The concept of the Valeria games, publisher Daily Magic’s ongoing collection of titles set in the magical realm of Valeria, is just the kind of thing I can get behind. The series, which currently consists of six published games with various expansions and three new games launching on Kickstarter today, aims for accessible comprehensiveness. If your library consisted of nothing but Valeria: Card Kingdoms (tableau building), Villages of Valeria (card drafting and hand management), Quests of Valeria (contract fulfillment and set collection), Corsairs of Valeria (press-your-luck), Margraves of Valeria (hand-building and worker placement), and Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria (worker placement and dice drafting), you would have a solid range of mechanisms at your disposal and almost certainly something for everyone. Perhaps most importantly, all at a weight—the lighter end of mid—that would make those games about as accessible as possible.
The three newest titles, Dice Kingdoms of Valeria, Siege of Valeria, and Thrones of Valeria, introduce three more mechanisms to the series. Dice Kingdoms is a roll-and-write (as you may have guessed from the title), Siege is a solo tower defense game (as you may have more or less guessed from the title), and Thrones is built around trick taking (as you may have guessed via process of elimination). I really do find this kind of thing fun. Ten year old me, that little collection fetishist, would insist on having every Valeria title.
Rolling in the Keep
If your only experience of roll and writes is Ganz Schön Clever or Welcome to…, Dice Kingdoms of Valeria may present as overwhelming. The two (2) player sheets are divided into four (4) different sections, only one of which is a linear track. The others are oceans of circles, squares, and stars to fill in. It looks like a lot, but this is a very easy game to play and teach once you get your bearings, and a game lasts about 30-40 breezy minutes.
Each turn starts with a roll of the six dice. The values given by the two black dice are immediately used by everyone. The active player alone chooses one of the other dice to perform the corresponding action. These include inducting citizens into your guilds (the yellow die), stationing more troops along the battlements (blue), hunting monsters (red), and traveling along the road to various domains (green). As you fill in the different areas of your sheet, you’ll activate bonuses. Most score points or let you fill in parts of other tracks, par for the roll and write course, but two of the bonuses in Dice Kingdoms effect the game in ways that I really like:
- Many of the domains give you abilities that can modify the results of a particular die, and the roads of the map are relatively free to travel rather than a linear track. This allows players to pursue the abilities that interest their strategy.
- The Plinth bonus lets you take statue cards from the market that score points at the end of the game. The number of points is based on a given condition, be that the number of citizens you have in a specific guild, the number of bridges you’ve crossed on the map, the number of monsters you’ve defeated, etc.
The aggregate impact of these two design choices is a roll and write with more game-to-game variation and strategy than you might otherwise get. Roll and writes tend to revolve around tactical decisions rather than strategic ones, which is to say making the most out of what’s in front of you rather than thinking a few turns ahead. Dice Kingdoms of Valeria has found a way to incorporate both, and without sacrificing approachability. No small feat.
With that said, no matter what area of your kingdom you choose to focus on, no two games of Dice Kingdoms are going to feel all that different. At no point after my first game did I feel compelled to play again, though that may be down to personal taste. With the notable exceptions of Ganz Schön Clever and Hadrian’s Wall, I’ve never met a roll and write that could hold my attention for longer than it took me to figure out how to play well, and Dice Kingdoms of Valeria is a pretty easy nut to crack.
Open the Gates and Siege the Day
Solo gaming has undergone a renaissance in the last two years, for understandable reasons. Siege of Valeria, a tower defense game in which you are tasked with destroying 15 siege engines before your castle falls or the enemy’s army is fully deployed, is Daily Magic’s entry in the field.
You begin each of the six rounds by rolling a number of red and blue dice, and your time is spent allocating those dice to enemy troops, killing them off one by one. The secret sauce in Siege’s sandwich is that every troop card has an ability at the bottom; these abilities are accessible to you once the monster has died and gone into your hand. By chaining together just the right abilities with just the right dice, you can stretch your budget of pain and suffering to inflict upon the hordes.
This is a game for people who enjoy “I could do this…Yeah, I could definitely do thi– Well, but if I did that instead…Yeah, if I do that with the two and the three, even though I only need four, I could then use this card to flip that other die showing a one to a six, which would let me do that, and then I could use the double-value card to take this other card, which…Yeah, that would get rid of you, you, you, you, and you, that’s great, that clears out the fir– oh but I forgot I have to get rid of this Ballista card before the end of the round… Okay, let me start over.” If experiencing this paragraph on your own time sounds appealing, you may want to check out Siege of Valeria. If you found this paragraph exhausting, you may want to steer clear.
Personally, I do enjoy that kind of experience, and I found Siege perfectly pleasant, but it doesn’t leave me itching to play again. I don’t walk away from a loss haunted by the feeling that one or two different decisions would have changed everything, which I’ve come to recognize as one of the signs of a great solo experience. I haven’t won once in four games, and that doesn’t bother me. A loss in Under Falling Skies, a low score in Hadrian’s Wall, a defeat in Friday, these are cosmic wrongs that I feel compelled to right. It’s probably not a coincidence that I also walk away from each of those games with a clear sense of what I could do differently next time.
In the Trick of It
Thrones of Valeria is a trick taking game loosely themed around the power struggle between five of Valeria’s noble houses. The crests of each house sit in an ever-shifting column on the central board; the higher the house, the higher its standing within Valeria’s political order. The game follows the standard trick taking format: if the first player to put down a card—this is called leading the trick—plays a yellow card, then other players have to play a yellow card if they have one. If they don’t, they can play any card they want.
The game starts to distinguish itself from there. All of the cards have powers, some of which earn players money (points) or another card, but most give you the option to rearrange the house crests in some way. Additionally, the winner is not the player who plays the highest card in the suit that led the trick, but rather whoever plays the highest card from the suit corresponding to the house with the highest rank on the board at that time. This takes a minute to get used to, but it is a terrific idea.
As an instant consequence of this design choice, cards don’t mean what they usually mean. If I lead the first trick of most trick taking games with the highest card in a given suit, that would nearly assure victory. In Thrones, not only doesn’t it mean that I’ll win, but there’s a chance a win will penalize me. The outcome of winning any trick changes with the ranking of the house that corresponds to the winning suit. If the winning card corresponds to a house crest in one of the top three slots, the winning player gains money. Winning a trick with a card that corresponds to a house in either of the bottom two slots will cost you money. This is confusing, I know, so let’s look at two examples, starting with this photograph.
Remember how I mentioned that each card has a different ability?. The 1 cards allow players to move any house they want to the bottom of the ranking. So if I opened with that yellow 9, someone else could play the yellow 1, move the yellow house (the houses don’t have names, which…they should) to the bottom of the rankings, and suddenly it’s very likely I will need to pay three money instead of gaining five. Unless someone else later in the trick manages to play a card from a suddenly higher suit that will gain them money, leaving me in the dust. Delightful. Absolutely delightful.
Much like the innovations in Dice Kingdoms, I find this central tweak much more exciting as an idea than I do in its immediate execution. We played Thrones of Valeria with a prototype rather than a market copy—to my knowledge, there are no gameplay changes expected—and one member of my group said, with great excitement, “I can’t wait to see the future iterations of this design. What a terrific idea.” When I informed him that this was the final game design, the light left his eyes, or at least dimmed considerably. “Ah. I see. Well. It’s very nice.”
[Activia Jingle Voice] Va-ler-i-aaaaaaa
That seems to be about the long and short of it with these three games: They’re very nice. By no means bad, but with little to really recommend them outside of the uniformly excellent Mihajlo Dimitrievski art and a few promising ideas that other designers should run with. I don’t have anything bad to say beyond “They don’t quite click.” Whatever is lacking here exists at the far end of game design, in the ethereal space that separates the good from the sublime. Designers Levi Mote, Glenn Flaherty, and Matt Jacobs should be commended for designing three rock-solid games. I’m just not sure rock-solid is enough to warrant shelf space anymore.