Mystic Vale and Vale of Magic
by Maria Godfrey
Publisher: AEG Designer: John D. Clair Art Direction: Todd Rowland
Game Type: Card-crafting
Theme and What is it?
In Mystic Vale, players act as druids who are attempting to cleanse the Valley of Life of a curse which has been placed upon it. They use their powers to fight the decay of the curse, rescue the spirits and restore balance. Mystic Vale uses the card-crafting mechanism, whereby rather than acquire new cards, players buy advancements to develop the 20 cards they have at the start of the game. They can then use these more powerful cards to acquire new advancements, or Vale cards.
I first played a demo of this game at the UK Games Expo in June 2016, prior to its release. The premise of the game itself was really appealing, and I was excited to try. It reminded me of Gloom, which uses the same mechanism of overlaying transparent cards to build up effects, which I had enjoyed in Gloom, but without the story-telling element, which is not something I enjoy in games at all. So in theory it should have been a success. However, on playing the demo, I wasn't as impressed as I'd expected to be, and left feeling a little flat. I decided it was something I'd still like to try again at a later date, but wasn't in a hurry to acquire.
Each player starts with the same 20 cards as a starting deck. Some cards have existing abilities, while others are completely blank. Cards can contain a variety of symbols. In the starting deck, symbols will be either blue mana symbols, or red decay symbols.
In setup, each player begins by placing cards face-up into their field. They continue doing so until three red decay symbols are visible. Once the card containing the third symbol has been revealed, it is placed face up on to the top of the deck, rather than in the field. This is called the on-deck card, and is unusable unless it is placed in the field.
In each turn, there are four phases. Players begin with the Planting Phase, where they must decide whether to continue placing cards into their field in order to reveal more mana symbols. These mana symbols are used to purchase advancements, so are necessary to build up more powerful cards. If players decide to push, the on-deck card is moved into the field, and the new top card of the deck is turned face up to become the new on-deck card. If it does not contain a red decay symbol, players can either decide to pass, or continue pushing and taking new cards into their field. However, as soon as a fourth decay symbol is revealed, the player Spoils, and their turn ends immediately.
If a player passes before a fourth decay symbol is revealed, they then move onto the Harvest Phase. In this phase, players can count up their mana symbols found in their field, and use them to purchase a maximum of two advancements. Advancements come in three levels, with level 1 advancements being cheaper to purchase, and level 3 advancements being the most expensive. Players can also purchase Fertile Soil cards for a standard 2 mana, giving players access to more mana symbols in future turns. Any cards in the field which contain Harvest abilities or victory points are also activated now, and if cards have been played which contain spirit symbols, a maximum of two Vale cards can also be purchased, for the required cost. Vale cards can generate end-game victory points, or abilities which can be used at various phases.
The third phase is the Discard Phase - any advancements which have been purchased are sleeved into cards currently in the player's field, and then all cards in the field are sent to the player's discard pile. Advancement and Vale cards are replenished. Players then move onto the final Prep Phase, where they create a new field, as in the setup.
Game end occurs once the central supply of victory point tokens has been exhausted (number of tokens in this supply changes according to how many players there are). After everyone has taken their final turn, players total up their victory point tokens, as well as victory points gained from Vale cards or advancement cards.
Quality of Components and Insert
The quality of the components in this game are quite high, as it may have come to be expected from AEG. Each of the player decks comes with transparent sleeves, including spares, allowing the advancements to be slotted in easily. The insert has spaces which allow player decks, advancements and Vale cards to be stored separately, making setup and takedown time much quicker. Moreover, there is ample room left in the insert for expansions to be added easily.
The manual is excellent - very clearly set out, with detailed explanations of the various cards used in the game. Player aids are also a useful addition, detailing both the phases of each turn on one side, and the symbols located on the cards and their respective meanings on the other.
One of the most pleasing things about Mystic Vale is the artwork on the advancements and Vale cards, which is simply beautiful in places. The fantasy theme fits in well with the artistic style, and there is some lovely use of bright, vibrant colours on the advancements. It's a shame, then, that once cards are constructed, the artwork is intended to be hidden - when cards are laid out in the field, they are laid on top of each other with only the symbols/abilities on the far left protruding as these are the only elements relevant to the game
One of the most enjoyable elements of this game for me was crafting my own cards. Players are constantly faced with decisions about how to go about this task - is it better to have all twenty of your cards with one ability each, or to build up a handful of really powerful cards which will give you massive spending power/abilities, especially if they are all in your field at once? The nature of the card-crafting element means that each player can decide on their own strategy and follow it as far as they wish. In addition, part of the appeal lies in building up not only powerful cards, but good-looking ones as well - not difficult, given the quality of the artwork.
The push-your-luck factor is also one that I think works incredibly well - the temptation is always just to go for one more card to allow you to access the level 3 advancements, and many a game will no doubt be lost because of spoiling brought on by this.
Difficulty and age range suggestion
The game itself is actually fairly simple, and may well be accessible for slightly younger children than the suggested rating of 14+. We would definitely consider playing this with our nine-year-old. However, it is likely that younger players may miss some of the subtleties of how to craft the cards in the most effective way. Some of the cards also contain small text which explain the abilities, another factor which may be missed by younger players.
Vale of Magic Expansion
The Vale of Magic Expansion adds no new mechanisms at all to the gameplay; it merely introduces 54 new advancements, and 18 new vale cards. In my opinion, this gives the game exactly what it needs - instant increase in variation. One of the frequent criticisms of the base game is that it becomes stagnant quite quickly, and I would agree with this. However, adding so many new cards into the game gives it a boost straightaway, as well as much more replayability. In my eyes this is the perfect kind of expansion - one which doesn't require players to learn a whole new set of rules, but makes a huge difference to players' enjoyment of the game.
Easily my favourite thing about this game is the card-crafting. I love the system of laying transparent cards over one another to design your own cards, and there is very little that is more satisfying than finding all of your strong cards in your field at once! The artwork is a huge asset as well - for me it's approaching the likes of Dixit and Mysterium (art by the amazing Marie Cardouat). I also appreciate the fact that you are in control of the majority of what happens in this game - you can create cards which fit in with the strategy that you choose, and you always have the ability to harvest and gain something for your efforts. Having said that, the push-your-luck path is a compelling one to follow, especially if you know you have stronger cards in your deck which haven't made an appearance yet.
In terms of playing the base game, I did feel it was a more positive experience that the first time I tried it. The main complaint would be the fact that after a while there is too little variation or replayability due to the available cards. However, The Vale of Magic has provided a solution to this by introducing so many new cards, making the game more substantial, while still leaving room for more expansions further down the line.
While I am a big fan of the artwork here, I am not sure of the overall theme of this game. It wasn't instantly obvious to me what role the players were taking on, what the actions represented or what we were actually aiming to achieve - the first few games were played primarily by following the player aids and carrying out the instructions. And to be honest, that was enough for me - I liked the gameplay. The theme is heavily secondary to the gameplay here, so those who are looking for a strongly thematic game will probably be somewhat disappointed in that respect.
Ultimately, Mystic Vale is a solid game, but for me it's one which needs at least one expansion to give it any sense of longevity.
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