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Mystic Vale – A well executed “new” mechanic in deck building

Another Deck Builder??!  This era of board gaming sometimes feels similar to the time that Magic the Gathering was released, where everyone and their dog was releasing a new TCG into the market.  Everyone has a deck builder game, or a twist on the deck builder mechanic.  Heck, WE (at Junk Spirit Games) even have a deck builder coming down the pipeline…..  But for me, this style of game is about the only type of game that my wife will play with me, so I madly buy every deck builder that looks like they half tried to keep from having to play 15 billion rounds of Dominion (which I love).  Mystic Vale from AEG hits a lot of the best points of deck building while adding a bit of tableau building.

If you’ve played Dominion and Splendor, imagine a mash up of that.  Some of you may be turned off by either of those references but this really is the best way to describe Mystic Vale using well known and established game systems.  Fortunately the art is much better than either game (lol Harem) and the execution of its mechanics work so well together that at the end of each game you will likely just want to keep playing round after round.  In classic form, the game’s design has that “If you just had one more turn……” feel to it and that to me is an indication of strong game balance as you or your opponents can forcibly end the game when the game advantage is felt.

The game comes with its own sleeves and that is part of the main mechanic of the game where you “build” your cards in your deck.  I’m usually made fun of in my game group for obsessively sleeving everything so it’s nice to see a game that lets me act like that is way it HAS to be.  =)

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Now if I can just get my friends to shuffle like normal people and stop splitting sleeves…..

Many other reviews will go into how the cards are built because that is an interesting mechanic…. but I’d like to touch on something else that not many reviews are hitting.  So let’s get this out of the way:  You build your cards by buying advancements which are like card inserts that you place into your sleeved cards during the Harvest part of your phase, right before discarding everything and ending your turn.  The advancements are the clear cards that have one ‘ability’ on each of them on the picture above.  It’s cool and although clear cards have been done in other games, it is executed quite well here.

But what I really want to talk about is the gambling mechanic that is thrown into the game that is bolstered by this component:

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That is the Mana Stone which every player has at their disposal.  It chooses the first player in the game, which is a convenient way to determine where the round starts.  The coolest part of this Mana Stone is that it is the beginning of a strong gambling mechanic that is something that once you understand it, you will wish was in every deck builder you’ll ever play.  First of all, the blue side means you can use it for an additional mana and the grey side means that it is ‘spent’.  So in a round where you just need ONE MORE point to buy something cool (like in EVERY game of Dominion where you have 7 coins) you can flip your Mana Stone to the grey side to buy that coveted item.

To turn it from grey to blue, you essentially are encouraged to gamble from now on.  As you pull out cards from your deck and into your ‘field’, certain cards will have the Red Decay symbol and if you ever have 4 of them out at once, you essentially forfeit your turn.  But…….you then get to flip up your grey Mana Stone to the blue side, ready to be used again on a future turn.  The rest of this gambling mechanic has you see the amount of mana you have on board while then having to decide if you just want one or two more…..with the risk of losing it all for that turn and buying nothing.  It’s a great feature for deck building and it fits perfectly into the theme of the game.

My one critique of the game has to do with the tableau building side of this game’s design, using the Vale cards shown below:

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Now, this could ENTIRELY be because I am bad at games, and in particular this one, but after a few playthroughs, we found that the Vale cards can sometimes be put into a place where they are hardly touched during the course of the game.  This could happen mainly because the “right” advancements don’t come up to be purchasable through randomization of the deck, but often it was because the game would just abruptly end because the victory pile empties (signaling the end of the game).  When that happens, everyone at the table looks at the Vale cards and kinda shrugs and mentions that it was “weird” that noone really bought anything from there, like they missed out on half the game.  Again…..maybe I’m bad at this game?

If I was in my game store and you pulled this off the shelf and asked me if it was a good game, I would ask you:

  • Do you like deck-builders?
  • Are you ok with playing a few rounds of a new game before you “get it”?
  • Do you mainly play with non-hardcore gamers?
  • Have you played (and enjoyed) games like Splendor, Jaipur, Elysium, etc?


If you answered yes to most of those then this is likely a game for you.  When I first bought Mystic Vale, I did it out of curiosity, to see the ‘new’ game mechanic.  I had planned on likely throwing this one into one of my future auctions when I do a mass purge to clean up my in house library.  After a few playthroughs though, I can see that it will fit a cool family friendly slot into my game collection and I’m looking forward to keeping it and playing it more, especially as the inevitable expansions are released.

David Gerrard


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