Reviewed by Herb Levy

MYSTIC VALE (Alderac Entertainment Group, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 45 minutes; $44.95)


mysticvaleboxOver 20 years ago, a game called Magic, the Gathering appeared (Winter 1994 Gamers Alliance Report) which introduced the idea of “trading and collectible card games”. Years later, that basic idea was taken to a new place with a game called Dominion (featured in the Winter 2009 Gamers Alliance Report) creating a genre of play called “deck building”.

With deck building, players, starting with a basic hand of cards, proceed to play them to buy more cards to increase the size of their deck (i.e. “building” their deck) making the deck more powerful which, in turn, is used to buy more cards, increasing size and strength and earning victory points. This game play mechanism has spawned a legion of offspring, some good, some indifferent and some bad.  But designer John D. Clair has added a very intriguing wrinkle to the standard deck building game. In the fantasy land that makes up Mystic Vale, players head druid clans and seek to restore the cursed lands of their domain to vitality by “card crafting”. In Mystic Vale, you do not exactly build your deck. Rather, you build the CARDS that make up your deck

Everyone starts with an identical deck of 20 cards: 9 Cursed Land, 3 Fertile Land and 8 blanks.  These are not your typical cards. ALL of them are sleeved (the game comes with 100 sleeves – 80 for immediate use and 20 extra as “back ups” is needed) and all are divided into segments: top, middle and bottom. At the start of play, only one segment (if any) will be filled on each card.

As seen on the card on the right, each Cursed Land has two symbols on it: a blue circle (representing mana, the currency of the game) and an orange tree (symbolizing decay). Fertile Land cards have only the one blue circle.  Players also receive a round mana token randomly used to determine starting player which can also serve as an extra mana if needed. A Victory Point pool (of from 23 to 33 points depending on the number of players) is placed on the side.

To amass the most Victory Points to win, the primary goal is to craft a powerful engine of cards, done by buying advancements with your mana. Cards representing advancements come in three levels (1, 2 and 3) and, generally, the higher the level the more expensive it is. Vales, another set of cards, may be bought with “spirit symbols”. These cards give added power and/or Victory Points to the players able to claim them.

All player turns consist of four phases: Planting, Harvest, Discard and Prep.

Unlike other deck builders, your deck of 20 cards remains constant; the number of cards in your deck never changes. But a player’s starting hand is not consistent. With the deck shuffled, a player will begin to draw cards, moving them from the top of his deck (his “on deck” card) to the play area in front of him (his “field”). Cards may continue to be drawn until you have drawn three orange trees. Now you have a choice.

If you decide to stop, your on deck card will be the first card in your field NEXT turn. (Nothing on it, save for the decay, will count towards what you can do this turn.) If you choose to move the on deck card with a third orange tree to your field, you MUST then draw another card. If a fourth orange tree is then drawn, you have “spoiled” and your turn is completely over. If, however, you draw another card and no orange tree is on it, you are safe. (Of course, you may continue to draw and press your luck but that is completely up to you.) If you haven’t spoiled, you may harvest (gain advancements and/or vales) and then discard (the phase where you will “craft your cards”).

There are always 9 advancements available for purchase in exchange for mana, three for each of the three levels. You will always have at least two mana to spend and possibly three as your mana token may be used as 1 mana. (If you do that, the token gets flipped over and may not be used again until and unless you spoil. In that case, the token is placed face up for reuse as a sort of “consolation prize”.) If you find yourself short on mana, there is also a separate stack of Fertile Land advancements that may be bought at a price of 2.mysticvale2

Advancements will grant the players who buy them more symbols including “spirit symbols” (the starburst one is seen on the card at the left) which can be used to buy Vale cards. There are level 1 and level 2 Vale cards, four of each, always available for purchase. Vale cards do not add to your deck (they are placed aside) but, as mentioned,  grant you extra abilities (on the turn AFTER purchase) and/or Victory Points when final scoring occurs.

Purchased advancements must be slipped into cards in a player’s field. However, a placed advancement must fit into its allotted spot when sleeved. (A “middle” advancement, for example, cannot be placed in a card where the middle spot is already filled. No covering up of spaces allowed.) Some advancements also have powers in addition to (or instead of) symbols that will generate extra mana or allow you to discard a card already in your field (which can help you avoid spoiling) or take Victory Points from the pool. As the game progresses, you may be able to play a lot of cards in one turn but, no matter how many mana or symbols you may accrue, only two advancement and two Vale purchases are allowed in any one turn.

Play continues until the pool of Victory Points is drained. At that point, the round if finished with everyone getting an equal number of turns. (If players are entitled to VPs but the pool is empty, VPs are taken from the box. No one gets shortchanged.)

With the final round concluded, players score points for all the VPs gathered from the pool plus all VPs listed on advancements on their crafted cards AND any VPs on any Vale cards in their possession (such as the six found on “Shimmering Brook”). The player with the highest final total wins!

When a game enters a genre that has been explored for so long, it’s hard to find something new. Remarkably, John D. Clair has managed to do just that. This is not the first time clear sleeves have been used (Richard Garfield used this to good effect in his Filthy Rich game featured in the Fall 1998 GA Report) but it is the first time this has been applied to the card game genre in this way. And this is what makes the game stand out.

You cannot just buy a powerful card. In Mystic Vale, you have to craft the card you want based on advancements available and the available space you have on your cards. It is a challenge that is fun but not overwhelming. Sometimes, you just can’t get to use the advancement you want because you don’t have room for it and must, regretfully, leave it to another player – which is about all the player interaction you will find here.

As with Dominion, the focus is on what YOU can do make your deck grow in power. It is true that the variety of advancements is limited and there is very little (virtually nothing) that you can do that will impact on the play of your opposition. But, as with Dominion, this doesn’t prevent you from having a terrific time in constructing your deck.  The “variety” and/or “interaction” problems (if they are problems in your view; they didn’t concern us) can be easily solved by AEG creating an expansion or two including suitable advancements with appropriate powers to inflict havoc on opponents and, with expansions (should they appear) generally being optional, players can add these extras into play or not according to taste.

It is sometimes very tempting to keep drawing cards to maximize the amount of mana to spend or symbols to use, particularly if your on deck card is rich in those icons. But your ambition (or possibly, greed) must be tempered with the understanding that should you draw that fourth decay, you have lost all ability to gather more advancements or Vales that turn. The risk is sometimes worth it however and it’s fun to try to gauge just how lucky you feel. (As mentioned, you get your mana token back if you spoil but its value lessens as one mana means more at the beginning and less when you have managed to create your mana motherload from advancements added on your cards.)

The fantasy world of Mystic Vale is enhanced by the spectacular artwork (art direction credited to Todd Rowland and artwork by a very talented crew). Because the cards take on different layouts from game to game, the “look” of  the cards and the game dynamics (shaped by the powers of specific cards in varied combinations) change, keeping the game fresh and appealing. The only graphic quibbles are that, although the different levels of advancements have small squares and different borders to help in their separation, they still can be a little hard. This also applies to the prices of the advancements which might have stood out better with a black type on white background rather than being caught up in the beautiful graphics of the cards. This might account for our games taking a bit longer than the stated 45 minutes. A big plus is the rule book, often the bane of game players, which is extraordinarily clear and filled with additional information to erase any possible confusion over the cards and what they can and cannot do.

It is always hard to come up with something new and, when something new does come around, it is good to take notice. Mystic Vale, with its “card crafting” technique, adds art to the craft of deck building which makes for something special in the deck building design universe with the potential to do even more. – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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