Review: Mystic Vale

Mystic Vale. AEG, 2016. Designer, John Clair. Artists, Ralf Berszuck, Storn Cook, et al.

Review by Guest Meeple Kaitlyn.

Mystic Vale welcomes you to an ancient and magical world. The vale has fallen under and dark curse, its lands left barren. Each player takes on the role of a clan of druids vying to restore life and magic, to break the curse, and to win the respect of the other clans and the spirits of the vale. Nourish your fields to collect mana and spirit totems, summon creatures and guardians, and encourage growth to counter decay. At first glance, Mystic Vale may appear similar to other deck builders, but its gorgeous thematic art, symbol-controlled draw phase, and card crafting system set it apart from the rest.

Art and Game Quality

I absolutely love the theming and artwork in this game. Each vale card’s background painting is a vibrant and fantastical scene. Each advancement card type has its own art that immerses the player in a high fantasy world. The art concepts are beautiful and consistent throughout all cards in the base set and throughout the expansions as well.

The game comes with a few basic components. The vale cards are standard stock, with gloss finish. The tokens are standard cardboard pieces printed on both sides. While they are decent quality, if you enjoy this game and play it as often as I do, I highly recommend upgrading the victory point tokens to a plastic version (the tokens from Board Game Geek are awesome). The advancement cards are printed on clear plastic. They are durable and flexible. To protect them from damage during cutting and early play, the cards are covered in a thin plastic film. This film will begin to peel away from the cards as you play. I like to keep the film on for as long as possible to extend the life of the cards, but be aware that they can sometimes cause the cards to stick together – shuffle carefully. Finally, the player decks are printed on the same type and quality of card as the vale cards, which are then placed in plastic card sleeves. These sleeves last a long time, but you are constantly adding and removing advancements as you play, so the game includes extra sleeves in case they tear. Overall, the quality of the various pieces is excellent, and the base box is shaped well to hold them all in place – however, there is some sliding around of cards that may happen if you store your box vertically.

Game Mechanics and Strategy

Mystic Vale revolves around its card-crafting mechanism. It has the familiar feeling of a deck builder, using the mana icons on the cards in your field (or hand) to buy advancement cards that become part of your deck to increase buying power and victory points later in the game. But instead of adding a whole new card to your deck, you are adding your advancement to one of the existing cards, never increasing the total number beyond the original 20. I’ve found that this leads to 2 distinct card-crafting strategies: distributed deck vs. powerful cards. In the distributed deck strategy, you spread your advancements out onto as many cards as possible, so almost any card you draw will have an advancement on it. In a powerful cards strategy, you try to maximize the value of a few cards into super-cards that give you a lot of mana or spirit or even victory points whenever they appear. This method leaves you with a lot of blank cards, but that’s not so bad because blank cards don’t slow you down. Blank cards actually work in your favor when you decide to push your luck and take your on-deck card into your field. In the beginning of the game, you will have slow progress with this method – some turns you will have only 2 or three mana to spend before that super-card shows back up, but baby when it does!!!! My friends and I have tried both strategies, and we tend to succeed more often with the powerful cards strategy than with a distributed deck – plus it’s just more exciting to have a super-card!

The Cardcrafting System in action.

The cards of Mystic Vale are sprinkled with an array of symbols, but don’t worry, this is not Race for the Galaxy levels of symbol complexity. Player guides show the 9 symbols present in the game: 4 Spirit Symbols, Mana, Victory Points, Guardian Helmets, Growth, and the most critical to the mechanics, Decay. The number of cards that you play each turn in Mystic Vale is controlled directly by the Decay symbols. Sometimes you will need to push to get just the right combination of Mana and Spirit symbols to buy the Vale and advancement cards that you want, but reveal 4 Decay, and your whole turn is bust. That’s why it is dangerous to buy the heavy point cards like the Dreadcoil Cobra and the Stag which add more Decay to your deck. A critical point in the strategy of Mystic Vale is to know exactly how many Decay are present in your whole deck and how many are already in your discard. You can check your discard at any time to count the number of Decay already played. It’s also critical to balance your deck with Growth symbols and Decay-canceling abilities. If you can get the right advancements on the right cards, you might even be able to play your whole deck in a single turn. I’ve seen it done, it’s awesome!

Some of the more dangerous Advancements.

There are two types of ‘money’ in Mystic Vale: Mana and Spirit Symbols. Mana buys advancement cards and Spirit Symbols buy vale cards. You begin the game with only Mana and Decay in your deck. You must purchase the Spirit Symbol cards from the available advancements. It is possible to play the entire game without buying any vale cards. I don’t recommend that strategy. Vale cards are the largest source of victory points at the end of the game with card values up to 7 points. If the card is not worth points, it will give you a powerful ability or a permanent Growth, Mana, or Spirit Symbol. I recommend stacking your spirit symbols onto a few cards as early as you can, and you should ALWAYS buy a vale card if you can afford it on your turn. Of course, you will find your own balance between Spirit and Mana, but neglecting vale cards will cost you dearly.

Neglect Vale cards at your own peril.

My favorite symbol in the game is the Guardian Helmet. This symbol doesn’t do anything on its own, but it can be extremely powerful when combined on a card with abilities that tie to the symbol. The limitations on card placement and the luck of having the right cards in your field when the advancement you want is available make this a challenge. It takes planning and luck to get the best combinations of Guardian Helmets and abilities.

There are currently SEVEN expansions available now for Mystic Vale. Each adds its own twist on the game, and so far, I have only tried two. Conclave is the largest expansion which extends the number of players to 6 and adds several new mechanics like totem cards and night/day active phases. Conclave also comes with a large box designed to hold many of the expansions in addition to the base game. Harmony is a collection of new advancement and vale cards that can be either added to the base game or played separately. It also includes leader cards for starter decks and amulets to replace the mana tokens. I really like this expansion, especially the leader cards and the Dragon advancement cards. My one complaint with all of the Mystic Vale expansions is that there is no clear marking on the cards themselves to identify them as belonging to an expansion. This makes combining and then resorting the cards a big hassle, and it’s the only reason I have yet to play Harmony as in combination with the base game.

Final Thoughts

Mystic Vale is a gorgeously themed game with a very satisfying card-crafting and token taking system. If you haven’t figured out by now, I absolutely adore this game. It was love at first Origins demo. It can be 2-4 players, up to 6 players with the Conclave expansion. I would note, however, that at 2 players, there is a lot less competition for advancement cards, and the scores will likely be very high at the end of the game. The symbols are well designed for clarity and allow for players to develop their own unique strategy for play. The expansions add interesting twists on the mechanics in addition to new powerful cards, I just wish they were clearly marked so I could separate them from the base game. Once players are familiar with the game mechanics, play is quick, efficient and fun. And if Em and Jay will allow me, I’d like to award Mystic Vale 10/10 victory points!

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