We're starting to see a lot of cool tricks being performed with board games now. App integration is starting to come into its own with assisting our modern board games and I want to see more of it. However there are still some cool ideas being devised without the use of technology and I always like to try a new game where something innovative is brought to the table. Of course that doesn't always go well (cough cough, 504 ways to bore yourself), but it's still good to try given that I feel the board game industry is starting to rehash far too many ideas in game design. Enter Mystic Vale for something a little bit different.
Mystic Vale caught my eye on for a while since hearing of its unique "Card Crafting System." A device which functions similarly to deck building except instead of adding more cards to a deck, you add more abilities to the cards within your deck. So the deck never changes size (that will please shufflers) but each card you have gets more powerful and more interesting.
That just sounds cool full stop right? It's definitely an innovative idea, OK it's not revolutionary, but taking an existing idea and then doing something unique and different with it still counts as innovation.
From the AEG website:
"A curse has been placed on the Valley of Life. Hearing the spirits of nature cry out for aid, clans of druids have arrived, determined to use their blessings to heal the land and rescue the spirits. It will require courage and also caution, as the curse can overwhelm the careless who wield too much power.
In Mystic Vale, 2 to 4 players take on the role of druidic clans trying to cleanse the curse upon the land. Each turn, you play cards into your field to gain powerful advancements and useful vale cards. Use your power wisely, or decay will end your turn prematurely. Score the most victory points to win the game! The innovative Card Crafting System creates a game experience like you’ve never played before with beautiful artwork and graphics that bring the game to life.
Concise rules offer a deep gaming experience with meaningful decisions. In the box is tremendous replay value that will increase with future expansions."
Batteries Not Included, But Sleeves Are!
In Mystic Vale you have to acquire upgrades in the form of plastic sheets that you sleeve literally into your deck. Therefore, the first point of call is component quality as there is plenty to go wrong here. AEG supply 100 sleeves in the box (if only every publisher did this, #dreaming) designed to cover four starter decks with 20 cards each and provide spares just in case. Nice touch adding spares as we all know how fickle some sleeves are.
They about the same kind of consistency as a typical premium level sleeve that you would get from Mayday, so they're pretty sturdy and so far I've had no tearing problems, even with fully packed upgrades. You'll be pleased to know as well that AEG didn't forget to ensure that the box could store all cards with sleeves with room for future expansions. . . . though not all of them, we'll get to that later.
The upgrades themselves are on plastic sheets with the abilities shown on either the top, middle or bottom row of the card. This means you can add up to three of these to any blank card in your deck. Each one slots into the sleeve fairly effortlessly though you will notice a slight bulk to the card when shuffling your deck so it's not too difficult to tell them apart. I recommend emptying your mind like you're in the Matrix or something when shuffling.
Players have complained about the protective cellophane covers on the upgrades, but personally I don't see a big deal with them. Some of them do show their "dog ears" early, but you just peel those ones off and all is well. I peeled off five in total after organising the contents, that's not bad. The rules say you can happily go ahead and peel them all off if you like, but I'm just going to leave mine on for as long as they last and be content with that. What gets more on my nerves is that if you don't play the game regularly, you find that the advancement cards stick together a lot so you're constantly separating them as you play the game. Not a huge issue, but when you're shuffling you wish life was easier.
The artwork is just sublime wherever you look. Not one colour on the palette is left out and everything is bright and gorgeous. There is one downside though. The Vale cards which you can purchase for points have a nice large picture on them, full blown and naturally gorgeous. The upgrade cards however have the pictures and abilities squeezed into one single row on the card (three rows per card).
This means that even though the art is great, you have to make a bit of effort with your eyes to appreciate it all. I realise of course that this is necessary for the game to function, but I almost feel bad for the artist! They are a little easier to read in the main rule book and it provides detailed rules for each card (though they're pretty self explanatory really) as a nice little aid.
A Glossy Painting Over A Blank Canvas
First and foremost, be aware that the theme is a pasted on affair here. The cards all relate to some form of druidic lore or form of nature and the terminology for your tableau is a "field," but this could have been any theme you chose and so make sure you go in knowing that you're playing Mystic Vale for the mechanics, not the theme, even though it's one hell of a beautiful paint job.
I laugh that it even tries to explain in the book what each player's deck faction is meant to represent and yet it's so completely pointless and literally I didn't even notice it was even in the book until several games in - the gameplay and starting decks don't give any indication that you're a different faction other than the colour.
However the mechanics are what make Mystic Vale what it is. It's predominantly an engine building game, where much like a typical deck builder you want to be as efficient as you can and generate the most lucrative turns possible. But there's something to be said about the difference in feel of simply adding a card into a ever-growing deck and sleeving the upgrades into your physical deck itself, it's really cool when you do it. Plus this means that your deck never increases in size, you start off with 20 cards and it will forever stay at 20 cards, which is handy given their size, but you know how annoying it gets to maintain and shuffle decks when they get too large.
This allows you to be a little more creative with how you design your cards. You know you're going to cycle through those 20 cards often, but do you speed that up even more with abilities? Do you opt for excess mana generation to purchase cool cards or do you prefer to avoid spoiling as much as possible? The Vale cards are a nice means to score more points but as I found out in my last game you can even avoid them entirely, instead gaining your points from the upgrades themselves both from end-of-game points and "when played" points that generate every time you play the card from the deck.
There is a surprising amount of choices for what strategy to go for and this is influenced by what upgrades are available in general.
Sadly, aside from having something bought before you can get hold of it, there are no methods whatsoever in which you can influence the other players. Mystic Vale is multiplayer solitaire, which is not unlike most engine building games to be fair, but I would have liked to have seen a little more interaction in the cards. Wouldn't it have been weird to have abilities that actually swapped upgrades between players? The only time you're concerned about other players is the end-game trigger, which is dependent on how quickly players start amassing victory point tokens.
There is also the feeling that everything feels a little . . . . vanilla. The abilities are different, but not the most exciting around. Despite a small amount of variation in the first tier deck, everything else is included in every game so you're going to see the same stuff appear again and again. It's not quite the "tremendous replay value" that AEG quotes on the website. Even base Dominion offered some degree of variety in its base box.
However over time we now have three expansions to boost the content and if you believe you'll enjoy the game, I recommend grabbing them even if they are a little pricey. Each one adds additional cards for every level and I can particularly recommend the Vale of the Wild and Mana Storm, which both add leader cards (unique player cards you can upgrade) and advancements which allow for additional paths to victory if they come up in a game.
Vale of Magic is decent as well, but it just adds more cards so you can grab that one last. Take note though, if you grab them all, the base game insert cannot handle the content. However the word on the grapevine from AEG is that the next future expansion will include a giant box to store everything, much like they did with Smash Up.
Verdict on Mystic Vale
Mystic Vale is a milestone in innovation, that much has to be acknowledged here. This idea of literally building the cards themselves has never been done before and its implementation which is by no means perfect is still handled very well in this game. It doesn't feel like a gimmick and it makes the imagination run wild with how future games that utilise this system could turn out like as it develops in the long run.
Now Mystic Vale is at that upper level of the gateway game genre with the options it provides you in card design, but the rules themselves are pretty straightforward. You'll be quickly into your first game and keen to try different strategies in future iterations. It is however a multiplayer solitaire affair, the interaction with other players is almost non-existent, less so than even dry deck builders like Dominion and as such it may prove to feel very vanilla in nature for some players. I almost wish this game had a solo mode as it's crying out for one really.
It's an engine building game through and through so don't expect a ton of exciting moments, but it's one that sparks creativity as you piece together your ultimate card. The variety isn't quite there in the base game alone, but with expansions this does improve dramatically, providing you're willing to keep up the investment from a financial perspective as they're not cheap! I've enjoyed my time to date though and can appreciate that Mystic Vale is a solid genesis of a cool new system.