Discovering Deck builders
Deckbuilding games have had an exponential surge in popularity during the last half-decade and it seems that the genre has no intention of slowing down in its ambitions. From simple jaunts around Flip City to games that fuse deckbuilding with other genres like racing or dice placement such as, The Quest for El Dorado or The Taverns of Tiefenthal, deckbuilding is a mechanic we will be seeing for the foreseeable future.
The origins of the genre can be traced to the distant past, 2008 to be precise and the game that started it all, Dominion. Since then, several expansions have been released for the game and it was reprinted in 2016. Dominion provided us with our first example of the deckbuilding genre and in its purest form. Play cards, buy cards, and buy point cards that could clog up your deck.
Dominion is for most people, myself included, their first experience of deckbuilding. I remember how excited I was and how fascinating the idea of being free to construct my own deck seemed. Would I specialise in one or two cards or would I play a Jack of all trades approach? The options seemed endless and I was not disappointed. I loved the game and had a blast playing it. I was really tempted to buy my own copy but tend not to buy games that my friends own as they are the people I play with anyway. So, I set out to find my own deck builder, a game my friends had not played and one that I could be the expert at. That’s when I discovered Valley of the Kings.
An Egyptian Alternative
For those who have never heard of Valley of the Kings, the base game was originally released in 2014 and was followed up by two expansions Afterlife (2015) and Last Rites (2016). However, my first experience with the game came with the Premium Edition (2019), this version includes the base game, both expansions and some nice extras (more on them later). This edition really does provide the definitive Valley of the Kings experience and is relatively inexpensive to boot. I found the concept of buying the premium edition an attractive proposition when contrasted to the exponential cost of buying the base game of Dominion and its many expansions.
Both games are very similar in that they are deck builders in their most simplistic form. Players take turns drawing cards, using those cards for the action printed on them or for their monetary value to buy better cards from a central pool available to all players. Players build their decks over the course of the game and want to try to draw better cards whilst filtering out their rubbish ones. However, this article is intended to highlight the key differences between the games and most importantly shine some light on a brilliant and underappreciated alternative to the gateway game of deck builders.
Walk Like an Egyptian
The most immediately noticeable difference between the two games is their respective themes. Whereas Dominion focuses on Medieval Europe, Valley of the Kings takes us to ancient Egypt. This theme is made apparent in the gorgeous tarot-sized cards that come with the premium edition. You can really tell that the designer Tom Cleaver took pride in creating these cards, as they are beautifully decorated and also include a short excerpt of historical trivia for each image. These careful little touches really emphasise the passion that went into designing the game.
The components of both games are of good quality however, I do prefer Valley of the Kings tarot sized cards to the standard cards found in Dominion. In terms of rulebooks, Dominion’s is slightly longer but comes in one complete volume, whereas Valley of the Kings has two separate books. One is for the game rules and the other is for constructing sets of cards to use for the game. This can be a bit of a pain on your first few playthroughs as you will find yourself swapping over books regularly. The box art of Dominion and its expansions is more dynamic and colourful than that of any version of Valley of the Kings but I was actually drawn in by the plain black box of the premium edition, I suppose it really does depend on what you want on your shelf.
Crumbling Pyramids and Eerie Tombs
The two games do also possess key differences in their gameplay, this is not a case of identical games with different themes. Valley of the Kings succeeds indirectly linking its theme to gameplay in a more noticeable way than Dominion. The key to this success is the crumbling pyramid system. The pyramid is the name given to the pool of cards that players can purchase. However, unlike Dominion’s piles of cards, the pyramid is laid out with three cards at the bottom, two in the middle and one at the top. This set up is far from just cosmetic, as players can only buy cards from the bottom of the pyramid, to begin with. When a card is purchased, the cards from the upper levels of the pyramid crumble down to fill the empty spaces below. The top is then replenished with more valuable cards.
This means that tight planning and opportunism are necessary to gain the cards you want. In a six-player game of Valley of the Kings it is almost pointless to even look at the pyramid at the end of your turn because it will look entirely different by the time it gets back to you. This requires players to constantly alter and adapt their strategies, unlike Dominion it is far more difficult to ‘specialise’ in a set method of doing things.
Winning either Dominion or Valley of the Kings requires players to have more points than their opponents by the end of the game. In Dominion’s case the game ends when either one province pile is empty or when either three or four card supply piles are empty. Throughout the game, players have not only been buying cards that give them more money, more actions, more cards etc. but they have also been purchasing province cards that provide points for the end of the game. There is a strict balancing act here though, as the province cards are completely useless until the end of the game. So, players have to juggle gaining points for the end of the game by clogging up their deck with useless cards.
Valley of the Kings flips this system on its head. The game ends when the pyramid and the stock (the deck used to fill the pyramid) are depleted. Then the players check how many points they have in their tombs (a secondary discard pile). The cards in players’ hands or decks are worthless. Players can fill their tombs by taking an entomb action once per turn. This action lets a player bank a card in their hand for end game points by permanently removing it from the game and placing it in their tomb. There are three types of cards in Valley of the Kings, starter cards, set cards, and unique cards. The starter cards and unique cards in your tomb have a point value printed on them and are worth that much at the end of the game.
The set cards however can generate an obscene amount of points if collected carefully. The set cards used in the game and what constitutes a set are completely fluid depending on how you want to play Valley of the Kings. The base game divides sets up into colours and then subdivides them into objects. For example, the two red sets in the game are mummification tools and sarcophagi. For your first game you could use either of those as your red set. At the end of the game, every set card you have in your tomb of a matching colour provides you with that many points squared. So, three red cards would give you nine points. However, duplicate cards count for nothing.
The supplemental player’s guide talks you through how to construct different sets for different types of games. There are very gentle sets and there are more hostile sets with greater player interaction. However, unless someone chains together a very tricky combination of cards, then the ‘take that’ cards in Valley of the Kings are fairly mild and usually require players to discard cards. There are also diverse ways to structure the sets themselves. My favourite of these are the super sets. In this variant, players remove all duplicate cards and combine all of the cards of a single colour to form one huge set. So sarcophagi and mummification tools would be one huge red set and can provide far more points to players.
The entombing mechanic is a challenging one to master. Entomb too many cards too early and you have nothing to buy better cards with. Start entombing too late and you will definitely lose the game. You can buy cards from the pyramid that allow you to entomb extra cards on your turn. However, these are an unattractive proposition early in the game when the focus is on getting cards that provide more monetary value. The risk is though that they will disappear when they are most needed towards the endgame.
I found this mechanic to be far more streamlined than Dominion’s province cards. As entombing cards force the player to make difficult decisions, “Do I entomb that rubbish starter card for one point? Or do I entomb my Goddess Nut which lets me take the highest cost card from the pyramid for free but bank 12 points with my other set cards?”.
Valley of the Kings and Dominion also differ in their pacing towards the end of the game. I have found that games of Dominion can end very abruptly. All of a sudden a province pile is gone or after a few huge turns supply piles have been emptied. This is fine and introduces a nice touch of push your luck to later turns. Valley of the Kings, however, has a far more predictable endgame as the pyramid on the table needs to be gone before the game can end. This allows players to make a few last-minute entombments before the final card is purchased.
The Morning and Evening Stars
Another nice addition to the premium edition of Valley of the Kings is the asymmetrical gameplay variant of Pharaoh cards. These cards allow players to select a particular Pharaoh of their choice who will represent them for the remainder of the game. These pharaohs provide players with unique actions or passive buffs that only they can benefit from. For example, if your pharaoh is Djoser, cards cost you one less gold for the rest of the game or Cleopatra allows you to entomb starter cards from your discard pile as well as your standard entomb action.
These cards are a fun addition and I have always been a fan of asymmetrical gameplay however, these cards should be restricted to games with four or more players. My friends and I have played two or three player games using the pharaoh cards and unfortunately, the game becomes too unbalanced. Randomly distributing the pharaoh cards just makes things worse in this situation. It is worth noting that in a five or six player game, the pharaoh cards do keep things interesting and can spice up gameplay for veteran players.
There are also solo variants for Valley of the Kings. There is a solitaire version of the game which works quite nicely and also a solo game against a dummy player. I have played a lot of this game solo and find both solo variants fun. However, the game against the dummy player is ridiculously hard and I have yet to find a winning strategy. To the game’s credit though this has kept me coming back.
I am a huge fan of Dominion but Valley of the Kings will always be my number one deck builder and the game I will use to introduce friends to the genre. The sheer wealth of customisation available to you makes each game unique. Its even possible to drastically alter the length of the game depending on how many duplicates and sets you include. It really does feel like there is no ‘wrong’ way to play Valley of the Kings. It does have some drawbacks, some of the pharaoh cards are overpowered and the base game set suggestion with duplicates in play can drag on a bit. However, I have never had a bad game of Valley of the Kings. It is fun, strategic, and reasonably easy for new players to pick up and experienced players to teach.
I wrote this article not to criticise Dominion but to give an awesome game that I feel is underappreciated some spotlight. Every gamer I have met knows Dominion and only a few of them know Valley of the Kings. This game has brought me a lot of joy, be that in a six-player game at a party where I am thanking Osiris that I remembered to sleeve my cards or when I fail to beat the dummy player solo for the fourth time in a row. In the title of this article, I refer to Valley of the Kings as an alternative to Dominion but to me, Dominion will always be the alternative to Valley of the Kings.
Zatu Games Supporting NHS Test and Trace
Zatu Games is supporting the NHS COVID-19 App.
The free app is a vital part of the NHS Test and Trace service in England, and the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect service.
Protect your loved ones. Download the app today.