Mystic Vale : Don’t just draw cards, craft them

I confess I have been somewhat lax in my boardgame-fanboy duties as of late. We are inundated with all and sundry new releases each year (mostly clustered around the fall conventions) and generally get served more new games than we know what to do with. This inevitably means some worthy releases pass by without enough notice. Mystic Vale is the latest to cross-over from cardboard to the app store(s). The result is a surprisingly punchy lightweight, rapid-fire push-your-luck game, remixing relatively new trends in mechanics (deck-building & customization) with the tried-and-true (set collection, engine building). It is a good game and faithful app, but a little flat and perfunctory as well. Mystic Vale is generally a worthy super-filler, and the digital app gets the job done.

To cleanse the land of corruption, competing tribes of druids graft on ever-more-potent magical allies, animal spirits and the like to turn the tide. Every player starts with an identical deck of cards and takes turns drawing from the land’s energy to fuel more magical improvements. But the tainted land is strong as well and will leave greedy players empty-handed.

There’s a Mario Party minigame where the players take turns inflating a comically oversized balloon until it pops, exploding with (again, comedic) force and knocking out contestants one by one until there is only the winner left. The spirit, if not the mechanic, of push-your-luck, is crystallized into this image. Players can calculate the risks and independently decide how far they want to push their luck for a greater reward. Mystic Vale does this with its Spoiled Lands, drawing every turn until three corrupted symbols appear. The player can choose to draw more cards, one by one, increasing their rewards in the process, but also risk busting and ending their turn prematurely with nothing to show for it. Push-your-luck is so satisfying because it breaks a large risk down into delicious increments. It’s difficult to do well, aside from very pure, refined implementations (e.g. Can’t Stop).

To its credit, Mystic Vale make it  one of the central decisions of each turn, and then tasks successful players with spending their mana & spirit symbols to further enhance their decks. Each deck cycles through 20 cards with a top, middle, and bottom region which can each be enhanced with purchases from a common pool of cards. The game’s iconography is crystal-clear, and its elements as stripped-down as can be.

In addition to the primary resource, mana, there are four elemental symbols as well as a ‘guardian’ subtype with tribal synergy. Most purchases simply enhance a deck’s mana and victory point yield during the harvest, but the bigger swings in ‘tech’ improvements come from the vale cards. These are also purchased after the harvest, but instead of using mana, players must have a match of the symbols of the vale. A few give straight-up victory points, but the more interesting offerings give unique effects (bonus mana, avoiding spoilage, wild symbol conversion) to dramatically accelerate the game’s pace.

The game feels aggressively midrange for such a naturalistic-shamanistic setting, for the whole affair is over in under twenty turns (Which passes in no time at all on the app). It ends just as things really start taking off for the players, kinda like with Splendor. It has achieved an amazing balance of brevity and strategy, for players must constantly assess which engine to build and how. Pretty much every card is viable and competitive, some with niches smaller than others. Mana and timing constraints mean that even winning decks often have jury-rigged, rag-tag elements mixed in with the rest.

The endgame comes so quickly because the pacing is up to the players. Instead of a set number of turns, the game is scaled around a victory point pool. Once it is completely divvied up amongst players, the game is over. More involved multi-card synergies will generate gonzo points in a single turn, but are they worth the lengthy set-up? Alternatively, is it worth scrimping a few victory points each turn if everyone else is planning for a deferred late game? It’s a simple but elegant change which turns game length into another strategic element to be decided by the dynamic equilibrium generated by the players.

The app makes the art look inorganic and forced, as if the graphical assets were used to recreate the tabletop visual as literally as possible. (They also appear to scale poorly). Functionality and legibility are top-notch. Music and layout are both serviceable, and the app has a touch of whimsy about its loading-screen text, but generally this implementation is a by-the-numbers affair. It is good but not to be oversold, like when the game boasts of its ‘card crafting system’. Lastly, Mystic Vale has both an in-game rule reference, a card compendium, as well as the obligatory introductory tutorial series, so props for thoroughness on that front.

Now for the bad news. Everything Mystic Vale does well recalls a stronger instance in another game. As an experience or an instruction in game design, it’s masterful. But there are other lightweight games I love more, and other quick-playing games with a little more control or strategy on tap. The game itself couldn’t be further than kitchen-sink, but in terms of gaming niches this is precisely the trap it falls into. Maybe this is the hobbyist curmudgeon in me, but it feels as if Mystic Vale’s strengths do not actually further its appeal.

Mystic Vale is refined and sharp, better than most of its kind, that of a mid-range, easy-to-learn, decently competitive multiplayer deck builder. Its individual components are better represented by other games, and honestly it isn’t really that strategic, but it is extremely well-made and fun. The app is a fairly priced way to experience it, with decent AI and timed multiplayer. Good, but not excellent.

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