Reviewed by: Dave
Come, fellow druids, help cleanse the land with your… uh… hmm. Your humble reviewer needs to hug a few more trees before coming up with a proper intro to this game.
Mystic Vale is a game for two to four players with a most interesting deck-building premise: you build the cards rather than the deck. Each player has a deck of twenty cards, all of which are long (tarot-card size) and sleeved. The abilities of these cards at the beginning are limited. Nine have cursed land, adding one mana and one decay; eight are blank; three have fertile soils, offering one mana. Players lay down one card at a time until they have three decay, putting the card with the third decay on top of their deck (literally, the “on-deck” card). At this point the player has the option to use the available resources (only mana at first, more later) or push her luck. Pushing one’s luck is simple: move the on deck card into the field and flip the next card over. If a fourth decay shows, the hand busts, and the player can do nothing but flip her mana token over, giving her one extra mana to use on a future turn. If a fourth decay does not show, the the player has one more card to use, and can push her luck as much as she wants until busting.
So how do the cards build? As with most deck builders, you collect resources (in this case mana) and use it to buy new cards. In this case, however, each card has three slots that can be built up, and new cards slide into the sleeve with one of the base cards, adding its ability to a blank slot. (Cursed land or fertile soil on a base card takes one slot, leaving two; blank cards can have three things added to them.) This changes the normal deck building math. With most games of this type, the goal is to take the most powerful (ie. most expensive) cards possible, barring some obvious synergy available with a different card. In Mystic Vale, the improvements come in three tiers; especially in the last two tiers, the most expensive available improvement may well not be the one best suited to the cards you’ve played that turn.
In addition, and much more critically, players must decide not just to add the improvement to their deck, but must choose which card should receive the improvement. There are some combinations that offer obvious synergy, but other considerations come into play: do I, for example, add a card with growth (which negates a decay symbol, letting you draw more cards) to a card that has decay, immediately offsetting it? Or do I add it elsewhere, creating a slightly more chancy deck that could result in a smaller batch of cards on a future turn, or a much bigger one? If I have some of the extra symbols (used to purchase permanent cards that offer points and/or bonuses each turn) on my card, do I want to add to those with this new improvement I bought or split them up, changing the odds of being able to afford a permanent bonus card on any given turn?
It’s an intriguing mechanic, and the requisite shift in one’s thought process is satisfying. The main drawback to the game, at least for now, is the relative lack of variation in the improvements. There are three tiers of improvements; the instructions say to only use a portion of the first tier, so a lack of variety there makes some sense, to make sure players have an idea what they’re going to see. And putting each type of improvement in two or three of the possible slots means that 10-12 improvements require thirty or so cards to widen their use--a player may not be able to use one that’s in the middle of the card, but can use the version at the bottom. But only seeing around twenty-five different improvements between the three tiers means that after a few games, players will often remember most or all of what’s available and target specific strategies, reducing the circumstances to which someone will need to adapt.
There also is a balance issue with the growth resource--winning without it versus people with plenty of it is nearly impossible, because growth lets you snowball so hard. That makes it something knowledgeable players target immediately, making it possible to get unlucky with when those cards are available to buy and creating a big uphill climb to victory. The odds on not being able to buy these cards, even when everyone is targeting them, are low. But having one piece of the game be so clearly more important than the others is not optimal.
Mystic Vale is a lot of fun. Expansions will, I hope, handle the issue of limited improvement choice; the growth balance may be trickier, as it’s a problem built directly into the mechanics, and that can be hard to fix without messing up other parts of the game. But it earns good marks, as everything else works splendidly and makes for an enjoyable experience.