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What if instead of building a deck, you upgraded individual cards? This is the question put forward by fledgling designer John D. Clair in Mystic Vale. Players spend the game sliding card upgrades into sleeves, following the traditional deck-builder arc of engine-building and increasingly powerful combos. To make things interesting, Mystic Vale brings with it a push-your-luck element, similar to the traditional game Blackjack. Let's take a closer look.

The Rules, in Brief

Players take turns buying card advancements and pressing their luck. All players are competing for the largest score at the end of the game. Points come directly from purchased cards during final scoring. They are also earned through card bonuses during the game. When these in-game points are rewarded, they are drawn from a pool that, when exhausted, triggers the end of the game.

On a player's turn, they do several things:

Set up: To set up for a turn, a player must flip cards in a row until three spoil symbols are visible. Their cards will show a combination of purchasing points, spoil symbols, and special bonuses. This process actually occurs at the end of the previous turn, which reduces downtime.

Press Their Luck: At the beginning of their turn, the player may use the symbols are already present on their drawn cards. Alternatively, they may press their luck. This means flipping the next card from the deck. If four spoil symbols become visible, the player has busted, and does nothing on their turn.

Purchase advancements: Symbols on drawn cards can used to purchase advancements (which slide into the cards), or permanent upgrades (which are set aside and always active).

Mechanics: Why Mystic Vale is Innovative

If Mystic Vale has nothing else going for it, it has to get some respect for being very innovative. The game does three things really well:

Card Crafting: Plastic card advancements that can sleeve and stack to make individual cards stronger. AEG has termed this mechanic Card Crafting, which is so cool and new that I wonder if it will start its own genre like Dominion did for deck-building. This transparent mechanic is very novel, but reminiscent of card stacking in Gloom.

I feel that this clever innovation leaves a lot of room for more future exploration. Part of me would love to see what Carl Chudyk would do with ingredients like this.

Still-- as it is, Mystic Vale most definitely works, and it works well. This is mostly thanks to the intra-card interaction of the brilliant push-your-luck mechanic.

Blackjack-esque Push-your-luck: The only other time I've seen a push-your-luck mechanic in a deckbuilder has been in Flip City, which the designer credits as a source of inspiration.

The temptation to press for a bigger turn is certainly there, but I think it might shine a little more if there was player interaction. I do like that there's a small consolation prize to busting, which makes it more attractive early game.

Seeing the Future: When you do choose to push your luck, you know what you're going to get. One card is always "on-deck"-- none of the symbols on it are active except for the spoil, which will end your turn if revealed. A player pushing their luck activates their on-deck card, but risks being busted by the next one. This leaves the interesting knowledge of which card will begin your next turn, should you choose to stop.

Presentation and Theme

Mystic Vale is beautiful. The artwork is attractive without being distracting, and the fantasy theme is gorgeously illustrated on every card and advancement. It's impressive how much character is conveyed in cards that have only have 33% of the normal real estate to work with. The cardboard tokens are pleasingly thick. The durability of the cards themselves will depend on how well the designs have been printed on the plastic... but there are extra sleeves included in the event that there are defects or wear.

The theme is interesting and surprisingly cohesive for a deckbuilder. Players act as druids, attempting to stave off cursed blight. Those who enjoy a fantasy backdrop will be pleased by the names and illustrations of the cards, which actually manage to avoid some fantasy clichés.

The price point is pretty reasonable given the unusual components, coming up at a similar cost to Dominion.

Weight and Learning

This rulebook is fantastic. All edge cases are clear, and it's presented in a straightforward, clear tone. AEG even released a surprisingly sassy video that does a great job of giving a thorough overview.

The game was also fairly simple to teach, though there are enough unusual elements that timing becomes an aspect that has to be stressed.

Weight may be a different matter. While the rules are straightforward, there is a fair amount of tallying that has to be done in later stages of the game. "How much purchasing power do I have? Oh, right, my upgrade. Wait, is this spoil still active? On, no I'm good. What's my count again?" It's not a difficult ordeal, but it can be distracting-- particularly when you're also tracking how much you've spent, and what you're going to be spending it on. Players who actively dislike tallying may not enjoy this aspect of late game.

What Does it Feel Like to Play?

Players who enjoy quietly building an efficient engine are going to get the most out of Mystic Vale-- that's just how it is. The endgame condition makes considering your opponents more pressing... but ultimately, there is a very low level of player interaction.

The game is somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes, with that number increasing as player count does. Setting up for coming turns takes some of the thumb-twiddling out of waiting, and players can consider their purchasing options before their turn comes (though the cards may or may not still be available). There's an obvious caveat of filling your downtime with prep-- players will be very much in their own bubble. Sometimes it feels like it doesn't matter that anyone else is at the table.

It feels pretty awesome being able to whip out supercharged cards you built yourself, so some players may enjoy that strategy. Others may simply try to build a balanced deck. Both strategies come with their own rewards, and mean that luck-averse and pro-luck players can both enjoy the same game.

Final Thoughts

Mystic Vale is a cool experiment that works. It's so cool that I wonder if we'll see a whole genre of games like this.

At the same time, it is clearly a deckbuilder. If you enjoy deckbuilders, and are looking to try something different? You will enjoy Mystic Vale. If you never really thought deckbuilders were all that fun, Mystic Vale will not change your mind. But that doesn't mean it won't impress you nonetheless.
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Garth Boucher
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Thanks Kurt, great review.
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