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Review: Villages of Valeria

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Every great victory comes at a cost.  When peace and security are won again, the rebuilding begins.  And that can be daunting. Often, a fresh rebirth is the more favorable path – the Phoenix rising from the ashes.  So lies the road for the Kingdom of Valeria, reduced from its sacrificial triumph over evil. Its once glorious capital city, Shilina, lay in rubble.  Thankfully with peace secured, it’s time to build a new one. While some games are about achieving those great victories, others are about the restoration afterwards…

How To Play

In Villages of Valeria you are one of the King’s trusted nobles tasked with building a city in your fief to compete as the realm’s new capital.  Your project will involve securing resources to construct buildings, accumulating wealth and attracting adventurers – all which enhance your dukedom’s prestige and value as the land’s future crowning jewel.

The design mixes a number of mechanisms and concepts most hobbyists will immediately recognize from other titles.  The central component driving gameplay is a simple action selection element.  Players will utilize that phase to manage resources, create a basic engine-building tableau, and collect sets of icons in order to hire adventurers to set their roots in your burgeoning village.

The setup, basically speaking.

To begin, each player receives a castle card, under which they’ll develop their resources, three coins, and six building cards.  Interestingly, the amount of gold available in the bank depends on the number of players and the economy remains a closed system throughout play.  Then five building cards are dealt out from a massive deack into one row, while another set of five adventurers are similarly placed out.

Building cards have three purposes.  One of these is to supply a resource (food, wood, stone, or magic), which is listed by icon at the bottom of the card.  Each duke/duchess begins the game with selecting one they’d like to start with, turns that card upside down so that the resource is oriented correctly, and then places it underneath their castle card so that only the resource icon is visible above it.  Players will continue to stack resources in this manner throughout the game as one of the actions is indeed Develop. To do so, they discard one card from their hand and then develop another for its resource access by upending it and placing above their growing castle display.  Castle cards provide one wild resource.

There are two other distinctive characteristics to Villages of Valeria to note here.  One, all cards are discarded to the face-up row of available buildings. This means you cover up access to certain cards or make it more difficult to retrieve them, if you’d like.  Second, while the active player resolves their selected action, all other players may follow that selection with a slightly higher cost or lesser benefit. So with the Develop action, other players may also develop one resource, but at the price of discarding two cards from their hand.

What is your command, m’lady?

The other actions are fairly straight-forward as well, creating a smooth-running system that keeps players involved at all times.  You can harvest by simply drawing three building cards from any pile in the draft row, or from the top of the deck. Non-active players may follow by drawing one card.  You can choose to tax, in which case you draw one card and take one gold from the bank. Others may just draw a card.

Another action is to build a building from your hand and then draw another card. Other players may follow by building one of their own, without getting a new card.  To build, you must be able to pay for its required resources – which are listed along the left side of the card. You pay with these by spending one gold for each material from those available anywhere at the table.  Simply take a coin from your personal supply and place it on the resource card you wish to use. This can be in your own village or from any other player’s, the only exception being that you cannot buy an opponent’s wild resource from their castle.  The caveat is the resource must be available – that is, it’s not already occupied by a coin from a previous purchase. These cards always clear for an individual player’s tabluea at the beginning of their active turn and they receive all gold placed on their resources this way, regardless of who purchased them.  So when choosing this action on your turn, you’re guaranteed to have access to at least your own resources. When following, however, supplies can prove a little more restricted.

The bigger setup with Landmarks.

The final action is to recruit an adventurer for one coin.  Following players may do so, but the price is doubled. The catch here is that these heroes are only attracted to certain building combinations.  As such, each card has icons (worker, soldier, shadow, and holy) which you must collect and match to in your village tableau in order to lure them to your fiefdom.

As a tableau/engine building game, you might deduce that many cards – both buildings and adventurers – award bonuses to these various actions.  So throughout play, you’ll want to keep a keen eye on your growing town to note when various boosts trigger. They can prove invaluable to your progress!

Nobles alternate in this action selection routine until one player has a set number of cards between buildings and/or adventurers based on player count.  That turn is completed, whether or not the active or a following player triggers the end, so that everyone has a chance to follow the original selection. Players earn points from buildings, adventurers, special scoring powers on either of those cards, and finally one point for each gold.  The Duke’s or Duchess’ village with the most points is designated as Valeria’s new capital!

That’s all with the base game alone, originally released in 2016.  There have been a number of add-on expansions, up to Landmarks & Architects published this year.

Resource, resource, my kingdom for a resource!

The first three add-ons are small packets that were available through Kickstarter or now individual foil packs.  The first, Events, add some cards to shuffle into the building deck and, when revealed, trigger happenings for one or all players.  Maybe good, maybe bad. Guild Halls offer new buildings, one of each icon type, which provide owners with bonus points if they can secure the most of that particular type.  And Monuments add a set of buildings which you construct over several actions in the same manner as developing resources, rather than by paying gold.  They also score big points at the end of the game.

The two most recent expansions include one with a simple addition and a second that tosses in some trickier choices and strategy.  The former, Architects, provides skilled builders, which are secretly dealt to each player giving unique objectives to earn endgame victory points.  It also adds the castle grounds card giving everyone access to their own extra wild resource, but at the cost of discarding a card, in addition to the gold payment.

While all of the previous add-ons are extremely simple, Landmarks adds a bit more complexity in comparison – and some neat components.  This expansion allows you to add new structures that boost your village’s prominence.  And they’re not cards, but actual custom wooden tokens. The five landmarks, represented by cards, are laid out in a row, above the normal building cards.  Each has a number of associated tokens which are piled nearby. You may only acquire these when following an action, and in lieu of the normal following ability.  You don’t take the actual card, but rather discard a building card with a specific resource to take one of the tokens and add it to your village. At the end of the game gates are worth a point each, while two points are awarded for each of them based on majority ownership.  Also, you earn three points for each collection of a complete set you own.

With Architects, now my castle has huge tracts of land!

How Does Your Village Grow?

My grandmother wasn’t a very good cook.  She taught me everything I know about card gaming and had many other endearing qualities.  But that stereotypical image of the apron-adorned old lady happily baking goodies all day for her grandchildren? That wasn’t her. She hated the kitchen. But as a newlywed housewife in 1952, of course that’s what was expected.  Luckily for her, there was a modern culinary rage sweeping all of the en vogue women’s magazines of the day – the casserole.  It made cooking easy! Just throw a bunch of different everyday ingredients together in a dish, throw it in the oven, forget about it for a while, and go off and do something else.  In that day and age, it was probably expected that she cleaned the house while dinner cooked, but Grandma was more likely off playing cards.

Villages of Valeria is a casserole game.  It takes ingredients from other sources as inspiration and bakes up a smooth playing, satisfying experience that works with a tremendous range of levels within the hobby – from gateway game to casual fare to families and even lighter bouts for more seasoned gamers.  There’s nothing particularly new, individually. Of course, that’s the case with 95% of new titles these days. Therefore, just as with edible casseroles, a cardboard recipe’s success is all in what ingredients you pick and how you mix them together.

Why, grandma, what a big deck you have! The better to build with, my dear…

Perhaps the only hang up with newer gamers is the small level of complexity in the card iconography, to which you’ll be consulting the rulebook to decipher what actions they confer early on.  Interestingly, it jives with Daily Magic’s other two designs in the game’s universe, Valeria: Card Kingdoms and Quests of Valeria.  Familiarity with any title in the series typically negates the symbolic learning curve in the others.  And the coherence in setting, style, graphics, and artwork – while different games mechanically and in scope – is an attractive appeal and immersively fun.  Not to mention a successful business model as enjoying one peaks interest in checking out the others.

Quests is the simplest, quickest, and most component-economical of the trio, employing common pool drafting and dual-use cards.  Card Kingdoms is the largest in breadth, size, and strategy and eminently more variable. It also utilizes action selection, as does Quests, but with a focus on engine-building and dice-activated card comboing (in which passive players also receive swag).  It’s more open-ended in play with points garnered from a few different sources.

Okay, listen up! This is how I want it built…

In Villages, the driving mechanism that keeps affairs running smoothly is its action selection, and the device here brilliantly keeps things on track.  One, it’s simple and intuitive. Players take one action on their turn. Further, each is quickly resolved. Second, the passive players often do something, as well.  So even when it’s not your turn, you’re actively engaged in gameplay. These two characteristics create a snappy pace and ongoing agency that keep players constantly invested.  It’s a flawless mechanism combating downtime and analysis paralysis that I’m surprised hasn’t been utilized to greater extent after its introduction in Puerto Rico and San Juan.  Villages makes the element even more accessible in that previously chosen actions are not restricted from selection by succeeding players in the round.  Every option is available by all players on their every turn.

While action selection drives play, the goal is completely processed (at least in the base game and first three expansions) through its tableau-building, right up to and including its role in triggering the endgame.  Progress is open information with no, at least until Architects, secret scoring. It affords a basic framework, as well, which keeps things tidy and workable. Cards are placed singly. While you generate that engine-building feel, there are no stacking cards en echelon that trigger compounding effects.  Rather, the ramp up is more spartan.  Abilities grant instant rewards or straight-forward ongoing bonuses such as resource discounts when building, an extra gold when taxing, additional cards when drawing, and so on.  In the end, you’re still rewarded with that crescendoing satisfaction incumbent to all tableau builders. The greater you build the more interesting your turns become as your cards activate, and then the affair snowballs to its conclusion.

Not quite capitalistic, yet!

Many will also feel right at home with the design’s dual purpose building cards as that element naturally creates an intriguing tension.  You have a hand of cards which individually can be used for multiple things. Deciding how best to utilize and/or spend them proves a game within a game.  Yet it’s also an appreciated and, honestly, a genius way to provide worth to otherwise useless cards. Can’t, or don’t want to put up that building for some reason?  Not interested in employing the card for its resource? Hooray for you, it’s now currency! Alas, the decision won’t always be so clear cut, and choosing when to develop a card for that resource or take advantage of the building itself provides the game’s moderate angst.  You need the raw material to expand your village, but they’re not a direct source of points that way. And while dual use cards are nothing new, the clever mechanism to handle that accounting by stacking upside down cards so that just the resource icons are visible is also familiar from Imperial Settlers – yet another common ingredient seasoning a well baked design.

Another key piece is the ability to buy resources from others, an option instantly recognizable from at least 7 Wonders.  In contrast to that evergreen staple, players may pay a coin to any opponent, not just their neighbors.  And interestingly, it remains there preventing access to that particular good – even its owner – until that owner’s actual turn.  Only then do they collect all the gold from those cards, including profits placed by other nobles. Therefore, there are moments where you might deliberately tie up a resource somewhere just to deny it to others.  It’s a welcomed mechanic that is both freeing and causes pause. It opens up alternate sources for building so that players aren’t straight-jacketed to diversifying their resources or feel the need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ in that regard.  At the same time, you don’t want to rely on others too often as it only benefits them the more you lean on that access. It’s a healthy form of interaction that doesn’t generate frustrating friction. Yet ironically it can be amusingly begrudging, nonetheless.  After all, even though you earn that gold when another partakes of your natural assets, maybe you’d just rather they not use you as a crutch to grow fatter on your excess!

These monuments can score monumental points!

Influencing those buy-give decisions is the fact that Villages operates within a closed economy.  A number of coins are used in a session based on player count and that number is finite. If the bank dries up, no one can collect taxes.  So buying resources becomes the game’s means of circulating that currency. Yet if your treasury runs low, replenishing it could prove tricky.  Recruiting adventurers is one way the central coffers are refilled as money used to buy them is returned to the supply. Then tax revenues are available for the moment.  Aside from that, you might wish to make your resources readily available as a source of income.

Interestingly, discarding cards becomes a little strategic affair in its own right.  And you’ll be doing enough of it, thanks to developing – and even more with some of the add-on expansions.  The element here is akin to its use in Lost Cities.  There are multiple discard piles from which you may mix and match your draws.  The slight difference in Villages is that discarded cards aren’t restricted to any corresponding pile and those stacks essentially serve as the row of available draft options.  Often, a player might be able to cover up a building they know an opponent is eyeing, making it more difficult to access. The mechanic is also useful in mitigating card games’ natural tendencies toward luck-of-the-draw.  You’re always welcome to just take from the top of the deck, but the row of multiple card stacks increases your chances of actually acquiring something you need and/or can use.

Landmarks. They stick out like…landmarks.

The final significant element is its set collection in gathering assortments of icons to recruit adventurers.  This is another aspect common across the three Valeria titles, making it rather amiable to grasp for those familiar with them.  But even if you haven’t played the other entries, set collecting as a whole is universally recognizable, though there will be an initial learning curve.  And its inclusion here is already rudimentary enough, while giving players another tangible goal in planning their tableau, rather than an ad hoc, whatever I can afford agenda, which isn’t as tactically satisfying.

Beyond its mechanical success, Villages of Valeria also captures the bigger picture in its themes of development and progress.  Players uniquely craft their fiefs with an eye not just toward what buildings can do for their endgame, but also in establishing access to the material to construct them.  And that progress directly affects your town’s appeal in luring citizens to enhance it, aka the adventurers.  The combination of resource procurement and card play exudes a sense of economic management that belies the game’s size and weight.  It’s no Sim City, but it hefts some thematic nuance and sophistication while administering its disparate parts.

Some events to spice up your life.

The original add-ons Events, Monuments (which I routinely mix up with Landmarks to my utter annoyance), and Guild Halls spice up the base game just enough, without souring the dish’s complexity.  Likely Kickstarter influenced, they’re simple enough to add or exclude and don’t appreciably increase the game’s length. In fact, they prove quite random and may not make much of an impact in any given session.  Events are my favorite for tossing in some amusing moments of unpredictability – not just in when they pop up, but in who the affect and how.  Guild Halls and Monuments inject a steroid into scoring.  And while the monuments are a diverting pleasure in their unique construction, access to either of them is quite arbitrary. 

The two very recent mini-expansions were subject of greater focus from Daily Magic Games, including a Kickstarter.  Architects is clean and straightforward and, while extremely basic, adds more strategy to gameplay than the previous three accessory packs.  It provides an endgame objective for players to strive towards when developing their fiefs. As such, it really compliments the base design’s icon set collection vis-a-vis adventurers, significantly enhancing their value if comboed correctly.

You know what they say. Valeria wasn’t build in a day.

Meanwhile, Landmarks is the first real mechanical upgrade to the base title to where it tangibly alters not just scoring, but strategy and an aspect of gameplay – namely following actions.  Because it opens up a new option. Rather than following the lead action that the active player chooses, the passive players may now opt to acquire a landmark, instead. Which is really helpful in those cases where you can’t, or don’t want to follow the leader.  Furthermore, it adds another use for the dual purpose cards as currency in acquiring those tokens, adding extra layers to managing your hand. They may seem attractive. Indeed they are, as scoring either the majority of a type or sets of all five can prove instrumental.  As long as you don’t commit too narrowly in acquiring them at the detriment of using those cards to better purpose elsewhere.

Overall, these extras mix in seamlessly and effortlessly, aside from a little tweaking in setup and tear down.  Game length can vary, but not because of those. Rather player count determines how long sessions usually run. Even at five players, though, the game doesn’t wear out its welcome, but lasts a satisfactory measure.  That’s largely a product of the lead-and-follow action selection keeping players invested and negating downtime. The set card number endgame trigger also keeps a restrictor plate on sessions. All said, the game scales extremely well to any player number (though I have not played the solo version).  I slightly prefer more over less, as that opens up greater access to resources, keeps the economy flowing, and enhances the interplay between the drafting row’s dual purpose as discard piles.

For the non-Lemmings…

There might be gamers who don’t enjoy amalgamated designs combining aspects they’re already familiar with from other titles?  Maybe they’ll apply the Jones Theory and stick with the originals that introduced those individual mechanics, so as not to “duplicate” games in their collection?  Or perhaps they just prefer ones distilled to their base elements? To finish the story about my grandmother, those players might be like my grandfather. He was game for a while to endure her casseroles.  Alas, he was just too much of a meat and potatoes man and so the mixed dinners faded away. She tried though. At least he liked cards, too.

For the rest, Villages of Valeria is a compact and economical building game with all the appropriate, but not too geeky, nods to its fantasy setting that plays smoothly and satisfyingly.  It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but refines the spokes and greases it nicely to create an experience that is both mechanically accessible and thematically appropriate.  As players churn through its intuitive structure, they feel a sense of development and progression, drawn in more by the appealing artwork to wrap them up in the setting.  It all runs very well with a degree of sophistication not always present in small box games of comparable weight. Plus it’s simple enough to toss in the add-ons and mini-expansions for richer seasoning and strategic meat.  Proving that the casserole is still going strong seventy years later.

Daily Magic Games provided a copy of Landmarks & Architects for this review.

5 out of 6 Village People

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Summary

Pros

Works well with wide range of gaming demographics
All players remain vested in progress at all times
Great mix of familiar mechanisms with some refinement
Add-ons give variety and depth without complexity
The illustrations

Cons

If not familiar with setting’s iconography, will have learning curve
Do have to keep pace somewhat or will be left way behind

9.0 Excellent

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

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Jason,

    After reading several of your deeper “culling and managing one’s collection” articles, it’s refreshing to read one of your reviews. This is definitely a title that sees quite a bit of play, due to its accessibility, portability, and game length.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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