Base price: $45.
2 – 4 players.
Play time: ~45-60 minutes.
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Now that I’m officially back and well-rested from Gen Con and not pushing three reviews at once, what better game to review than a recent Gen Con release, Mystic Vale!
In Mystic Vale, you play as a bunch of druids trying to save a land cursed by a dying king because of course it is. While at its core, it seems to be a classic deckbuilder in the same vein as Dominion or Flip City, Mystic Vale tries something new that introduces an entirely different system, as you’re not really building a deck at all! Using your weird druid powers, will you be able to save the lands from corruption? Or will you, too, fall victim to decay?
Alright, so start off by pulling out all the little crystal tokens. These are your Victory Points.
There are also a bunch of cards:
The cards with trees and a I or II on the back are Vale Cards. They’ll give you points (or awesome effects) if you can get them, but don’t worry about that now. Shuffle them into a I pile and a II pile and set them aside.
The other cards are the decks. There are four decks, each with identical starting cards, so don’t freak out:
- Red is for the Beastbrothers.
- Green is for the Lifewardens.
- Yellow is for the Dawnseekers.
- Blue is for the Waveguards.
Each player should take a deck of their choice and sleeve it in the provided sleeves, if they’re not already sleeved. If they are already sleeved, don’t sleeve them again, come on. Each deck will have 20 cards – 9 Cursed Lands, 3 Fertile Soils, and 8 blank cards. Why are the cards blank? Let’s find out.
You’ve probably also noticed that there are a bunch of these clear cards:
You should check to see the various pips underneath of the Achievement’s cost (the number in the blue circle in the top-right of the Achievement) and sort them into three piles — one pip, two pips, red pips blue pips and three pips. Once you’ve done that, remove all of the one pip Fertile Soil cards, setting them in a separate pile near the area you’re setting up. Next, check your player count:
- If you’re playing with two players, only use 12 of the remaining Level 1 Achievements (one pip) and 23 of the Victory Points.
- Three players – use 15 of the Level 1 Achievements and 28 Victory Points.
- Four players – use 18 of the Level 1 Achievements and 33 Victory Points.
Great. Now, lay out the Achievements and Vale Cards in a setup kind of reminiscent of Splendor, to be honest (man, I haven’t played Splendor in a while):
So every player should have a deck, there should be a pile of Victory Points somewhere, and your Achievements and Vale Cards should be in what’s called (here and likely nowhere else) the Commons. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that referenced on a card, but I’ve been wrong before.
Now, you’re going to set up your field. You do this by flipping the top card of your deck and placing it face-up in front of you until you have three Cursed Lands out. Put the third Cursed Land on top of your deck, face-up; it will be what’s called your on-deck card.
It should look like this:
You’ll also have some blue circle tokens.
Give each player one, and have each player flip it to its Inactive (grey) side. The player with the fancy grey side (you’ll be able to tell) starts! It’s cool. Again, note that this means that the Mana Tokens start Inactive. How do you activate them? Well, you’ll have to wait and see.
Once your setup looks like this, you’re ready to start:
Mystic Vale is essentially a deckbuilder (again, in the style of Dominion, Intrigue, Paperback, Flip City… the list goes on. I like deckbuilders.), but with a very important change to the standard deckbuilder gameplay: you never add cards to your deck. Yup, those 20 cards you started with are going to be the same cards you have forever.
Even the blank ones.
Actually, especially the blank ones. As you noticed, the Achievement cards are see through and split in thirds. What you’re going to do is what AEG’s calling a “Card Crafting System”, in which you buy Achievements and add them to the cards themselves, augmenting the cards in your deck as you play. It’s about as awesome as it sounds. Unfortunately, some cards have Decay on them, which can really spoil your turn if you try to abuse it.
So, quick rundown of the game. Your turn is broken into four Phases:
So let’s take each in order.
This is where most turns will start, since you Prep at the end of your turns, generally speaking. Gives you time to think through your plan before your turn starts. In a very similar style to Flip City‘s press-your-luck card playing mechanic, your planting phase proceeds in this order:
- Choose two options: Push, or Pass. If you Pass, your Planting Phase ends and you go immediately to your Harvest Phase.
- If you Push, place your on-deck card into your field and do any “When Played” effects on that card, since you just played it. Then, get a new on-deck card. If you run out of cards in your deck, reshuffle your discard pile into your deck and flip a new on-deck card.
- Check to see if you’ve Spoiled. You Spoil if you have 4 or more Decay symbols revealed, which is tough. Some cards have green tree symbols on them called Growth. Each Growth will cancel out one Decay, so technically it raises your Decay limit before you Spoil (like Flip City‘s Church).
- If you have not spoiled, go back to Step 1 and choose again: Push, or Pass.
Now, knowing that, why would you ever choose to Push if you might Spoil? Well, one of your potential goals on each turn is to get Mana, which is represented by blue circles on certain cards in your deck / Achievements. Mana is currency in this game, and you can spend Mana to buy Achievements. Vale Cards, however, require something different:
These four spirit symbols appear in various combinations on various Achievements, and are essentially a different kind of currency that you can use to buy Vale Cards. If we’re going to talk about buying cards, though, we should go to the Harvest Phase.
If you Spoil, skip this phase. Sucks. If not, however, then you need to do the following actions (in any order):
- Count up your Mana and Spirit Symbols. Mana are the blue circles that might be in the top-left corner of some card sections and Achievements, and Spirit Symbols are the four different squares that appear on some Achievements / are given to you by some Vale Cards.
- Resolve “Harvest” effects on cards in your field / Vale Cards. Some Vale Cards give you extra Mana or Spirit Symbols, some Achievements give you extra Mana as well, etc. You should generally make sure you know what your cards do.
- Score Victory Points. Those are the little crystals. Some Achievements have tealish? turquoise? Victory Point tokens on the left side, meaning you take them from the pile whenever you play them and get to your Harvest Phase. Note that you don’t get these if you Spoil, because you skip the Harvest Phase.
- Buy Vale Cards. You can spend Spirit Symbols to buy up to two Vale Cards from the rows if you can afford them. Vale Cards with the swirly symbol on them require one of any Spirit Symbol (similar to how the purple swirl is a wild Spirit Symbol). Generally, these give you end-game points, but some will give you cool abilities and boosts. They don’t become active until the next Phase, though.
- Buy Advancements. You can spend Mana (including your Mana Token) to buy up to two Achievements from the Commons (see? I actually used it again. Didn’t think I would.) You are not limited to buying from any particular level, but you have to be able to afford the Mana costs (or have a card that reduces Mana costs). If you use your Mana Token, flip it over to the grey side. Any other Mana that you don’t use is lost at the end of your turn (except for your Mana Token, which persists between turns). Keep the purchased Achievements aside; you’ll add them to your cards in the next phase.
During this Phase, you sleeve each Advancement you bought (adding it to a card where there’s an open space). You cannot cover up sections of a card with Achievements, except for the long ability-thing that runs from top to bottom:
You can also add Vale Cards to your field and use their abilities in subsequent turns, now.
You’ll also replenish Vale Cards and Achievements you bought on your turn so that each player has a full set to choose from. If you cannot replenish any (say, the Level 1 Achievements run out, as they tend to), you just don’t add any more, since you can’t.
Interestingly, right now, the next player can begin their turn. They may also opt to wait until you’ve finished your Prep Phase before they begin. Sometimes it matters to them.
Also, if you Spoiled this turn, flip your Mana Token back to its Active (blue) side. That’s sort of a consolation prize for Spoiling. Unless it was already active, in which case, well…
During this Phase, you’ll prepare your “field” (essentially, your playing area) for your upcoming turn. How do you do that? Well, you flip over the top card of your deck. That’s called your on-deck card. If you have fewer than 3 Decay (red circle) symbols, place the on-deck card in your field and flip a new on-deck card. Once you have 3 (or more, but you really don’t want more if you can help it) Decay symbols showing between your on-deck card and your field, you end your Prep Phase. If you are particularly unlucky and you have four Decay symbols between your field and on-deck card (namely, your field has two Decay and you reveal an on-deck card with two more Decay), you immediately Spoil and skip straight to your Discard Phase next turn. Womp womp.
If you run out of cards in your deck, reshuffle your discard pile into your deck and flip a new on-deck card.
And that’s about it! Gameplay continues until the Victory Point pile is exhausted, in which case you make sure all players have taken an equal number of turns, and then count points! The player with the most points wins! Don’t forget to check your Victory Points, the points on Achievements you’ve purchased, and the points on Vale Cards.
Player Count Differences
Generally I don’t see a lot of differences in this at various player counts (especially since the Prep Phase happens while other people are taking their turns, generally), though there is some slight slowdown between turns since there’s just more people. Nothing really scales upwards except for the number of Victory Point tokens and the number of Level 1 Achievements, neither of which are particularly groundbreaking. It’s just a minor bit of scaling. That’s actually one thing I really like about it, having played it at 2, 3, and 4, I think I’d play it at any of those three. I’d love a solo variant, too, since the Decay mechanic exists (and you could probably base it off of Flip City’s solo mechanic).
There’re two things that’re kind of above all others, in my opinion:
- Growth. Growth is basically the best, or, at least, in every game I’ve played it’s been pretty excellent. Cards that let you play more cards mean that you can play more cards, tautologically, so you can both go through your deck faster (meaning you get to play with those shiny new Achievements you bought faster), and your average Mana / turn increases. I feel like it’s not as dominant of a strategy if everyone goes for it, but you should generally try to get Growth in every game, if possible, or at least try to cancel Decay symbols.
- Do not put more than one Decay symbol on a card, unless you can cancel it. You do not want to run the risk of spoiling on a turn without any options. It’s just … a really bad idea. Note that this doesn’t apply if you have Achievements that cancel Decay on the card they’re added to. Then, go crazy. But in general it’s a really really really bad idea to add more than one Decay symbol to a card, especially if it’s not even a Cursed Land.
Now, onto regular strategy.
- I find that it’s a bit better to go for breadth with one exception: Spirit Symbols. Generally I advise people to add Achievements to blank cards first, as to better increase the quality of each of their cards rather than bank it all on one great card. Naturally, there are some exceptions to this rule, and one of those is Spirit Symbols. If you’re trying to buy Vale Cards, you don’t want to draw one Spirit Symbol each turn, four turns in a row; you want to draw all four on one turn. So, generally speaking, add them to the same card. You’ll thank yourself for it later.
- I generally don’t upgrade Cursed Lands unless I have achievements that cancel Decay. I just find them obnoxious (sort of like Flip City‘s Residential Areas, in the sense that they’re exactly the same card, basically). I just treat them like garbage in my deck.
- Generally, I tend to go for Vale Cards that give me abilities rather than points in the early game, and shift later. There are Vale Cards that give you a permanent Growth (amazing) and extra Mana each turn (also really good), so I try to grab those early, if possible.
- Wellspring is really good since it can get you the Azure Lake Vale Card. AL gives you an extra Mana every Harvest Phase, so if you can get more than one you’re cooking with gas. I just recommend it, even though it doesn’t give you any points. It’ll make up for it.
- I like Earthchant Chorus a LOT. It decreases the Mana cost for subsequent Achievements on this card by 2, which often means you can buy Level 3 Achievements far before you have any business doing so. This is really good.
- Bear Totem isn’t bad either. It’s Growth, and Growth is good.
- Lifebringer Seed is amazing. It cancels all Decay on the card. So, remember how I said never to have more than one Decay on a card? If you have this, too, go crazy! It won’t affect you.
- I find that Guardian symbol cards (and cards that reference them) are great … if you buy two at the same time. It’s very difficult to get cards through complete deck cycles (since your opponents can also buy Achievements that you might want), so I generally avoid cards that use Guardian symbols (well, most) unless I can buy two of them at the same time. Then they’re great.
- Don’t forget about points. I have lost some games because I spent too much time buying cool abilities and Achievements and not … scoring any points. Have at least a card or two that gives you Victory Points each turn or buy some good Vale Cards, if you can.
- Some cards let you discard cards from your field. Always do that if you can discard a vanilla Cursed Land. Worst case, you immediately flip another one and you’re no better off, but cycling through your deck is really useful in this game since your individual cards get so powerful. Plus, it helps get new cards back into play faster, again, because you have fewer cards in your deck.
I’m sure there are more, but those are a good primer for getting into the game.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I love this mechanic. It’s just … really awesome. I think the sleeving is awesome, I like the whole gameplay, and I like the similarities it has to the Unhappiness mechanic in Flip City, which I also really liked.
- Doesn’t seem to increase time commitment too much with player count. That’s really nice, unlike, say, Dominion, which has that problem in spades.
- Pretty high replay value. A fair number of cards just don’t show up in normal gameplay, so it’s actually a lot of fun to play through a few games and see what combos you can come up with and produce.
- Seems expandable / spinoffable. I imagine that AEG made a logo for the Card Crafting System because they plan to do something with it long-term (like the next game, Edge of Darkness), so I look forward to getting more games that use this mechanic, since, as I mentioned, I like it a lot. It also seems like Mystic Vale could have some expansions (maybe some that increase player interaction a bit more?), so that could be nice.
- Nice art. Always a plus.
- I’m probably a bit done with fantasy themes for a while, if I can avoid them. The theme does very little for me, here. I would love to see how they bring the Card Crafting system into other games, though. I could see this making a fun robot-battling game, for instance, where you add a head, body, and legs / wheels / whatever to your robots and then each turn they fight. …There might be something to that.
- A bit hard to read, at times. I’m not 100% sure if that’s because of the film that’s still on the Achievements, but it’s a bit difficult to read the Mana costs on some of them.
- I’m pretty much convinced that the Dawnseekers icon is upside down. I will not be convinced otherwise on this. I also sleeved all the cards upside down the first time, so I’m probably going to be bitter about this forever.
- I just have to say it. You can totally tell the difference between a card with Achievements and one without when you pick up the card. It’s about as glaring as the difference between the Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue cards, and I feel like it can lend itself to cheating or uh, “artistic shuffles”. It’s something that bothers me a bit about this game. It just generally suggests “oh, this is probably a good card”, especially if you, like me, tend to avoid upgrading your Cursed Land cards..
- There doesn’t seem to be a good catch-up mechanic or much player interaction. The last four times I’ve played there has been a point where we’ve agreed that someone is probably going to win and there’s no real way to affect other players, so that person just kinda keeps going. The most you’ll get player interaction-wise is someone taking an Achievement that you want to buy. This might be mitigated some by players preventing a runaway by buying those Achievements, but that’s affected by my last con:
- Doesn’t seem particularly new-player friendly. There’s a lot going on here (more than Flip City or Dominion for sure), and you’ve got a strong advantage if you already know the cards and different interactions. For instance, we had a player who thought Growth was one of the Spirit Symbols (despite the rules explanation and the reference card saying otherwise, but hey, whatever), which made the game … difficult for him. I imagine it’ll be a bit more friendly once I get my group ramped up on it.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
This might be a slightly inflated score, but I really have enjoyed playing Mystic Vale. I think it’s a cool spin on deckbuilding and I really like it as the first game in a Card Crafting System set of games. My issues with the game are issues, yes, but even the new players have admitted that the game is fun and engaging enough that they just want to play it again and learn the strategies. The lack of player interaction is frustrating for some, yes, but it just makes me want a solo variant. Overall, I think Mystic Vale is a great first effort in this new system AEG’s doing, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.
Also, an expansion would be nice. Thankfully, there’s already at least one in the works.