Board games have developed and changed a lot in the last few decades. A major factor in the development has been sheer numbers. The growth of the industry can be measured exponentially, and with that growth comes variety. There aren’t just more games than there used to be. There are more kinds of games.
A massively popular new kind of game is the deck builder. Deck building games, unlike many board games, are not about moving pieces around a board. Instead, they’re about taking a basic deck of custom cards and using it to accomplish a set of goals. One of those goals is acquiring new cards to add to your deck. As you play your deck runs out, allowing you to shuffle your used cards and the new cards you’ve acquired and begin anew. You draw cards from your deck again, but this time there are new cards that’re even better.
This process repeats itself over and over again through the game. Most deck building games are designed to make players shuffle their decks on turns one or two, to get the ball rolling early. It’s a fun and innovative concept, forcing the players to think on two different levels. They have to be aware of how their deck is developing and what they need to make it work. They also need to stay aware of the larger scale of the game, not losing sight of the big picture.
Enter Mystic Vale, a new game by developers AEG. In Mystic Vale you play as a druid, using your powers to cultivate and nourish the… well… the Mystic Vale. Darkness has overcome the land, forcing you to nurture it, regrowing it into a thriving oasis of life.
At this point savvy readers are likely expecting me to say that Mystic Vale is a deck building game. Well such readers would be wrong. It is not a deck building game. Mystic Vale is the first of its kind, using a unique new mechanic and branding itself as a CCS, or card crafting system.
All the players in Mystic Vale begin the game with a deck of twenty cards. Each deck is identical and begins with relatively basic functions. Over the course of the game they will add to the decks and shape them to enhance their ability to play. So far, so familiar.
The difference is, in this game you don’t actually add any cards to your deck. Instead, you change the cads that are already there. Cards in Mystic Vale are big, though still small enough to fit comfortably in your hand. The game provides you with plenty of clear plastic sleeves to slide the cards into.
The thing is, each card is divided into three sections. All of the cards in your starting deck have at most one section filled in already, with the other two being blank. Some cards don’t even have one section filled in at the beginning; they’re entirely blank.
The game has a large collection of inserts the same size as the cards. They’re completely transparent except for on one of the three sections, which has some rules or resources. These resources can be bought during your turn. and at the end of your turn you take them and slide them into the cards you played that turn. In essence you add new text and abilities to the cards you already have.
Playing the game itself is fairly straightforward. The goal is to have the most crystals (read, victory points) at the end of the game. To do that you want to acquire inserts and purchase land. There are two resource types in the game, mana and spirit energy, which you use to buy things.
On your turn you take cards from the top of your deck and reveal them one. When you reveal a card, you first put it “on deck”, revealing it but not putting it into play. Then you move it into play and reveal the next one. You repeat this until you have two decay symbols on cards in play and a decay symbol on your card on deck. You then use the resources and abilities on the cards you have in play to purchase things. At the end of the turn all cards in play are discarded.
Simple enough. Where it gets interesting is the when you use the push mechanic. When you push you take the card you have on deck and put it into play, moving the next card into the on deck position. In essence this gives you more resources, which is great.
However, if the next card on deck raises your total number of decay symbols to four or greater, you spoil. Spoiling loses you your entire turn and can set you way behind.
It’s an interesting and exciting mechanic. It forces you to constantly balance getting more resources to use and the risk of losing your turn. I like it, it’s fun and tense, and it’s probably my favorite thing about the game.
So, description of the game aside, how does it actually play? Is it actually fun? Does the CCS mechanic add something meaningful to the game?
I’ll address that third one first. In a word, no. The card crafting system doesn’t add something meaningful to the game. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong. But at it’s core, it’s just a reskinning of the same deck building mechanic. If anything, it loses points for being more frustrating to set up and take down.
Don’t get me wrong, the mechanic is fun. But the game doesn’t really do anything with it. It happens, and then you move on. Some inserts interact with others, allowing a certain strategic element to how you design the cards in your deck.
The problem is the options you get are incredibly random. There are clear themes of inserts in the game. Some provide minimal resources but make it harder to spoil, while others do the opposite. Some provide a huge payoff if you attach them to the right cards. But these themes are randomly mixed in amongst each other and sorted by a three tier power rating.
It means it’s incredibly difficult to play the game with any real goal in mind. You can’t conserve resources from round to round and buying something is always better than buying nothing. You end up with a slapdash hodgepodge of different cards and abilities. There’s definitely some strategy to it, but winning often feels as much luck as skill.
The rest of the game is fun enough, that can’t be ignored. All of the mechanics in place are sound, novel, and interesting. It’s never unpleasant to play the game, particularly since the art is beautiful, but it ever quite gets pleasant either. There’s no point where you immediately want to play again.
It doesn’t help that the game has minimal player interaction. By minimal, I mean none. Aside from guessing what your opponent will buy next and stealing the card out from under them, there’s no way to actually affect the other players. It’s ends up feeling somewhat like a game of competitive solitaire. A very attractive solitaire with cool mechanics. But solitaire nonetheless.
At the end of the day that’s Mystic Vale‘s biggest issue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. The card crafting system is a gimmick, but it’s a perfectly serviceable gimmick that’s a lot of fun to use. The core gameplay is solid, and at times even quite fun. You never have a bad time, but you just never quite have a good time either.
Perhaps one of the already-planned expansions will change that. Only time will tell.