Type: Deck Building / Card Building

Time to play: 30 – 40 minutes per game (Teaching: 5 – 10 minutes)

Best played with: 2-4 players (Best with 2)

If deck building is now a well trodden path, then card building is that additional step that makes Mystic Vale a differentiated playing experience. What is card building? Well in this game you will buy modifications for the cards in your deck – the very cards you drew this round will change forever – with more powerful abilities but also perhaps new limitations and challenges.

Mystic Vale has two to four plays start the game with identical decks of mana and cursed land – building their decks for various ways to score points in order to outscore the others when the game end is reached. Game end is triggered by the pool of points from the start running out – so it’s in the players’ powers to push for or delay this end game.

During each turn you will deal out your deck until you reveal three red trees on the cards. Most of the cards will go into your “field” and can be used for that round; the last card revealed will sit on the top of the deck – normally this includes the last red tree revealed. Now you can keep dealing, but if you hit a fourth red tree you discard all your cards and “spoil” the “field”. Basically, there’s a push your luck every single turn!

Now, what are you pushing your luck for? More and more mana. The more mana the more / better card upgrades you can buy. Each turn you can buy upgrades and slot them in to any of the cards in play that round. These upgrades offer points per round, points at the end, or perhaps just more mana! Keep turning the deck over, keep getting better upgrades and  build a deck that can gain you the most points by the time the game runs out.

It’s an exciting development of the deck building game and this is the first time I have played a game with such a mechanic (although it does look like HATE from CMON will have this too!). What more then to say about this game?! Well firstly, it’s got some variation to it – there’s a lot of card upgrades from the ever present extra mana upgrades to the complex third level upgrades with very powerful attributes. Within these upgrades there are a decent number of different strategies, and each game will play quite differently.

There is also an interesting addition to these core mechanics – Vale Cards. Powerful ever acting cards which offer more benefits, more combinations and even more set up variability. I am not sure these add lots to the game, but I am a big fan of set up variability to avoid each game playing out the same. To me, this is better than input luck each turn, and much better than the output luck of many war games.

Now, I particularly like this game at the 2 player count. It works at every level, and the down time as the game scales is limited by the ability for each player to prepare their next turn while others play. However, at two players this is a tactical cauldron of pushing for the end game, card counting and watching every choice your opponent makes. At 3 or 4 players its just much harder to watch your opponents closely, or to avoid that feeling that other players can crowd you out of your strategy. For me this crowding out is a valid but frustrating mechanic – playing a game where all players launch their strategies but there will be that one player for whom the timing of cards, the cards left by other players will simply fall better. Again, this is not a flaw in the mechanic it is just not my preferred mechanics.

There’s one other slightly frustrating point – packing this game up at the end of the night is a pain! It’s only a 5-10 minute job, but you did need to unsleeve a lot of card upgrades and it’s very easy to miss one and not see it until the next game. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s enough to keep it on the shelf when you recall that 10% of the game is taking the game apart at the end.

Okay, so where does that leave me on balance… well I would say this is an innovative game with good variability but just slightly short of a recommendation. It’s fun, you should try it. However, to go one step further and seek out this game well I think you would have to have the patience to bring it to the table more! Now, this game has two expansion and I have played the first only – I won’t say much on it (that’s a separate review) but it’s enough to say that the added tactics and variability bring a lot to the game and have helped me bring this one back more!

Last notes;

  • If you like card games with a fast pace, and want to combine push your luck and card building – this is where to go!
  • If you want to have the satisfaction of building out a map or conquering a complex engine, I would suggest going to a heavier game
  • If you win, try again with a different starting set up and see if there’s another strategy that works!