I’m always interested in games with a smaller footprint, or table-print, because it seems like the size forces designers to get really creative with their mechanics to make their game memorable. In Vaalbara, a board game published by Studio H, does just that, combining blind bidding with set collection as you rally your clan to unite the banners in the wild continent of Vaalbara.
Your character cards determine the order in which the players choose which Land they will be visiting, so you’ll need to manage the order that you play them in order to ensure your strategy pays off.
Each Land type scores in a different way. Some award points based on the number of that land you have, while others might score based on the value of the character you played. Set collection is the name of the game, but your character abilities will also influence the Land cards and your point total.
So grab your banner and rally your community to greatness in Vaalbara!
In Vaalbara, players each get their own set of 12 matching Character cards. Every round, players will simultaneously select a Character card from their hand and play it. Then, starting with the player who played the card with the lowest value, Character effects are resolved and a Land card is taken from the available market.
You only ever have five Characters in your hand at any given time, so you can’t count on seeing every card in your deck. Everybody else is in the same boat, however, meaning that everybody is playing the best game they can with what they’re given.
Of course, there are plenty of situations where players will play a Character card with the same number. In that instance, ties are broken through the use of the Clan’s Omens, which are printed on the back of each card. The card on the top of the Lands deck dictates the favor of each clan, which could help influence which cards you decide to play.
The game ends once everybody has 9 Lands in their Realm. In addition to the points that are received over the course of the game through Character cards and Land cards, players also get bonuses if they have 5 or 6 different Land types. Whoever has the highest victory points at the end of the game, wins!
Staking Our C.L.A.I.M. on Vaalbara!
As a simple card game, there isn’t much to say about the components for Vaalbara. I found that the cards hold up well, and the victory point tokens were perfectly suitable for the game. I especially like that the tiebreakers are on the back of the Land cards, which is a clever way to randomize the tiebreaker order without the use of additional, superfluous components.
One thing I’d also like to note is that the box is a drawer-style, where the interior slides out of the exterior similar to a…drawer. There aren’t any bags included in the game box, but they really aren’t needed because of this box design. It essentially doubles as a component tray for the victory point tokens, expediting the setup and teardown of the game.
Similar to Libertalia, Vaalbara requires players to do the best with what they’re given. You can only see the next four Land cards for the subsequent round; everything beyond that is hidden to you. Therefore, you’ll find that there is a lot of prioritization by players when multiples of the same Land type are faceup in the market.
The simultaneous play presents the game in a way that makes you weigh what you’ve already played against what you might possibly draw still. Characters with low numbers like the Fighter and Bard are weak, but allow you to pick better Land cards. Likewise, higher-valued characters like the Farmer are more powerful, but mean that you’ll be picking later in the round.
You can’t be afraid to pivot and adjust your Land strategy. And, probably the most important tip I have, is that you should be constantly looking at what the other players have already played. This gives incredible insight into your decision-making in choosing what to play, especially when it comes to the Oracle, Falconer, and other cards that care about what other players have done.
The art on the game is exceptional, especially in terms of the Character cards. I get a ton of Horizon Zero Dawn vibes through the art, which effectively utilizes light and shadow to create evocative imagery for the game. Even the Land cards are easily distinguishable from one another, while still being broad, sweeping landscapes.
Overall, I really like the look and feel of the game. It provides a quick punch, leveraging its small footprint as much as possible.
So I’ve already compared Vaalbara to Libertalia quite a bit; if that’s a game that you enjoy then you’ll definitely appreciate this one too. It also plays very quickly, especially at two players, meaning that you can play a few rounds one after another in a short timespan if both players are familiar with the game.
I’d also say that the game doesn’t require a lot of table space, making it a decent game on the go or to stash for an airport layover. As long as you have the space for a 2×4 grid of cards, you have everything you need to start playing Vaalbara, and then it’s just a matter of having room to display everybody’s played Character and Land cards.
It’s so snappy once you get over the learning curve of what all of the Characters do, and then you begin to hope to draw specific Characters or Lands. It sort of turns into a game where you’re reading your opponent as much as you are the game-state. Vaalbara can be a game of making bold predictions and seeing the payoff.
There’s a much different feel in Vaalbara depending on the player count. I tend to favor a 3-player game, which feels a bit less random than having 5 players, but it’s not without its trade-offs.
When playing with two players, there are only two choices for Lands. As you get further into the game, it becomes much more clear what Land types people are vying for, but you just don’t have a lot of options in general.
With 5 players, it’s a lot more difficult to get what you want due to the increased chaos of a full table. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it harder to strategize.
The sweet spot seems to really be in the 3 or 4 player range. There’s just enough variability to keep people on their toes, there are plenty of Lands to choose from, and you can still make smart plays about what your opponents are working towards.
Vaalbara: Every Land Is Precious!
Vaalbara packs a big punch in a small box. It’s sort of a blind-bidding style of game combined with set-collection where the sets are few and far between, and you have to plan ahead to ensure you come out on top. In a game of sparse Lands, every single one matters.
I’m really looking forward to getting additional plays of the game in to see what other tricks I can come up with. Every single Character has some level of utility, so you always feel like you’re making progress no matter what. Plus it’s always fun to stack up a massive pile of victory tokens in front of you like having an intimidating dragon’s hoard.
You can pick up a copy of Vaalbara from your FLGS when it releases on May 17th, or you can preorder from Hachette Boardgames directly.
[Disclaimer: Nerds on Earth was provided a copy of Vaalbara from Hachette Boardgames in exchange for an honest review.]