Mystic Vale I've had my eye on for a while since hearing of its unique "Card Crafting System". A device which functions similarly to deck building except instead of adding more cards to a deck, you add more abilities to the cards within your deck. So the deck never changes size but each card you have gets more powerful and more interesting. That just sounds cool full stop and naturally it was a must to get this one played and reviewed. I don't expect greatness straight out the door for a new idea, but let's see if it has a solid introduction with room to expand.
Designer: John D Clair
Time: 60-90 min
From the AEG website:
Batteries Not Included, But Sleeves Are
In Mystic Vale you have to acquire upgrades in the form of plastic sheets that you sleeve literally into your deck. Therefore the first point of call is component quality as there is plenty to go wrong here. AEG supply 100 sleeves in the box (if only every publisher did this #dreaming) designed to cover four starter decks with 20 cards each and provide spares just in case. Nice touch adding spares as we all know how fickle some sleeves are. They about the same kind of consistency as a typical premium level sleeve that you would get from Mayday so they're pretty sturdy and so far I've had no tearing problems even with fully packed upgrades. You'll be pleased to know as well that AEG didn't forget to ensure that the box could store all cards with sleeves with room for future expansion.
The upgrades themselves are on plastic sheets with the abilities shown on either the top, middle or bottom row of the card. This means you can add up to three of these to any blank card in your deck. Each one slots into the sleeve fairly effortlessly though you will notice a slight bulk to the card when shuffling your deck so it's not too difficult to tell them apart. I recommend emptying your mind like you're in the Matrix or something when shuffling
Players have complained about the protective cellophane covers on the upgrades, but personally I don't see a big deal with them. Some of them do show their "dog ears" early, but you just peel those ones off and all is well. I peeled off 5 in total after organizing the contents, that's not bad. The rules say you can happily go ahead and peel them all off if you like, but I'm just going to leave mine on for as long as they last and be content with that.
The artwork is just sublime wherever you look. Not one colour on the palette is left out and everything is bright and gorgeous. There is one downside though. The Vale cards which you can purchase for points have a nice large picture on them, full blown and naturally gorgeous. The upgrade cards however have the pictures and abilities squeezed into one single row on the card (3 rows per card). This means that even though the art is great, you have to make a bit of effort with your eyes to appreciate it all. I realise of course that this is necessary for the game to function, but I almost feel bad for the artist! They are a little easier to read in the main rulebook and it provides detailed rules for each card (though they're pretty self explanatory really) as a nice little aid.
A Glossy Painting Over A Blank Canvas
First and foremost, be aware that the theme is a pasted on affair here. The cards all relate to some form of druidic lore or form of nature and the terminology for your tableau is a "field", but this could have been any theme you chose and so make sure you go in knowing that you're playing Mystic Vale for the mechanics, not the theme even though it's one hell of a beautiful paint job.
However the mechanics are what make Mystic Vale what it is. It's predominantly an engine building game where much like a typical deck builder you want to be as efficient as you can and generate the most lucrative turns possible. But there's something to be said about the difference in feel of simply adding a card into a ever-growing deck and sleeving the upgrades into your physical deck itself, it's really cool when you do it. Plus this means that your deck never increases in size, you start off with 20 cards and it will forever stay at 20 cards, which is handy given their size, but you know how annoying it gets to maintain and shuffle decks when they get too large.
This allows you to be a little more creative with how you design your cards. You know you're going to cycle through those 20 cards often, but do you speed that up even more with abilities? Do you opt for excess mana generation to purchase cool cards or do you prefer to avoid spoiling as much as possible? The Vale cards are a nice means to score more points but as I found out in my last game you can even avoid them entirely, instead gaining your points from the upgrades themselves both from end-of-game points and "when played" points that generate every time you play the card from the deck. There's a surprising amount of choices for what strategy to go for and this is influenced by what upgrades are available in general.
Sadly aside from having something bought before you can get hold of it, there are no methods whatsoever in which you can influence the other players. Mystic Vale is multiplayer solitaire, which is not unlike most engine building games to be fair, but I would have liked to have seen a little more interaction in the cards. Wouldn't it have been weird to have abilities that actually swapped upgrades between players?
There is also the feeling that everything feels a little . . . . vanilla. The abilities are different, but not the most exciting around. Despite a small amount of variation in the first tier deck, everything else is included in every game so you're going to see the same stuff appear again and again. It's not quite the "tremendous replay value" that AEG quotes on the website. Even base Dominion offered some degree of variety in its base box.
So I get the uneasy feeling that you'll enjoy it for a short while, but eventually it will lose its momentum. It will need to be updated with expansions (one planned for October already) and then it will gain some life back, but I fear it will get over-shadowed by future titles that use this system. Edge of Darkness by the same designer is already looking to fulfill that role. It's like Mystic Vale is saying "look at my new design, isn't it cool?" and we're saying "yeah it is, but what else can it do?".
Verdict on Mystic Vale
Mystic Vale is a milestone in innovation, that much has to be acknowledged here. This idea of literally building the cards themselves has never been done before and its implementation which is by no means perfect is still handled very well in this game. It doesn't feel like a gimmick and it makes the imagination run wild with how future games that utilise this system could turn out like as it develops in the long run.
Now Mystic Vale is at that upper level of the gateway game genre with the options it provides you in card design, but the rules themselves are pretty straightforward. You'll be quickly into your first game and keen to try different strategies in future iterations. It is however a multiplayer solitaire affair, the interaction with other players is non-existent, less so than even dry deck builders like Dominion and as such it may prove to feel very vanilla in nature.
It's an engine building game through and through so don't expect a ton of exciting moments or tense finishes. But it's one that sparks creativity as you piece together your ultimate card. The variety isn't quite there yet but with expansions I think this can grow from an OK game to a great game. The question is whether you will stick around that long, I probably will though. Mystic Vale has some room for improvement but it's a solid genesis of a cool new system.
YOU WILL LIKE MYSTIC VALE IF:
You want a fun twist on deck building games.
You want an alternative gateway level game to teach engine building mechanics.
You love the artwork and visual appeal of the setting used here.
YOU WILL NOT LIKE MYSTIC VALE IF:
You want a thematic deck builder - it's engine building through and through.
You're not comfortable with multiplayer solitaire - at 4 players it overstays its welcome.
Your eyesight isn't perfect - the upgrade cards being split into 3 rows does affect readability.