In Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria, you and your opponents are Wardens vying to prove by might and mettle that you’re worthy of becoming the Dark Army’s General. Those pesky humans, elves, and dwarves are encroaching on your territory; moving in and settling down, all while leaving a river of the blood of your kin in their wake as they expand their empire.
The goblins, gnolls, skeletons, gargoyles, and orcs have had enough. It’s time to take back what’s theirs! They’ll lay siege, spring ambushes, and boldly clash with the enemy forces until the Shadow Kingdom is feared across all of Valeria.
Playing Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria
Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria‘s press release calls itself an “Action Selection and Dice Drafting game with elements of Hand Management, Resource Management, and Contract Fulfillment.” And it is all of those things, but, more importantly, it is all of those things without being nearly as complicated as that makes it sound.
Players take turns moving their Warden to one of five Shrines to gather resources for their army, or back to their camp to complete Battle Plans. At each Shrine they will select a single die whose color indicates what type of troop it is and whose number provides that troop’s strength.
Two to four dice are needed to complete Battle Plan cards which display what types of troops are required (ie one gargoyle and one skeleton or one orc, one goblin, and one gargoyle).
There is no set strength value required to complete any Battle Plan. Instead, your troops’ total strength for any battle determines how many Victory Points that Battle Plan is worth. But your Influence places a ceiling on your strength, so you’ve got to figure out how to boost that element of your army, as well!
In addition to dice, the Shrines offer you the chance to collect a few resources to affect your die faces and troop types, claim Awards, gain gold which is used to purchase Battle Plans and Champions, and recruit said Champions to your cause which provide a range of effects. Some grant you a single-use instant effect, others provide ongoing bonuses, and the last provide your army with extra ways to net some VP during end-game scoring.
Your player board begins with 10 Victory Markers covering up expansions to your armies capabilities. These chips are removed when Battle Plans are successfully completed or when you claim an Award. Chips removed after satisfying a Battle Plan are placed onto a Campaign Board which will grant conditional bonuses to VP as well as extra resources and Influence.
Since the game-end is triggered when a Warden finishes his or her seventh Battle Plan, there are just enough Victory Markers to do that and claim a spot on each of the three Awards. Part of every player’s strategy involves choosing which Victory Markers to remove and when. There is no prescribed order, so it is up to the Wardens to determine which bonuses will serve them best after each victory. Do you go for more dice slots? More cards? That sweet constant +1 to strength? The choice is yours!
The Warden with the most Victory Points wins…and that might not necessarily be the one who finished seven Battle Plans!
Staking Our C.L.A.I.M. on Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria
We were sent a prototype version of Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria, so it is hard to speak to them as if we’ve handled the final product. But the usual considerations like materials aside, the layout of the game board is very neat. We also liked the modular approach to the Campaign Boards, each of which was double-sided and had different configurations for bonuses.
The dice faces were the only thing we had a minor quibble about. The large strength value is easily readable, but the two icons below them can be really tough to make unless you’re hovering right over the board. BUT…the icon at the bottom right indicates the troop type and is a bit redundant as so, too, does the color. We assume they’re there for colorblind players, which is great.
And the small number to the bottom left, which is used for discounts and gold acquisition, can be deduced from the large, easily read Strength number, as those two values always add up to 6 (ignoring the negative sign). Once you sort that out, you’re golden! It really was a minor quibble.
And the Victory Track on the board feels a little cramped at times – even though each player’s marker stacked neatly and securely thanks to their dimple design. But again: this is a prototype, and I’m not sure everything was built to scale so this could easily be a non-issue at release.
There really isn’t any unmitigated luck in the game thanks to the clever way the various resources interact with the cards and dice. The gems you can collect at one Shrine can be used to flip a die to its opposite side (whose totals are always 7) or treat its color/troop type as wild for the purposes of satisfying Battle Plan requirements.
Magic gained at another Shrine can be used to change a die’s value up or down by one, or they can be spent to place a face-up Battle Plan or Champion card at the bottom of their respective deck for a chance to see something different.
You can use any number of either of those resources on your turn as you’d like. Bad draw on the cards? Weak Strength or wrong troop types all over the board or in your camp? Neither is a problem so long as you have Magic or Gems on hand. Very well designed on that front! However, both are limited on your board by those Victory Markers, so you’re back to facing the big questions of “Which?” and “When?” again!
Mihajlo Dimitrievski aka The Mico is responsible for the art in Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria and my lord is it all good! We love this man’s work across some of our other favorite games like Architects of the West Kingdom and The North Sea Saga games just to name a few.
Everything is done in a super cool style that screams darkish fantasy, and while you’ll see the five races represented over and over again, there is a ton of variance to their appearances from card to card so you’re never staring at the same card over and over again.
In fact, the only card art you’ll see twice in a game are a couple of repeat designs for the Instant Champion cards. Literally every other card design is totally unique. If I did my math right, that means there are 90 different card arts in this game. That is insane to me and I love it to pieces. And that doesn’t even include the game board and player board art!
The Mico’s art aside, the iconography of the game is easy to read and make sense of. They’re kind enough to explain it all in the rulebook, of course – and even give an explanation for every one of the Champion cards – but you gotta love when you can sort those things out without having to pull out a reference sheet of some kind.
Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria is a quick to learn and easy to play game with plenty of strategy baked right in. And here’s the best part: You can not get stuck because of poor planning or bad luck. If you make a mistake or the die or Battle Plan you wanted gets snatched up by another, there are simple ways to recover from that setback.
If, for instance, you’ve got three Skeleton/gray dice at your camp and the only Battle Plan that could satisfy gets purchased by another, you can choose to boot one of those dice to the bag from which they’re drawn when you visit your next Shrine and choose a die there. That coupled with all that the Gems and Magic does plus the natural turnover that occurs via other players’ choices and the occasional re-filling of the dice at each Shrine keeps every turn purposeful.
I’m always a fan of a solo play option or variant, and Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria delivers on that front, as well. In fact, it actually offers a pretty different experience from the standard play by having the opposing Warden move clockwise turn by turn and prohibiting you from entering the Shrine he’s in. The means by which he scores Victory Points also keeps the challenge relatively high, and the difficulty can be adjusted by starting him off with more or fewer Victory Points. I super dug playing it by myself!
Because everyone at the table is staring at and vying for the same resources, your strategy might change turn by turn. But that also means you can meddle with their plans, as well! Sometimes it’ll happen inadvertently and you won’t know that you’ve ruined someone’s schemes until they’re cursing your name. All in good fun, of course.
You can exert a certain measure of control over Battle Plans by visiting a Shrine and reserving them – placing them out of everyone else’s reach below your player board. Doing so also affords you new ways to cash in gold for resources – including that much needed Influence! – so securing them is a good idea regardless.
There’s just enough complexity to Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria that even a seasoned tabletop veteran will find themselves giving pause at the start of many of their turns as they try to figure out what to do next. But it also isn’t so complex that a single mistake necessarily costs you victory or that your brain will feel fried at game’s end. Good balance here.
The Darkness Rises!
I played this game solo and then with 2 and 4 players, and each experience was thoroughly enjoyed by all involved. Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria supports up to 5 players too, so there’s even room to grow for my gaming group.
The flexibility afforded by it being the player’s choice as to which Victory Markers to remove when completing a Battle Plan or claiming an Award really pushes this title over the top for us. It is also a fun challenge to try and get all 10 off your player board every game! While that isn’t necessary to win, it certainly doesn’t hurt your chances. To the contrary, that will solidly improve them.
Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria earns the much-coveted Nerds on Earth Seal of Awesomeness. It is going live on Kickstarter on July 7, so keep an eye out or, better yet, go click the “Notify Me on Launch” button. Tell them Nerds on Earth sent you. It probably won’t get you anything, but its a nice gesture.
[Disclosure: Daily Magic Games provided Nerds on Earth with a prototype copy of Shadow Kingdoms of Valeria in exchange for an honest review.]