In a Game of Thrones, Valyrian steel is used to forge the greatest weaponry in the known world. Our Valeria is apparently known for cardboard but while cardboard might not sound as immediately impressive, if we are really honest with ourselves we’d agree that it’s much cheaper, easier and, probably, more fun to be playing with cardboard. After all, we are board gamers, not sword fighters.
Ok, some of us are both. I’m afraid this blog really only caters for the board gamers.
Sorry about that.
Valeria Card Kingdoms is a deep and meaningful exploration of the relationship between territories, monsters and the people who inhabit one and avoid the other. Well. Maybe not that deep and meaningful. It’s about fate. It’s about building a brighter Kingdom. It’s about cards. Lots of cards.
Valeria features a card market of epic proportions. Some 20 stacks of cards makes for a somewhat daunting setup that demands efficiency. The saving grace comes from a sensible box insert with dividers to keep everything organised between games. It’s an attention to components that is clearly carried through to the wonderfully colourful art and shaped wooden resources. It’s a level of production you hope for from an ex-Kickstarter title and particularly one from Daily Magic Games, a company that caught my eye a while ago for its lovely looking games, that I’d been looking forward to trying out ever since.
So, Valeria. A land of heroes (and peasants), monsters to slay in a highly specific order, and many and varied Domains to build/conquer/visit with Valeria’s 2 for 1 on tourist destinations. But the important starting point is the people. People are what fuel your economy and enable you to do everything else and it’s how you choose to build up this workforce that will primarily drive your game. New hires get added to your expanding tableau and may, with some good fortune, become productive members of your little community. Let’s talk dice.
Valeria uses a mechanism that will be familiar to anyone that has played Machi Koro. On a player’s turn they roll the pair of dice and then everyone triggers the power of the people whose numbers match the two values rolled, and the individual whose number is equal to the sum of those values. So the roll above with a 2 and a 4 triggers the merchant, an archer if I had bought one, and the knight. This is a lovely, satisfying mechanism because it means you are always doing something on other people’s turns and better yet you are celebrating a good roll while pinning after what might have been: wishing you’d bought that missing character type so you could have benefitted this round too.
Most of the character powers in the game let you gain a small patter of the game’s three resources, gold (for buying), shields (for killing) and magic (for pretending to be either of the others but you at least need some of the base resource to use it). Some, like the merchant, let you trade one resource into the other. Others have some unique elements like the thief who unsurprisingly steals a resource, or the Blacksmith who gains you warrior-type characters. So the game sets up this immediately comprehensible puzzle: how do I get all the resources I want as often as possible. Is it better to get one of every character to always benefit when the dice are rolled or is it better to get a load of one type so that when that number is rolled you get a big pay out and the excuse to cheer obnoxiously? The answer is both. Or neither. Or… It seems pretty balanced ok!?
But this dice rolling also creates an emotional investment that took me somewhat by surprise. That’s not to say they were particularly deep emotions, but coming out of a round of dice rolls where a particular character had triggered made me want to double down on that approach and get more of that character. Seeing a number come up that I didn’t have made me want to plug that probability gap in my tableau. This is true even when logically it might not make sense to do so. The emotional payoff of all those dice rolls and micro-rewards spills over into your turn to imbue it with that much more excitement and investment than your typical euro game.
Just picking up a basic engine building tableau card is more thrilling than it should be, filled with risk and potential. But as the game goes on and your piles of gathered resources grow ever faster you get the satisfaction of purchasing the more expensive Dominions and slaying the more powerful boss-sized monsters and that feels great. Dominions also add in special rules which might open up your strategies, the monsters drop loot which can sometimes give you just what you need for that key second action purchase and that feels good too.
Valeria does so much to make you feel good. It’s classic engine builder really but hides how well your opponents are doing. So you get points for the dominions you build and for the monsters you slay, as printed on the cards. You also earn points at the end of the game according to your Duke’s most precious, deepest desires. Like having lots of workmen or priests or whatever symbols he wants you to collect. This keeps the end game suitably tense and rewards you with surprise victories, even if the adding up can prove mentally draining at times.
But Valeria does leave you to mostly play on your own, aside from the odd stealing ability and the competition of certain cards, especially the unique dominions and the more impressive monsters. It could also benefit from some more interesting and varied rules. While there are two characters for each numbered slot for you to mix in and out, and 8 monster sets for 5 spaces, the behaviour of these cards does not vary to the same degree as the artwork. The monsters are all fundamentally the same, bar a varying cost and reward. The characters come down to either gain X resource or trade Y into Z. This fits the accessible nature of the game and while that lack of complex interactions might put some players off, it didn’t me.
As I have hopefully espoused already in this article, the central core reward loop from the dice and your cards was satisfying enough for me. There are plenty of varied strategies simply within that. I want to see if a peasant army can march to victory, whether I can get the criminally under-rolled 11/12 cards to succeed as a central core of my Kingdom. A given Dominion card can lead you down a certain way of playing sometimes. Valeria does not lack for different things to try.
I sadly haven’t played Machi Koro, so can’t provide a comparison to that game. Instead, all I can say is that Valeria: Card Kingdoms has been a real treat! When all of your actions and options feel positive, and you are constantly rewarded over the course of the game for those choices, you have a game that is just a pleasure to play whether you win or lose. Without expansions (of which there are now several, amazingly cheap, small card packs) it might be missing some of the depth that I often look for, but sometimes a simpler game is able to grab you in a way those more complex titles won’t. Valeria is one such game.
Rating: A Steel
Have you played Valeria Card Kingdoms, or better yet, its expansions? What did you think of it/them? Let me know in the comments!