A Tale of Two Deckbuilders: Star Realms and Valley of the Kings

A few months ago a new game took the boardgaming community by surprise. Star Realms originated on Kickstarter, but it was picked up by a small publisher and released to huge success. It was in high demand, selling out soon wherever it was found.

The appeal of Star Realms is that it’s a deckbuilder — a game where you start with a weak initial deck and keep buying cards to add to it and make it stronger — that was small, fast, and inexpensive. For under $20 you got a deck that had you set for two players. Add another deck and now four can play.

The game play is pretty good. You start with a few weak ships that generate trade and attack. The deckbuilding is done Ascension style, where there’s a row of cards you can buy from that is refilled as you go. Cards belong to one of four factions, each of which specializes in one aspect of the game. A card will often get some kind of boost if played with another card from its faction. The goal is to attack the opponent, reducing her Authority (life) down to 0. It’s easy to learn and plays quickly.

The whole thing comes in a small, pocket-sized box. It’s an attractive package, both physically and psychologically, having an entire deckbuilding game of spaceships and starbases and pew-pew-pew packed into a tiny footprint. To add to the appeal, there’s now a digital version on PC, Mac, Android, and iOS, which is free to download and only costs a few bucks to unlock features. (I’m Legomancer on it, feel free to challenge me!) This has increased its appeal even more.

I grabbed Star Realms at Gen Con, where I first played it. Since then, all my plays have been online, but there have been a bunch of them. It’s a fast game, and has a certain “just one more”ness to it. It’s a fun game, and I like it. That said, despite having played a bunch of games online, it was pretty soon that I figured I’d seen everything the game had to offer. While the choices you make in the game aren’t as obvious as they seem (you don’t necessarily want to buy whatever you can afford, for example), they also aren’t terribly subtle. There are some combos to be found, but most of the cards are pretty straightforward, offering you one thing or another. It’s a good game, but it’s still a smallish game with a limited card pool to draw from. Expansions, assuming there are any coming, may help with that, but then the game won’t be pocket-friendly anymore, and that’s part of the appeal.

Meanwhile, AEG, which has put out both microgames and deckbuilders, quietly released Valley of the Kings, which has hardly gotten any hype. Like Star Realms, it’s a deckbuilder in a small box (half the thickness of Star Realms’, but twice the width) with a small price tag. Unlike Star Realms, it plays 2-4 right away. And unlike Star Realms, it’s full of tough, interesting choices.

In VotK, you are preparing your tomb for the afterlife. You’ll be using your cards to buy books and sarcophagi and canopic urns and such to help you enjoy the sweet hereafter. These cards will have powers that increase your money, gain more cards, or screw with your opponents. They’re also worth victory points. However, only the cards you pack away in your tomb will count for victory at the end of the game. You can have the finest collection of god statues the Nile has ever seen, but if they’re not in your tomb they’re not in Valhallankhamun or whatever the Egyptian afterlife is and they score nothing. And if they’re in your tomb, you can’t use them. So at some point you have to start throwing your good cards into your tomb and hope you can do without them. In addition, you can only buy cards from the bottom row of the pyramid arrangement of cards, but then the others crumble down to fill the missing space. So you can see what’s coming up to purchase.

That balance between having powerful cards to play and purchase with and getting those cards into your tomb is tough enough, but you also have to deal with cards that mess with each other’s plans, making you discard or sacrifice cards, give cards to an opponent, or even just removing a card from the pyramid that you know your opponent wants.

I heard about VotK after Gen Con and immediately ordered a copy. Since then I’ve played it several times, usually with two players. Meanwhile, my physical copy of Star Realms languishes. I like Star Realms, I really do, but Valley of the Kings is just a better game. It doesn’t have an online version, and wouldn’t really do asynchronous play well (some cards are played during an opponent’s turn), so I’m cool with playing that one live and Star Realms on the iPad. And VotK plays up to four.

I’m not really trying to pit one against the other here. They’re both good games, each with their own merits, of which I think one has more. I think Star Realms is fine, but I hate seeing Valley of the Kings getting completely ignored when I think it’s doing the better job of the two. It deserves more attention. It deserves your attention. Go check it out.

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