Behold, it is I, KriStefankamen, the greatest noble in all of Egypt. And as befitting my station, I shall assemble the most magnificent collection of grave goods ever seen in this great land. The very finest canopic jars for my organs! The most holy of amulets to rejuvenate my corpse! The trappings for great feasts! And, of course, a supply of workers in statue form, because, as it was said by the great Pharaoh Bender, I barely even know the meaning of the word “labor.” All shall be buried with me in the great Valley of the Kings, because here in ancient Egypt, you can take it with you. And he who dies with the most toys, wins.
Valley of the Kings is small deckbuilding game (I’ll leave it for others to debate whether it counts as a “micro” game or not) set in ancient Egypt. Each player starts with a deck of basic grave goods – statues of workers, offerings of food, funerary urns. Over the course of the game, players can buy new cards from the bottom row of a six-card pyramid, with new cards flowing down from a common stock at the top. Every card has an action and a gold value, but can only be used for one or the other each turn. On each player’s turn, he or she can take any number of actions, buy any number of cards (as a practical matter, this will not often be more than one), and can once per turn entomb one card from hand.
And entombing cards is very important, because it’s the only way to score points. If you don’t entomb a card, it is worth nothing at the end of the game. Cards that are placed in the Tomb are, for most purposes, removed from the game until it’s time for end-of-game scoring (there are a few cards that can grab a card back from the tomb). The starting deck cards are worth one VP each, and a small number of the cards from the pyramid are worth a fixed number of VP, but the point value of most cards is determined by set collection. Each card is a particular type of grave good – statue, book, amulet, sarcophagus, etc. – and each set is worth the square of the number of different cards of that set in the Tomb. For most players, the sets will be most easily distinguished by color, but for the colorblind there is a symbol in the upper left corner of each card and at the bottom of the card there is text telling you what set the card is in (as well as how many cards from that set are in that stage of the game).
Speaking of stages of the game, there are two. The stock if divided into two sections, so that cheaper cards come out early and then more expensive cards come out late. The game ends when the stock and pyramid are empty (the stock drains by at least one every turn), and every player has had the same number of turns.
The communal stock is 56 cards, and the game supports 2-4 players, so for each player there is also a 10-card basic deck, a bright Tomb card, and a reference card. All in a little bitty box (same size as all the other AEG “micro” games). The art gets the job done, but isn’t going to win any awards. I do wish the card stock was better. I’ve had Valley of the Kings for about two weeks as I write this, and there is already visible wear on the edges of some of the cards. Granted, that’s partially because I liked the game and have been playing it, rather than just sticking it on the shelf after the obligatory “you got a review copy so you have to get it to the table” plays, but the cards aren’t as fancy as I’d like them to be.
Well, I already said I liked it, so we’ve got that part out of the way. Everyone’s probably familiar with the general deckbuilding concept by now, but Valley of the Kings really twists what you’re doing with it as the game progresses because just building your deck doesn’t directly move you towards winning. Every turn you’re faced with deciding whether you want to use your cards as actions, use your cards to build your deck, or shove a card into your Tomb. Just having to choose between action or cash is more decisions per turn that many deckbuilding games, but I really like the added twist of the Tomb. Early on you may have to decide between using Shabti (one of the starter cards) to move cards around in the pyramid to buy a better card, or sticking one of your other starter cards in the Tomb (I say “other starter cards” because Shabti seems to be, after the lone copy of the defensive card Offering Table, the strongest card in the basic deck – just shove those Offerings of Food in the Tomb ASAP). Later the decisions get more complicated, because the cards to be entombed aren’t just ones that you would kind of like to use now, they’re ones that you’ll definitely get use out of as the game goes on. And on top of your once-per-turn entomb, there are cards that have effects like sacrificing one card in your hand to entomb a card in your hand – is it worth it to use three of the cards in your hand just to get an extra card in the Tomb? Probably depends on what kind of junk you have to sacrifice, and how much of a set you’ve already built up.
With how scoring works, the set collection is extremely important – the margin of victory can easily be the difference between having a five-card set or a six-card set. The contents of players Tombs are open information, but there are a lot of opportunities to entomb more than one card a turn near the end of the game, so maximizing the effect of “hate drafting” cards from the pyramid requires some sense of which sets your opponents have picked up lots of cards from (and, if you’re really up for keeping track of things, remembering exactly which cards they’ve picked up, so that you know that a second copy of Card X won’t help them increase their set).
And, having talked about all of those ways that a little extra attention or strategy can help, it’s also nice that a lot of this is present as strategic depth, not immediate complexity. If this is my first play, or I’m not one to closely track things like what cards other players have bought, that doesn’t interfere with my ability to do my own thing during the course of the game, and although I’ll probably lose in the end to a player who is operating at a higher level, the game won’t beat me over the head with that likelihood until maybe the last few turns.
The game does work with the full range of players (2-4), and the game time of 30-45 minutes doesn’t go up with the higher player count because the clock on the game is the deck running out of cards – more players means basically the same number of turns, but fewer turns per player.
All told, I think that Valley of the Kings is quite the good little game.