Reviewed by Herb Levy
VALLETTA (Z-Man Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 40-80 minutes; $49.99)
It is 1566 and The Order of Malta has laid the cornerstone for what they intend to become the most powerful city in the Mediterranean. But that is just the beginning. The city must be constructed and players will find themselves assigned to that task as they need to hire workers, gather resources and enlist the help of notable figures of the time to become the most successful master builder of the new city on the island of Malta to be known as Valletta.
A “sidewalk” with spaces from 1 to 25 (divided into five segments) is placed in the center of the play area with barrel tokens put face down on each street space. Most of the building cards come in three colors (blue, yellow and green). These are separated and a specific amount (based on the number of players) randomly pulled, shuffled together and laid out in rows of 5 cards above and below the sidewalk. These buildings are seeded with matching “Character” cards. (Set up is aided by matching letters on the buildings and cards but this does take some time.) Players start with a playmat, 8 houses and a figure (placed before the sidewalk) in their chosen color and identical hands of 8 character cards. A starting hand of 5 cards is drawn. Everyone begins with 1 each of the four resources in the game: wood, stone, brick and gold. The purple meeple (representing Jean Parisot de Valette) is placed off the path of the sidewalk. Four red Builder cards are placed alongside the play area, ready to be hired. The player who most recently was on an island goes first. Now, in reverse turn order, one of each resource is made available and each player chooses ONE of them.
Each turn, the active player must play 3 of the five cards in his hand, drawing back to five when finished. Each building has a cost. Gold is always required as well as varying amounts of wood, brick and stone. Character cards come in different colors indicating their specialties. Red cards are basic and allow you to get a single resource while the red Builder card allows you to build or upgrade a building. If playing a Builder card, a player returns the specified resources to supply and claim a building – and the card that resides on it – by placing one of his/her houses on the building. The card now obtained goes directly into the player’s hand. Green cards allow for the gathering of multiple resources. Blue cards are more powerful, offering discounts on builds, generating potentially a large number of resources and add a bit of “take that” by snatching goods from opponents. Yellow cards represent actual historical figures and can be an important source of Victory Points. Playing the purple Jean Parisot de Valette card works a bit differently.
Jean Paristo de Valette was a real person. (He actually laid the foundation stone for the city.) Playing this card allows you to hire – or fire – a card. Firing allows you to thin out your hand by discarding one of your held cards to that “available workers” area. Hiring means taking into your hand one of those extra Builders available from set up or a previously “fired” character card. But while hiring and firing is optional, it is mandatory to advance the purple figure one space along the sidewalk, collecting the barrel which will award that player one of the four resources of the game.
Buildings show icons of one of the four game resources and all have Victory Point values. If your newly constructed building is in the segment currently occupied by Jean, you immediately receive 2 VPs, advancing on the sidewalk (scoring track). As the game continues, players will be able to upgrade their buildings by playing a Builder card and paying the wood, stone and brick that the card originally needed. (No extra gold is needed. Gold is only for “buying” the property, not upgrading). Upgrading increases the amount of resources a building will produce. Players also receive a discount in the gold needed to construct a new building based on position. Each building owned by that player adjacent (horizontal, vertical but NOT diagonal) to that new building results in a discount of 1 gold each.
Play continues until either a player has placed all 8 of her/his houses on the board OR Jean or any player has reached the 25th space on the sidewalk. This triggers the final round. Now, each player combines and shuffles his draw and discard piles into one deck (cards in hand are not included in this) and take turns until the new draw pile completely runs out. Now we score.
VP values of all owned buildings are totaled. In addition, 1 VP is earned for every THREE resources remaining in a player’s holdings. The player with the highest total of VPs wins! Tied? Then the player who built the most houses wins. Still tied? Then victory is shared.
Designer Stefan Dorra’s combination of deck-building and worker placement is a pleasing blend that works very smoothly. Character cards offer something a little different, from basic resource production to a more robust production to VPs. Although the cards are fairly self-explanatory, a separate folder illustrates and explains each in detail. The endgame where you go through your entire deck makes the decisions you’ve made along the way in buying cards even more meaningful and is an excellent design decision. Choosing where to situate your houses in order to capture cards to aid in your “grand plan” adds to the fun of engine building as well. However, the designer himself suggested two variants to enhance game play.
First, rather than having players take a fifth good at the beginning of play, actions to balance any first player (or second player) advantage are limited. The first player only does ONE of three possible actions while the second player only does TWO. Starting with the third player, the game follows the three actions per turn as stated. Second, with 2 players, Jean’s progress along the sidewalk can be slow. Dorra suggests placing barrels on only half of the sidewalk spaces, advancing the purple meeple to the next barrel (rather than the next space) each time the Jean card is played. This makes earning Jean’s 2 VP bonus for buildings further along the sidewalk track easier.
Although released in 2017 and by a well-respected designer (for example, the brilliant For Sale featured in the Spring 2009 GA Report was created by Stefan Dorra too), Valletta somehow slipped between the cracks. Possibly it might have been lost in the avalanche of highly hyped Kickstarters, possibly the lack of “flash” (miniatures?) obscured its release or maybe it seemed too “familiar”. Admittedly, although the game is about “building”, it doesn’t break new ground. The compensation for this is an easy learning curve for a very solid and entertaining design. The game originally sold for $50 but, lately, has been made available at a variety of online outlets for a mere fraction of the original price. Their loss is your gain! This delightful Dorra design delivers! – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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Other Spring 2021 GA Report articles