Updated: Oct 24, 2020
This is a city building and village ransacking game for two to four Vikings taking up to two hours. Designed by Mario Arthur and Martin Otzmann, it is called Valhal. I bet you thought I just wrote an incomplete word. I didn’t. I couldn’t decide whether the publisher (Tetrahedron) just couldn’t get the word Valhalla to fit on the box lid or Valhal is the correct spelling of the word in a Scandinavian language (actually it's taken from Old Norse - ed). However, the seemingly trimmed title befits the game because like the title, the game feels just a little incomplete.
So what’s the game about? Well you and your opponents drank a little too much mead last night, so in a fit of pique and a drunken stupor you foolishly decided to chop down a holy tree for firewood. In order to regain the favour of the gods you are going to need to build a village whilst systematically sacking other towns and villages just like a good Viking should.
The artwork on this game by Nele Diel is lovely and incredibly evocative of the theme. It also channels the spirit of some of the great civilisation-building video games. However, some of the art is a little too similar; for example, the lesser, large and greater loot cards. This is a passable misdemeanour on a poker-sized card but when you use the same icons and reduce their size to that of a fingernail, well that is less forgivable. The art on the two types of warriors is also similar and this could lead to some confusion. Thankfully, the rules come with an excellent component summary page to help you through this issue. That said the problem was an avoidable one.
Now perhaps we were given an early production copy and so the colours were not representative of the final version. However, the rules were referencing Achievement tokens in three colours which bore little or no relation to the colours I actually saw. In addition, the runes shown on the main board are close to being totally invisible, and that’s a shame when the artwork is actually of a pretty high standard. The components are good: the chits have a good thickness and the cards are high quality and glossy. Not so the rules...
Argh! The rules. Yet again there is some light in the darkness. The rules are well laid out, they have good examples and they have pictures, and you are going to need those pictures! Firstly - and here is a point for all you budding designers out there - if you are going to give your card deck a name, oh let’s say 'the town cards', please, please, please don’t call one of those types of card 'town'. And then don't in another sentence use the term 'city'. Secondly, the rules were clearly written in another language and translated into English. This works, most of the time but there are some sentences that just don’t make sense, and that inevitably makes trying to work out how to play the game much more problematic. We got there in the end but there is no excuse for substandard rulebooks in this day and age.
The aim of the game is to gain is to gain 7 favour of the gods points: the first one to 7 wins the game. How do you get those points? Well, you need to sack villages. Sacking villages gives you glory points and for every 7 glory points earned you can swap them for one favour of the gods point! Simple!
Now, key question: do you like dice, luck and randomness in your game? If the answer to that question is no then this game will probably not be for you. The game is composed of two parts: combat and settlement-building. For combat you add up all the combat bonuses from your troops and roll the dice shown. Each unit of troops gives you one die and some provide a +1 bonus. The veteran troops provide a higher bonus. Each white die is effectively a D3. The villages you start off attacking generally have one die and no bonuses. However, as you move up to attacking fortified villages, towns and finally fortified towns the number of dice and the bonuses increase. You roll for your attacks and one of the other players rolls on behalf of the village. The side that rolls the highest inflicts damage on the other equal to the difference between the totals. That’s it! Keep rolling until you either defeat the village or retreat to lick your wounds. Like any good Viking game, you still get glory if you die in combat.
If you were looking for deterministic combat, then this isn’t it. Combat is simple, random, streamlined but relatively one dimensional. If combat is going to be a focus of a game then, for me, it needs to have a little more meat on its proverbial bones.
For settlement building, you start with some basic buildings including a ship builder to build longboats to transport your troops to the mainland to sack the towns and villages. There is a rune stone where you can spend a coin to draw a 'Benevolence of the gods' card that might help you. This building slot can be upgraded to a sacrificial altar which allows you to play 'take that' cards on opponents or swap 7 glory for one favour of the gods point and move you closer to victory. You also have a training ground to build troops and you can build a blacksmith next door to either reduce the cost of troops or allow you to build the more powerful veteran troop type. Finally, you can build a warehouse to speed up longboat production and a granary to lower the cost of winter food.
Food is an essential resource as each troop and building takes a certain number of turns to build and you must spend food to advance the building to its next construction phase.
Settlement building tends to move slowly due to the fact that units and troops take several turns ('seasons') to produce, but the problem I have here is that the effects of improvement are just not that interesting. There aren’t many options and that meant that each game we played felt pretty much the same as the last one.
The game comes with a few decks of cards to draw from. In terms of storytelling these are at the heart of the game and they pack a lot of rich flavour text. It's the game events they specify that don't always deliver. Event cards will be drawn by a different player each round and the effect could impact all the players or solely the player drawing the card. It’s random. Many of the cards involve a die roll that dictates what happens: again random. The Benevolence cards tend to provide you with a buff of some kind: gain a unit or a combat buff, perhaps gain a victory point or, occasionally, get nothing at all. The card effects certainly don’t feel very balanced; again, it’s the luck of the draw.
Ultimately, if this were a 30-minute dice driven storytelling filler game then it would be fine. But as a 2 hour game - and yes it will take you 2 hours to play - it is too long for the level of randomness. At the end of the day you get your favour of the gods points through combat, which is essentially random, or through a lucky card draw, which is random. Valhal just doesn’t adequately reward strategic gameplay and that feels like a missed opportunity.
(Review by Jason Keeping)