Not the Archean Supercontinent Vaalbara

The only image of this game's box is something like 300 pixels wide. I resorted to taking my own scan, but the gloss made my reflection show up. A Tom Clancy story would include somebody scanning the image and removing the clutter to find my location.

Did you know there was a supercontinent named Vaalbara? It’s true. There’s also a board game named Vaalbara. Presumably the board game Vaalbara, designed by Olivier Cipière, is not about the supercontinent Vaalbara, since it existed something like three billion years ago. The supercontinent. Not the board game. That exists right now.

One reason Vaalbara cannot take place on the geologic Vaalbara is because Earth's atmosphere lacked free oxygen at that time. Such an absence would cut the game rather short.

Your tribe claims some territory.

Vaalbara is one of those games that begs for comparison. It just feels so very much like other games. Citadels. Oriflamme. Libertalia. These aren’t negative comparisons by any means. But if Vaalbara is like those titles, it’s the lite version. That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Yet it’s well-trod territory, and territory we’ve seen covered spectacularly on multiple occasions. It would be one thing if those games were old and in need of a fresh coat of paint. Because most of them aren’t and don’t, Vaalbara needs to be very strong indeed to carve out a niche for itself.

Serendipitously, carving out a niche for oneself is the topic of Vaalbara. Each player at the table controls a clan of Neolithic wanderers who’ve happened upon an unsettled land. Now they’re scrambling to claim its finest landscapes for themselves. They do this by playing cards and comparing initiative numbers, with earlier numbers claiming lands first — in other words, by undertaking very simple gameplay indeed.

For all that, it’s a quietly competent game. Take, for example, the way it handles tiebreakers. Those are inevitable in games of this stripe, and it’s one of the reasons the second version of Libertalia, Winds of Galecrest, managed to surpass the first. Here, breaking a tie is as easy as looking at the deck. The back of every card sports a miniature rubric that announces, say, that blue beats yellow beats green, and so forth. This changes every time new cards are drawn, which shakes out to an approximation of fairness over the course of multiple rounds. It’s clever, it’s easy, and it emphasizes Vaalbara’s priorities nicely. This is the streamlined fifteen-minute version of all those other (already streamlined, already brisk) games.

Other details are similarly hardy. Each tribe is drawing from an identical deck of twelve tribespeople, but since you can only hold five at a time, there’ s a whiff of randomness about the whole thing. These cards are nicely realized: the Falconer, who steals from the tribe immediately before you in initiative order, the Tracker’s and Rider’s abilities to swap cards around, the Farmer’s doubling of that round’s score. These abilities work because they’re direct companions to the lands themselves, the villages and forests and meadows that are your objective. Without going into specifics, the whole thing joins together snugly. It’s swingy, but not because of any nasty interactions. Fast, but not because anybody is rushed. It’s a filler game as a literal filler, something best eaten on the cusp of fullness.

Blue skies! NOT set during the Archean. The Earth's atmosphere would have been a hazy orange.

My lands. Fences included.

Is it the best in class? Not by a long shot. Not unless your principal metric is how scaled-down a game can be. I expect nobody will remember its title a year or two from now, and not only because it’s derived from an Archean supercontinent. The waters it swims in are too crowded to survive for long, and anyway it’s such a slight game that it slips from the mind almost as soon as it’s put away.

Still, it’s nice. It captures the essence of what makes a game like Libertalia a classic, even if by “essence” I mean a trace rather than a distillate. Where most games are courses in a meal, Vaalbara is a snack. It tops off the belly but doesn’t bother to nourish.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on May 4, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I asked my computer, “enhance header image and remove glare”, and behold what looked to be Thomas Aquinas taking a picture with cellphone appeared. Oddly he seemed to have six fingers on one hand.

  1. Pingback: On the Table - January 2023 - The Giant Brain

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