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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