I’ve been making an effort the last few months to reduce the ratio of played to unplayed boardgames in my collection. One game that made it off the shelf recently after arriving as a Kickstarter reward several months ago is Villages of Valeria from Daily Magic Games. My wife and I recently put it through its paces a couple of weeks ago and it was the game that the guys and I chose to play at our game night last night.
We played two games and the consensus at the end is that we all enjoyed it. Then again, we’re a fairly easy-going lot, so it typically doesn’t take a much for us to find a boardgame enjoyable. I’m probably the most critical in our group, so the real measure is probably whether or not I enjoyed it, which I am happy to report that I did.
The theme of the game is, starting with your castle and the resources it provides, to expand your village one building and one adventurer at a time. Buildings and adventurers are worth victory points at the end of the game and during the game provide either a one time immediate bonus or a recurring one that’s triggered by certain actions. The game ends when one player accumulates a set number of buildings and adventurers. In a surprise twist, the goal of the game is to have the fewest victory points at the end. Actually, it’s not. But that would be a surprising twist, wouldn’t it?
Gameplay is smooth. The core mechanic is reminiscent of Puerto Rico where the lead player chooses an action that all of the other players follow, with the player who chose the action receiving a bonus. The core mechanic is action-selection, but the depth of the game comes in determining which buildings to construct and which adventurers to recruit.
You must build your economy from the ground up, first developing the raw materials needed to construct your buildings, which are in turn used to recruit adventurers, all the while trying to find the best combos and synergies with the options that are currently available. There is a large variety of buildings and adventurers, but only a few of them will be available at any given point in the game. Good decision-making goes a long way in converting the random arrival of cards into winning plays, and your success will largely depend on your timing and the ability to determine when to switch over from low-value buildings and adventurers that provide immediate benefit to more expensive buildings that are essentially dead weight and resource hogs during the game but which have a higher payoff at the end.
Despite the depth of interaction between the different buildings and adventurers, there was little downtime, even with our most analysis-paralysis-prone players. The lead-follow mechanic is a key feature in keeping everyone involved at almost all times since it means that there’s less downtime in between turns.
One of my favorite parts of the design is that you can pay gold to another player to use the resources that they’ve developed to construct your own buildings. This deprives them of the ability to use those resources for a turn, but the sting of this inconvenience is mitigated by the that the gold they receive goes into their coffers for their own use. The net effect of this is that it creates an actual economy and a greater level of interaction between players.
Thematically, it feels like there’s a difference between buildings and adventurers. Both are worth points at the end of the game and either provide an immediate benefit or an ongoing one that’s triggered by different conditions, yet they somehow feel distinct. Part of it probably has to do with the fact that the mechanics for building are almost completely different from those for recruiting. Another factor is that there are multiple copies of most buildings but only one copy of each adventurer. Mechanically, having each adventurer be unique also leads to a little bit of asymmetrical gameplay and strategy as the game progresses.
The only place where the theme breaks down a little is in situations where the cards representing buildings and adventurers are themselves used as a resource, needing to be discarded in order to complete certain actions, or traded for gold. It all fits mechanically, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to represent something theme-wise.
We played with the Guilds Halls expansion in the first game, minus the event cards, and we used all of the expansion content in our second game. Out of all the expansion material, we found the event cards to be the least interesting. They’re highly thematic and easy enough to implement, but in terms of actual impact on the game, they’re fairly lackluster. They typically involve a minor penalty or bonus to one player, although they sometimes have global effects. In fairness, it was probably a prudent decision to err on the side of limiting their effect, lest luck have too much of an impact on the outcome of the game. The guild building cards themselves add more flavor and asymmetrical play since, unlike the other buildings, they are unique, but they don’t add any new mechanics, meaning that it’s just as easy to use them when first learning the game, which is something I recommend.
The Monuments expansion adds some new mechanics, but they’re easy enough to learn and aren’t complicated. The monuments themselves are a welcome addition, adding another layer of depth and decision making. Do you focus on keeping your economic engine humming along, erecting new buildings and attracting new adventurers to your village, with more instances of low-scoring moves, or do you devote the necessary resources to completing the high-cost, high-value monuments instead? I’m not sure if well-played games always incorporate completing monuments or if ignoring them to focus on other scoring methods is considered a viable way to play, but for what it’s worth, in a four-player game, only one of us had managed to complete one by the end, and it was a different player who won the game.
The length of the game is just about perfect. You get enough turns to allow you to feel like you were able to accomplish some things, but it’s short enough to create that tense sweet spot where you’re hoping that the game will last just long enough for you to see all of your grand plans come to fruition. In terms of real-time, it feels just about right and avoids overstaying its welcome.
Villages is my gaming group’s and my first experience with the games in the world of Valeria. Based on our experience, I’m eager to explore more of it, and I imagine that they would be willing to come along on the journey.