Full disclosure: A preview copy of Mercurial was provided by Hyperlixir. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
This one was a bit of a doozy to write. Kickstarters, man; they’re complicated, sometimes. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a certain like, enjoyment I get out of going through the rules and writing those up along with setup instructions, and that can be kind of time-intensive. I’m still thinking about what the future of these reviews looks like. Should I start waxing more poetic? Thinking more in-depth about strategy or Pros or Cons or something? Probably won’t veer too much. If you’ve done something over eight hundred and fifty times, right? I’m … pretty sure that’s a saying. Either way, I’ve got another game here that’s dropping on Kickstarter, soon, so I might as well tell you all about it, since you’re already reading. So what’s up with Mercurial?
In Mercurial, you take on the role of mages newly arrived on the frontiers of Valanyr. Magic’s gone a bit haywire, you see, and the elements are now constantly in flux. You might even call them … fluxy. There’s probably a better word. But when you see fire turn into earth with no warning, you just pick whatever word works the fastest. This means that new spells are just waiting for you to discover them, and people are in need of heroes who can master this strange new magic and turn it to their advantage. Wield the elements at your will, and anything’s possible! What name will you make for yourself?
So the first thing you’re going to want to do is set up your market space. To start, the top row will be Heroics. Shuffle your Heroics deck:
Deal out a row of six and place the deck to the right. Then, you’ll want to set up the Skill Alterations. There are many other Alterations, so separate them out. Starter Alterations go in two piles:
Class Alterations go to the side:
Artifact Alterations get shuffled up; more on those later:
Do all that and what you’ve got left are Skill Alterations:
Shuffle those, make a row of 6 below the Heroics, placing the deck below the Heroic Deck. Then, shuffle the Spells!
Same deal. Row of six, place them below the Skill Alterations and place the deck below the Skill Alteration Deck. Below the leftmost two Spells, place the Mana Discount Token (blue) and the Acuity Discount Token (white). Mana goes below the leftmost, Acuity on the second leftmost.
Set the Equilibrium and Prestige Cards towards the top of the play area:
Place the Prestige Tokens on top of the Prestige Card (left):
Shuffle and set out three of the double-sided Arcana Cards (both sides visible here), as well:
(For your first game, you can ignore the Arcana and Equilibrium Cards, if you want.) Now, give each player a Class:
For your first game, you can play as Initiates, instead:
This gives each player the indicated number of mana (blue), acuity (white), and dice (dice):
Each player also gets some combination of Starter Alterations (gray edge), Class Alterations (yellow / green edge), and Artifact Alterations. The Artifact Alterations are drawn at random (indicated by the ? mark). After determining that, decide which player goes first. The subsequent players get extra acuity.
- Player 2: +1 acuity.
- Player 3: +2 acuity.
- Player 4: +3 acuity.
If you’re playing with two players, each player spends one acuity. Why? That’s the rules! Either way, each player rolls the dice and you’re ready to start!
The core of Mercurial is that you want to cast Spells, using the power of Ruin or Restore that they generate to do Heroic deeds, represented as Heroic Cards. Doing so will earn you points, and the player with the most points wins! So let’s explore how to do that.
Your turn largely consists of two different types of actions. You can either Take & Play, or you can Cast.
Take & Play
Take & Play is a gentle misnomer, as this action is technically two separate actions. You can Take and you can Play, and you can do each in either order.
To Take, choose either a Skill Alteration or a Spell. You can, instead of taking either, take all of your previously-played Alterations, returning them to your hand. If you choose a Skill Alteration, you must place an acuity on the left-most card in the Skill Alteration row. If you take the left-most card, it’s free, and you get all the acuity on it.
If you take a Spell, you must be able to fill in the dice spaces on the card. Spaces on the cards can be either Fixed spaces (you must play a die whose face matches the indicated symbol) or Flex spaces (you can either place a die or 2 mana). You can also spend 2 acuity in lieu of 1 mana (or 4 acuity for 2 mana). There are certain spells that are Fire / Water spells; to Take one, you still have to fill it out, but it can be either Fire or Water (but must be all of one or the other; you can’t mix them). If you take the Spell above the Mana Discount token, it costs one fewer mana to take the Spell; same for the Spell above the Acuity Discount token.
After taking an Alteration or a Spell, refill the corresponding row by sliding the remaining cards to the left and filling the empty space (now on the right) with a card from the deck.
To play an Alteration, you just place it face-up in front of you and activate its effect. Generally, they let you acquire additional acuity, convert unallocated dice to other dice faces, or convert elements to Void (or from Void). Many of the Alterations have a secondary action that can do a different action, instead. For blue Skill Alterations, the secondary action allows you to reroll dice. Purple Artifact Alterations have a secondary action that allows you to take one acuity.
Note that to use an Alteration, you must be able to perform the listed action(s) in order. If an Alteration allows you to convert an Earth element to a Lightning element and then gain an acuity, you must have an Earth element, first.
Instead of Taking and Playing, you can Cast! Casting uses all your available Spells at the same time. Spells generally are one of three types:
- Standard Spells: Spells will generally produce either Ruin or Restore.
- Link Spells: Link Spells can be linked to another Spell, usually to provide a multiplicative benefit. For instance, some Spells multiply another’s spell total by 2 or 3.
- Enchantment Spells: Another set of spells provide a benefit across all spells. One Spell, for instance, converts all of your Ruin to 2x Restore.
Certain Spells have an Aether symbol on them, which means that they can be enhanced by having an Aether face on one of your unallocated dice! This generally causes spells to provide more Ruin, more Restore, or more … Link. Just more of that.
Finally, you can add unused dice as Ruin or Restore and spend extra acuity to get additional Ruin or Restore. Depends on the die face and how much acuity you spend (Fire / Lightning / 4 acuity = 1 Ruin; Water / Earth / 3 acuity = 1 Restore).
After resolving all of your spells, tally your total Ruin and / or your total Restore. Now for the kicker. Ruin and Restore cancel each other out! Hope you planned for that. If you manage to achieve a net zero Ruin and Restore (including dice effects and acuity), you achieve Equilibrium. Sounds terrifying; kind of is. This allows you to count the Ruin / Restore you would have generated, and each collective Ruin and Restore combines to form a new currency, called Myst. Myst allows you to generate an equivalent amount of effective Ruin or Restore (and to get a bonus). See the Equilibrium card for more information. First player to achieve Equilibrium gains 2 bonus acuity and 1 Prestige token. In your first game, don’t use Equilibrium.
Now, you’ve determined your effective total of Ruin or Restore. Use that to buy Heroics and additional Prestige! Heroics have a cost on them in Ruin or Restore. When you purchase one, you get the card and the mana and acuity on the card, adding them to your player board. The Heroic Card gets set nearby. Keep an eye on the Sigils on the card; there are usually one or more of one of four types, and collecting multiple of the same Sigil is generally lucrative, points-wise. You can only buy one Heroic Card per Cast, however. After buying a Heroic Card, shift the other cards to the left, refill from the deck, and place 1 mana and 2 acuity on the new card.
Any remaining Ruin or Restore can be converted to Prestige at a rate of 3 Ruin or 4 Restore to 1 Prestige. Take Prestige Tokens to indicate this.
One last thing! You can also gain Arcana if you fulfill their conditions during a Cast. You don’t have to spend any Spells or any Ruin / Restore to gain them; you just take the card from the center if you earn it. If another player beats you to it, tough luck. They award bonus points at the end of the game. Again, for your first game, don’t play with Arcana.
After doing all this, take all your dice and reroll them. The next player can start their turn after you do this, while you reset. Return all mana on Spells to your player board, and return all acuity on Spells to the supply. Finally, take all your used Spell Cards and place them in a stack. They’re generally not worth anything, but gaining certain Arcana Cards can make used Spells worth something at the end of the game.
End of Game
The game ends as soon as a player has collected a certain number of Heroics, dictated by the player count:
- 2 players: 6 Heroic Cards
- 3 players: 5 Heroic Cards
- 4 players: 4 Heroic Cards
Once that player collects their last Heroic Card, the game ends! Every other player, in turn order, must Cast on their next turn. After resolving that, total your Victory Points from various Heroic Cards, Arcana Cards, Prestige Tokens, and sigils:
- Gain 2 VP for every pair of the same sigil.
- Gain 5 VP for every set of three of the same sigil.
Oh, also, in a four-player game, Arcana Cards are worth 1 point, each. Only in a four-player game, though. The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
I think this one’s going to be a two-player game, for me. Major reason is that at higher player counts, there are more hands reaching into the market between your turns, so you can rely less on cards being available for you the next time around. Normally, not a huge issue, but missing a card that you need for a big high-scoring combo feels kind of bad. For some players, the joy of competition is seeing who can put together the most impressive combo, not trying to steal pieces (or even unintentionally taking pieces) of another player’s combo and messing it up. Given the competition for low-cost spells (depending on the Arcana in play), this tends to happen more with more players. The market doesn’t really grow or shrink to accommodate the additional player count. On one hand, that’s a relief, because I barely had space on my photo table as-is, but on the other, that’s a bit of a bummer since it would release some of the pressure on the market between turns. But that’s random markets, for you. Beyond that, players can’t really directly interact with each other, but they can swipe Heroics from the market that another player wanted or get an Arcana ahead of someone else, so the player interaction is mostly that indirect racing element. If that’s your thing or you don’t mind a volatile market, then go for higher player counts. If you want more of a strategic game with long-term planning, fewer players may be the right fit for your Mercurial experience.
- The Arcana are pretty good guideposts for what you should be going after. They’re overarching conditions that will give you some points for fulfilling them (usually; I definitely got an Arcana in one game that ended up scoring me no points because the only Water Spell I cast was the one that earned me the Arcana, whoops). If you’re not sure what to do, pick one that aligns with your ethos or your desired outcome (or lets you go after Heroics on the board). I will say that the 12 Myst one is difficult (since you have to generate exactly 12 Ruin and 12 Restore), but beyond that, they’re a nice collection of potential guiding options.
- There’s no real restriction on going for Restore or Ruin; a lot of times, it can depend on your dice rolls. It’s not like going all-in on one is a moral choice or anything; often, I alternate between Restore and Ruin or I’ll go after whatever spells are cheapest in the market. Just remember that Restore and Ruin cancel each other out, so you don’t want to exclusively go after cheap spells; you need to pick one and stick to it (unless you’re trying to generate Myst).
- Grabbing Skill Alterations to try and build a luck-tolerant engine is going to be most of the strategy of this game. Try and figure out what outputs you want your engine to have, or build a fairly fault-tolerate cycle that can convert any resource to any other resource. Either way, you’ll have some form of an engine that will basically turn dice into useful forms for Spells. The crux of the game is whether or not you can build an engine that outpaces your opponents’ engines, and if you can switch over to almost purely casting spells in time to get ahead of them. It’s tricky, because there’s an inflection point somewhere in the game where gathering additional Alteration Cards may not make much more sense, but it’s not always easy to identify.
- Try to use your player power where you can, but the one that will really come up the most is leaning into the Arcanist’s permanent Aether. The Chaosmancer is probably the second most useful, but honestly, if you need their ability, it usually means that the dice aren’t going your way. First game I played with them, I actually ended up having pretty good rolls the entire time (or at least ones that were fixable with my various Alteration), so I didn’t use them much. The Arcanist benefits from having a permanent Aether die, so you should use that to get Spells that benefit from the Aether boost
- Link Spells can Link to other Link Spells and increase their power; if you can get your dice right, you can set up major combos. You have to get the right dice, too, and watch out if your opponent is trying to set this up, but you can very possibly get multipliers on multipliers on values to shoot your Ruin or Restore through the roof (even better if you get the Ruin -> Restore x 2 card). Use that to go after the big-value Heroics, but remember that you can only buy one per turn! The rest get spent in exchange for extra Prestige tokens. Which is also fine.
- Don’t always spend all your dice. Your mana are there to serve as dice substitutes, and spending those instead can give you a lot of flexibility (especially since some spaces require dice to be placed on them to activate a Spell). Using mana preemptively helps free up your dice, but if your dice aren’t what you need them to be to take certain cards, mana can help fill in the gaps. The tension between those two states is eased up if you have a plan, so make a plan for what Spells you want and try to change up your dice or spend your mana to make it happen. Either way, recall that most Spells need at least one die of the spell’s type, so don’t necessarily rely on being able to buy Spells with mana if you run out of dice. Different roles have different starting numbers of dice, as well, so play to your strengths there, also.
- Your Take and Play Actions can happen in any order; use that to Play a key alteration, giving you the dice you need to Take a Spell. The step is the “Take & Play” step, but you can also Play then Take. Use that if you’re going after Spells! You need to have the right dice and mana to use the Spell in order to take it, so use your Play action to convert your dice and then get what you want. Don’t waste a turn getting your dice in order and then go after the Spell; that signals to your opponents what you want and they may be able to swipe it first.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I was pleasantly surprised by this game. I always like it when Kickstarter games are a little complex and interesting, and this was just a theme that I hadn’t seen much of! It reminds me a bit of the dice placement of Genotype, a game that I also enjoyed but haven’t quite reviewed yet (though this is less complicated). I kind of expected just a somewhat-standard dice placement game, but the engine-building aspects of it were surprising and pleasant.
- I appreciate that they have a pretty low on-ramp for players who are unfamiliar with this type of game, though we didn’t have much trouble jumping right into the full game. I think that’s wise for a Kickstarter game, in particular. You don’t really have the benefit of storefront audience influence (in that I imagine the games I would stock in a Target are different than the games I would stock in a dedicated board game store), so you really need to have an on-ramp so that even folks new to board gaming can mostly pick up and play this game. They made a game with pretty great art, and that tends to attract a wide variety of folks. I appreciate that they also made a streamlined first game for newer gamers / folks looking for a less complex time, though I will say my group felt comfortable using the full rules in our first game. I am glad both options exist.
- The engine-building elements of this game are satisfying and feel fun to play. Rolling dice and then needing to fix your various dice to be the faces that you need them to be is always fun. I like the cyclical elements of dice manipulation in this game, as well; trying to change X face to Y face to Z face and then having to change a bunch back to X because someone took the Spell you wanted. It’s an entertaining system and it works well, here.
- Ironically, giving each player a starting Artifact Alteration often makes plays feel more distinct than the player powers. I like the starting Artifact Alterations; there’s a lot to like there. Each one has something pretty fun and dynamic that changes up your starting situation. I like that as a unique component of every player’s starting engine. Would be interested to see if there are more options coming from the imminent crowdfund.
- I do like that players start with different numbers of dice and mana and that players can’t acquire more dice during the game. It incentivizes players to change up their strategy each time, though it’s gently frustrating that players can reach the effective mana cap before the game ends.
- There are a variety of different things you can go about doing (pursuing Arcana, going after big Heroics, going for small Heroics quickly), and each has its own optimization pathway, which I appreciate. Though you do need to go after Heroics at some point to win, I appreciate that there isn’t just “one good Heroic” to go after pretty regularly.
- This is one of the best-looking games I’ve played in a while. It has a sort of “dark academic” + “wizard” aesthetic to it, and the art is a nice, cool kind of realistic. The color work is particularly excellent, as well. I’m very impressed. It looks great, end-to-end.
- Aether and Earth are similar enough in color that I got them confused a few times, at first glance. They’re wildly different shapes, but for some reason I keep mistaking them for each other. Maybe if the Aether were glowier? Lighter? Not sure. Just threw me off.
- Having a random market with no way to flush the market can get a bit annoying, especially if none of the cards really work for players’ intended strategies. There’s a market staleness that can occur, especially as players transition out of buying Alteration cards and start pretty much just purely using the ones in their hands and taking spells. It would be nice to have a way to flush the random market so that new cards could still be cycling in over time, but, if you’ve read other reviews, you know this is kind of just a thing that I tend to whine about. “Oh, Eric doesn’t understand the value of intangibles so he struggles at bidding games, and he also has problems with random markets”, you’re probably saying to yourself.
- With the exception of the Arcanist, the player powers are a bit underwhelming. I just found myself not really using any of them across any of my plays, and my opponent didn’t really, either? The Arcanist popped up a bit and the Chaosmancer was handy if the dice rolls went bad, but the other roles are a bit more abstract (since they’re more about having extra Alterations). It would be nice if the roles felt a bit more significant, I suppose.
- There’s a fair bit of potential for analysis paralysis, in this one, just because players will likely need to plan their dice carefully. It’s more a problem with the players than the game if they start stalling out, but there are complicated plans that need to be made here, and these multi-level structures require care and attention to be appropriately set up.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I’ve been pretty pleasantly surprised by Mercurial! I think Mercurial carries echoes of classic engine-building games that I used to enjoy when I was first getting into board gaming (it’s hard not to compare the market style and shape to Splendor, for instance), but it adds a bit deeper complexity to make it seem fresh and exciting. I’m a dice fan, at my core, but Mercurial smartly uses the random fluctuations of dice to its advantage. There’s not luck to be accounted for as much as there are elements that you can control and wield. In a way, it’s not luck as much as it is opportunity, and there’s something to that. The game seizes its own ethos and uses that principle of opportunity manipulation as a guiding throughline for the entire narrative and play experience. Miss a draw in the market? Don’t worry; maybe a better card will come along. Bad roll? You can change the dice to be what you need, if you’ve prepared your engine to be fault-tolerant. It feels like a nice step up, because now your goal isn’t just to build an engine that can produce combos that will score you points at a high rate; it’s also that you need to have the right systems in place that even an unexpected turn of the dice can be corrected with minimal effort. I like those kinds of games, and I think Mercurial sits nicely in that space. Of course, it helps that it sits in that space with some truly impressive artwork, making the magic of Valanyr seem bright and vibrant and wild, again very consistently with the core of the game. I think my highest praise of Mercurial is, ironically, its consistency. So if you’re looking for a way to build elaborate combos and score big points, you like sticking to certain strategies and making the game work for you, or you just like magic and dice and that sort of thing, I’d recommend checking Mercurial out! I had a good time with it.
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