Valley of the Kings is a small box game from AEG's Pocket line of games that includes Cheaty Mages and Sail to India. It is a deck building game set in ancient Egypt. A mechanism and theme that the board game hobby has certainly seen a lot of. Does Valley of the Kings deserve your attention anyway?
Valley of the Kings does a lot of things that we're seen in previous deck builders. Players buy cards from a pool of available cards, and put them into a discard pile, which will be shuffled into their personal deck later in the game. The available cards in Valley of the Kings are set up in a triangle, and are cycled in a way that is reminiscent of Ascension, but here only half of the cards that are face up are available for purchase, which adds a bit to that formula.
The game also adds two bigger innovations to deck building. First, each card can be used to execute 1 of 3 actions.
1. The card can be played for money in order to buy cards in the center.
2. The card can be played for its action.
3. The card can be buried (permanently removed from their deck) in a player's tomb, for its victory point value.
In Valley of the Kings, any cards left in a player's deck are worthless at the end of the game. Only those cards which have been purged from each player's deck and placed into their tombs are counted as points. This is the essence of what Valley of the Kings brings to the genre - and the main reason the game is so much fun.
As one might expect, cards which have strong abilities are also worth a lot of points. So just like in Dominion - where there is a point where players have to decide to stop buying action cards and start buying point cards - players in Valley of the Kings have to choose how long they want to keep playing that valuable action card, and when they want to bury it in their tomb to ensure it gets counted as points at game end.
One of my favorite things about any deck building game is trying to thin out my deck to make it as efficient as possible. Valley of the Kings really lets me play around with this idea because players are allowed to get rid of any card in their hand once per turn. I like this both because it gives me a lot of control over my deck, and also because there isn't a safety net. I think it would be possible in this game to buy the wrong cards, thin too much, and simply be out of the game. I'm not saying this is likely, or that this game is especially punishing, but I like being treated like I know what I'm doing by a game and its designer.
Valley of the Kings also plays with deck composition by having a fair number of cards in the deck whose actions involved getting cards out of one's own deck, and putting them into the deck of another player. This action would be interesting in any deck building game - but is even more interesting here, as even the weakest/least exciting cards in the game (your starting deck) are worth victory points. So yes, by using one of these cards and then burying another card a player could potentially thin 2 cards from her deck in a single turn, but will the other player bury the card I just sent? Is making my deck a few cards stronger worth the victory point cost? In a two-player game, even a card that is just worth a single victory point could result in a 2 point swing if the shunned card ends up in the other player's tomb.
Deck building is one of my favorite mechanisms in games. Despite this, there aren't many deck building games that I have fallen in love with. Ascension, Trains, and Star Realms are some of my favorites - but with so many mediocre deck builders out there, its hard to keep playing all of them and being disappointed over and over again. That is part of why I think Valley of the Kings has been such a hit for me. The game keeps enough about the genre the same, while putting its own interesting twists on the formula.
I would definitely recommend Valley of the Kings to fans of deck building, and even to those who might feel like deck building doesn't have anything new or fun to explore. I'd rate it a solid 8.0.