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Vaalbara Game Review

I’m sorry, val-bar-a, was it?

Justin will play anything from Studio H. Find out what he thinks about their latest game, Vaalbara, in his review!

Disclosure: Meeple Mountain received a free copy of this product in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. This review is not intended to be an endorsement.

“Gosh, this feels like that game where, you know…you know?”

After my first play of Vaalbara (2023, Studio H), I was struggling to use my words. But, it wasn’t just me who had this problem—no, it was the same issue my friend Gideon was having while we were trying to place the game against others we had recently played.

Vaalbara is beautiful. The box cover and the cards, featuring artwork from the duo of Felix Donadio and Alexandre Reynaud, are fantastic. The cards feel great in the hands and there’s a really short set of instructions; paired with a small box and straightforward teach, the entire package screams “tidy.”

I wish it screamed “all-time classic”, but such is the state of the gaming world. Vaalbara is entertaining, but the lack of innovation makes Vaalbara a tough call.

I’m Thinking About Using the #8 Card

Vaalbara is a nine-round game of conquest between 2-5 players serving as clan leaders looking to expand their territory. Using a sort-of secret scoring system and a deck of 12 identical character cards, players must outscore the competition to achieve victory.

Each deck of cards features the same 12 characters—drawn with the same 12 pictures, so each clan looks the same save for the player color on the back—and on a turn, each player has five of their 12 characters in hand. A market of “land” cards equal to the player count is available, featuring one of the six terrain types in the game and a scoring condition. There is also a second row of cards, serving as a preview for the cards coming up in the next turn.

The first step of a turn requires each player to choose one of their five character cards. Each card has an initiative number, from 1-12; this will determine turn order, with the lowest-numbered card playing first. (Ties are broken randomly, using a unique chart printed on the back of each land card.) When all character cards are chosen then revealed, each character’s power is resolved before choosing one of the land cards to add to their tableau, which triggers a scoring where players take victory point tokens and add them face-down to their play area.

After each player has chosen a land card, and placed their used character face-up so that all players know which cards are now out of other players’ hands, a new round begins. Victory points are totaled after the ninth turn, with a small bonus added for a player who has diversified and added at least five different land card types over the course of the game.

Wow? No Wow?

That game I was thinking of earlier in this discussion? It turns out it was a bunch of games. Like the most recent hidden-role-until-it-is-flipped-later-in-the-round game I reviewed, Oriflamme, Vaalbara is walking along many of the same paths opened by better and more interesting experiences from the very recent past.

Another one? Citadels, which I consider to be the best game of this type ever made. Vaalbara does have the edge over Citadels in one area: play duration. A five-player game of Citadels could take an hour, but Vaalbara does play faster.

The main strength of Oriflamme and Citadels, over a game like Vaalbara? The character choices are really, really interesting, occasionally game-breaking in nature. Plenty of wow moments. Some drama when cards are revealed and players laugh their collective butts off as they realize they have made a game-breaking mistake.

Lots of wow in Citadels. Plenty of wow in Oriflamme. Vaalbara? No wow.

Vaalbara is fine. It rewards clever timing and players who have successfully forecasted how to best parse out their character cards, since only nine of the 12 characters will be used in each game. The player aid is excellent and also provides how many cards of each type are in the land deck; that way, you’ll have a sense of how many mountain or forest cards might be left for you to snatch in the near future.

But during each game, I found myself wishing Vaalbara was as strong as its production. And that is because there are really never any slick, momentous moments. You’ll never play your #7 card—Tracker—and swap a card from the first/active row with a card from the top of the draw deck, and trigger a “you dirty rat!” from another player. You might get a “ahh, OK” from that other player, then you’ll move on.

You might hold out to score a massive bonus by being the person who drafts a fourth mountain card, worth 20 points if you can make that happen. That’s the biggest one-time point payout in the game, but there are a limited number of mountain cards in the deck. Once someone sees you working towards that goal, expect someone to hate draft you at the first opportunity.

It’s a great little filler” is the line I’m tempted to use here, because Vaalbara is generally just that: a fun 20-minute game that will pass the time. And at an MSRP of $20, I definitely agree that Vaalbara is priced appropriately for the experience. But, do you already have fifty other games that qualify as “great little fillers”? And is Vaalbara the best great little filler I have ever seen?

Like every other Studio H game our team has played—Vivarium, Suspects: The Macguffin Affair, and Northgard: Uncharted Lands among them—we have been very happy with the results. Vaalbara is a shade below those other titles. That means it’s just good, but I was hoping for stellar.

  • Fair - Will play if suggested.

About the author

Justin Bell

Love my family, love games, love food, love naps. If you're in Chicago, let's meet up and roll some dice!

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