Designed By: John D. Clair
Published By: EAG
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.
If reviewing videogames has taught me anything it’s that violence is absolutely a requirement in all forms of entertainment. If there isn’t blood, sex, swearing or the words “dark, gritty and mature” then it’s clearly worthless. That was sarcasm, by the way. Ah, but then boardgames entered my life and proved me wrong with its much more peaceful themes, such as running a gallery or smuggling contraband into the market, or in the case of Mystic Vale quietly tending to what will hopefully be a verdant valley of serenity. Which also houses suspiciously angry-looking giant snake-things, wolves and other probably violent stuff. Right then. You take on the role of a clan of druids coming to heal the Valley of Life which has been cursed somehow. Healing, however, actually means trying to score more points than the other players. So much for being peaceful, huh?
The theme, however, doesn’t mean very much in the long-run since it fails to hold up to any sort of scrutiny. Presumably your tending the land and thus helping encourage natural wildlife to return. What truly drives Mystic Vale is AEG’s new card crafting concept, which as the name implies is related to the deck-building genre which includes games like Legendary Marvel and Dominion. At the start you’ll be given a deck of cards that are all sleeved in plastic covers. Each card will either be blank or contain a Cursed Land or Fertile Soil, and each deck is exactly the same at the start. As the game goes on your going to grow your vale and use mana to buy transparent cards that are known as advancements, which will be physically added your existing cards by slipping them gently into the sleeves, thus while everybody starts with the same deck by the end of the game each one will be different. But is this purely a gimmick, or is there a decent game built around the concept? Does UpperDeck need to start thinking about hiring a hitman to protect their Legendary series? Spoiler alert; not really.
Each turn begins with what is known as the planting phase where you’ll flip over cards to determine the resources you’ll have for buying new advancements to add to your deck. This goes exactly how you would imagine it, except with one key difference known as the on-deck card. What you have to do is flip over the top card of your deck, which becomes known as the on-deck card, and then you add it yo the field. Should you get to three red decay symbols across your deck field you have a choice to make; you can either stop where you are and continue with the next phase of your turn, or you can opt to push your luck by adding the current on-deck card to the field and flipping over a new one to take its place. However, if you reveal a fourth decay symbol then you spoil, meaning you have to forfeit the rest of your turn because your land has become a toxic wasteland, or something. This brings a neat little push-your-luck element to the game. Sure, most times it’s smart to just take what you’ve got rather than chance losing an entire turn, but every now and then the brave player will calculate the odds, push their luck and manage to snag something better because of it.
Once you’ve “planted” your “field” you can count how much mana you have available to spend, as printed on the left-hand side of each card. At first all you have available are the default Fertile Soil for doing this, but as you build your deck you’ll also be able to score victory points and much more during this phase. There are no hands of cards here, rather everything is played automatically, so when a card bearing an effect hits the field you can simply choose to activate it or not. Regardless of whether you do it’s in play.
With your mana counted it’s time to hit up Mystic Vale’s store, known as the commons, and purchase some new advancements that will improve your deck. Sitting in the middle of the table are a total of nine advancements to browse through that are replenished from the three advancement decks. These advancements come in a trio of levels, although this has no effect on the game other than giving you a general idea of how powerful and how expensive they are. Sitting next to the advancements is a deck of Fertile Soil cards that are always available to purchase for two mana apiece, and which will produce one mana whenever they hit the field. You start with a few of these in your deck already, but Fertile Soils will be one of the earliest investments you make since they bulk up the starting deck with extra mana production and therefore allow you to access more expensive cards quicker, which tend to cost up to around ten mana apiece.
With a new advancement in your hand Mystic Vale finally gets to slap you with its golden innovation; you take that transparent advancement and sensually slide it into one of your existing cards to create a new, better card. I highly recommend you hire a choir to loudly proclaim hallelujah while you do this. The only rule that matters here is that each card has three rows, and you can never cover up a row that already contains something, thus if your new advancement would fill in the top slot but there’s already something there then it can’t be placed in that card. Simples. And yet also incredibly satisfying. When you get down to it improving cards in this manner isn’t very mechanically hugely different from a typical deck-builder where you slowly construct a more powerful force, except for one aspect; in Mystic Vale your deck will always contain exactly 20 cards, so no matter what you’ve always got a one in twenty chance of any given card coming up. In contrast when playing something like Legendary Encounters Firefly (it’s coming up for review soon) every new card added to a deck also means that you’re decreasing the chances of drawing that one really powerful, helpful card when you need it. Mystic Vale says no to this in favor of just making existing cards better. And also heavier. There’s something rather pleasing about slapping down a complete card, its heft making a nice, solid thump when it hits the table. Ooooooooooft.
But wait, what do these advancements actually do? At the most basic many of them will grant more mana or they’ll give you those all important victory points whenever they get planted. The Hawk, for example, is a relatively cheap advancement that earns two victory points whenever it hits the table, although it comes at the cost of an extra decay symbol. More powerful advancements might offer you four points, again at the cost of a decay. You can also acquire advancements with tree symbols which nullify a single point of decay on the field, or others that allow you to toss the current on-deck card into the discard pile if it would mean you spoil. There are also cards that do things like make any other advancement added to it cost two mana less, or that let you discard a card from your field. That’s about it, really, though. Even the most expensive advancements in Mystic Vale don’t do anything particularly different or intriguing, making their acquisition feel somewhat anti-climatic.
Each turn ends by discarding all your current fielded cards. The rulebook suggests at this point you should start your planting phase while opponent’s take their turns in order to make things go a little smoother, which is sage advice. Once you go back to the planting phase but find your deck has run out of cards you just grab the discard pile, shuffle it and then start drawing from that, thus any new advancements will come into play. Standard deck-building stuff.
It’s such a cool idea to physically build cards piece by piece, but the game never commits entirely to the idea. Too often it doesn’t feel like it actually matters where you opt to put your advancements. Only some cards really synergise well, such as ones that get more powerful when matched up with other advancements bearing helmet symbols, generating more points, mana or other things for each symbol present. Even these, though, prove to be a bit problematic since building them up involves having to wait for that card to come back around AND hoping you have enough mana that turn to snag the appropriate advancement AND that someone else hasn’t bought it in the intervening time. There’s a lot of luck involved. Basically you mostly just have to make the best of each turn instead of forging any long-term plans, which is fine, but it would still be nice if it felt like positioning each advancement felt important rather than largely unimportant. Without more opportunity to craft cards with effects that can bounce off of each other all you’re really doing is tossing together something that does one or two random things, rather than getting two separate cards that do the same thing like you would in a typical deck-builder.
Indeed, Mystic Vale is light on strategy as a whole. There are really only a few viable options; focus on building up cards that acquire points when played, or snag advancements with grayed out numbers which give you points at the end of the game. Then there are the vale cards which look stunningly beautiful yet feel oddly unimportant in the grand scheme of things, at least until the end of the game where everybody looks bemused as the one guy who hoarded them suddenly racks up the points. Their artwork seems to point to them being grand achievements worth chasing, yet when you acquire them in game…they feel a bit anti-climatic. To get these you have to net yourself some advancements that generate spirit symbols during the planting phase, and then spend those symbols to grab a vale Card from the selection of eight that reside below the level one and level two vale decks. Most of the vale cards offer up a small chunk of points to be collected at the end of the game, but some do offer extra abilities, too. In one game I chased vale cards almost exclusively to see if it was viable, and managed to bag a few that automatically bolstered my mana pool by six every turn, meaning even if I had a bad planting there was still enough mana to acquire mid to high level cards. During the game itself I wasn’t scoring many points, but by the end my deck was piled with cards that granted points and I had a few vale cards worth big numbers. In short, chasing the vale cards does seem a viable strategy, but obviously whether it’s worthwhile will depend mostly on luck. If you get a bad starting selection then it may not worth the effort.
So those are the three options available to you during any given game of Mystic Vale. It’s hardly a wide array of strategies, and in practice they prove even less exciting since almost all of the advancements are kind of the same. Most of them boil down to generating mana, points or spirit symbols with only the occasional extra ability thrown in to spice things up, and even those extra abilities are quite tame. There’s no way of building a deck that does one interesting thing very well to counter what the other people around the table are doing. Your deck and your opponent’s decks are going to different, yet the same in every way that matters. In fact, on that topic player interaction is largely non-existent within Mystic Vale. There’s the possibility of somebody taking the advancement you want, but usually another one that does the same thing will appear soon, and even if it doesn’t they’re all similar anyway, so you’ll never find yourself in the situation of losing that one key card that makes everything else in your deck work. That’s where the whole game falls down for me; I want my deck to be mine. I want there to be certain cards that form the foundation for my strategy, and I want more interaction between players. Right now everybody just sits around the table doing their own little thing, leading to anti-climatic victories where somebody wins because of one card that scored two points. There’s no point in trying to steal a card you think another player might want because it’s a waste of your own turn and it won’t make a bit of difference; they’ll just get a different one that does practically the same thing.
At this point Mystic Vale is a brilliant concept that has been made into a great foundation for an okay game. I’m more excited about its future and it’s already announced expansion than I am about Mystic Vale as it is right now. Don’t get me wrong, as it stands AEG’s first foray into their very own card-building genre is enjoyable, but it lacks a certain spark. Nothing exciting happens, there aren’t any important decisions to make and after even a single game you’ve seen everything it has to offer. Maybe you should just wait for AEG to do a little more gardening work first and see how it’s looking when everything comes into bloom later on.
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