There are so many games in the Valeria universe, but great news: Meeple Mountain has you covered. We’ve already reviewed Valeria: Card Kingdoms, Villages of Valeria, Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria, Thrones of Valeria, Dice Kingdoms of Valeria, and Siege of Valeria.
Yeah, we know Valeria.
So when my friend and colleague Andy Matthews asked who’d be willing to give the latest game a spin, Valeria: Card Kingdoms—Darksworn, my hand shot up immediately because I, too, wanted a piece of the action in Valeria.
(Valeria seems like a place I don’t want to live, given all of the trouble that seems to keep popping up there,like Gotham City or Metropolis. But maybe the food is really good? Rents are low? The weather is lovely?)
Darksworn is a co-operative experience in the world of Valeria. Similar to the solo-only Siege of Valeria, Darksworn has shades of tower defense mixed with mechanics from video games like Plants vs. Zombies: how do I keep those pesky monsters from killing off all of our citizens? Working together and using the base rules from Valeria: Card Kingdoms, Darksworn adds one more item to the buffet: a 6-mission campaign.
Like Agent Smith Said: “More, More, More”
Darksworn’s goal in introducing co-op play to this world makes sense. It was critical that Daily Magic Games didn’t mess with the core feedback loop of Valeria: Card Kingdoms. You are still rolling dice to get stuff, and still getting stuff when other players roll the dice. You’re still hiring citizens to ensure you have good coverage of various dice rolls and you are still slaying monsters to score points. (If you don’t know the basics on how to play Valeria: Card Kingdoms, please revisit our previous content!)
The story of Darksworn unfolds across 6 Books. Players work together to defend the tower by using the majority of the same layout used in Valeria: Card Kingdoms, then adding walls and numbers to each lane so you know which dice will damage which lane. (There are still 5 columns, so when a 6 is rolled, additional bad things happen in each chapter of the story.)
There are additional symbols to decipher but, for the most part, the challenge comes from getting through each task—killing off a monster, saving citizens, spending a heap of gold to deal with a situation—and moving to the next, while rushing to the end; the game is over if you get through all of a book’s challenges, or if any column’s 2 citizen piles are Exhausted (that term returns from the previous iterations of the game).
So, in almost every way, you’re getting more: more to do, more short-term rewards, more challenges, more Monster cards, more surprises.
And one would assume that after getting halfway through the 6 Books, I would be excited to knock off the back half.
Quite the opposite. I’m walking away.
My Main Issue: Co-Op
Let’s be clear: some people love to play together, on the same side, working towards a common goal. Although I’ve enjoyed co-op experiences like Pandemic: Season 1, I generally lean towards competitive play instead of cooperative play.
For that reason, I strongly prefer Valeria: Card Kingdoms and its other expansions over Darksworn.
Let’s take the Pandemic example further. What if the next Pandemic game—let’s make up a name and call it Pandemic: Nightmare—asked players, who are attuned to a system built only on co-op, to suddenly play against each other in a winner-take-all format?
That’s what happens when players sit down to a game of Darksworn. None of my games took less than 90 minutes; as a person used to playing an entire game of Valeria: Card Kingdoms in under an hour even at 5 players this is culturally shocking.
The drip of getting stuff? You don’t usually get the chance to take that stuff and buy more cards for your tableau. In fact, in some cases, you will intentionally not buy certain cards to prevent a Citizen pile from being Exhausted.
You’re either using stuff to defeat the current chapter’s dilemma (be it monsters, building walls, etc.) or sharing stuff with a colleague to help them continue knocking down the current chapter’s challenge.
Darksworn ends up not being very fun. One of the regular review players in my game groups called the entire thing “stressful.” During our 3rd and now final Book, the challenges just turned into a slog. I won’t give away the storyline but one of our chapters required our 4-player group to gather 6 magic, 6 coins and 6 strength to damage something 4 times. We knew we could do it, but it just added time to the game.
Oh, and let’s talk about those walls.
In Darksworn, it’s a comedy to describe what “defenses” look like in this game. You start each game with a wall that separates a monster from the 2 Citizen cards in each of the 5 columns. The monsters are randomly dealt, some might have a strength of 6, or maybe even 9.
There’s no way you will be able to defeat them early on. Walls can take one hit before being damaged and a second hit takes a wall out. Early on, there is really no defense for what the game will do against you.
So, you’ll constantly be spending points to build walls (in Darksworn, points are only used to rebuild walls or “Pray to Aquila”, which is where you can spend points on a special new board to get a one-time bonus). The walls provide essentially no defense for the onslaught of death coming your way. The best way to combat this is to defeat monsters quickly, just like the base game.
Play a Different Co-Op Game, or Do What I’m Doing
And what I’m doing is sticking to what got us here: playing more of the base game.
Valeria: Card Kingdoms is the best competitive roll-and-get-stuff game I have ever played. Machi Koro was fine, but Space Base is much better. Space Base is good, but Valeria: Card Kingdoms is an improvement.
Playtime is quick, there’s such great variety in the base game’s box (and there are more than 20 expansions for this game!!), the production is slick, the artwork is stellar, and you can play this with casual and core gamers with ease.
However, co-operative play is just not in the Valeria DNA. For me, it’s a miss. A completionist will still need to try Darksworn to make sure it is or is not for them, but I think the things most players love about chucking dice and getting stuff to outrace your opponents are absent.
To the credit of Darksworn and Daily Magic Games: there’s a lot of stuff in this box for only $25. That’s fantastic value for this product. Just be sure you are ready for the system shock of going against the grain when working together to defeat bosses and challenges in a game that doesn’t scale very well. I would stick to playing this with 2, maybe 3 players max.
Darksworn was a disappointment, but also a validation: I love the base game so much that it is all I really need. I’m off to play Valeria: Card Kingdoms right now!