Tag Archives: deckbuilding

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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Rollin’ – Trains review

Trains COVER

As the deckbuilding genre has been around for a while, it’s high time that the next level of games kick in. Where the original big names like Dominion and Thunderstone kept things relatively simple, gamers are now looking for something that takes the concept a little bit further. One of the better games out there that goes that extra mile is Trains, originally released by Japon Brand just prior to Essen 2012. While that first version was perfectly playable without a grasp of katakana, AEG have stepped in and released the game as part of their Big In Japan series – and man, it’s a lovely thing.

Just like pretty much every deck builder out there, you start with a hand of basic cards and are looking to buy better ones that will improve your lot in life. However, this one is taking it to the next level, remember? In Trains, you’re not just dealing with cards; there’s a board too!

Oh yes. A board! Rather than gaining the majority of your points from the cards you’ll be purchasing, instead you’re attempting to build a networked railway across a hex-based map. Cities are dotted around amongst a range of different terrain types, alongside a bunch of high-value spaces that will pull in a good few points if you manage to get in there. The cards you start with give you either money (with which new cards can be bought), the ability to lay track (placing one of your coloured cubes on the map) or build stations (adding a station cylinder to a city hex – more stations mean more points during the endgame).

Purchase cost is in the top right corner, while its money value is top left. Actions and special instructions are at the bottom - and you will grow to hate that little recycle symbol... bloody Waste cards.

Purchase cost is in the top right corner, while its money value is top left. Actions and special instructions are at the bottom – and you will grow to hate that little recycle symbol… bloody Waste cards!

As the game progresses, your little network of cubes will stretch far and wide across the Japanese countryside, eventually crashing into someone else’s line. Thankfully you’re allowed to occupy the same space as other people, the only issue being cost. You’ll have to take into account the cost for building on the terrain type, then pay one extra coin for each other player’s cube in that hex – sometimes, especially in particularly valuable or contentious spaces, you could be spending a fortune just to open up a new area of the board or muscle in on someone else’s high value hex. The question at the back of your mind should always be whether it’s worth the investment.

Of course, as in the real world, all actions have consequences. In Trains building, whether it’s track or stations, creates debris that comes in the form of Waste cards. You will, over the course of mere moments, come to hate these cards that have no purpose whatsoever except for filling your hand with useless cards. Yes, they’re spectacularly annoying, but it’s such a fantastic idea you get to wondering why it hasn’t been done before. Some of the purchasable cards in the game allow you to trade in Waste for extra money or points (ahhh, Landfill, such a useful buy!) but without those in your deck you’re often going to be stuck with a hand of dregs and cursing yet another wasted turn.

I’ve generally found that not many points are scored during play; the vast majority come during the endgame, so it’s not until you’re finished that you’ll really have a handle on who’s the winner. The fact that cards can be bought that are just about points (along the lines of Dominion‘s Provinces and the like)  mean that even if you’re keeping track of everything on the board, it’s up in the air until that final moment.

From a production standpoint, AEG have taken a great game and really put a sheen on top of it. This new version is a hefty thing of glory. Gone are the admittedly charming though rather industrial looking photographs on the cards, replaced with a swish graphical style that, while cartoonish, is far from childish. The whole package looks cool and modern, though the use of the Thunderstone box inlay immediately had me thinking about the possibility of expansion cards. I know the game is only officially being released at this weekend’s GenCon, but surely someone at AEG and Japon Brand are thinking about such things?

Each game will give you sixteen different card types to play with - eight are always the same, while eight are randomized to give plenty of replayability.

Each game will give you sixteen different card types to play with – eight are always the same, while eight are randomized to give plenty of replayability.

I have fallen for Trains in a big way. Last year, getting my hands on a copy proved nigh on impossible. When it was available, it was too expensive, then when I had money it simply couldn’t be found. Now that AEG have rereleased it to what will hopefully be an appreciate audience (and from the buzz coming out of GenCon it seems to be one of the hottest games of the show), I hope that Trains leads the charge of great stuff from Japan. It’s reinvigorated a genre that can often boil down to multiplayer solitaire, demanding interaction between people with the simple introduction of a board. I think that copy of Dominion is going to be staying on the shelf a lot more – Trains is now my deckbuilder of choice.

Trains was designed by Hisashi Hiyashi and was originally released through Japon Brand in 2012. The new English language version is out now and has been produced by AEG. Between two and four people can play with games taking around 40-60 minutes. If you’d like a copy for yourself – and who wouldn’t?! – you can pick one up from Gameslore for £41!

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