Vale of Transparency
The land is rotten: the grass brown and brittle, the trees bare and splintered, the fields less fertile than ever before. Unseemly dog-swirls mar the once-spotless walking paths. As one of the druid clans of the Valley of Life, it is your duty to cleanse the land by—
—building decks and playing blackjack, mostly. Sort of. Mostly.
Remember how cool Dominion once was? It was the game that spawned a thousand imitators, some great and some very-much-less-than-great. The idea of building your own deck as you played, of adding good cards and whittling out the weak ones, and then using them to beat whatever surface-level game was going on at the same time — it was very nifty stuff, and incredibly innovative.
You know. For its time. Eight years is an eternity in the board gaming scene.
A few years before Dominion hit in 2008, there was this other largely forgettable game called Gloom. It wasn’t bad by any means, though it also wasn’t the most incredible thing that ever happened to board games. In it, you laid transparent cards over one another, gradually inflicting tragedies on your hapless family members. As your heap of cards grew, so did the number of afflictions your characters were suffering.
In a way, Mystic Vale is the culmination of both those design concepts. It’s a deck-building game that sees you actually physically building each card piece-by-piece from transparent inserts. A Cursed Land is getting you down? Spruce it up with some Fertile Soil or a Mindful Owl familiar. Need points? Play it safe with a Plow or rough with a Hulking Thornhide — or both, together, on the same darn card.
It’s a clever system, feeling both tremendously innovative and deeply obvious at the same time. Each card segment lends itself well to combo-building, with elements that string together for greater effect. In addition to symbols like money-gems (I don’t know the proper nomenclature) and ugly red decay icons — more on decay in a minute — there are worthless things like helms. “Worthless,” I say, though that’s only until you find the right card segments and stitch them together. The helm symbol on a Podlings card might not offer any benefit, but that’s only until you’ve paired it with a Dawnsinger or Grovetender. Now that “worthless” symbol is worth a heap of extra cash and cancels out a bunch of your decay symbols.
There’s that word again. Decay. So let’s talk about that.
The card-building portion of Mystic Vale is obviously the focus, with the entire game occasionally feeling more like a proof-of-concept than a gripping time in its own right. Fortunately, that’s not all you’ll be doing. While the druid in you is weaving together barely-differentiated Fields of Flowers and Lifebringer Seeds and other chipper-sounding nonsense that eventually blends into a mishmash of minuscule green and pink illustrations, it’s the gambler in you who’s making Mystic Vale enjoyable. See, each round opens with a portion of your cards entering play. You flip them over one by one, always watchful for those little red decay icons. Once you’ve revealed three, you stop: that’s your hand for the turn. Sometimes you’ll have a mere two or three cards to work with, other times eight or more. That’s the way it goes.
Except it isn’t, because you can opt to continue flipping cards, pushing your deck to its limits, making little wagers with yourself. “If there are twenty cards in my deck, with eleven decay symbols spread across them, and I already have six decays in my discard pile, how many more cards is it safe to flip?” Pushing your deck too far risks the appearance of a fourth decay, immediately ending your turn and possibly losing the benefits of any good cards you revealed. But if you make smart pushes, it’s possible to give yourself the occasional mega-turn, sitting on heaps of points and income and the ability to buy a couple of those permanent cards that sit around generating more points or other bonuses. Those are the moments when Mystic Vale shines.
All in all, Mystic Vale is an interesting little gem. It’s undoubtedly clever, pushing the boundaries of what to expect from a deck-building game, and constantly urging your deck to generate better turns makes it far more exciting than even its transparent inserts accomplish. Sadly, it’s also a little under-baked, feeling more like Exhibit A in what its publisher undoubtedly hopes will be a new line of card-building deck-building games. The artwork — not to mention any sense of setting or theme — ends up feeling microscopic and unimportant compared to the little symbols adorning the left-hand strip of each card, there’s hardly any player interaction to speak of, and every game concludes with everyone unsleeving all the advancements they’d previously cobbled together. This isn’t to say Mystic Vale isn’t worthwhile, just that it will likely be overshadowed a year from now — and probably by the same title (by the same designer and using the same card-building system) that AEG openly advertises in the back of the manual.
To put it succinctly, Mystic Vale is exciting and innovative, but more for the possibilities it presents than for the thrills it produces during gameplay.