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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Ten Years Ago We Had Bob Drugs, Johnny Cash, and Steve Guns. And Now…

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I Had That! #31: Matchbox and Hot Wheels Cars

Does it count as memories if I had to be reminded of it? The other day I was scrolling through Tumblr when a post featuring a bunch of old Hot Wheels cars when by, and that car up there, the Spoiler Sport, jumped out at me. Yes, I had that car. I loved that car. And this made me realize I had to talk about toy cars.

Before action figures, toy cars of the Matchbox and Hot Wheels varieties were right up there with plastic dinosaurs and army men as essential boy toys. Every kid had tons of these, usually from (as with Tonka trucks collections of other kids who had outgrown them. I’m sure some of these were bought off the rack, but I mostly remember just sort of having them.

I can’t really remember how we played with them, but I know we did. They had adventures, I guess? Memories are faint of all but the cars themselves. Going through wikis of both Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, although “Spoiler Sport” (first produced in 1977) above is Hot Wheels, the rest of the ones I remember were Matchbox. Here are some of my favorites:

Planet Scout (1975)

Blaze Buster (1975)

Cosmobile (1975)

Stretcha Fetcha (1972)

What do those all have in common? They’re all science fictiony. Even the fire truck looks like a spaceship, and in fact I know at the time when I drew spaceships they had that angled nose like the Spoiler Sport. The exception that proves the rule was this one:

Piston Popper (1973)

Which is a “normal” car, but when it rolled the pistons moved up and down and that was pretty cool.

I never, even in my teens, got into cars. Back then, when friends of mine could point out a Dodge or a Ford or whatever, I had no idea how they knew the difference. They all looked alike to me. To this day I realize that if I ever witnessed some kind of getaway I’d be useless to the cops. “What kind of car was it?” “Uhh, a sort of gray one?” Even in the case of distinctive models, such as the Corvette/Trans Am rivalry back then, I had no idea how to choose a side and couldn’t be roused to care. Cars as cars held no interest to me. Thus, while my friends might have grabbed some kind of classic model off the Matchbox shelf, I generally went for whatever had the coolest, most futuristic shape.

When did I get it? 1975-1976 seems to be the right time, but the Spoiler Sport coming out in ’77 messes that up. I imagine we played with them until Star Wars figures arrived on the scene in early ’78.

Do I still have it? No, none of them. No idea what ended up happening to them.

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Remember When I Used to Do Lego?

You will never guess what I did last night.

I built with Lego!

When we last left off, I had a brilliant plan to re-sort all my Lego by brick type. This took a long time to do and then paralyzed me, as I was now in a situation where building anything would require sifting through many different bins and containers to get the pieces I want. My previous sorting situation, where most parts were binned by color, wasn’t great (the black bin was pretty much a pit of darkness from which no light could escape) but it was manageable. Between this and other issues, I haven’t really touched my Legos in months.

Yesterday while we were walking the dog, Becky asked me what my plans were for that evening: Xbox or iPad? As much as I enjoy both things, that struck me as a sad state of affairs. Didn’t I used to do other things? Like read and Lego? So I hunkered down and started working on an idea I came up with not long ago.

Here’s a preview:

It’s blurry because it’s a SECRET, but also because right now it’s pretty ugly, more of a proof-of concept sketch than what I hope the final thing is. Honestly, I don’t know how pretty it will ever be, but we’ll see.

The project is code-named “826 77″ and I’ll keep you posted on it.

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X-Files, Season Two

Still would.

The X-Files re-viewing project continues, though it’s undergone some changes. Season two is done. This is the season where the Conspiracy arc takes off, and as a result, I’m hopping off board, at least of those episodes. I just can’t do it again. The X-Files mytharc is the dumbest, sloppiest, most inept waste of time and knowing that fact going in doesn’t help.

But I also stopped with watching all of the Monster of the Week episodes because let’s face it, a lot of them are not very good. I love the characters of Mulder and Scully, and I love the premise of the show, but too often the scripts were not kind to them. I know that someone out there loves “Aubrey” or whatever, but I’m pretty sure I can safely pass on a bunch of these.

Anyway, this is how Season Two shook out for me.

Little Green Men – We start out with an episode in which, after having been into a secret government lab and finding and handling what appears to be an alien fetus in the previous episode, Mulder trucks out to Puerto Rico because a radio telescope there may be receiving some kind of alien signal. This also features the scene where Mulder approaches the telescope and sees that the fence is padlocked shut. So he hikes around through the jungle to an opening, goes to the main building, and then pulls a bolt cutter out of his bag to get inside, where he finds a Mexican guy waiting. What I’m saying is that this episode is not very good.


The Host – Now THIS is more like it! Flukeman! The best part about this episode, other than that it’s so disgusting, is that it’s not like the usual ones. Everyone sees Flukeman, and knows this crazy thing is real. Skinner says they’re going to send it to some kind of psychiatric hospital! This is pretty much the gold standard for MOTW episodes.

Blood – I loved this episode when it first aired and I still love it. It was not only as good as I remembered, it was better, even though there’s probably one too many elements thrown into the mix. William Sanderson proves he’s a national treasure, as always, and there’s even a for-real porn actress in one part. This episode has Mulder and Scully doing very little investigating and more like just being around a bunch of weird shit as it happens until it stops, with never an explanation as to what was going on, and I’m all over that. I also like when they find out that exposure to an insecticide may make you paranoid and crazy, which means it has no effect on Mulder whatsoever. I think this is a first-rate episode.

Sleepless – A kind of eh episode, best known for introducing Alex Krycek, Mulder’s new partner. I would eventually come to dread seeing Nicholas Lea’s name in the opening credits, but he’s only going to be a minor character for me if I avoid the mytharc. (Unfortunately I’ll miss a lot of Skinner that way as well.)

A memorable scene from “Duane Barry”

Duane Barry/Ascension – The first two-parter and the reason I bailed on the Conspiracy this time around. Although I know I came to hate the overarching plot, I remember liking Duane Barry (the episode and the character). Turns out that’s because Duane Barry is a great stand-alone episode. You have a guy taking hostages who thinks he’s being abducted by aliens, but it might not be what it looks like. It’s a good story, and it’s solid…until the last two minutes. At that point Duane somehow escapes, somehow finds Scully, and somehow kidnaps her. And then you have Ascension, which is just miles of stupid, unraveling the nice plot leading up to all this. And it’s the perfect summation of the show, as a great stand-alone story gets shoved aside for a dumb wreck of a conspiracy episode. This was when I decided no, I wouldn’t be rewatching every episode. It’s also when, for a number of reasons, I also bailed on Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files podcast.

And now the joyous freedom of skipping episodes! I passed on all of the following:

One Breath
Red Museum
Excelsis Dei

It’s like I opened up a Christmas present and inside was six brand-new hours!

Irresistable – I like this episode because it has nothing supernatural in it. (Yeah, I know, the weird demon thing is presented from an omniscient point-of-view, not a character’s, but whatever.) Donnie Pfaster is just a straight up human monster and that’s it, and I think it works and should have happened more often.

Die Hand Die Verletz – Another classic episode, and also a nice change of pace in that sometimes women can also be freaky evil monsters. It’s also probably the first episode to approach its story in a more humorous way (despite some genuinely horrifying scenes). This one shows up on a lot of “best-of” lists, and there’s a good reason for it.

Fresh Bones
Colony/End Game
Fearful Symmetry
Død Kalm

Nope, skipped these.

She’s never been sexier than when she ate that cricket

Humbug – This is one of those X-Files where the “mystery” is somewhat beside the point. Everything works here. Mulder and Scully have great lines, the supporting characters are great, there are tons of memorable lines and scenes, and everyone is just having a blast. Darin Morgan lifts up the show and demonstrates a skill with the writing that few of the other regulars would be able to pull off. Imagine a season of episodes like this, instead of the leaden, clumsy stuff we so often got. Also: Scully eats a bug!

The Calusari – I didn’t know why this one stuck out for me as one to watch, but it wasn’t too bad, despite taking what seemed like forever to really get going. Once it does, though, you have a lot of creepy stuff happening. I want to see a whole series about the Calusari, just going from town to town, Calusaring.

F. Emasculata
Soft Light
Our Town

Skipped these. I was tempted by “Soft Light” since it has Tony Shalhoub in it, but I’m pretty sure that’s all it has going for it.

And that’s it for season two. A lot of chaff, but also some great, classic stand-alone episodes. If you think I passed up a good one, let me know, unless it’s “One Breath”.

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I Had That! #30: Mighty Men and Monster Maker

This toy was not an Atari 2600.

I don’t say that because it was a Christmas bait-and-switch or anything, just pointing out that it’s not an Atari 2600.

What it was was a kind of cool thing in which you had different heads, torsos, and legs for various superheroes and monsters, and you could mix-and-match them. They were plastic and raised, so you put a piece of paper above them, rubbed it with a sideways crayon, and the combination you picked became a drawing you could then color. You could even spruce it up with some “texture” plates that could give your monster (or hero, we’re open-minded here) scales or fur or pox.

I had little talent with it, but looking for picture of the toy I found some where folks had really jazzed up the designs. (Turns out the art was by Dave Stevens, later of “The Rocketeer”.)

This was the “boy” version of a toy for girls called “Fashion Plates” which was the same idea only with different clothes. Sadly, the plastic components were not compatible, so you couldn’t make a tentacled space alien in a paisley skirt. Fashion plates actually pre-dated the MMMM.

I only have one significant memory of this thing. When my friend Chris and I were bored, and trying to figure out what we wanted to do, this was often his number one pick. I had one and he didn’t, and he always wanted to play with it. It just didn’t appeal to me that much, so his suggestion was always frustrating to me. Especially since Chris had an Atari 2600, something I didn’t, and I always wanted to play that instead. It was the middle of the summer, his parents worked, we could have played on that thing for hours, but no, he wanted to color monsters. Because we were 11, the concept of some kind of compromise didn’t occur to either of us, so we stayed at an impasse here.

When did I get it? Not sure. It was released in 1979, so probably around then.

Do I still have it? Nope. Nor do I have — or ever had — an Atari 2600.

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