Full disclosure: A review copy of Death Valley was provided by Button Shy.
Whoops, I’m behind on reviews. We all knew it was going to happen, between Not Playing Many Games Lately and The Vague Idea of The Holidays, I just … tend to sit watching Christmas movies with my housemates, who are very into the myriad works of Danica McKellar. Learned a lot from that Wikipedia page, so, we’re all learning something, today. In the interest of speeding up my review turnaround, we’re getting into some more games! Making progress on a stack of titles from one of my favorite publishers, Button Shy, and their recent title, Death Valley!
In Death Valley, you’re on a road trip! You decided to road trip to one of the most dangerous places in the United States. Couldn’t have just gone to Disneyland. Nope. There’s a lot to see, sure, but a lot of hazardous stuff, too. As you make progress on your Journey, you’ll have some time to Rest and add memories to your Scrapbook, provided you don’t get in too deep. Between animals, floods, the terrain, and the heat, you’ll have your work cut out for you. Will you be able to safely navigate this national park?
You don’t need to worry about much. Shuffle the cards up, first:
Place the deck to the side, and flip one card to the right of the deck; that’ll be the Desert card. You should be ready to go!
Death Valley is a game of organizing cards along two rows: your Journey and your Scrapbook. Each player gets one of each, and adding cards to your Journey helps them ultimately end up in your Scrapbook. Along the way, avoid Hazards! Too many will cut your journey short.
On your turn, you can either Travel or Rest. Let’s go through how those work.
When you Travel, either take the Desert Card or the top card of the deck and add it to the right end of your Journey. If you took the Desert Card, reveal the top card of the deck to become the new Desert Card.
Instead of traveling, you can Rest on your turn. Choose a card from your Journey and move them to your Scrapbook. You can also take any number of cards from your Journey underneath of the card you moved into your Scrapbook. Hidden Cards are essentially valueless / typeless / colorless / just … card backs. They essentially don’t exist for any card effects unless the card effect specifically names Hidden Cards. So that’s fun.
End of Turn
Your turn ends as soon as you’ve taken an action, but be careful! You might Bust. If, between your Journey and your Scrapbook, you have three of the same Hazard Type (Animal, Flood, Terrain, Heat), you Bust. When that happens, you discard the rightmost card of that type in your Journey, and then you must shuffle your entire Journey back into the deck. Naturally, that’s bad, so don’t do that.
Either way, after your turn ends, your opponent takes their turn.
Once a turn ends and there’s only one card remaining between the Deck and the Desert (the card should be in the Desert), the game ends. Total players’ points! Players score points for card abilities in their Journey and Scrapbook, but they only score stars on cards in their Journey. The player with more points wins!
Player Count Differences
None, functionally; this is a two-player game. You can play a solo mode against an AI, if you want, or play a variant that allows you to add a card to your Journey or your opponent’s Journey, if you’re interested in a more hectic game.
- If you are too worried about risking your cards, Rest. You can’t Bust on a Rest action, and you can wait for your opponent to maybe pull a threatening Desert Card or the top card of the deck and see how that affects your odds of Busting.
- You should use the hiding cards feature of your Scrapbook to get rid of cards, as well. Some cards don’t fit in with your strategy but they end up in your Journey. You can bury them when you Rest to effectively remove them from play (and potentially even score points for them, too!). Another bonus for hiding cards is that you can mess with your opponent’s sense of what cards are in play, which may make them more risk-averse if they can’t remember which cards you buried.
- Two cards of the same hazard type is a danger zone. You’re at risk of Busting if you have two cards of the same hazard type, so, keep an eye on that. Doesn’t mean you necessarily need to Rest, but this is where the push-your-luck elements start to come into play.
- Recall how many cards there are of each type. Naturally, the thing I just said is superceded by the number of cards available of that type. If you and your opponent each have one Animal card, you literally cannot Bust. There are only three of those cards in the game! Knowing is half the battle, I’m told, so keep an eye on your opponent’s cards to make sure you know where you stand in terms of both Busting and Busting potential.
- There’s one card (Telescope Peak) that allows you to play cards to other players’ Journeys; be careful with it! You can help push your opponent to a riskier place (or just bail on cards that would otherwise cause you to Bust).
- That said, keep in mind that you only check if you bust on your turn, so if another player’s action puts cards into your Journey, you might be fine burying them in your Scrapbook. Giving your opponent a ton of cards is, you know, rude, but it may help them since they can’t actually Bust until their turn. So keep in mind that you might just be giving them points. If someone is giving you cards you don’t want, well, Rest on your turn so that you can hide them.
- You have a second shot at organizing your cards by moving them from your Journey to your Scrapbook; think about that for adjacency and the bonuses that come with it. A lot of cards benefit from adjacency, so having them in your Journey or Scrapbook may be better, depending on how you set those up. Moving cards to your Scrapbook allows you to (somewhat) choose the order they go in, so you may be able to improve your adjacency options a bit better on the second go-round.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This might be one of the best-looking games Button Shy has ever released. The color scheme is phenomenal, the art is rich, even the font looks nice. This is just a very good-looking game, and I’ve been excited to review it since I saw the first art for it. Fachri Maulana did incredible work, here.
- I really enjoy the tension of trying to avoid busting! Players don’t often in my plays but the threat of busting has made them play more conservatively. It’s probably a bit more fun if players play less conservatively, but what can you do. The intensity of losing your whole Journey and a card getting knocked out of the game is a steep enough challenge that it provides good motivation, so, that ends up working in the game’s favor, I think.
- The cards have a variety of super interesting powers, which is pretty fun. There’s a very good mix of them, which gives players a lot of different ways to move towards the goal of getting the most points. The various synergies are distinctly non-obvious, but, you know, more plays leads to more experience leads to better combo potential.
- I really like road trip-themed games. It’s just a fun genre for games to occupy. I like them a lot, and this is a solid entry in that genre.
- The take-that is aggressive, but the game is small and quick enough that it’s not always too bad. Plus, you can only do so much take-that given that your opponent can’t Bust on your turn (unless you’re using that Backseat Driver variant I mentioned). I tend to be more tolerant of take-that and aggressive actions in Button Shy titles just because they’re pretty light and pretty fast. Worst-case, they’re easy to reset so that you can take your revenge on your jerk of an opponent, so that all works.
- I appreciate that each card tells you how many of that type there are. It’s good graphic and information design; very helpful to the player without being distracting or tacky or something. I like it (and I think it’s a critical part of the game’s design, so that helps).
- Again, very portable. That’s Button Shy! Still appreciated, though.
- I will say the game is more exciting when players bust, but the Backseat Driver variant is an aggressive way to play. Life your life unburdened, I suppose. I think the standard game is more my speed because you can push players into danger without pushing them over the edge. Backseat Driver is … a lot. There, you can Bust other players on your turn, so you’ll likely see players Resting a lot more to protect cards and scores will likely be a bit lower? At least, I’d assume, given additional Busting potential.
- Your first play of this is going to be a bit messy. There’s a lot of text on the cards, and without taking a look at all of the cards before you start, you’re going to spend a lot of time reading cards and / or you’re going to miss out on how the cards potentially synergize. This is a bit of a hassle for both teaching the game and learning the game for the first time. I’ve yet to see a player really grasp the cards in their first game, which, yeah, I get it, but it makes the game tilt a bit towards the more experienced player in early games. That’s a frustrating experience. There’s always a tension between text and iconography on cards when explaining their effects. On one hand, iconography would absolutely not work, here: the card effects are too different. On the other, text requires a lot of reading and the cards don’t have a ton of real estate. I think that they did the best that they could, given the design, the constraints, and the circumstances, but this is a problem that comes up in almost every game I’ve played of this (with the exclusion of the game I played against myself, since I knew the game about as well as my opponent, me, knew the game).
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I liked Death Valley! Not my favorite of the Button Shy games, granted, but Button Shy has a long enough publishing list that they can’t … all be my favorite? That seems unrealistic. That said, I still think this is a pretty fun entry in the Button Shy publishing collection. My major gripe with the game is an artifact of being a reviewer, I think. I tend to play games multiple times with new players, and I gauge how quickly they pick up the game relative to other games I’ve played with both them and other people. Also, trying to grow the hobby here, so I’m playing a lot of new games with a lot of new gamers. This means I generally have a bit of a chip on my shoulder if I find a game difficult for new players, like this one. Once you know how to play and you know what to look for, you’re probably able to get right into it. There’s some fun push-your-luck elements here and some really interesting ways to synergize cards together and score, provided you’re okay with a bit of risk and a lot of reward. Plus, truly, I think this might be the best-looking Button Shy game, or top 5, easily. It’s just great. If you’re looking for a pretty game, you’re a fan of Death Valley, or you just want to push your luck to the limits, you might enjoy this one! I’ve had fun with it.
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