Mystic Vale: Who Says Good Games Can’t Be Transparent?

MVxA while back, I asked Todd at Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) to send me a copy of Octo Dice. He did that, and he also sent me copies of all three of the Guildhall: Fantasy sets and Mystic Vale. If only he’d have realized that he was setting himself up for bad press because I have either mildly disliked or outright hated almost every deck building game I’ve ever played, up to and including Mage Knight. Well, as you can see from my personal review of the game (not a Circus review, it’s just my personal opinion), despite my disdain for almost all deck building games, Mystic Vale completely enthralled me. I think it’s probably because there’s a huge dose of innovation inside the box, and that innovation actually changed it from a simple deck builder into a game that defies the genre with a huge dose of Ameritrash-style push-your-luck, surrounded by a Euro-style deck building system…with a twist.

mv2In Mystic Vale, you’re not just shuffling cards, drawing them, and hoping to get the best possible hand from your pool of cards, you’re actually capable of combining up to three of your hand of cards into one new super card. You start with 20 paper cards, many of which are blank, and that can’t be combined with one another; these starting decks are basically “backs” for the Advancement cards you will be purchasing later, which are translucent aside from one box of text (sometimes two) and able to be bound in a sleeve with these starting cards.  So, essentially, you end up near the end of the game with many of your starting cards in sleeves, loaded with a starting card and two or three additional cards, which makes your deck smaller, and more importantly, makes each turn that much more effective and loaded with super cards.

If you can imagine, there’s three “slots” on any given super-card, and each of the Advancements has one or two of them filled. So, let’s say you see an awesome card that has slot one filled, and it would pair perfectly with another card you have, but the second card fills a slot that the awesome card does? You, sir, are shit out of luck. Because in almost all cases, you can’t put a card on top of another card that shares slots, you have to be careful in what you buy lest you spend a bunch on a card that doesn’t play well with others.

mystic_vale_1_rawAs noted, each card has one or many symbols which are different types of currencies, and that are used to purchase either Advancement cards, or the real goal of the game, Vale cards, which are not put into your hand but rather left in your tableau to provide you persistent benefits or final scoring points. The game itself is really just a race game in many ways and reminds me a lot of Race for the Galaxy in some ways. You’re literally trying to buy Vale and Advancement cards better and faster than the opponents, with the goal of running the pre-determined pool of scoring tokens out while you can. After the pool has been exhausted, the game ends after the end of that final round, and you add up your Vale cards’ scores and your tokens to see who wins.

As many of you know, I don’t like Dominion, Mage Knight: The Board Game, almost all Legendary games, and pretty much every deck building game ever. They bore me and the lack of almost any meaningful player interaction means that they are really not much more than solo games that happen to be played in groups. If the rules don’t change for solo play, you can pretty much assume that I’d rather be painting a fence.

This game, however, despite being very short on the player interaction other than “taking a card that you know Debbie Deckbuilder wants”, is incredibly tense. This is created by the dwindling resources in the form of VP tokens, so it’s not some abstracted thing, it’s real, it’s in your face, and it’s like watching a sand timer in Space Hulk, knowing that your time to do things is running out, so you better hurry up. That’s the big one, for me, why I love this game. Funny, but only one other player dug that aspect as much as me, and the remaining 7 people I’ve played this with mostly dug this game but almost unanimously because the card crafting system that AEG came up with for this game is so much fun to play around with.

The other thing that I need to come back around to is the push-your-luck mechanic. Basically, your turn is summed up as drawing cards from your deck and hoping that four red symbols don’t show, because if they do, you’ve just lost your turn. Your turn always ends with you flipping one card face up and putting it on top of your deck, so you can always tell how you’re going to start. But, you have the choice whether to flip up more cards to create your hand, and most times when that second red mark is showing, your rectum is so tight that atoms can’t pass through it. It’s another very tense spot in the game that literally makes the game what it is. Some powers on Advancement cards allow you to ignore a number of them, and even better, some, when combined with other cards, allow you to ignore all of the red marks on the card, so you can literally create a card that’s loaded with currency symbols and red marks, but none of the red marks count for squat. It’s an awesome feeling to know that you’ve dodged the Grim Reaper due to those Advancements in your crafted cards.

The final thing I want to talk about, in terms of play, is the currency. There’s a main currency, which is a blue icon, and this is the most common way to buy the Advancement cards, of which there are three power levels of three each. There are also two levels of five Vale cards to buy, each of which has its own currency requirements. All in all, there’s four colors of currency, plus the main, blue “mana” currency, and the red “spoil” icons. Why this is slick, to me, is that most of the time, if a card has a really cool mix of currencies, it also has at least one red icon on it, which makes them dangerous to press your luck on, especially at the higher levels.  These are the ones that you invariably end up wanting to combine with other cards that have no red icons, so that you can use them without basically being pigeonholed into only playing it for fear of spoiling out.

Let me just wrap this review up by saying that I love this game. It’s a total win for me and the people I’ve played it with. The tension, the slick card crafting system, and the relatively short play time make this the perfect game for as few as two and as many as four to play as a “main event” game as opposed to a simple filler. There’s ample strategy, although I wish they had put some cards in the decks that allow you to screw with opponents, or maybe just be able to add their on-deck card to your total or something so it has some level of interaction. The one thing that I expect to see from this game is other publishers licensing the “technology” so that you can use this in all kinds of other games (Star Trek: Frontiers comes to mind), especially games where you have characters who can pick up weapons and armor or items so that you can load up a sleeve with a fully outfitted character instead of just having a ton of cards in your little player area. It would be really cool especially if the character is the backing, with little open boxes on the chest and hands, so that the printed part of the translucent card has a sword, or laser pistol, or body armor that fits in the little open box. That would be bad ass.

Why Mystic Vale Has Mystically Veiled My Dislike Of Deck Builders:
– Two words: Card Crafting
– The tension this game builds in players is surprisingly strong
– The art is very, very well done
– The “race” mechanic of dwindling VPs is so well done

Why Mystic Vale Has Cast A “WTF” Spell:
– De-sleeving cards after the game is over kind of sucks
– I’m not sure the print-on-plastic will be durable over years
– The setting is forgettable and pasted on, although it doesn’t matter

This game should be considered an auto-buy in my opinion, and while the game itself is bad ass, what makes it even more bad ass is the potential for other games to start using the card crafting system. It’s a masterpiece, and it’s kind of funny that it took this long for someone to figure this out.

4.875/5 Stars

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