Board Game Review: Mystic Vale

It must be tricky to come up with new ways to entertain gamers, but in Mystic Vale developers AEG have come up with a very interesting and unique feeling concept which, while not being a brand new idea, is certainly novel in terms of just how high quality the idea is used. The concept itself? Card crafting.

Behaving much like a simple deck building game, the idea of card crafting is pretty clever. Instead of steadily increasing the number of cards you have in your hand throughout the game you start with 20, play through the game with 20, and end with 20. Clearly not a deck builder then, but when you start many of these cards (which you pop into a clear plastic sleeve before your first game) are blank, and others are no more than one third complete. What you do throughout the game then is not build your deck, but build your cards up, all under the guise of being a druid and making a fancy garden, or something. The plot is a bit feeble and gets lost in the game to be honest, but that’s not what you’ll be thinking about anyway so it’s not a huge problem.

Instead, on each turn you’ll be turning your cards over one at a time, trying not to “spoil” your turn by revealing more than three red decay icons on your cards. If you do, it’s the end of your turn and you’ve lost the chance of using those cards for anything useful. Boooo. Stop in time though and you’ll get Mana, the currency used to purchase additions to your cards (called “Advancements”) which are laid out in the middle of the table. These cards, which are clear apart from one segment, can be bought for the Mana you have available and slot into a card of your choice from those you’ve turned over. Over time you’ll end up having some complete cards, those with all three segments in use which have potential to be very powerful and earn you plenty of victory points, giving you more chance to win. Once you’ve turned through all twenty cards, they’re shuffled and become your draw deck again, whereby you can start turning them over one by one again. You can also buy Vale cards which use Spirit symbols to purchase them, and while you won’t get those until you’ve got a few Advancements they can provide some very handy extra abilities throughout the rest of the game. The artwork on these is also incredibly beautiful, so it’s worth grabbing a couple just to gaze lovingly at them.

There are a few more rules to consider when you’re playing, but for the purposes of explaining why I like Mystic Vale so much, that’s as much as you need to know. The key thing here is that you’re building up your cards in the way that you want. You can buy some expensive Advancements and try to create one or two ultra-strong cards, but chances are they’ll come with spoil points too which make it very risky to work through your deck in the hope to get that card without ruining your turn. Doing this will also mean neglecting your other cards, so you might not be able to buy some of the Advancements for your other cards, leaving them sat there ready to just spoil your future turns.

The other thing that I didn’t think I’d like but actually really enjoyed is that you’re not necessarily competing directly with other players. You’re obviously trying to get more victory points than the other players, but you’re not doing anything especially to spite them, or steal anything from their hand. It very much feels like a collective solo game whereby the only things than another player can do to mess up your game is buy one of the Advancements that you had your eye on. That sounds like it could be pretty boring and pointless, but it actually helps the game to move more rapidly. While other players are taking their turns you can be dealing out your next “field” ready for your turn, meaning that once play gets back to you you’re ready to buy whichever cards you choose. It’s often nice to watch others turning out their cards though – one greedy move and a potentially great move can crumble in a second – so as a group you might choose to play slightly slower and enjoy a different aspect of the game. It works well both ways.

It’s also worth noting that Mystic Vale works really well as a two player game too. Less victory points are up for grabs in a smaller game (the game ends once they’ve all been claimed) so it doesn’t take longer just because of having less players to get through the tokens, and it’s a really nice game for a chilled evening where you don’t want something too heavy.

My only gripe though is that while the cards are great there just aren’t enough variations in terms of the Advancements on offer. Play the game a few times and you’re starting to get through a lot of what there is to see; good news through comes in the form of a quickly released expansion, hopefully arriving next month and bringing with it a pile of new cards for you to start combining together to form some truly brilliant new combinations – it’s called Vale Magic, so that’s one to keep an eye on.

Generally though, this is a great game with a fantastic playing mechanism which will give you something totally different to think about instead of the usual deck building methods. We’ll keep our eyes peeled for future expansions to spice things up a bit, but if AEG release anything else with this card building style, I’ll be leaping at it.

Mystic Vale
Available Now, RRP £41.99
Find your local stockist here

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