Design by John D. Clair
Published by AEG
2 – 4 Players, 45 minutes – 1 hour
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
I appreciate originality in game design. Most games will use existing mechanisms and combine them in various fashions in order to produce a game that hopefully feels somewhat fresh. Sometimes, a designer will tinker with an existing mechanism, giving it a new twist or facet that can also make the overall game feel a bit different from its predecessors. It is a true rarity when a designer invents something brand new, as this is usually a breath of fresh air. Of course, this new mechanism cannot stand on its own; it must be surrounded by a fun and entertaining game.
Fortunately, that is the case with John D. Clair’s Mystic Vale.
So what is this clever new mechanism? It is known as the “Card Crafting System” and allows cards to be physically changed by adding new features and advancements to them. It is a dramatic addition to the familiar deck building genre.
In Mystic Vale, the tall cards are inserted into card sleeves. The basic cards have their powers printed on one-third of the card (top, middle or bottom). Card advancements are printed cards of the same size, but these new cards have a transparent background. As with the basic starting cards, a small portion of this transparent card depicts the advancement, which is also depicted on only one-third of the card. These advancement cards are inserted into the card sleeves over the basic card. However, any previous advancement—including those on the basic card—cannot be obscured. In this fashion, a card can be upgraded two times (three if originally empty) if cards are acquired that have the advancements printed in the proper places. With nearly one hundred different advancement cards available—more with expansions—this makes for a seemingly infinite number of ways to construct a card. Brilliant.
Before describing the game, a word about the theme is in order. As one could surmise from the name, the game has a fantasy setting wherein players assume the roles of “druidic clans attempting to restore the cursed lands to their former vitality.” Card advancements represent new life and vitality for the land, which is helpful in the restoration process. The goal is to acquire and properly assemble these advancements, with the acquisition of even more powerful “Vale” cards adding to the restoration.
Now let’s discuss the game itself and how this mechanism operates during the course of the game. Players each begin with an identical deck of 20 cards, eight of which are completely blank, while the other 12 contain a power (or advancement) on each. Each player shuffles their deck, reveals the top card and sets it next to the deck (the “field”), then turns the next card face-up and keeps it on top of his deck.
A player’s turn involves revealing cards from their deck and, provided they don’t “spoil”, purchasing advancements and/or Vale cards. The revealing of cards procedure is akin to a “push-your-luck” mechanism. Most cards depict various symbols, including decay symbols (four of these and you “spoil) and mana symbols (which are used to purchase advancements). Advancements can include more of these symbols, as well as others: growth (which cancels spoil symbols), victory points, spirit symbols (there are four types), which are used to purchase Vale cards, and others.
As mentioned, a player begins each turn with one card in his “field” and one card resting face-up atop his deck (the “on deck” card). The first step is to decide whether or not to place this “on deck” card into the field, after which the top card is then flipped over and placed on top of the deck, becoming the new on-deck card. The danger is that if a total of four “spoil” symbols are in the field and on-deck, the player spoils and his turn immediately ends. There is a strong incentive to continue to reveal cards, as the player wants to get more mana symbols so he can purchase more powerful advancements. The key decision is just how far one wants to push his luck lest he risk spoiling.
If a player opts to stop and not reveal any further cards, he totals the mana symbols on the cards in his field (not the on-deck card) and may purchase up to two advancements with this currency. There are three levels of advancements, with the higher levels tending to be more powerful, but also more expensive to acquire. Four cards from each level of advancement are revealed and are available to acquire. Vale cards provide special powers and abilities, and similar to advancements, there are two levels. Four from each level are revealed. Unlike advancements, the Vale cards require harvest symbols (not mana) and are not sleeved when acquired.
When acquired, the advancement card is slid into the card sleeve of one of the cards in a player’s field following the restrictions described earlier. Then, all of the cards in a player’s field are moved to the discard pile, the on-deck card is placed into the newly vacated field, and the top card revealed to become the new on-deck card. The next player now takes his turn.
As advancements are added to cards, those cards become more powerful when they again appear. Often, they also grant special powers and abilities, but sometimes
they also add more spoil symbols, increasing the risk of spoiling. So, players must carefully decide which cards to purchase and into which sleeves to insert them. Incentives are sometimes provided to combine advancements together into one sleeve.
Play continues in this fashion until the conclusion of the round when stack of victory points expires. The number of victory point tokens in the stack is based on the number of players and can be increased if the players desire a longer game. Usually, the acquisition of victory points starts slowly, but dramatically increases as the game progresses and more powerful advancements are acquired. A typical game with four players takes about 45 minutes – one hour to complete. The winner is the player who has accumulated the most victory points, which are derived from tokens earned and the victory point value of certain cards.
The “card crafting” mechanism is original and extremely clever. Having three sections to a card and nearly 100 advancements–FAR more when adding the numerous expansions–allows a player to carefully construct powerful combinations and tailor his deck to meet his strategies. Or, if you are like me, just try to purchase what you can, insert them where it seems most powerful, and then hope for the best! Sometimes new systems are found to have flaws or they don’t seem to really work properly. That is not the case here, as this system works wonderfully and the expansion possibilities seem endless.
Vale cards can be quite powerful, offering a wide variety of special abilities. However, a player must have the proper number and types of harvest symbols in his field in order to acquire a desired card. This, of course, forces the player to purchase the proper advancements that depict a mix of these harvest symbols so that Vale cards can be acquired. This is yet another aspect to consider when purchasing advancements.
The game system is ripe for expansions, something of which AEG is certainly aware. There are already numerous expansions to the system, all of which add new advancements and Vale cards. Some introduce new symbols and powers, while one even adds Leaders, which give players a unique power throughout the game. What I enjoy about these expansions is that they do not fundamentally alter the game or rules. Rather, they enhance and complement the system, giving it more variety and adding some addition options and challenges. This makes it easy to incorporate them into the game and does not force players to learn many new rules or concepts.
Mystic Vale is certainly part of the “deck-building” genre, but the extremely innovative and clever card crafting mechanism makes it feel fresh and excitingly new. It is a game that is easy to learn and play, yet filled with tough choices and challenges. The availability of numerous expansions–and they keep coming–insures that the game will stay fresh many, many years into the future. I would not be surprised to see Mystic Vale become a staple in the board gaming hobby.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Steph Hodge: Innovative and Fresh! Love this game and I am excited to incorporate all the expansions.
Matt C: I find the whole putting cards in the sleeves a but fiddly and I hate shuffling sleeved cards (I pretty much never sleeve mind.) However, the game is a nice twist on the deckbuilding genre. To me, it is the type of game that would be perfect for a digital translation (easy to implement the card modification mechanism.)
Patrick Brennan: I’ve been playing this a LOT on Yucata, where the sleeve fiddliness disappears, and really enjoying exploring different strategies. Like Dominion, it feels like you want big turns / small turns rather than a series of average turns, and there’s the obvious card draw luck in that. Knowing this, it has a neat push-your-luck feature to shoot for a bigger hand and a bigger turn, but at the risk of missing your turn altogether. Risky, but sometimes worth it, especially if you’re counting down your deck of 20 cards and you know the odds. It’s more like Ascension in that you can only buy what’s in the draft, so you need to be comfortable settling for what’s on offer, and being comfortable with it probably dictating the result. It feels like you want to ramp up some super cards and get to those quickly rather than have lots of average cards, and that you’ll want to deploy a strategy of decay removal, which in effect thins your deck by allowing more cards to be drawn each turn. The turns in the first 3/4’s of the game feel largely incremental but travel along at a decent speed, building towards your end-game turns. And then they explode, building anything you want – downtime analysis is required, but it feels good when it happens. At this point the game is suddenly hurtling towards a quick and climactic crescendo of point gathering.
Tery: This is a unique take on the deckbuilding genre that works well. It’s a bit slow to get moving, but once you get your engine built it is a lot of fun. There are so many different combinations that there is not just one path to victory with particular cards, and the ever-changing environment keeps it fresh.
4 (Love it!) Steph Hodge, Patrick Brennan
3 (Like it) Matt C, Tery, Greg S.
1 (Not for me)