Review: Lost Valley – Less than it Seems?
Originally printed in 2004, Lost Valley quickly went out of print. To some, it became a hard to find “grail” game. For those seekers, there is good news. The game has a reprint currently up on Kickstarter. With that history, I was eager to get it to the table. But, though the game is good, it still left me feeling a little … unsatisfied.
The Basics. Players are prospectors moving into an unexplored valley infested with gold. Your task is to get as much of that gold as possible before winter sets in. The player with the most gold at the end of the game wins.
But, the valley is unknown. The players start at a trading post on a bluff at the valley’s edge where the river streams down. As the players move, they will flip over diamond shaped tiles to create the valley and it’s defining river.
On a player’s turn, they can move and act. Movement occurs along tile intersections and players can typically move two spaces along the river or one space on dry land. Two players can share an intersection along the river, but only one player can be on an intersection away from the river. So, the exact location of explorers and improvements can be critical.
As for actions, the players have several. They can pan for river gold if they have access to water and are on the right side of the river. They can mine mountain gold if a mineshaft has been dug. They can fish or hunt for food. They can chop trees for lumber. They can build improvements such as fish catchers, sawmills, mines, or canals. They can experience random events. And, they can buy goods at the trading post.
At the trading post, players can accumulate various “wares” that help reinforce your gold acquisition. Horses and canoes are available for greater movement. Sieves and dynamite allow for more gold to be grabbed. Axes, fishing poles, and rifles help with the gathering of raw materials.
A player generally only gets one action per turn (though consuming Whiskey can give you more). So when one player builds a mine, any player can rush in and try to mine the mountain gold. After all, with the mine built, any player on the tile can mine it.
The game ends when either when a player has ten gold markers and declares the end, or when winter comes. Once the head of the river is found (river tiles run out), the ice encroaches into the valley. Each turn, a die is rolled to determine if the ice moves. When it reaches the trading post on the bluff, the game ends.
The Feel. The game has an interesting blend between the strategic and the tactical. Long term strategy is essential. You’ll want to buy the wares that help your grand plan. So a canoe and sieve might help you race up and down the river collecting river gold. Or an axe and dynamite might help you make the most of mountain gold.
But it’s not just you that you have to worry about. Other players are going to use up their own resources building sawmills, mines, canals, and the like. When they do, you can swoop in and use those improvements – including grabbing some mountain gold – before they get a chance to use them. As a result, the game is highly tactical. You want to have the items you need for your strategy, but also the items that will best help you take advantage of what other players have built.
The game also does an excellent job of marrying mechanics to theme, for the most part. You do get the sense of exploring an unknown valley when flipping the random tiles. You seek out axes and rifles in order to get lumber and food. Despite the largely euro(ish) nature of the game, the theme is ever present and enjoyable.
Despite including a number of interesting aspects (which should be highly engaging), somehow the game continuously fell flat in each of my plays. Not that the game is bad. I don’t want to be mistaken on that point. I enjoyed each and every play. But rather than feel the need to get it to the table again and explore it further, or proselyte about its goodness to my friends (which is a habit I unashamedly have), I was pretty much ready to move on. Having played it, it’s not anything I would especially seek out.
But why not? Lots of choice. Strategic and tactical play. Replayability. Stiff competition. It seems to have all the hallmarks of what I seek out in gaming – plus a good theme. After my first few plays, my answer was simply an “I don’t know why I don’t like it. I feel like I should like it.” But after some more time with the game and some thought, I think I’ve figured it out.
Despite the fun of tactical play, it is perhaps too pronounced in this game. No matter what your strategy is, your opponents will be able to profit from your actions. Even if you dig a mine somewhere that has three or four mountain gold, you are likely to only get two of those tokens most of the time. In that sense, the game feels unsatisfying. There are few grand plans that finally come to fruition. Few times when you can completely outplay or be outplayed. Instead, all success is very incremental and relies on the “luck” of what your opponents happen to be doing. Plus, it forces the players to play defensively. And, frankly, defensive play is just less exciting.
Even in my several plays, it was apparent that an inexperienced player had a dramatic outcome on the game. That player is easier to shadow and you can grab more from the fruits of their labor. I imagine this effect would be more pronounced the greater the disparity in skill or familiarity with the game.
Components: 3 of 5. (This score relates solely to the first edition as the Kickstarter may have several upgraded components). The best pieces in the game are the tiles. Thick and sturdy, you can shuffle them up without any worry of damaging them. The art on the tiles is standard if a bit dull. And making the mountain vs. river gold clearer (especially on triangles) would be nice. Player pieces are standard pawns, the ice flow is a cylinder, and the wares are on serviceable cardboard. Nothing exceptional, but no complaints.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. As far as true “luck” goes, there is very little of it in the game. Only in the random draw of tiles is there any luck and, even if you draw something fantastic, the odds are that some other player is going to get some of it, too. So luck of the draw is mitigated. But, being “lucky” enough to play after an inexperienced opponent can be a great boon – to the point of being unbalanced. Still, if your group plays it together, then this won’t be a problem. But if you try to introduce it to new folks, it could be an issue.
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. The game is solid. In fact, given how many choices a player has on his or her turn, it’s actually a little surprising how well it all coalesces together. I think that’s directly attributable to solid mechanical design. With your opponents hovering around your claim like vultures, you have to manage turns carefully. The only negative is that the rulebook could be a bit clearer than it is. I assume some of it is due to translation difficulties and I anticipate that the Kickstarter will resolve that issue entirely.
Replayability: 4.5 of 5. As the valley grows, the options for tactical play grow as well. While you may be able to have a similar overarching strategy in each play, ultimately a lot of it will depend on what tiles come out and what your opponents do. Sometimes you might have one side of a river to yourself (at least initially) or you may be able to use some whiskey to pillage an opponent’s mine. Your options and tactics will be highly unique from game to game.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. Though the spite rating weighs in rather heftily, this is not a “take that” game. There are no direct attacks and no way to steal from other players. However, much of the game centers around taking what others have built. If I build a canal by using my own resources, it can feel a little spite-like to have someone else rush in and take some of the river gold there. Just be aware that merely improving the land does not convey ownership.
Overall: 3 of 5. Lost Valley has a lot going for it. Tense decisions, high interactivity, randomized board, tactical play, on and on. Yet, I don’t love this game. I only like it as a friend. A friend that I see on facebook more than I see in person. Gameplay isn’t satisfying and there are too few big moves that you can be really proud of. I don’t dislike Lost Valley, but it just didn’t tickle my fancy. I can see where others might enjoy it, though, so this might be a try before buy situation.
(A special thanks to Pandasaurus Games for providing a review copy of Lost Valley)