The Mythotopia Mallet
Martin Wallace has already earned the distinction of being one of my favorite game designers this year thanks to his wonderful and anarchic A Study in Emerald, which casts its players as saboteurs, detectives, and political agitators fighting against (or secretly supporting) their alien overlords during the dawn of the 20th century. It’s basically the unholy spawn of H.P. Lovecraft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and as far as genre mashups go, that’s the one that pushes all my buttons with squamous webbed toes. Which is why, upon hearing that Wallace was making another deck-building-on-a-map hybrid, I did a little happy-dance.
Sadly, Mythotopia is more of a spiritual successor to Wallace’s earlier title A Few Acres of Snow, a game I only played once and wasn’t particularly taken with — a relief, as it later turned out that a single strategy (ominously deemed the Halifax Hammer) was so potent that all other strategies soon crumbled before it.
The question, then, is whether Mythotopia transcends that earlier game’s shortcomings, or if there’s a Mythotopia Mallet waiting to fall.
Kingdom-Building through Deck-Building
The first thing you need to understand is that Mythotopia really is a deck-building game, through and through, and the player who assembles the best card engine is very likely to be the player who ultimately wins. The cool thing is that the deck-building is tied so completely to the map, and all those little armies and ships and gold and other resources, and even the option to build structures like castles or roads, are tied to your cards. When you conquer a province, you ruffle through the territory deck (or even an opponent’s deck if they owned it previously) and take the corresponding card, giving you access to its resource but also cluttering up your hand with the regular administrative demands of running an ever-expanding kingdom. And since this is one of those rare deck-building games where you don’t discard your remaining cards at the end of the turn, there’s a very good chance that unless you spend the occasional action to clear out your hand, you’re going to get bogged down.
The card play can be a tad involved, but the result is generally solid. Consider this: There’s a victory card that gives points to whomever takes over one Mythotopia’s two islands, so you’ve carefully positioned yourself along the sea at the province of Camarine, hoping to make a beachhead on the westernmost island at the unfortunately-named Ictus, where all the locals can’t help but speak in stressed syllables. Unfortunately, one of your rivals is racing you to conquer that island. In order to invade, you need to assemble a near-perfect hand, consisting of (1) the Camarine card, because that’s where your troops will be departing from, (2) a card with a food icon to feed your moving armies, (3) a ship card, since you’re sailing across a water space, and (4) as many army icons on other cards as you can manage.
Congratulations, you’ve just landed some armies at Ictus! However, on her turn your rival dedicates a few of her own, more than you did, and back and forth you go, chaining the appropriate cards together and hoping that your deck’s design holds up better than hers. Eventually, maybe you win, and you want to build a castle there to make sure she can’t take it back from you; well, construction operates pretty much the same way, requiring a province to build in (and its corresponding card), a build card, and lots of bricks.
Usually, a single well-executed attack or construction will chew through your entire hand, or at most leave you with a card or two left over for recruiting new armies or drafting a new card. It’s a neat system, usually working like a charm, and there are plenty of options to make the whole thing run more smoothly. Like, for instance, removing province cards that have outlived their usefulness from your deck, or “reserving” cards for later turns — which is a really cool system because the number of cards you can reserve is tied to your number of cities. The point is, the actual deck-building is spit-polished to a fine shine.
Spicing it Up: Improvement Cards
Okay, so the deck-building is already pretty interesting, but it gets even better. In addition to all the province cards, there are these little things called improvement cards. These buggers have the potential to completely reshape each match.
There are some basic ones; +1 to attack or defense, draw an extra card each turn, stuff like that. Others are more outlandish, like the Ranger card that lets you cross mountains, negating the map’s natural defenses, or the Portal that lets you launch an attack from anywhere to anywhere. Some give your deck more diversity, like Levies or Farming, which sit in your reserve and let you play any card for an army or food symbol, or the General, who can stand in for any province when you attack or build. All of these are bonkers, since they let you bypass the usual bottleneck of painstakingly setting up the right hand before you launch an invasion or build a city.
Then there are the ones that break the game, at least until they cause everyone else to gang up on you. The Diplomat lets you cancel a battle entirely by just playing one gold icon. The Alchemist lets you transform victory points into higher denominations. The Scribe lets you continue accomplishing victory point cards even after they’ve run out of points to award. And the Reserve Army keeps you from fighting more than one battle at a time, perfect for holding onto a wide area once everyone decides to pick on the leader.
Cool stuff, and absolutely critical to a winning strategy, since in Mythotopia, the player who constructs the most horrifically overpowered deck is probably going to come out on top.
A Whole Mess of Caveats
The weird thing about Mythotopia is that I really, really enjoy it; and yet most of my opinions about it are criticisms.
Since we just talked about improvement cards, here’s an example. Rather than giving you a regular card offer, the setup just plops sixteen of them down on the table like a load of rules-heavy manure, and that’s it. They just sit there, never refreshing or changing, so you start the game by reading a whole bunch of cards, everyone craning over the table for a good long while… and then you never replicate that particular thrill of discovery because that pool of cards never changes.
Okay, that isn’t too bad, so here’s a real oddity. Mythotopia has a very good idea going with its battles, where you can declare victory when you have the most troops dedicated to a fight (and factoring in other factors like improvements or nearby warships) — but only at the start of your turn, giving everyone else a chance to mess with your plans before you can actually claim a province. Which works great! But there’s no equivalent for the improvement cards — you just pay a gold and buy one. This is the direct opposite of the system from A Study in Emerald, which saw players gradually bidding on the cards in much the same way that you “bid” on a province with armies here. In Mythotopia, drafting a potentially powerful card is as easy as just buying it, and nobody can do a thing to stop you. It’s an oddly straightforward and disappointing way to get cards, requiring no long-term investment, engendering no inter-player conflicts, doing nothing to mitigate the first player advantage.
And that’s just my main issue with the game. There’s also no “myth” to this Mythotopia, which brushes its lore with a strangely bland landscape compared to both A Study in Emerald and A Few Acres of Snow. Sure, there are a couple victory cards that feel vaguely myth-ish, like runestones or dragons, but they just make provinces worth more points and/or more difficult to conquer. Speaking of the victory cards, the endgame is sort of lackluster. You’ve got seven of these victory cards, each with a pool of points on them. Once four are depleted, the lead player can end the game at the start of his turn. That’s it. “I won,” you say. You don’t even get to grin about it, because, well, everyone can see that you just won, so thanks for that, you dip. There’s no fanfare, no theatricality. You just win, great job. Woo.
Even so, as I said above, I really like Mythotopia. Maybe it’s because the deck-building and card play is so good, or maybe it’s a weird form of confirmation bias. I mean, have you seen Martin Wallace? What a hottie.
At any rate, I suspect it will hold similar appeal for people who can appreciate its mechanical inventiveness while overlooking some of its shortcomings. Because boy, it’s got some mechanical inventiveness going on. But boy, it’s got some shortcomings too.