Designed by John D. Clair
Published by AEG
2-4 players – 45 minutes
You can’t copyright a game mechanic. Unlike the tech industry, board gaming allows you to take the best parts of other designs and implement them in new clever ways, often improving on the original. And yet, there is a certain prestige that comes with being the first to popularize a feature. Games like Dominion and Pandemic are modern classics, in part by the strength of their designs and the continued support by their publishers, but also because they popularized certain genres and specific mechanics that hundreds of games can trace their lineage to. AEG’s 2016 release Mystic Vale chases that prestige through its innovative card crafting system. Though the game is structured like a deck building game, the centerpiece of the design is it’s clear upgrade cards, which are overlaid and combined in a sleeve to create powerful combinations. But innovation alone is not enough to become a classic, a game also has to be fun.
In Mystic Vale, each player is a druid tending to the wilds, aided by spells, spirits, and beasts. Players compete to gain shards, upgrades, and vales to have the most points by the end of the game. Shards are tokens produced by a variety of card effects that are simply worth points but they come from a limited pool that when emptied triggers the end of the game. Upgrades are the clear plastic cards that are added to your deck, producing valuable resources, points, or abilities when they come up in future turns. Vales are beautifully illustrated landscape cards that most often are only worth points, and exist outside of your play area, though occasionally they will aid you in some way during future turns. Both Vales and Upgrades have multiple tiers of strength and cost, with each tier shuffled into a separate stack, and a certain number are made available to purchase at a time.
Each turn, players put into play cards from the top of their deck until a third corruption symbol is visible. The card containing the third symbol will be placed face up on top of their deck, conveniently referred to in the game as your “on deck” card. Only the resource production and abilities of cards in your field (not on deck) will be resolved, but there is a push your luck element. If you want your on deck card to be part of your field, gaining it’s effects and resources, you can “push” and move it into play and reveal the next card of your deck. If you ever show a fourth corruption symbol between your on deck and field cards, you spoil (bust) and your turn is over. There is a slight consolation to spoiling, in that you will reactivate a token that can be spent for one additional money on a future turn. From there, the rest of your turn consists of resolving any abilities on your cards, then spending your money to buy upgrades and magic to buy vales. Upgrades are slotted into cards currently in play as you discard them, vales are put to the side, then you begin setting up your play field as your opponent begins their next turn. As with almost all deck building games, if you run out of cards to draw, your discard pile is shuffled together to recreate your deck, which now contains the upgrades you purchased on previous rounds.
Visually, the game looks really great on the table. The clear cards are interesting, the vales are vibrant, and the card backs have some really incredible designs. I’m not kidding, I’m stunned by how beautiful the card backs to the player cards and vales are, which is in stark contrast to how drab the blank spaces on your cards are. When you end up with a horde of cards in front of you, and most of them are the same generic pale green, it detracts from how cool the rest of the game looks. Fortunately the empty spaces become less and less as you go on. Unfortunately, most of the upgrades and the setting as a whole feels like an abandoned pitch for a Magic: The Gathering expansion. Quickly you will stop looking at the artwork as it provides absolutely no thematic connection to what the card does, and you will begin seeing your deck as a collection of resources. This may be familiar to fans of the deck building genre, but in a game with an interesting theme in concept, the implementation could have been done much more skillfully. In spite of the game being all about living things, nothing about the game feels alive.
I have really mixed feelings about Mystic Vale. The concept of the game is solid and the card crafting system is intuitive and fun, but the trappings are clunky and it lacks the elegance that I was hoping for. As you shuffle your cards together it’s nearly impossible to ignore that certain cards are thicker and heavier, alerting you to your most powerful cards. The push and spoil systems are interesting at first, but it can lead to explosive turns with 10 or more cards in front of you, which you will have to count and resolve several different resource types, abilities, and effects. There is an inconsistency to these huge turns as well, so you may be deciding on what course to take for two or three minutes, while your opponent watches, already aware that their meager turn will last about 10 seconds with virtually no resources. It feels unpredictable, and almost always in a bad way.
The upgrade and vale cards are mixed bags as well. As I said earlier, I really like the feeling of power that comes as you customize each card and see it enter rotation again. The upgrades each take up a third of the card’s real estate, so it can fill in empty top, middle, or bottom sections on your sleeved deck card, making for some very powerful combinations. But because the cards are revealed from randomized decks for each tier, certain upgrades you want won’t fit right on your cards this round, or you will decide to buy upgrades that aren’t optimal only to see what you really wanted flip up so that your opponent can purchase it. You are still making meaningful choices in the game, but I wish there were ways to cycle cards in the store more frequently, allowing you to attempt different strategies and combos thoughtfully, rather than taking only the best of what you can get.
This leads to the biggest problem with Mystic Vale; it is really easy to establish a runaway leader. Every game I’ve played has had a significant disparity between first place and everyone else. Without player interactivity to knock them down or some sort of rubber banding to catch back up, it is pretty obvious who is going to win by the last third of the game. I’m hoping in more plays that more subtle strategic decisions become apparent that can balance out the game more, but this will be the most significant deciding factor I have in whether I keep this game in my collection or not. Fortunately, the game moves pretty quick, and whether you are receiving optimal cards or not, you always have the substantial joy that comes from optimizing your deck, witnessing it grow more and more powerful with each turn.
I don’t hate Mystic Vale, in fact, I actually look forward to playing again and experimenting with different approaches to see if it changes up the game a bit. But it is a clunky, uneven experience and while the card crafting system is novel, here the implementation lacks depth. I can’t help but feel that a second edition of Mystic Vale, one with a bit more player agency and interactivity could round this out to an excellent product. But with money, space, and time being such a limiting factor for most players, I’d wait till someone else does it better. After all, you can’t copyright a game mechanic.