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Mystic Vale: Early Access Review

Mystic Vale is a card game by Nomad Games brought to life on PC. If you’d like to know more about this title, read on for Michael’s comprehensive review.

The tabletop gamer

It’s cold outside. You and three of your comrades are bunkered down in the spare room. The curtains are drawn, and the air is thick with mirth. Many tabletop games have been played this evening; your immaculately curated Ikea shelf has been picked clean and boxes litter the floor, each a font of perfect memories…

…And then you’re jolted awake by the sound of your phone bouncing off the floor after slipping out of your hand. It’s 4 in the afternoon. Your mates had “a thing” and couldn’t make it. You wipe some dust from the top of the boxes, otherwise untouched, and grab your phone from the floor.

“So, how about next Saturday?”

See, here’s the thing… Tabletop games are utterly wonderful, and the board game renaissance is well and truly in full swing. People have come to realise that there is life outside of Monopoly. But the stark reality is that successfully gathering a group of friends to play tabletop games is not unlike herding cats. And, the cats all work different hours. The board game shelf you so pridefully display is more an homage to the BoardGameGeek Top Whatever than an actual thing you actually use. It is the eternal pride and eternal curse of any board gamer.

Enter Mystic Vale

In view of this, a number of publishers have turned to the digital realm to help people get their board game fix. That is, without the necessity for friends who are available on the third Saturday after Easter between the hours of 8 and 11. Mystic Vale, originally published by AEG — creators of games such as Smash Up and Istanbul — and brought to Steam by Nomad Games, is one such entry in the growing catalogue of board games gone digital.

It’s a deck builder and engine builder at heart. But, with a curious twist that lends itself to a digital format surprisingly well. Instead of acquiring new cards that fuel the engine, much like games such as Dominion or Hero Realms, Mystic Vale’s unique selling point is that the cards in your hand are a blank slate to be augmented with additional effects.

In real life, this card crafting system takes the form of opaque cards in plastic sleeves which can house up to three translucent slips. In theory, it’s an extremely clever implementation of an idea. But in practice, it’s somewhat clumsy with the plastic slips being difficult to handle. The wear and tear that befalls any much-loved card game becomes all the more pronounced. Especially when you’re constantly inserting and removing components.

The end goal is to secure as many victory points as possible by purchasing point cards from the tableau. To do this, you’ll need to either augment your cards with victory points that will pop once your turn rolls around, or buy them from the communal marketplace with the various currencies attached to the different creatures throughout this pleasant, but sometimes infuriating forest.

Thoughts on the game

It’s a lot to take in. And, when factoring in the various card effects, the many, many different types of resources on hand and the way they interact with each other — not to mention the fact that the augmentations, split into thirds, can’t overlap — the move to digital seems sensible and even welcomed. All of your resources and victory points are neatly tracked, and card effects are automatically executed. This frees up your mental bandwidth to focus on what really matters: turning your once-blank cards into cogs in a beautiful vale-harvesting engine, fuelled entirely by bears.

Comparisons to other engine builders like Century: Spice Road and Splendor are obvious (especially the latter). But, there are some elements that set this one apart from its peers.

More on the card crafting

While the card crafting mechanic is meant to be Mystic Vale’s ace in the hole, while innovative, it’s not world-shaking. The most compelling aspect of Mystic Vale is the wonderfully simple push mechanic. At the outset of any given turn, the game automatically deals cards until three “spoil” symbols appear. Typically these are on cursed land, but other cards can confer the effect too. Once that’s done, you’re presented with a face-up card that’s “on deck” — while not explicitly part of your hand, it could be, but you do need to make a choice: do you take the on-deck card and risk drawing one more spoil symbol, which means you lose your entire turn? Or will you play it conservatively and let it go?

There’s something beautifully disastrous about seeing a card on deck you’ve gone to painstaking lengths to craft which will grant you boundless mana, ever-precious victory points, and the luxury of your pick of any of the vales on offer; only to push it to your hand and immediately spoil, all the while watching the AI snap up everything you wanted.

While your deck will cycle back through eventually, that perfect turn may not, and that push-pull between what you know you want and what you know you shouldn’t take is what creates the real tension in Mystic Vale.

The presentation

It’s almost laughable, then, that both the theme and presentation of this game is so calming The lush particle effects that punctuate each turn, and the lilting music really sells that you’re, like, just a druid in a forest, man. But you’re not, are you? You’re a greedy little monster who absolutely needs just one more card in their harvest to buy just one more augmentation to get just one more vale — and now you’ve ruined it all, haven’t you?

Unfortunately, the game does sometimes put you in the position of being a victim of your own success. Truly excellent turns which see you drawing upwards of 10, 12 cards per hand can be extremely unwieldy in terms of decision making and UI. Since you can only fit 5-6 cards on screen in any given harvest, you’re forced to scroll back and forth to recall the order of operations. And, you have to toggle between your various trays of cards instead of being able to see them all in a glance. It’s also a problem in the physical version of the game, wherein your hand looks less like a collection of cards as it does a stack of takeaway menus. But, still, some consideration on how to negotiate this would have been nice.

The flow

Similarly, it’s easy to know when you’re doing well, but the why is sometimes hard to trace. On one hand, the flow of play is refreshingly snappy, but on the other, it does move quickly to the point of being impossible to draw meaningful conclusions about your, and your opponents’ hands — especially with higher player counts. As a result, the game can come across as a bit less thoughtful than intended, and the strategy of “buy the big numbers and see what happens” can sometimes prove shockingly effective against the somewhat lacklustre AI.

Final thoughts

Having played Mystic Vale in its more tangible form, though, this digital version is unquestionably a triumph. Gone are the slippery plastic tabs and the agony of split sleeves, in favour of something much more elegant, and better suited to its purpose. Mystic Vale is quick — lightning fast, in fact, even for an engine builder — but the tension present with each new turn means you’re never lacking a decision to make, even if that decision isn’t quite as weighty as it would be in person.

See, sometimes, digital board games lose that special something that makes them truly great. Take Coup, for instance. It loses the thrill of the bald-faced lies that are told at the table, or Mysterium, which simply doesn’t afford you the opportunity to scream at your friends for being absolutely atrocious non-verbal ghosts. Other times, as with Through the Ages and Ascension, the digital format handles the bean-counting and minutiae that can bog down otherwise wonderful games, and deter all but the most ardent egg-heads.

Mystic Vale’s digital translation takes a sometimes frustrating, mechanically heavy tabletop experience and turns it into a fresh, satisfying experience. With some AI polish, and the inclusion of Mystic Vale’s excellent expansions, this could turn out to be one of the best tabletop to desktop translations yet.

Mystic Vale went live on Steam on January 31st, 2019. Learn more at https://www.nomadgames.co.uk/mystic-vale/.

Images: Nomad Games

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