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Review: Valeria: Card Kingdoms

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In a rare and refreshing twist on the medieval fantasy trope, the King isn’t quite dead, yet.  Still, he is old and infirm, basically ineffective.  Which means the evil that once feared him long ago is back to exploit his newfound weakness, threatening to shatter the land’s prosperity.  In his stead, you must wear the mantle as a defender of the realm, showing up your lordly peers to save the day. And maybe just prove that you’re ready to assume the throne.  Well, when that unfortunate day arrives, of course!

How To Play

In Valeria: Card Kingdoms you are one of the realm’s eminent Dukes.  You must expand your fief by recruiting Citizens to work and defend your lands.  These denizens provide economic, military, and magical resources. With the capital produced from the backs of their labor you can increase the size of your fief with influential domains and earn renown slaying fantastic monsters.  And with the Frost & Flames expansion, you can also interact with special agents for beneficial and/or devious abilities. All of these activities enhance your wealth and prestige in securing more goods and also victory points!

The table is pre-seeded with a variety of card stacks.  The workhorses of your exploits are Citizens. There are ten stacks, each with a value 1 through 8, while the final two are valued 9/10 and 11/12.  Most values have a couple of different Citizens to pick from, with the expansions adding even more. You may only have one stack of each number, however.  Five stacks of Domains are then placed beneath the Citizens. These are created from a large deck of uniform style, so no need to worry about separating into distinct piles.  The Monsters, however, are identified by category such as Hills, Ruins, Caverns, etc. Pick five locations and stack the Monsters of those appropriate environments in their respective decks above the Citizens.  Finally, if you have the Agents, shuffle that deck and deal five in row further still above the Monsters, with the remainder forming a draw pile nearby.

The sun may be shining on a new day, but evil shadows lurk over the horizon. Can you bring light to the looming darkness?

Players begin with two Citizens – a peasant (5) and a knight (6) – plus a couple gold and a magic.  Then they choose a Duke to play. These assign unique scoring bonuses for collecting certain Citizen and Domain types, or securing Domains, or slaying Monsters, and also for amassing extra resources at the game’s end.

When you’re the active player you will roll two six-sided dice, comparing the results to the Citizens in your dukedom.  This is the Harvest phase. Citizens trigger when their value is rolled and will produce resources according to the bottom of their card – either gold, strength, magic, or a combination thereof.  This can be up to three results – each die activates a Citizen separately, and then the two aggregate results also active a Citizen. If you have denizens of those values, collect what they produce as indicated on the left side of the card.  If you have more than one of that number, then collect for all of them. If you rolled doubles, then each Citizen of that value is activated twice when resolving the dice singley!

Meanwhile, all other players survey their own fiefs, at the same time.  If they have any Citizens that would be triggered by your roll, then they collect swag as indicated on the right side of their activated workers.  Sometimes this is a lesser amount that what the active player earns, sometimes it’s the same, while others times it may be even better! If any player – active or passive – has no Citizens mobilized by a roll, then they simply collect one resource of their choice.  Also, in a 5-player session the Duke to the right of the active player always rests, and does not collect anything regardless of the roll.

We’re ready to serve and do your bidding, m’lady!

After Harvesting, the active player takes two actions, choosing from four options (five if playing with Agents), repeating the same action, if they’d like.

One action is to recruit another Citizen.  These have a varying base cost of between 1 to 4 gold, plus an additional coin for each other Citizen of that type you already have.  After paying, simply take the card and add it to your tableau.

Another action is to buy a Domain. There will always be five available and they always cost money.  Additionally, they each require certain unique combinations of Citizen classes which you must have in your fief to complete them.  There are four classes – worker, soldier, shadow, and holy – as denoted by specific icons. If you have the requisite collection of types and the cash, you may buy the Domain, which is worth points and will provide either a one-time bonus or an ongoing benefit.

The third action is to slay a Monster.  These require expending a certain amount of strength and/or magic to defeat.  If you do so, you win the card and add it to your trophy pile. They, too, are worth points at the end of the game, but will also provide some immediate payoff as well.

One other note with the above actions. Anytime you would spend gold or strength, you may pay magic tokens in their stead as a sort of wild resource – provided you spend at least one gold or strength, whichever was required.

In the base game, the final action is to simply take one resource of your choice, if you absolutely cannot or wish not to do anything else.

Indeed, such humble beginnings. Is this of what kings are made?!

The Flames & Frost expansion included Agents, which provide a fifth action (the Agents were/are also included as a separate expansion pack).  There are always five at a given time and each explains how to interact with them. They generally require resources, however not all of them do.  In exchange, you receive a significant bonus or can mess with an opponent. After interacting with one, it is placed at the bottom of the deck and a new one is drawn.

Anytime a Domain, Citizen, or Monster stack is depleted an exhausted card is place in its empty spot.  In the base game, these are simply place holders. The expansions introduce events, however, and half of the exhausted cards trigger special scenarios that are resolved as soon as revealed. Some are good.  Some not. Some affect only the active player, most impact the whole kingdom. In any of the editions, the number of exhausted cards equals twice the player count and serves as the game’s clock. When the last is used, play continues so that everyone has an equal number of turns and the game concludes.

Then it’s time to see which Duke has contributed the most to the kingdom’s wealth and prosperity!  Players aggregate the points from their built Domains, slain Monsters, and collected victory tokens.  To this they add the bonuses from their unique Duke’s goals. These can include points for acquiring certain Citizen/Domain class icons, extra points for Domains and/or Monsters, and finally one point per set of remaining 2, 3, or 4 resources they hoarded at the end.  The Duke with the highest score will become the next monarch! Although, you will need to wait for the current one to die a natural death. You will wait, right?

Huge tracts of land!

Rags-to-Riches?

After you’ve played a few games of Valeria: Card Kingdoms you soon discover sessions fall roughly into two phases.  Okay, well maybe a third smaller transitional one, too? Essentially you begin like an orphan, meekly stretching your bowl out asking, “Please, sir, may I have some more.”  Halfway through the game, however, you rather feel like Scrooge McDuck diving into your piles of coin and cash. What’s fascinating is the game doesn’t lose any tension while you’re basking in that embarrassment of riches.  It simply shifts gears.

Early on, that tenseness is wrought by a dearth of resources and the knowledge that there’s only one way to rectify that problem – you have to build up your cast of characters to oil up your engine. But what’s the best formula of Citizens? And there are more interesting things on the table you’d like to engage with!  Then when you’re rich enough to splurge on just about anything, the tension rises from the order of things. Turn order, that is, and your limited two actions per turn. Can you manage to nab the Domains, Monsters, and/or Agents that maximize your points – in the right progression – before anyone else grabs what you need?

There have been a few titles published very recently that use the same core mechanism.  Namely, a dice activated tableau in which players also resolve their own cards based on rolls even during their passive turns.  For lack of any official term, I’ll just call it the Roll-for-All mechanism. Card Kingdoms is the superior title in the category.

Who’s your lucky #7? Choose which to include, wisely…

Not to belabor any comparisons, but I’ll mention two of the more popular titles for reference.  Machi Koro contrasts in that players only roll one die to begin the game. Even when you earn a second die with certain properties later, you choose whether or not to include the second one, and still only trigger the one value, in that case the sum of the two dice.  Additionally, properties come in four categories and each type activate at different times – either during any roll, or just on your active turn, or even just if you’re the passive player. Space Base employs a similar activation structure in which ships may only trigger based on whether or not it’s your turn.  Additionally, some cards require charging, which is accomplished on their value’s roll, but may need multiple charges before its effect resolves. Furthermore, the active player tosses two dice on rolls and each player must choose for themselves whether to use the two independent die results or their sum.

So the major distinction with Card Kingdoms’ dice activation is its frequency.  Because the active player always rolls two dice and all three results trigger cards matching those values on any turn, active or passive, players collect considerably greater resources and more often than in Machi Koro or Space Base.  As already mentioned, it can indeed feel like an embarrassment of riches. At least by the game’s second half. Some may opine that such an abundance makes things too easy. After all, if you can accomplish anything you want, where’s the tension in play and the reward in managing a budget to create what you set out to do?

YES! There is DRAGONSLAYING here! Don’t tell #Kenith.

Again, the tension simply shifts from an angst of scraping by, to the burgeoning anticipation of being able to corral everything you need before others can snatch them.  The limited two actions per turn sustain that tension and still creates a very puzzling game element. Grabbing Domains and Monsters in particular orders can make a difference, not just in being first, but also in utilizing their resultant benefits or abilities to maximum effort.  The ability to “make it rain” doesn’t translate to “waste not, want not!” Remember, one of those Duke scoring bonuses is based on how many resources you have left at the end of the game. Efficiency matters.

Also, such abundance constantly tempts you to buy other things, just because you can and they all look so great!  Staying focused and on strategic target is more important, though. You can’t let the kid in a candy store mentality derail any plans.  Maintaining that narrow path – in the restricted actions you have – is the late game tension.

Mechanically, the ability to collect lots of resources sooner also helps to speed up the action.  Yet it manages that feat without diminishing session length or nerfing any clever tableau construction.  Sure, there’s an initial slow development in the first handful of rounds. But the routine activation mechanism largely expedites that ramp up phase, whittling out a good deal of labor, which is perfectly suitable to a tableau building card game of this nature.  It makes an impact on its endgame evolution, too.

Like with any real estate, invest wisely. It’s all about location, location, location!

Both Machi Koro and Space Base have a hard seeded end: the first to four landmarks in the former, and the first to forty points in the latter.  A racing vibe, in essence. Card Kingdoms’ endgame is also based on a specific cap in the number of exhausted stacks. Yet the experience is very different as players control that length to some degree or more.  While you often see the end on the horizon, you’re not positive exactly how much longer the journey will last. If one is confident in their progress, they can actually strive to hasten the game along by hitting the same stacks.  The pitfall to that strategy is that much of the scoring is hidden in those Duke cards. Hence the reason Card Kingdoms doesn’t have a race element like the other two. And you better be very confident to force an end too quickly.  As it happens, though, the exact opposite scenario is more likely to develop. The rags-to-riches climb creates an ever crescendoing conclusion where the end comes on stronger than you’d usually like!

Card Kingdoms also proves more versatile and dynamic than other titles utilizing its core mechanism, by adding more types of cards and a broader action selection element to utilize them.  Machi Koro is a nice introductory game with a fairly basic simplicity that’s wonderful for new and casual players, but offers little to experienced gamers. Space Base has its merits, as well, but gears up slowly and feels more repetitive.  Melding the action selection in Card Kingdoms addresses both issues, providing greater depth and nuance within its broader activity.

Welcome to the Cavern! You won’t enjoy your stay…

Ironically, there’s nothing significantly different in the purpose of those various actions.  You’re still essentially generating resources and/or points with all of them, hoping to combo and fuel an engine that further increases your production. Yet the options leading toward that end goal broaden beyond simply “roll to trigger card, to buy more cards.”  This creates opportunities for players to experiment or tweak strategies. Which enhances one of the design’s best features: the Dukes.

Since Card Kingdoms possesses a somewhat open-ended playing structure, the Dukes’ secret objectives combine with the general card variety to create a rewarding sandbox where players can proceed with a concrete aim in mind, yet have the freedom to pursue other paths.  Those might be rabbit trails of opportunity, or deliberate roads paving the way to a particular strategy based on what Citizens are in the game and how they interact and what it all means for you specific goals. It lets players tweak that strategy and their turn-to-turn tactics as new Domains, Monsters, and Agents are revealed.  The asymmetrical scoring also clouds your opponents’ progress just enough to inject some healthy uncertainty.

In regards to strategy, it can be tempting to buy a Citizen in every value type, thinking it’d be critical to ensure you collect multiple swag on every single roll.  While it’s certainly helpful, it by no means guarantees victory. Indeed in our experience, the winner usually doesn’t bother with that. It often proves a slower process that delays your development elsewhere.  The more you spend in resources and precious actions to fill out your ranks, the less you’re investing either into point-production. So that’s in the form of grabbing Domains and slaying Monsters, half the source of victory points.  More subtly – or pointedly – it also means you’re likely scattering your Citizen classes too broadly, to where your Duke’s endgame scoring, partly based on such categories, is diluted.

Don’t mess with…oh, nevermind…

The balance, then, is forming a solid base of six to seven Citizen numbers that provide a sound basis to access all resources, with multiples in the categories that your Duke prefers.  That said, your tableau should also represent at least one of each icon type so that you can obtain a variety of Domains – which actually isn’t difficult to achieve. In any event, locations cannot be overlooked.  They can really enhance your position with ongoing benefits and are a potential source of significant points. One, they’re each worth a set number just for owning it. Beyond that, their class icons (the ones designating which Citizen types you need in order to build them) also count towards your Duke’s class bonuses.  For example, if your Duke scores for holy and soldier icons, using those Citizen types to nab locations in similar categories thus increases your score exponentially! Hence, an assortment of Citizens is certainly useful, but straight-jacketing yourself to total diversification necessarily isn’t. That may seem counter intuitive, but there it is.

Monsters don’t provide class icons towards endgame scoring, though a few Dukes might reward you for frequent trophy hunting.  However, the point production in these piles come from the larger and stronger bosses as you work through the stacks. And they can be lucrative, making a Monster oriented strategy attractive, especially if there are a couple Citizens in the game that can crank out the strength.  Adding to their appeal, each beast provides an immediate payoff – or penalty to another – making them viable options, as opposed to just picking up another Citizen. Including the Monster cards really enhances the design’s variety. It’s an alternate, and different, source of points while highlight both the gameplay’s freeform nature and its elements that tempt you with diverting shiny baubles.

Humble no more…now that’s progress!

When taken together – hiring Citizens, expanding with Domains, and slaying Monsters all guided by specific goals but with a general freedom to make your own way – Card Kingdoms exudes a rewarding sense of progress that leaves its players satisfied.  Harkening back quickly to one of my first observations, the ease with which you can collect resources in the late game is therefore the evidential fruit of all your labors, rather than a symptom of an over-simplified design malady. People stand arrayed in ranks before you.  Estates spread across your fiefdom. The vanquished enemy pile high as an ode to your exploits. It visibly displays your growth and accomplishments, while also proving mostly mechanically usable.  All achieved on a simple structure, yet possessing enough depth that rewards repeated plays and savvy experimentation.

Another characteristic distinguishing it from its contemporaries – that I believe accentuates play, though others might not enjoy as much – is the interaction.  There is one particularly nasty Citizen, the thief of the base game, which allows you to steal from others. Aside from that, the Domains and Monsters provide a few occasions to interact mess with opponents.  While the thief makes his presence known, which activates on the most common odds as a ‘7,’ the others are not terribly incessant, nor crippling.  Especially in the late game, as losing a few resources here and there rarely makes a dent in your progress. It might make a point or two difference at the end, which may surprise many.

Where do my loyalties lie, you ask, Madam? Well, I suppose you might say I’m a “free agent!”

This element shines brighter with Agents from the Flames & Frost expansion (or its separate pack).  The barbs with some of those characters have a sharper sting, but still overcomable. That and Shadowvale are generally nice additions overall, as well.  The event cards, not part of the base game, are an easy-to-add wrinkle for a little seasoning. You know half the time something’s going to happen, but when and what is unknown, which elicits a little amusement.  Not least of all because some of them bring good fortune! Still, as with the game’s interaction, even the unfavorable happenings are far from crippling. Perhaps you’ll grumble to put on a show, but you’ll be smiling beneath it.

Other than that the expansions offer a good deal more of the same.  The added variety in Citizens, Domains, and Monsters is welcome as this is a design where experimenting with combinations and synergy between different cards is half the fun.  Flames & Frost might remind one immediately of another iconic medieval franchise, Ice & Fire. At least it did me. So perhaps I’m merely seeing tributes to that popular novel/show amongst the new cards that aren’t intentionally there?  Shadowvale, on the other hand, is definitely an homage to horror tropes, both classical and fantasy. The Kickstarted version includes Relics (like with Agents, also available separately in a mini pack), a new mechanical element which gives each Duke a unique power to use during the game.  Otherwise, the nods to the horror theme are cute and clever while adding a fresh variety! Interestingly, you can play either expansion as a standalone – as in just using all of the Citizens from one expansion together – provided you have the starter cards, resources, and other tokens. I don’t recommend it.  When we tried that, we struggled with synergy. Instead, mix and match denizens from all three or use the online randomizer.

I hope you’re not too exhausted after reading this review!

Really the only downside to Valeria: Card Kingdoms is its setup and teardown time.  In that regard, it feels like a deck building game where you have to sort, separate, and stack different sets of cards only to mix them all up during play and need resorting to put away after it’s over. That’s fine.  Because Card Kingdoms is a smoothly paced action selection and resource management tableau builder with an open-ended play not often achieved in most designs of its same weight class. While your Duke card will guide some strategy, there are several ways to mix and match tactics.  Furthermore, everyone is invested at all times because you collect swag on other players’ turns and the progress of purchases and stack depletion is important. While it’s true that you eventually get to the point where you’re swimming in resources, the tension remains as it shifts from simply, “what can I buy?,” to, “how do I get what I need with my limited actions before others leave me standing out in the cold?”  With its sound framework, amazing variety, ease of adaptability, and dynamic action, Card Kingdoms is a superior option in the recent category of Roll-for-All designs!

Daily Magic Games provided a copy of the expansion Shadowvale for this review.

My Kingdom for a Die!

  • Rating 10.0
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Summary

Pros

Solid action selection structure
Open-ended tableau builder
Exudes a usable sense of progress
Players invested at all times
Lots to experiment with, even in base game
Good amount of interaction for its weight

Cons

Setup, teardown, and organizing can be a minor chore

10.0 Excellent

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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