Valley of the Kings

Guys, just because its Egyptian themed doesn't mean triangles become pyramids. Its a triangle.

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?

One of the starting cards - unlike "copper" it remains useful until the end of the game.

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.

Athlas Kickstarter Preview

[This post is not a review, but a preview for a game currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. Game rules, components, and art are all subject to change from the prototype version I was sent.]

Athlas is a game that I was very excited to try out from the moment I saw the art. The more I read about the game, the more I thought it was the kind of game for me.

In Athlas: Duel for Divinity, players face off against each other as they use different custom built avatars, or Alphas, to fight to obtain relics and prove they are worthy of godhood.

One of the most interesting parts of Athlas is the character creation. After players agree on a Summoning Point total, they each take their deck of 170 cards, and create 3 "Alphas." These Alphas are essentially templates - copies of which will be summoned onto the battlefield to attempt to be the first to open the portal to Athlas.

Each player has 9 genus cards - which are the basic building block cards for the Alphas. These come with a few innate abilities, but the fun really begins once players start customizing and building their Alphas. Most of each player's 170 cards are equipment, abilities, or spells which can be assigned to Alphas. These can be things like weapons, superpowers, or magic abilities that will help each Alpha achieve the player's goal of victory.

The Alpha genus cards as well as any equipment, ability, or spell cards assigned to it come with a summoning cost, however. So that each time a player brings a new copy of the Alpha onto the battlefield, she will be getting closer and closer to the summoning point limit players agreed upon before beginning the game. So players really have to decide what kind of game they want to play. Should they load up their Alphas with lots of powerful abilities and weapons, knowing they won't be able to summon to many to the battlefield? Do they go with a swarm approach and build smaller Alphas with less power, but who cost less and can be summoned multiple times per game? Does a single minded Alpha team stand a chance? Is a more balanced team not min/maxed enough? Should the Alphas be fast, nimble, slow, powerful, ranged, melee? All of these decisions need to be dealt with by players as they go through their decks of cards to create their Alphas.

A few of the Divine Intervention cards available in the game.

Players also build a deck of 4 Divine Intervention cards. These cards can be played at almost any time, and can have a powerful effect on the course of the game. The catch with these cards is that they must be played in the order the player chose to put them in at the start of the game. If a player finds she really wants to play her third card, but hasn't played her first card yet, she can do so, but the first two cards will have to be discarded with no effect. So again, careful planning in how players build their decks is important.

My super Spell Binder had extra health, health regen, and a bunch of awesome spells...and "only" cost fourty-four points to summon!

Once the construction phase of the game is complete, players will summon copies of their Alphas to the battlefield and activate them in order to acquire and hold 2 of 3 relics that are on the board. Combat in the game is diceless and, in fact, not randomized in any way. When a combatant uses an action to attack another combatant, stats and bonuses are compared and damage is assigned. Combat itself is fairly straightforward, but with all of those awesome power card in play, keeping everything your and your opponent's Alphas can do is where the challenge lies.

The game ends when one of the players controls 2 relics at the beginning of her turn. The player wins!

Athlas is a very engaging game with beautiful artwork and a lot of interesting decisions and customization options to play around with. I am someone who loves video game RPGs, and Athlas definitely gave me the feeling of getting to "level" up my characters as much as I wanted - without any grinding. A lot of the fun of this game is in being able to create your 3 fighters the way that you want, and then getting to see if the strategy you planned for when you were spec'ing out your troops does what you thought, or crashes and burns.

The best thing I can say about Athlas is that it reminded me of a slightly heavier, much less random version of Summoner Wars. If that description sounds appealing to you, I think you should absolutely go back this game! It has already funded, but only has 3 days left, so don't wait!

Blood of the Werewolf Review

Blood of the Werewolf card game contents

A game that I recently heard about was Blood of the Werewolf.  After it was described to me as "a mix between Hanabi and The Resistance," I knew that I wanted to try it!

In Blood of the Werewolf, there are two teams of players - Villagers and Werewolves.  And, each player is dealt a card to indicate which of those two teams he belongs to.  However, you do not get to know which card you have, though everybody else does (you hold your card so that it is facing all the other players)!  Additionally, there will be two cards dealt into the middle of the table that are used for "accusations" and, if there are an odd number of players, there will be another card dealt into the "wilderness" (which can never be seen).  A player's turn consists simply of "accusing" a player - taking one of the "accusation" cards and placing it in front of whichever player they accuse.  As soon as a player gets both accusations in front of him, he dies.  However, if you have an accusation in front of you during your own turn, you may look at that card (thus getting more information as you try to figure out which team you're on).  Play continues in this way until only a certain number of players are remaining (this depends on player count).  At that point, if the players all think that they are on the same team, they can "claim" that - and if they're right, they win, but if they're wrong, then the player making the claim dies immediately.  At which point the game ends.  Officially, you now add up points - with each living player worth one point, and each face down card in the center worth half of a point.  But, in reality, the team that still has living players wins at this point.

One of my favorite parts of Blood of the Werewolf deals with human nature.  Everybody I know "plays the odds" when they are dealt cards.  What I mean is that they look at all of the cards they can see, and then they determine which team they are "probably" on.  For example, if I see four Werewolves and two Villagers, then I will assume that I am on the Villager team.  And, if the Villagers can figure out who they are and take advantage of the fact that the Werewolf players think they're on the Villager team, they can win though the odds appear stacked against them.  In situations like this, it is very common for a Werewolf to accuse a teammate - with both players assuming that the other person is on the opposite team.  However, the Villagers (in this example) can't be too quick to pounce on these opportunities, or else the Werewolves may realize what is happening!

Villagers and Werewolves - I like the art
As a further extension of my first pro, my second pro is that I have come to love games where one side has full knowledge from the beginning.  Especially if there are an odd number of players.  For example, if you are playing a seven player game, then five Villager and five Werewolf cards will be dealt out.  And, if two players are dealt Villager cards and the other five players are dealt Werewolf cards, then the Villager players will immediately know what they are.  However, the Werewolves will never know for certain which team they are on.  Even if they look at all of the accusations, there will be two cards they haven't seen - the Villager card in the "wilderness", and their own (Werewolf) card.  This means that every Werewolf player will have to entertain doubt about which team they are on - and so smart playing by the Villagers can turn the tide of this game.  However, poor play by the Villagers (immediately killing Werewolves without a thought) can give away what they see!  This tension between one team being terribly outnumbered while the other team deals with constant uncertainty can leave you with a brilliant game play experience.

However, with those two pros, there are a number of cons that I have found with Blood of the Werewolf.  First, the game is very fragile.  What I mean is this - there are several things that can occur that can either cause the game to "break" or cause the game play to be unenjoyable.  The first one to address is the game "breaking."  I have played in at least one game in which the game would never officially end.  Here's what happened - we were playing a four player game, and two of the players were killed.  However, the two players that were still alive believed that they were on different teams - and in a four player game, you only end the game once there is one player left alive (or if the last two players claim to be on the same team).  Now, these players would simply accuse each other back and forth until the end of time - or until the game is ended outside of what the rules stipulate.  (This situation could also occur if there are four players left, believing they know which team they are on, and each player is sitting adjacent to people they think are on the opposite team.)  Each player is given a special once-per-game card that can help get you out of these situations, but in all honesty, I believe that those special cards may have actually been what caused the situation in the four-player game.

Example of a special card - note the flavor text
The next con deals with the fragility that causes an unenjoyable game experience.  The more knowledge is shared (especially early), the worse the game is.  The groups I've played with have played a lot of games of Hanabi, and so our natural response was to try to figure out what team we are on.  By asking.  But, you can't get information without giving information, generally, and so we all wound up sharing too much information.  And, though we could have lied, there were far too many people that were interested in calling out those lies - everybody else at the table knows if you lied!  That makes it a hard sell, unless several other players immediately join your lie.  So, the first few games that we played ended up with everybody knowing which team they were on almost immediately.  And, when this happens, the game turns into a simple numerical exercise - whichever team has more players (and/or the better special cards) will win.  And there's nothing you can do about it.  That's not fun at all.  Because of this, we took the approach to not share anything the first few times around the table, and to let people indicate which team they belong to through actions instead of through blatantly telling people what they see.  Reducing the initial talking made the game work much better, but also goes against your natural inclination - and if a single player decides that he's going to play by telling people what he sees, then it breaks down into the numbers game again.

One last thing to note - the current version of Blood of the Werewolf is a multi-lingual edition, and it seems that English was not the author's native language.  So, though the author's English is drastically better than my Mandarin (or any other language - I only know English), it reads very strangely at times.  After reading through the rules, I understood how to play the game (which is the point of a rulebook, after all), but I'm hoping that if the game is picked up for wider distribution, it will also have an editor.

Overall, I give Blood of the Werewolf a 6.5/10.  After my first two games, I thought that it was terrible (we all knew our role too quickly).  Having played more, I have now also had some amazing experiences playing the game.  However, the fragility of the game keeps me from ranking it too highly.  If you have played it and not enjoyed it, I would recommend trying again, but without talking early on - possibly even making a rule that you can't talk at all!

If Blood of the Werewolf sounds interesting, you might also want to check out The ResistanceBattlestar Galactica, and Shadows Over Camelot.

I would like to thank Homosapiens Lab for providing me with a review copy of Blood of the Werewolf.

EDIT: It was pointed out to me after posting this review that I missed a rule in this game.  Specifically, when a player dies, they place the accusation markers in front of other players.  This will prevent the game from breaking in the 4-player game like I had suggested, as when the game gets down to 2 players, both of those players will have an accusation in front of them, and thus the next player has the option of killing his opponent.  (I do believe that the game can still break in a 4-player situation where everyone thinks the people next to them are on the opposite team.  This can happen in an initially 4-player game when everyone plays their "skip a player's turn" special card in succession, or can happen when you get down to 4-players and everyone has played their special cards.  But, I have not yet re-played the game with the corrected rule, so this is speculation based on previous experiences.)

I'm not sure how this affects my overall score for this game, so honestly, I'm going to leave it the same. I've said all along that you should focus more on the text than numbers, anyway!  And, when I started thinking about this change, a friend of mine pointed out that he didn't think it would change the enjoyment of the game - and isn't that the point of playing games?  This just goes to show that no matter how many times you've played a game, there still might be something you weren't aware of.  (I don't generally disclose this, but I had played Blood of the Werewolf roughly 10 times before posting this review, so I thought I had it down!)

Dead Panic Review

Dead Panic is the latest release from Justin De Witt and Fireside Games, who are both probably best known for their 2009 release, Castle Panic.

Dead Panic is a cooperative game in which players take on the roles of survivors fighting to escape a zombie onslaught. The players do this by moving around the board, and using whatever weapons they can find to kill zombies and stay alive. 

The survivors are still alive in the cabin...but the zombies have take out a wall!

Dead Panic bears some cosmetic and a few gameplay similarities with Castle Panic, but for the most part, the games are pretty different.

One of the most interesting aspects of this game is that while the game starts off cooperatively with all players on the side same, if a player character dies, she turns into a zombie - essentially switching sides - and now has the goal of killing the other players. Players win the game if they are able to survive long enough to find the pieces of the broken radio, collect them all, assemble them, call the van, and get into the van. Anyone who makes it into the van and escapes wins, and any zombie players lose.

Each player will choose a character to play. Each character has special abilities that will need to be utilized in order to make sure the group survives until help can arrive. On a turn, a player will have 2 actions. Possible actions include basic things like drawing a card (when still inside the cabin), using a card, moving, and other special things like repairing, trading, or assembling.

After taking actions (and hopefully killing some zombies), the player has to draw an event card. This card will usually indicate how many zombie tokens need to be drawn and added to the board, as well as which zombies move. After this, all players have to fight any zombies she shares a space with, by using either any weapons she might be (hopefully) carrying or her bare hands. 

Dead Panic is a game that I had high hopes for. I had really wanted to like another game from Fireside Games - Castle Panic - which is distantly related to Dead Panic, but found it overly simple with not very many decisions to be made. While that game was a good choice for family play with younger children, I was hoping that Dead Panic would add more options, and more decisions to a base system that I thought had some interesting potential. And although Dead Panic does add more to the system, I would not say it is a vast improvement over Castle Panic. 

I do really like the aspect of players turning into zombies and then working against the rest of the players. That adds a neat dynamic especially towards the end of the game - when it becomes pretty clear that at least some of the players are going to win, do those in stronger positions take the risks necessary to make sure everyone survives, or does it devolve into "every man for himself" at some point? That piece of the game is a lot of fun. And of course rolling dice for combat adds an exciting "Ameritrash" level of excitement to the game. Overall, though, I was disappointed with Dead Panic.

First, the rulebook is formatted awkwardly. It is easy enough to read through to learn the game, but there are so many tiny rules and rule exceptions that finding that clarification during the game can be very frustrating. The publisher has released a FAQ that address some rules confusions, which is great of them, but might not be found by some players.

Look at all of those! Are you kidding?

I mentioned the rules exceptions above. In many games, and most cooperative games, there are upkeep steps that are required to keep the game moving. These steps are usually outside of the realm of any single player's turn, and (ideally) need to be memorized in order to keep the game moving smoothly. In Dead Panic, at least one of the players needs to know how the zombies move each turn. The table above shows all of the special rules for zombie movement. Does that look like fun to you? For our games I would have kept the rulebook open to this page, but we kept having so many other rules questions that I had to keep flipping back to it. This may seem like a minor quibble, and maybe it would be for some players, but for me, having to look up and confirm rules questions after a fourth and fifth game in the rulebook and the FAQ is rare, and a deal breaker.

I think I would have to give Dead Panic a 5.5/10. There is a game here, but I don't find it especially enjoyable. I do think it is worth reiterating that I did have high expectations for Dead Panic, and these were not compatible with what Fireside Games intended with this release. Dead Panic is absolutely one of those games that I could see other people enjoying, that I just don't "get."

Jim would like to thank Fireside Games for providing him with a review copy of Dead Panic.

Ophir Kickstarter Preview

[This post is not a review, but a preview of a game currently seeking funding on Kickstarter ( Components, art, or rules may change between when Jim played the game and the final release of the game.]

Ophir is the latest game from Terra Nova games ( seeking funding on Kickstarter. Their previous game, Guile, was successfully funded on Kickstarter about a year ago, and is a light, very interesting, card game all about bluffing and deduction.

Comparatively, Ophir is much more complicated than Guile, but it does still very much fall in the "family" category of games. In Ophir, players assume the roles of different government, trade, and religious dignitaries who are all sailing around the region of Ophir with a singular goal - building the Temple.

A lot about the setup of Ophir is modular and randomized, which adds a lot to the replayability of the game. Even players who have played previously will have to take a good look at the board state after everything has been set up and reevaluate whether their strategies will be effective for this game.

The locations of all the goods and the Temple and Market are random, as are the two barriers (which block player movement), as well as the order of the market cards (somewhat - there is an A and a B deck, which are shuffled separately and then combined, A on top of B). Players also draft the special roles in the game, with the first player having her choice from among 1 more than the number of players.

Players will be sailing around to the different islands, picking up goods, and delivering them to either the Market or the Temple and receiving rewards like money, favor, or victory points. The main way to score points in the game, though, is by contributing gold or silver towards the construction of the Temple. Players can purchase gold or silver by paying either coins or favor, and can then deliver the gold or silver to the Temple site in return for victory points.

Moving around the board is interesting too, because each player will have an influence die on their ship. If a player wants to sail into a space which already contains another player's ship, she has to either spend a valuable favor point, or risk rolling her influence die in the hopes of rolling a value that is equal to or higher than the highest influence die on the space she is trying to move to. If the roll is unsuccessful, her action is wasted and her ship stays where it is, but if it is successful, she is able to move into that space, and the value she rolled is the new value of her influence die - which could be bad news for the other players who might want to move into her space.

How awesome does that look? And this is only a prototype!

In fact, one of the big draws of Ophir is the really phenomenal looking 3-D Temple that gets constructed throughout the game. As each level is completed by the players, another level is added, which has art corresponding to the Temple getting closer and closer to completion.

The game will end when either the Temple is completed, or when there are not enough market cards left to fully replenish the market. At this point, players will get extra victory points for any gold or silver they happen to be carrying at the time, and the player with the most victory points wins!

While there is a lot of randomization in Ophir, the gameplay is very simple, which makes this a great game for more experienced gamers to play with friends or family members who may not be as engaged in the hobby. The art and components will absolutely help those "non-gamers" feel more comfortable and more drawn to the game as well. The pick up and deliver mechanisms are also very intuitive and will be very easy to explain to new players as well. I feel that Ophir is a great gateway game for people interested in the beautiful art or in a easy to learn pickup and deliver game.

If you think Ophir would make a good addition to you game collection, go pledge now! (

"Famous Games" Review #1 - Famous Fastballs

Easy two player baseball card game, Famous Fastballs (photo: game in play)
[This review assumes the reader understands the basic rules of baseball.]

Famous Games Co. has a series of "famous" sports games, including baseball, tennis, car racing, football, golf, and yacht racing. I will review each of these games, but first up - baseball!

I love baseball. I didn't really play as a kid, due to a traumatizing injury sustained early during my tee-ball career, but since then I have come to love the sport. I think my favorite part of the game is the battle that takes place between the pitcher and the opposing hitter. There is so much drama in each pitch. So much guessing, and bluffing, and re-guessing. Baseball really is a game of inches, and that made very clear every time a batter steps up to the plate.

Famous Fastballs: The World's Smallest Baseball Game certainly lives up to its name. The game includes 11 cards, and requires (not included) less than a dozen counters. Players set up by laying most of the cards up on the table between them, and placing counters where indicated. These cards track everything from the score, to the number of outs, to the current inning.

Famous Fastballs breaks a baseball game down into outs - no individual pitches or strikes - a batter either gets a hit or an out. To resolve each at bat, both players (as when playing Rock, Paper, Scissors), count simultaneously to 3, and throw either a fist or an open palm. If the players threw different things, the pitcher gets an out. If both players threw an open palm, the batter is awarded a walk. And if both players throw a fist, the batter get contact and puts the ball into play. What happens after that requires a second stage of resolution.

Both players simultaneously count to 3 (just like above) and throw either a fist, 1 finger, 2 fingers, or 3 fingers (0, 1, 2, or 3). Players add the sum of the numbers thrown, and consult the Hit card for the result of the play.

That is pretty much the game! Players continue through the game until they have played 9 innings, and whoever has scored the most runs after those 9 innings is the winner!

As you can see, gameplay is dead simple - but the experience of playing the game is so much more than the sum of its parts. The guessing and bluffing that happens during each out and each ball put in play is so awesome - especially when two baseball fans are playing against each other. The dynamic that is created by these very simple tables on cards is truly amazing. I especially love the Hit table. The pitcher can try to go for an out, by throwing something low, like a 0 or a 1 - but that allows the batter to throw a 2 or a 3 to get at least a base hit. So should the pitcher always throw a 0, hoping the batter will get himself out with a 1 or a 2? But then the batter could throw a 3, since the likelihood of the pitcher going for a triple play is probably pretty low...right?

You can almost smell the beer and popcorn.

Probably my favorite part of Famous Fastballs is that all of this happens in "real time." Since the actual mechanics of either throwing out a fist or an open palm, or a 0, 1, 2, or 3 is so simple, half innings could take less than 10 seconds (and sometimes do). These supremely simple (yet deviously difficult) decisions, when made under this intense time pressure makes for some really awesome, often laugh-out-loud moments.

I haven't played too many board games based on baseball, but Famous Fastballs is my favorite, by far. It is quick to play, easy to learn, and it really feels like baseball. I have never played a game of this without both players bursting into laughter, whether prompted by sheer frustration after the pitcher threw a FIFTH straight ball, or after one of the players shouting waay too loudly, "I KNEW you were going to do that!!!" For its weight, its cost, and how often I would be willing to play it, I would rate Famous Fastballs an 8.5/10. I think this is a must have game for baseball fans.

Jim would like to thank Famous Games Co for sending him a review copy of Famous Fastballs.