Thursday, 27 August 2020

[REVIEW] Vallakia

Vallakia (2020)

by William Cord

Published by Stronghold Press Games

Low levels

Hello, and welcome to part two of **ZINEMASSACRE*2020**! This year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 2, their second zine writing promotion campaign. Despite my utter distaste for the idea of a major fundraising platform intruding on a publishing genre for people with more ideas than money, I have to admit Zinequest was successful in motivating a whole lot of gamers to launch their personal projects. While many of them were completely alien to my interests (“LARP for 2 players of Robot Girlfriends across the battlefield” and “An rpg zine about 3 sled dogs on a perilous trip home.” are probably for other people), I pitched in for fifteen which looked interesting. Here are the results.


Do you think “production values” are often a racket? Do you admire honest homespun values and the good old DIY spirit, even if it makes the best of public domain engravings and cheap layout done in Winword? I sure do, and I am all over these zines! I love them. Except... there is also an unspoken promise here that the content will be good, and it will somehow make up for the sparse exterior with unconstrained creativity and colourful ideas. Ho boy. Vallakia is not that zine.

Nooooo, don't make me go to Vallakia!
What the zine promises is interesting: a micro-setting describing “a small province, underpopulated by humans and overpopulated by monsters”, isolated from the rest of the world by an “impenetrable fog (…) stopping the people from coming or going.” Yes, that is basically Ravenloft, or every other “here be vampires” fantasyland, but even so, micro-settings are a sound idea. The campaign mentions support for a West Marches-style game, with descriptions of the major settlements, a small adventure, and stretch goals – two of which were funded, one for villages, and one for manors. The results make for three 8-page pamphlets set in princely Arial, and illustrated with cheapo public domain art. This is, indeed, my thing, so I backed the zine with enthusiasm. The following review will chronicle the disappointment that followed.

Vallakia is an empty zine. It has virtually nothing in it, at least nothing that would prove useful in helping run a good game. It describes its mini-setting in the most elementary stereotypes of Vampire Country. That alone is no crime. Nobody was realistically expecting something inspired by the real Wallachia (a fairly interesting place, one which would coincidentally make for a cool campaign setting), but perhaps something beyond ideas found in every vampire movie? No chance. We get the fog; we get the small villages huddling in fear; we get the rapacious nobles and the small, brave military force trying to hold back the encroaching horrors. Vallakia is isolated, dark, backwards, and primitive (in a bizarre take, they do not even know blacksmithing, something even shockingly primitive cultures could figure out). Very well, that’s a Hollywood horror movie all right. But there is nothing beyond that. Vallakia commits the most heinous sin of fantasy supplements: it is boring.

The zine describes three towns and a dungeon, none of which have anything truly interesting or original going on. Pinehall has a military garrison and a small church (the church has an aging priest who can heal people), and a tavern with three rooms. Long Farm is a farming town providing “the majority of food for all of Vallakia”. Don’t the other places grow their food? Very peculiar indeed. Anyway, Long Farm has an abandoned Town Council building now used as a garrison, and a brewery. The townsfolk are harassed by creatures of chaos. Finally, in another example of specialisation, Priby supplies lumber for palisades, and operates a lumber mill. Are they not interested in farming? Don’t the other villages cut trees? Not to be a stickler for fantasy realism, but this is so bizarre it almost looks like there is an explanation behind it. Of course, there isn’t. Priby’s woods are terrorised by a necromancer, and the villagers lock their doors all day and night. So we have Soldiertown, Farmtown and Lumbertown, and that’s all there is to know about them: banal, insignificant, clichéd information that does not show any interesting engagement even with the Hollywood-style Vampire Country idea.There is a rule about investments which feels a bit like Darkest Dungeon (upgrading local places of interest can result in various boons), a lazy random quest table with 20 uninteresting results (“OGRE!!!”, “Mayor consorts with demons”, “Troll toll”), and a one-page dungeon. That means a zine-sized page, an unnumbered map, and a key with one-liners like “1 – 3 Kobolds arguing about the best way to cook a human. Gate west is locked and barred.” and “2 – 2 Gnolls laying down. Will join fight in 1 if it lasts 3+ rounds.” This is negligible even by the new fold-out microdungeon standard.

Welcome to Stamati. Population: turnips
Vallakia has two supplements, essentially tripling the page count. Villages describes two podunk villages. To quote the pamphlet, “Stamati is quite the bog-standard village, and I will include it here to remind you that not all villages need a unique twist. In fact, most villages are boring farming settlements until the PCs secure them and invest in their improvement.” True to the author’s word, the village does not have a unique twist, and it is, indeed, a boring farming settlement. Its inhabitants are mostly farmers. The other village, Vasilache (a common surname, this is a bit like naming an American village ‘Smith’, or ‘Johnson’) is more interesting, in that it has a holy woman who has a mysterious connection to the gods. This is, indeed, the only good idea I could find in the zine and its two supplements. There are random tables to create bog-standard villages and generate their bog-standard inhabitants; and they are basically (deliberately?) uninteresting. The second supplement, Manors, is slightly better, in that Vallakia’s noble families are a corrupt, cruel lot, and that’s always better adventure material than dirt farming villages. And yet, it does not offer more than cliché either: Juracken Manor is home to the proverbial vampire viscount who likes peasant-huning, and Karlbad manor is inhabited by a god-fearing frontiersman family. Not even the random tables and the investment ideas help this one.

Vallakia is bad. Not maliciously so, but credit where credit’s due, it is plainly bad. For a semi-commercial project, it feels like bad filler, stretched out with illustrations. The zine and its two supplements are 8 pages each, but only about 14-15 of the 24 pages are text – and it is text set in a remarkably large font to boot. What the adventure lacks in quantity, it also lacks in quality. It is banal and completely useless in either offering, or helping create an intriguing West Marches-style micro-setting. You, random reader, could do much better in a single afternoon.[1] Don’t venture to Vallakia; ‘tis a silly place.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: * / *****


[1] I will hereby put this idea to the test. A post will follow later tonight.


  1. Soliertown, Farmtown and Lumbertown instantly reminded me of the three settlements in Mad Max: Fury Road: The citadel (water), Gastown and the Bullet Farm.
    Though to even mention Fury Road in comparison to this zine seems to be a diservice to the movie.

    Still now I've got that picture of medieval cart drivers racing thorugh the badlands, pimping their carts and vehicles :)

    1. That's your added value, which, sadly, does not follow from the actual text of these things. Granted, mono-industrial towns are intriguing (much of my PhD was concerned with them), but as an economic geographer with an interest in history, seeing them in pseudo-mediaeval circumstances makes my nerves twitch in a very wrong way. Perhaps this zine hit me where it hurts. :D

    2. Plus a bard ripping away on a flameproof lute on the top of it all.

    3. @Melan:
      Yeah, sometimes these things hit a nerve ;)

      Almost forgot about that dude ;)