Mystic Vale: Extreme Gardening
I have been called a gardener once or twice… actually come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it was preceded by the word “uphill”. Oh well, never mind. With this in mind I caught wind (yes, that was intentional) of Mystic Vale and had my curiosity tickled. Don’t you hate it when you’re minding your own business and then somebody just drops a curse on your livelihood to make everything horrible? Happens all the time I know. In a nutshell, someone was dying and got miffed that the druids of the land wouldn’t help him so laid a curse upon them. Nice! Just like something straight out of Scooby Doo. *SPOILER* It wasn’t creepy old Jones who owned the amusement park that laid the curse.
It’s deck building Jim, but not as we know it
The idea of Mystic Vale is that up to 4 people have to duke it out be the friendly druid to eradicate the nastiness and rid the titular Mystic Vale of it’s curse. Sounds easy right? Wrong. And here’s why:
Deck building is quickly becoming one of the most popular gaming mechanics in the hobby, and there is a veritable wealth of different deck building games to choose from. There are innovations in all genres of board gaming quite frequently now it seems, and Mystic Vale seems to have exploited a niche (that no-one knew was there) and made something quite special. Unlike all other deck builders, Mystic Vale has made their cards transparent and given you the opportunity to “card craft”. It means that instead of buying more powerful cards and hoping that they come up in your hand, you can add them to other cards to have super high powered “normal” cards. Each of you will start off with a deck of 20 oversized (approximately Tarot sized) cards. Within this deck are 3 fertile soil cards, 9 cursed land cards and 8 blank cards.
This is the first point at which Mystic Vale separates itself from normal deck building tropes. To build a hand that you can use on your turn you need to keep drawing cards until you can see 3 spoil icons on your cards. This means that you can draw a set amount of fertile soil cards (these give you mana which you can use to purchase other cards) but if you feel you don’t have enough you can push your luck and keep drawing until you have what you need. The only problem with that is, that if you draw or have visibility of a 4th spoil token then your “field” (hand) is spoiled and you lose everything. This is something that I have never seen in a deck builder before and can make or break a turn. Whilst my luck is generally pretty average, I have seen someone go through virtually their entire deck and pull all of the mana without getting any spoil symbols which is a sight to behold! Mysticism at work I think (as a point of interest I have since been trying to find out if they weigh the same as a duck… witchcraft and treachery!).
This Marketplace is for common folk…
Another thing which separates Mystic Vale from other games is “The Commons” or the marketplace if you prefer. There are 9 cards available to purchase at all times and as per normal once one card is purchased it’s instantly replace with another. However, whilst the draw is random to a point, they are separated into 3 piles in the beginning and are set up in level 1, 2 and 3 cards. With the different levels go different levels of expense but also bigger benefits. It means that if you have a great round and manage to draw 9 or 10 mana points then you can afford to buy a level 3 advancement which is always worth the price. However, with a lot of the higher level advancements you also are stuck with cards that have additional spoil symbols on them too.
Deep Druidic Decisions
Once you have purchased these advancements then you have the choice of whether to add them to one of your blank cards or one of your other cards. Since there’s an abundance of spoil symbols, do you add a card which gives you mana to it to ensure that you always have extra mana, or do you add it to a blank card to ensure it’s likely to come out of the deck more? You can even get growth symbols on advancement cards which negate a spoil symbol. Do you add it to a spoil card or to another one in the hope that it comes out of the deck at an opportune moment. These are truly difficult decisions!
In training for my second game I took a small trip to Stone Henge, stole someones bed sheet, dressed in said bed sheet, sacrificed a chicken, laid on a ley line and asked nicely for another win. Sadly, it didn’t work and I had my druid prepared behind handed to me.
All hail The Vale
During the setup of Mystic Vale, you also have (Mystic?) Vale cards available to “purchase” from the beginning. Some of the cards you can purchase have additional symbols on them such as the guardian symbol (which looks like Leonidas’ helmet. Henceforth known to me as the 300 symbol), and spirit symbols including a bear paw and some purple squiggly line which likely has some deep druidic meaning…. maybe. Once you have a certain collection of these, you can use them to purchase the vale cards. These can be used as one off bonus cards or entire game bonuses depending on the card so you can try and build a winning strategy around this if you’re so inclined. Most of the vale cards I have seen have victory points on them but some of the level 2 vale cards have things which cancel out spoil symbols or give you a permanent mana bonus. These can be game changers if you manage to get them at most opportune moments and can really mess with your fellow players if you’re so inclined.
Steeped in Strategy
Generally, I’m not the kind of guy which is good at planning… I live by the seat of my pants a lot of time time; OK, maybe not but that’s the excuse I am using for the holes in them.
However, Mystic Vale does tend to be quite rewarding if you decide on a plan and stick to it though. A lot of which (garden) path to choose is down to what the market comes out with within the first few hands, but if you decide to store up as much mana as physically possible and then hoard all of the high powered cards to get VP, then you can win. Or, you could aim to try and get as many 300 symbol laden cards as possible and try and get a card which awards VP for these. Or, you can play the long game and try to get as many different vale symbol cards and and hoard the post game scoring vale cards and see if you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat while upsetting the other players in the process. Mystic Vale is definitely a game which will appeal to different strategists and also people which win on a wing and a prayer (me).
The Magical Mystery… Bore?
Mystic Vale is a game of innovation. They’re doing something for deck building which has never been done before. They’re breaking new ground and trying new things and I have to give Mystic Vale a commendation for that. BUT, having played it a few times I can’t actually say for certain that I have enjoyed it enough to keep playing it.
I have to give Mystic Vale some respect for the theme; it’s something which I have never seen before, but this is probably the first thing that let it down for me. With other deck building games there is a sense of emotional investment into it. In Cthulhu Realms you feel like you need to build a decent deck to stop you from being made crazy while simultaneously making the other person lose their sanity (this isn’t just metaphorical for people that play with me). In Legendary Alien you have to build a decent hand to ensure that you’re not going to get facehugged and then eventually destroyed by a Xenomorph and you feel the pressure because of that. With Mystic Vale…. well, whilst it is a little deeper than it sounds, you’re gardening. Unless you’re a botanist or a gardener by trade then there’s no emotional attachment and it feels a little bit empty. When my wife played for the first time she struggled to see the point of playing it down to that exact reason; she wasn’t invested in it. But, there is something captivating about it. If you completely ignore the theme, there is fun to be had if you’re in it solely to win it and don’t care about the why.
However, I cannot be all doom and gloom about Mystic Vale. Because AEG are pushing boundaries, they did do a couple of things right. Being able to craft your cards for your own deck is a fantastic premise, and one that is full of promise for the future so long as they can do something else with it. I was trying to think of other themes that they could apply it to, but struggled to come up with something original. I suppose that’s why I review games instead of developing them! Also, I really like the push your luck mechanic enabling each hand to be as good as you’re willing to push for it to be. It is a fantastic mechanism and I have born the brunt of someone with inhuman amounts of luck pulling out 17 mana in one turn and proceeding to buy everything useful out of the market before I got another turn. Despite being excessively annoying, it was truly a joy to see.
The strange thing that I have noticed in my plays of Mystic Vale so far is that even if there is an alpha player and someone is running away with the game, every single player tends to have one absolutely decimating round. I think this could be down to the fact that the cards get crafted and then pulled out at opportune times but I think it’s a little more philosophical than that. In the immortal words of Confucius *not actually from Confucius* “Oooh, you jammy little so and so!”.
I think that Mystic Vale is something unique and I am very glad that AEG are trying new things. I think that if they can find something more engaging to do with the card crafting system then it will be infinitely better, but I’m not holding this against them. I feel like Mystic Vale is the stepping stone to something much bigger and better and I am really pleased that I have had a go and have been able to form my own view of it as I feel like I have tried something ground breaking but not quite there yet. I will definitely be keeping an eye on the card crafting system going forward and hope something a little more exciting can become of it.
If you think that Mystic Vale could be for you then you can check it out here:
For more information about it you can have a look at the listing on BGG here:
To find out some more information from AEG and what they’re up to you can check their website here:
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I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.