Valley of the Blings
If I had to pick any two things that strike me as faintly outdated, it would be the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt and pure deck-building games. Probably the first more than the last.
Valley of the Kings from AEG is blend of both, casting you as a pharaoh employing the magical powers of deck-building to fill his final resting place to the brim with enough grave goods to ensure a resplendent jaunt through immortality. Which raises the question: is this commingling of the elderly a positive one, or entirely unholy?
Perhaps the most immediately striking detail about Valley of the Kings is that its cards don’t represent demon-battling godslayers or starships or cellars. Instead, each card represents some treasure of Ancient Egypt, from lowly offering tables all the way up to gilt burial masks. Cool as it is that this is a game willing to try something different, this is the least of its accomplishments.
Even if Valley of the Kings succeeded at nothing else, its tiniest divergence from most deck-building games secures its position as a modest success. This simple change is that, rather than playing the cards from your hand to activate everything printed on them, as in deck-building games like Ascension or Star Realms, each and every card in Valley of the Kings presents you with a difficult choice. You can use each artifact as money, for their special action, or once per turn you can seal a card into your personal tomb. For example, the Qebehsenuef Canopic Jar can be used to generate a couple pieces of gold to buy new treasures, or to force each opponent to sacrifice a card, or it’ll look great when looted from your eternal resting place hundreds of years later, after being emptied of your stored intestines of course. Much as you might have prized those, nobody wants them.
It evokes how it must have felt to be a vainglorious pharaoh with plenty of free time for mulling over all your earthly treasures because your viziers take care of all the day-to-day business of running the dynasty. Yes, about fifty percent of my concept of Ancient Egyptian governance comes from Disney’s Aladdin. Also yes, I realize Aladdin wasn’t Egyptian.
Anyway, since all your cards are useful in multiple ways, Valley of the Kings quickly becomes about tradeoffs. Will you spend all your money to pick up that awesome new card, or use a bunch of actions to hopefully lengthen your turn, bug your opponent, entomb extra cards, sacrifice useless junk… all sorts of stuff. Even your starting cards are permitted to be useful here, like the Urn that lets you rescue your top discard over to your draw pile, or the Shabti that lets you rearrange the pyramid, and — oh, I haven’t even talked about the pyramid yet, have I?
Unlike other deck-building games, the card offer is laid out as a pyramid rather than a squat wall. This accomplishes a few things.
Okay, it looks cool, but that’s the least of its uses. Game timer, sure. Unique, absolutely. Takes up different dimensions than you’re used to in a deck-builder, also yes. But more importantly, the pyramid is far more dynamic than most other card offers. For one thing, you can only buy cards from the bottom row, and then the cards above “crumble” down to fill in the gaps, giving you a peek at what’s coming up before it’s actually purchasable.
What’s more, in addition to plotting how to make the best use of your hand each turn, you’re also playing a constant minigame of positioning, of buying lower cards to get at higher ones, or avoiding crumbling a good card down to where your opponent can reach it. That’s what I was trying to say about the Shabti starting card — it lets you swap two cards within the pyramid, letting you bypass any accumulated junk at the bottom for something a bit more appealing. Using a Shabti to move a powerful card out of your opponent’s reach is another awesome way that Real Life pharaohs would traditionally mess with each other.
The goal of the game is also surprisingly unique, dipping into an older design concept in a way that feels completely fresh in this new setting. The idea is to entomb lots of cards, which is like “trashing” from other deck-building games in that it removes that card from your usual draw-play-discard rotation. Here though, getting rid of cards doesn’t only slim down your deck, it also moves you closer to victory, so the tradeoff is constantly agonizing because the cards you most want ensconced in your tomb are the same ones that give you the most gold or have special actions that are sexy exactly in the same way as the Egyptian Queen from The Mummy Returns, which is where the other half of my Ancient Egypt knowledge comes from.
To make matters even more difficult, filling your tomb with mere volume is considered crass. Probably. I actually don’t know the ins and outs of polite pharaohic society, but you’ll get far more points for matching sets of treasures. A lone amulet is worth a measly one point, no more impressive than a junked starting Shabti, but four unique amulets will net you a smooth sixteen afterlife-pennies. And so on. It’s therefore possible for a player with only a few carefully-selected entombings to defeat players who haphazardly acquired treasures and chucked them into the tomb without a second thought for how well they complemented each other.
Furthermore, the fact that under normal circumstances you can only entomb a single card each turn — cards you’ll probably want to use for money or actions, by the way — you’ll quickly bottleneck unless you can figure out a way to get cards into your tomb more regularly than once every few turns. There are ways to entomb more often, using artifacts like the Statue of Horus, a Heart Scarab Amulet, or the Book of the Dead; even the starting Box of Food provides an inefficient method that will do in a pinch.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Valley of the Kings, aside from all the stuff I’ve already mentioned, is the way it allows for a wide array of strategies. In addition to figuring out a way to maximize your money, actions, and entombings each turn, you can do irritating stuff like drown your opposition in useless Shabtis courtesy of an Outer Sarcophagus, or, once your opponents have no more Shabtis to give away, play something like the Statue of Bastet to force them to place decent cards onto your discard pile, or take advantage of their inattention with the Censer to steal from the top of their discard pile.
There are a whole Ancient Egyptian basketful (I think that’s a thing) of crazy ways to get ahead, all crammed into one of the smallest boxes in my collection. Which is sort of a metaphor, I think, maybe, for pharaohs and all their brain-jars and fancy statues, jammed into their immortal lifeboat to— well. I don’t know where they’re headed. I never studied Ancient Egypt.
Here’s the takeaway: Valley of the Kings has quickly become my favorite “pure” deck-building game. Check it out.