why, Miss Jones… You’re Beautiful!” moment strikes, you’ll immediately realise that this glorious game should always be a part of your collection. Now… what’s this I hear about a Farmers expansion?

Keyflower was designed by Richard Breese and Sebastian Bleasdale, and was first released by R&D Games in 2012. Between two and six people can play and – in all honesty – it works perfectly no matter how many people you have sat around your table. When it’s available, you’ll be able to pick up copies from Gameslore (and all other fine stores!) for around £30. And it will be the best £30 you’ve spent in a long time. Guaranteed.

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Storytellers – Romance of the Nine Empires and Tales of the Arabian Nights reviews

Emma returns with a two-fer, kicking ass and taking notes on AEG’s Romance of the Nine Empires and Tales of the Arabian Nights from Z-Man Games. One comes out really well! The other… less so.

RNE Cover

It’s funny how synchronicity creeps up in you sometimes. In the past few weeks, I’ve played two games involving lots of words and slightly ambiguous mechanics that see you thrust into a sprawling fantasy world of dense backstory and frequent anachronism, where you must not only fight your friends, but seek glory and adventure in order to win. The main difference is, one of them was good.

First up, Romance of the Nine Empires (R9E from here on out, since that is a surprisingly long name to type) is the new (ish) CCG-but-not from AEG, and clearly takes a lot from their other foray into the CCG market, Legend of the Five Rings (hereafter L5R, or “you know, the one that isn’t Magic”). “Newish, Emma?” you say, “It clearly says ‘15th Anniversary Edition’ on the box!” You’re right, but stop talking to my reviews. It’s weird. The truth is, this is a game based on a game in a film based on a game based on L5R, and comes bundled with all the fictional backstory it got in the film, a long-running tale of tournaments and aliens and time-displaced soldiers that lets the first edition of the physical game simultaneously be the 15th anniversary. Now, if you think this sounds needlessly convoluted and confusing, you’re basically right – the game’s (enormous) rulebook sticks to the made-up history throughout apart from one small paragraph, making any sane player wonder if there’s an older, entry-level version of the game available.

While this conceit isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker in itself (I play Risk Legacy, I love alternate history), it starts to really grate when it gets in the way of the rules – for example, in the tiny paragraph explaining ability keywords (a vital piece of information hinted at nowhere else), it states that while most keywords have no in-game meaning (fair enough), some have game-changing effects not mentioned on the cards (sigh) and some are only included to ensure compatibility with the Second Edition of the game (an edition which, I hasten to remind you, does not exist). Around this point, you start to wonder if the designers were just deliberately messing with their players, and that impression grows as you start trying to learn the game. As I touched upon earlier, the rulebook is unhelpfully written at best, but the game also comes with a simplified ‘Read This First!” booklet, designed to get you set up and playing in minutes. Allegedly. It swiftly becomes clear that this actually means ‘play a dozen fractions of an actual game over the next few days of your life while you slowly wonder why you ever decided to play this game’. And I’m not exaggerating (much): not only does the quickstart booklet contain frequent references back to the rulebook, its official stance on learning the game is that players should play five training games in a row, introducing new cards and new rules each time. And I tried to do this, I really did.

And you know how far I got? Half a game.

We started playing with the best will in the world, but the rulebook was beginning to put us off within the first turn. And then we got to the combat rules, and after a solid half-hour of staring at the rulebook, willing it to reform into actual sentences and explain what the hell “declaring immunity” actually meant, the seven decks of cards, two rulebooks at 83 billion tiny tokens were back in the box and on a train headed for Siberia. (We really need to find a new way to dispose of bad games, this is getting expensive.)

TAN Cover

The other game was…well, it wasn’t R9E, which is a massive advantage to begin with. Instead, it was the 2nd edition of Z-Man’s polarising Tales of the Arabian Nights, and, as you can probably guess if you read my introduction and can count to two, I liked it. In fact, I would go further than that – it’s easily one of my top 10 games ever. In Arabian Nights, you play characters from the titular collection of stories, ranging from the well-known (Aladdin, Sinbad) to the well-known-but-not-in-a-cartoon (Ali Baba, Scheherazade) to the ‘who?’ (Zumurrud, Ma’aruf), who travel around a beautifully-illustrated map of Asia, Africa and Europe, getting into scrapes and hoping to be the first to collect their target of Story and Destiny points (earned by getting into scrapier scrapes) before returning to Baghdad. On your turn, you move somewhere according to your wealth, draw an Encounter card to see what you’ve met, roll a dice to tell something else about it, choose what you’re going to do to/with/for/around/in response to it (hint: Drink is always the correct answer), and the person on your right with the massive set of cross-referencing tables will translate all of this into a number, which he passes to the person on your left, who reads the corresponding story segment from the Book of Tales, usually describing why what you just did was a terrible idea and giving you a range of statuses and effects, from ‘Blessed’ and ‘Magic Lamp’ to ‘Accursed’, ‘Sex-Changed’ or ‘Imprisoned’ (the latter set being far more likely). Then the next person takes their go.

If you’re thinking this sounds massively simplistic, lacking in agency, and generally a lot like old-school Choose Your Own Adventure books, you’re pretty much right on all counts. However, all of these seeming flaws are converted into fantastic qualities by the crux of the game, the Book of Tales. You start to get an idea of the book’s main attributes when you pick up the game box and are reminded that paper is actually slightly more dense than wood (seriously, that thing weighs a ton), and then you open it and are confronted by a book roughly the size of your house, but containing a lot more adventure and personality. In this edition, there are over 2600 (!) entries, ensuring a different game experience every time, and that’s definitely the right word for them – experiences. I would lay a decent amount of money that, with any game you enjoy, every counter and token has been imbued with backstory and personality by the end, and Arabian Nights takes that idea and runs with it from the start. For example, in my last game, my very first move included me throwing a man into a fire on board a ship and spending the rest of the game trying to evade the law in Adrianople (a state of affairs oddly similar to getting married in this game). Sure, you just run around the board watching weird stuff happen to you, with comparatively little effect on the outcome (largely because you chose completely the wrong skills at the start – no matter what you chose, they were wrong), and that’s simultaneously the game’s greatest flaw as a ‘game’ and its biggest feature as an experience. Hardcore gamers might balk, but if the idea of getting a few friends together to go on surprising adventures and laugh/weep/swear at your horrible, horrible luck appeals to you, you need to play this game.

Like seriously.

Romance of the Nine Empires was designed by Mark Wooton and released by AEG in 2013 (not 1998). A new expansion, Arcane Fire, has just been released. Meanwhile, Z-Man Games’ Tales of the Arabian Nights is an Anthony J. Gallela (amongst others) design which was first put out in 2009. We leave it to you to decide which one you’d prefer!

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We Are Detective – I Say, Holmes! review

With the BBC producing a truly wonderful version of the Sherlock Holmes mythos (helped in no small part by having Stephen Moffat at the helm – all bow now), there’s little wonder that there’s new Sherlock stuff popping up. We gave Emma a copy of I Say, Holmes! from Victory Point Games, a remake of an original 2007 release – and… well… read for yourself.

Web

When I got my copy of I Say, Holmes!, the new release from noted pizza-box-manufacturers Victory Point Games, I’ll confess, I was intrigued. We live in an age of rather good Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but it’s not really a theme you see much in games, so I was interested to see how it would pan out. The shine started to fade when I got it out of the box, though – the cards feel cheap and the printing’s misaligned, which I can kind of understand given VPG’s emphasis on gameplay over production values, but when the first page of your rulebook claims that the game is based on the works of “Sir Author Conan Doyle [sic]”, it’s gone a bit far. Seriously, guys – even if you just get your proofreading done in-house, you should still get it done, or it just gives your players a terrible first impression. Still, I’ll forgive a lot if the game itself is good, so let’s get past the slightly dodgy components and into the gameplay proper.

I Say, Holmes! does a good job of simulating all the classic action we remember from the Holmes novels, like chasing criminals, flaunting your deductive skills, and…riding hansom cabs in circles for hours? We all remember that bit, right? In any case, it’s a simple game at heart – you take turns playing cards featuring characters, locations and events from the Holmes stories, and each one has a few types of card listed on it that can follow it. So far, so Uno. Your ultimate aim is to work out who’s got the five Villain cards (which can’t be played, but just sit in your hand looking menacing) and eventually arrest them, either by playing an Arrest card or running out of cards in your hand, forcing you to make an impromptu arrest. Alternatively, if you have any Villains, you can end the round by running out of non-Villain cards, at which point they escape and you get a handful of points. If the round ends with an arrest, depending on how many points’ worth of cards are in everybody’s hands, the winning player gets one of several tokens representing Holmes’ various adventures, and the game ends when somebody is forced to take the lowest-value token, His Last Bow. This is an interesting little system, but it means the game could be over in a round or two if people aren’t particularly good at the game.

ISH Stuff

 

On the other hand, it could conceivably never end – rounds that end with Villains escaping don’t get you a book, so if players are cagey enough, there could never be any arrests and the books could last forever. Still, simple rules, possible balance issues, interesting theme – sounds like a perfect party game, right? Well, it might have been, except for its issues with time. While the number of rounds could be surprisingly large, that doesn’t seem like it’d be too bad given that the rulebook says each round should only take 5-10 minutes. To be quite honest, though, I have literally no idea how they arrived at that number, as every round I played came to at least half an hour, and we abandoned the game after like three rounds had taken us a full two hours. The setup takes forever, with it being necessary to sort through the entire 100-something card deck for a specific set of starting cards at the start of every single round, and all too often, rounds turn into an endless refrain of everybody just drawing cards until the right kind of thing turns up and we can actually get back to the game. This is most noticeable with the aforementioned hansom cabs – if somebody plays a Travel card (which comprise like a third of the deck), the only kind of cards playable off it are Locations, which seem oddly under-represented, and the game grinds to a halt as everybody takes turn drawing cards until one turns up. Combined with this, there are only 5 (!) Arrest cards in the entire deck, and at least that many cards that can cancel an Arrest, so everybody’s just waiting to run out of cards, which can take what feels like forever when you’re constantly drawing to try and get off a train.

If you’re getting the sense that there isn’t much player agency in this one, you’d be entirely correct – throughout the game, it just felt like all I was doing was drawing cards until I could find the one appropriate one I could play, without really making any meaningful choices. Again, that wouldn’t necessarily be so bad in a light little party game, but this needs a surprisingly large time investment, completely destroying its party-game credentials. Overall, I Say, Holmes! is kind of a bloated, unfun mess, and I can’t really recommend it to anyone, but for some reason, I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. There’s the grain of a good game in there, and I’m trying to believe that I’ve just read the rulebook wrong and the terrible game I played was my own fault, but I honestly can’t see how that could be the case. One to avoid, and my copy isn’t hanging around.

OK, so Emma may not have enjoyed it, but we only serve to inform here at LMDS, not order you about! Victory Point Games can be found at http://www.victorypointgames.com/ (shockingly enough), so head on over and see some of the stuff they do!

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