Trick-taking games are having quite a renaissance (a Trickaissance, if you will). In the past few years, we’ve been graced with The Crew, Cat in the Box, Brian Boru, and very soon, Cole Werhle will release his new space 4x game based on a central trick-taking mechanic, Arcs. Even the 2022 Spiel des Jahres winner, Scout, while actually a ladder-climbing card game, still feels ensconced in the firmament of trick-taking. It’s in this context that we get the latest game in the Valeria series from designer Matt Jacobs and Daily Magic Games, Thrones of Valeria, a 2-6 player trick-taking card game that plays in about 20-30 minutes. Does Thrones add enough of a wrinkle to the increasingly crowded trick-taking field to make a ripple?
Let’s get the flavor out of the way. Thrones is meant to be a Valerian in-universe card game (think Gwent in Witcher or Tak from the Kingkiller saga) played in taverns by weary adventurers trying to win a few silver coins. The suits in the game are meant to represent the powerful houses in the Valerian setting, and the constantly shifting hierarchy of these suits are meant to represent the houses’ power struggles. This leads us to one of the first unique elements Thrones brings to the classic trick-taking mechanics we’ve grown accustomed to.
First and foremost, there is no static trump among the 5 suits, but rather a hierarchy, so, for example, the second highest suit would still beat the third highest suit, etc. This is represented by a central board with 5 tiles ordered from highest rank to lowest rank. The closest the game comes to a traditional trump card are the 3 green “Jester” cards, which can trump any suit, for a price. The suit ranking also dictates the reward the winner of the trick receives in coins. If a trick is won with the highest ranked suit, they gain 5 coins, while if somehow a trick is won with the lowest ranked suit, they actually lose 3 coins, which brings us to another element unique to Thrones. Winning tricks is not actually the barometer of success, but rather holding the most coins at the end of 2 rounds of play.
Finally, the most interesting and exclamation-inducing element of the game is that each individual card rank, from one to nine, is accompanied by a unique special ability. Some of them simply allow the player to gain a new card, discard a card, gain coins from the bank, or steal coins from an opponent. Others, however, alter the ranking of the suits MID-TRICK. So while someone may have led with the highest ranked suit, another player could easily tank it to the bottom, either denying that player the win or even potentially costing them money by allowing them to win the trick with the lowest ranked suit. Needless to say, the status quo is not something that really exists in this game, as suit rankings are nearly always volatile and precarious. It’s obviously a game that requires some luck, but timing how and when to play can swing the round or even the game.
I was not expecting to love this game. In fact, I didn’t even request to review Thrones of Valeria; my illustrious editor Tony asked if I would write about it. I have not played any of the other games in the Valerian oeuvre, and the somewhat cartoon-y fantasy artwork on the box did not appeal to me (by Mihajlo Dimitrievski, one of the busiest illustrators in board gaming right now, responsible for Renegade’s West Kingdom/North Sea series, as well as many others). That said, as soon as I read the rules, I became excited. As a Midwesterner, I do love trick-taking games, and while The Crew, despite its massive popularity, did not connect with me, Cat in the Box did in a big way. So as soon as I tried the game out with my group, I realized that we had a winner on our hands.
One of the elements that really clicked about Cat in the Box was the total curveball of “the card’s suit is whatever you say it is, and this decision may decide your fate.” I wrote briefly about Cat in the Box in our 2022 GenCon Recap, if you’d like to learn a bit more about it. Whenever a tried and true concept is turned on its head, my ears perk up. So when I dove into Thrones, the idea that “there is no trump suit, but rather there is a hierarchy of suits, and oh, by the way, it is forever shifting” excited me. Additionally, as a poker player, the idea of framing a trick-taking game as a gambling game was also incredibly appealing to me (though to be clear, there is no bluffing element here).
The number of tricks you win is irrelevant; it’s the number of coins you have after two rounds. Sometimes it’s more important to play a card that steals 2 coins from one of your opponents than playing a card that wins the trick. Sometimes you may want to play a card that tanks the suit that was led with, so suddenly, the winner of the trick may be returning 3 coins to the bank rather than collecting 5. This is the most fun element of the game, as fortunes turn on a dime, and you’ll soon find what you thought was a winning trick into a losing effort, and that’s when the swear words come out. This is very much a game where a well thought-out strategy is precarious at best, though it is certainly not all down to luck.
And just to briefly return to the artwork: While the art on the box, and the Valeria series in general, does not really appeal to me, the illustrations on the actual cards, presumably by Dimitrievski as well, are STUNNING. They help reinforce the story that Thrones is a timeless and embedded part of this Valerian fantasy world far more than any illustration of dwarves and orcs seated at a table playing this game on the box. My one last complaint about the visual presentation of the game is that a) the color of one of the suits on the ranking tiles doesn’t quite match the color on the cards, b) the lighter cards (white and yellow) are a little hard to read, an c) I wish the cards took a cue from classic playing cards and put their rankings on the top and bottom so you could orient cards in your hand either way, but instead there is a clear top and bottom. But this is a minor gripe that doesn’t take away from a very enjoyable gaming experience.
Thrones of Valeria is a top tier trick-taking game to come out of the board gaming hobby in the last 10 years. It should be discussed alongside games like The Crew, Cat in the Box, Tichu, and Indulgence. My fear is that, because it may simply be considered as yet another entry in the Valeria series, people may choose to pass over it, but this game truly has the legs to stand alone. I played Thrones at all player counts, and even at 2, usually a non-starter for most trick-taking games, the game adjusts to keep it a solid experience (though I would say still suboptimal). The quick playtime, easy set-up, and sturdy arsenal of unique quirks make Thrones a worthy addition to your game library.
Final Score: 4 stars – A wonderful addition to the Trickaissance. It’s hard to stand out in the world of trick-taking games, and Thrones does so admirably.
• The gorgeous art on the cards should have been on the box
• Some coloring issues on the cards/tiles
• Cards should have been mirrored top to bottom