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! Continue reading

The Design and Care of a Tile-Based City Builder

Tile-based city building games are among my favorites. That’s in large part due to the creativity that they introduce. I mean, I’m one of the generation that grew up with SimCity (1989), obliviously building until the sun began to flood into my college dorm room, suggesting that it was time to be off to bed. I love being able to put together the puzzle pieces of a city, and a good tile-based city builder lets you do that.

City TycoonThe General Shape of the Game

When I’m talking about tile-based city builders, I’m specifically limiting my consideration to game designs that meet several criteria:

  1. Obviously, they allow you to build cities out of tiles: usually square tiles, but occasionally hexes.
  2. Often, you’ll have your own city that you’re working on … but quite a few games instead have you contributing to to a joint city.
  3. The tiles that you place are complete and coherent buildings, businesses, residences, or other structures within a city. They’re not just parts of a whole.

There are probably hundreds of tile-based city games that I could have picked from in writing this article. I opted for the ones that I know the best, because I’ve played them. I’ve mostly focused on recent ones. My complete list for this article includes: Acquire (1964), Alhambra (2003), Between Two Cities (2015), Big City (1999)Carcassonne: The City (2004), Chinatown (1999), City Tycoon (2011), Key to the City: London (2016), Quadropolis (2016), Saint Malo (2012), Suburbia (2012), and Urbania (2012). Obviously I could have picked others (and I may expand this article in the future).  Continue reading

The Design of a Resource-Efficiency Game

A resource-efficiency game focuses on turning resources into victory points through a chain of actions. It’s a very common design style for euro games, but also one with considerable room for variety.

The recently released Manhattan Project: Chain Reaction (2016) shows the style at its simplest. You start out with worker resources. You turn those into yellow cake, which you turn into uranium, which becomes victory-point bombs. There’s a single development path for a four-link chain. The game is all in how fast you can walk that path.

Catan ConflictThe ever-popular Catan (1995) shows a different methodology. A variety of resources become roads, settlements, and cities. You can also look at this as a four-link chain: resources are necessary to create roads, which are necessary to build settlements, which in turn upgrade to cities. However, as with many more complex resource-efficiency games, there’s a feedback loop: settlements and cities can create more resources. Thus the game becomes not just about maximizing efficiency but also maximizing opportunities. Continue reading

A Bagbuilding Look at Orléans

Dominion (2008) kicked off a whole new genre of play: the deckbuilding games. But it’s also created a few spin-offs of its own, with Orléans (2014, 2015) being one of the more far-flung examples.


Styles of Building Play

Though Dominion is all about deckbuilding, a few variants of that core gameplay have appeared.

Deckbuilding. Dominion (2008) debuted the core idea of deckbuilding play. Players start with a deck of mediocre cards that allow them to undertake actions. Over the course of the game players add new, better cards to their deck and remove old, worse ones. Each turn, they’ll randomly draw some of those cards; hopefully they’ll be a coherent set that allows them to take great actions.

Dicebuilding. Quarriors (2011) was the first dicebuilding game. Here players instead start with a handful of dice and buy new ones to improve their dice pool over time. The randomness of the play is moved: where in a deckbuilding game, players draw random cards, in a dice building game, players instead roll random results. This somewhat constrains the randomness: where deckbuilding games tend to be binary (you get a result or not), dice building games tend to have more nuance (you get a result, but its level of effect varies). Dice building games are also theoretically simpler than deckbuilders, as you can’t fit complex effects on a dice face — but Quarriors fought against this limitation by linking dice to reference cards, which was a bit exhausting.

Of course Quarriers also involved a bag: you draw six dice from up to twelve in the bag each turn. But, it’s better to keep that aside for the moment, as the use of a bag defines the newest sort of *builder game … Continue reading

The Alea Analysis, Part Nine: The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Artus (M#7), Las Vegas (M#8)

This article is the eighth in a continuing series that analyzes the entire Alea line of games. For past articles you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four; or San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV in Part Five; or Palazzo, Augsburg 1520, and Rum & Pirates in Part SixNotre Dame, In The Year of the Dragon, and Witch’s Brew in Part Seven; or Macao, Alea Iacta Est, and Glen More in Part Eight.

By 2011 and 2012, Alea was deep in Stefan Feld land, but that was only the big box series. The medium boxes proved that they were still publishing very interesting games from other designers. Continue reading

Anatomy of a Line: The Manhattan Project

Brands can be important. They tell consumers to expect the expected — that the gum they like has come back into style. But in the board game world, gaming lines have usually focused on expansions and slight variants. Carcassonne offers one of the best examples: there are lots of different games, but they’re all close enough to the original game that you still  pretty much know what you’re getting.

But a few publishers have gone further, using branding to tie together similar games that support the same themes and use some of the same ideas, but aren’t just copies of the same mechanics with slight tweaks. Richard Breese’s Key-series is one of the most long-lived brands of this sort. He’s written a very nice explanation of the points he requires in Key games, which makes it obvious that they can have great variety while still focusing on the same fundamentals.

In the last few years, this sort of branding seems to have become more popular. Eminent Domain now includes a deckbuilder, a two-player micro-deckbuilder, and a totally unrelated microgame. Similarly, The Manhattan Project has encompassed three different games in the last few years: a serious strategy game, a card game conversion, and a second serious strategy game. And that’s the brand I want to look at today, to talk about how the line has evolved. Continue reading

The Voting Game

Today in the United States is voting day. If you’re a US citizen, I encourage you to get out in vote — even though the presidential election is a broken game, as I wrote four years ago. But, before you do, I want to more generally discuss voting as a game mechanic, because it’s a pretty good one, and one that I think should be used in more game.

First I’m going to touch upon the design of three notable voting games, and then I’m going to expand upon that by breaking down the elements of voting design and examining how they could be incorporated into gameplay.


If I didn’t include a game in here, it’s probably because it has the facade of being a voting game, but without an actual voting mechanic. Liberté (2001) is a fine example; it’s theoretically a voting game, but it’s based on a majority control mechanic — because to a certain extent auctions, voting, and majority-control all devolve into the same gameplay. Similarly Die Macher (1986) is obviously a game about elections, but it’s based on complex economic play. Finally, 1960: The Making of a President (2007) is about card play and (once more) majority control. So just remember that the focus here is voting, not politics or the facade of voting. Continue reading