A Deckbuilding Look at Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings is an older game from AEG that’s one of the smaller deckbuilders, coming in at just 96 cards. Though a lot of its mechanics look familiar, there’s also enough variation to keep things new and interesting.

Valley of the King already has two standalone expansions: Afterlife and Last Rites.

The Game

In Valley of the Kings (2014), the object is to leave behind a great tomb. Much of the basic play is what you’d expect. You play cards for either special actions or for gold, which is used to buy additional cards. However, each turn you can also “entomb” one card: you basically filter it out of play.

The catch in Valley of the Kings is that your entombed cards make up all your points. And, it’s entombed sets of cards that really score. If you entomb a bunch of different cards all in the same set, then you score a bunch of points!

The Good

Great Set Collection. The sets in Valley of the Kings look a lot like categories of cards in other deckbuilders: they’re each marked with the same color and they each have sort of similar powers.

The catch is that the sets in Valley of the Kings are worth lots of points if you can actually entomb them together. So, even moreso than in most deckbuilders, you’re trying to collect sets of the same types of cards — not just to have a set that works well together, but to have a set that scores well together.

Great Card Filtering. The entombing is the golden heart of the game. Filtering has always been important in deckbuilders, because it’s how you remove the bad ‘ole cards from your deck. However, Don’t Turn Your Back (2015) was one of the few games that made filtering a more integral part of the game, by turning it into a majority-control contest. Meanwhile, Tyrants of the Underdark (2016) made it a way to increase the value of your good cards.

The filtering in Valley of the Kings feels the most like Tyrants of the Underdark — and may even have been its inspiration. However, the filtering feels even more important in Valley of the Kings, but it’s all your scoring. It encourages you to filter from turn one and to seriously consider filtering good cards.

There’s in fact so much filtering in Valley of the Kings that it can be problematic: the designer has talked about how winnowing your hand down to five cards was a killer strategy — forcing him to design cards to favor larger decks in the first supplement, Afterlife (2015).

In ay case, this raising up of an under-appreciated deckbuilding mechanic is overall well done.

Great Card Purchase. The card purchase method is a classic one that originated with Ascension (2010): six random cards are available for purchase each round. But, there’s a catch. The cards are arranged in a pyramid and you can only buy cards from the lowest level; cards from the higher levels then fall down as the lower ones are bought.

First up, you have to love the literal theming of this mechanic. But, it also works very well because it’s carefully integrated into the play of the rest of the game. Several of the starter cards allow you to swap cards in the pyramid, while later cards make it possible to buy or even take cards from anywhere in the pyramid. This mechanic could have restricted things to the point where it over-clogged, but instead thanks to the careful integration it actually becomes easier to work with than the center row of Ascension.

Multiple Eras of Play. It’s a rare deckbuilder that arranges its cards into eras of play. Copycat (2012) is one of the few others. Generally, I like the mechanic: it’s game-y, but it often produces better games. It’s particularly nice in a deckbuilder where you can ramp up the costs and effects.

Fun Theming. Finally, the theming of Valley of the Kings is great. I absolutely love the fact that you’re filling a tomb with great stuff. This feels really evocative, because you see the stack of cards in your tomb throughout the game, and so can viscerally connect with your collection.

The Interesting

High Player Interactivity. This game may have the highest interactivity that I’ve seen for any deckbuilder. I’m not just talking about attacking — though there’s some of that. However, there’s also a really surprising amount of passing cards around: you add cards to your opponents’ tombs or decks or take cards from them. Fiddling with someone else’s decks has largely been verboten in deckbuilders (with the exception of giving people Curses or similar cards), so I’m really happy to see it in a design — and I think it works pretty well.

The designer says that he got good feedback for making Valley of the Kings more than just “multiplayer solitaire”, so when he designed Afterlife he also purposefully increased the amount of player interaction.

The Bad

Limited Variability. The gameplay of Valley of the Kings is relatively staid. Cards tend to manipulate the tomb, manipulate the pyramid, or affect other players’ cards. Meanwhile, much of the play focuses on set collection. There’s plenty here for the relatively short length of the game, but I’m not sure that Valley of the King will hold up well to extended play. (Fortunately, expansions can help with this sort of problem.)

Limited Expandability. Mind you, those expansions are slightly problematic too, due to the core design of the game. You can’t just randomly mix multiple expansions of cards together. Instead, you have to carefully take out one set and replace it with another set of the same size. I suppose this is sort of like putting in a new category of 10 cards in Dominion, but it’s much more intricate, as you’re having to decide which expansion’s cards to use for each differently sized set.

Conclusion

Though Valley of the King’s mechanics are simplistic, the introduction of set-collection creates a nice variant of deckbuilding play that’s innovative and intriguing. Add that on to some fun theming and some quick play, and you have a deckbuilder that doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park, but which does offer some innovative play that’s well worth trying.

2 thoughts on “A Deckbuilding Look at Valley of the Kings

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