This year has been a big year for digital boardgames already, just two months in.
(Editor – Not that you would have heard about it reading this blog)
The game, designed by John D. Clair with art by…well, a lot of people (all right, I’ll list them: Ralf Berszuck, Storn Cook, Andrew Gaia, Katherine Guevara, Heather Kreiter, Kiri Østergaard Leonard, Matt Paquette, Kiki Moch Rizky and Martin de Diego Sádaba) was developed for Steam by Nomad Games, developers of the awesome Talisman and Cat Lady app.
Currently, the game is only available on Steam but iOS/Android is planned in the future. The first expansion, Vale of Magic just released to little fanfare, which is too bad because it adds some good cards.
But this is a review of the base app, and it’s a great one.
Mystic Vale has come a long way since my Early Access announcement post when it first appeared on the Steam store. It’s now widely available, and it is definitely worth a look.
What is Mystic Vale?
It is a card-crafting game rather than a deck-building game.
What’s the difference?
You start with a deck of
sleeves cards, some of which have one third of it (top, middle, or bottom) filled with a name and some symbols.
At the beginning of the game, each player will turn over the cards into their field until the top card of the deck has a third “blight” symbol (a red tree) on it.
Then, on your turn during the “Planting” phase, you can either “push” or “stay.” Pushing moves the top card of your deck to your field and turns over the next one. If that one has a blight symbol, then you’re “spoiled” and you don’t get to harvest any cards.
However, if you don’t spoil and decide to stop, you get to harvest (in the “Harvest” phase, duh) based on how much mana you earned during the turn (the blue dots).
You can choose up to two “advancements” that you can afford with the mana you’ve earned. You will add these to the cards that are in your field, effectively making them better cards. You can’t add an advancement to a card that already has an advancement at the same level (top/middle/bottom). You have to choose a card with an appropriate advancement slot available.
These cards may also have blue victory points on the left side of them, which means you get that many points every time the card is in your field during the Harvest phase (meaning you didn’t spoil). These are taken from the pool of VPs the size of which is determined by how many players there are (28 VPs for 3 players, though the app does allow you to halve or double the normal VP allotment).
Cards can also have grey VPs on the right side. These are endgame victory points, but the app does track them. Each player’s score is on the bottom right of the screen. The ones on the left (blue) are from the pool while the ones on the right are endgame. Thus, you always know where you stand compared to others.
Cards also can have “spirit symbols” which will allow you to buy Vale cards (the ones on the top).
These cards can either give you an ability or give you endgame points (some of them give you a lot of them!).
Helpfully, the app lights up the advancements and vale cards that you are able to buy.
Play continues from player to player, with each player making stronger and stronger cards (maybe even doing something with those blank sleeves!) until the VP pool is empty. Then you finish the current round and total up all of your collected points (endgame and earned).
Whoever has the most points wins!
Is Mystic Vale a towering, splendidly fertile tree or is it a bare-bones tree that looks like it would reach down and take you to Hell?
I have to say that Nomad Games did a wonderful job with the app, and there have been many improvements since the Early Access days.
You can still play single player against up to three AIs, and I don’t know if it’s the expansion cards I’ve been playing with or if they’ve improved it, but it’s pretty good. I was getting trounced by the easy AI until I figured out more how the game worked.
One of my initial complaints in my previous post was that you couldn’t see what the other AI players were doing. A bunch of stuff would happen that wasn’t visible to you, and then it was your turn again. Advancements would be taken, but you couldn’t see what cards they were being added to.
Now, you get to see all of the cards merge together for each AI player.
You still don’t know how much mana they have, how many spirit symbols, or anything like that. You have to click on their field while they’re playing if you want to see that.
But this is definitely an improvement. It’s nice to see how powerful the cards they are building are.
Another complaint was the lack of tutorial, and they’ve fixed that with a flourish.
It leads you through the entire game, how to build cards, what you’re going for, how spoiling, mana, and spirit symbols work, and how to win the game.
It’s really well-done, but one thing it doesn’t have is one of my minor complaints about the app.
In the game, you have a mana token that you can spend along with the mana in your field in order to buy advancements.
If you spend it, it flips over and you can’t use it anymore. It flips back to its usable side when you spoil.
The tutorial just mentions that it gives you an extra mana, but it’s still not very intuitive. The cards light up showing you what you can buy, and of course if you buy the most expensive advancement you can afford, the token will flip. Throughout a few games, I was wondering how to tell the game that I don’t want to uses the token.
Until one time I bought a card that cost less than the mana I had available, and then it didn’t flip!
Of course, I felt a little stupid not realizing that’s how it worked, but I couldn’t find any reference to the mana token in the “instructions” inside the app other than that it flipped back when you spoiled.
It was a bit frustrating, so be aware that the game just counts it in your available mana pool without really telling you where all of that mana came from.
Another minor problem, unless I’m just too stupid to figure it out (Editor – That could be it) is that (at least in the 3-player games I played against the AI) there’s no way to make yourself anything but the second player. I played or started five games tonight in preparation for this review, and I was the second player all five times.
What if I want to go first? Or last? How about randomizing?
You’re also the same faction every time (blue), so you don’t get to choose your colour either.
The animations in the game are smooth as silk, and you can turn on “Fast Mode” if they are still too slow for you (but really, patience is a virtue and they’re not slow to begin with).
The artwork is crisp and clear (and beautiful, I’m glad my editor hovered over me with a baseball bat until I credited them above) (Editor – Hey! No revealing our secrets).
The user interface is very intuitive, with the indicator at the bottom saying what phase you are in and what your options are (pushing or going to the Harvest phase). You can easily click between your field, your vale, and your discard pile. You can also easily see the other players and what their field/vale is like (but not their discard pile, as that’s against the rules).
While the game does have a really good card catalog, one thing it doesn’t really do (and this isn’t a majorly bad thing as many board game apps don’t) is tell you how the different level of advancements work. In the game, there are a certain number of Level 1 advancements available and then when they run out, the Level 2 ones come.
It’s nice not to have to worry about how everything is set up, but be ready to learn something new if you ever play this on the table.
The sound and music are very peaceful too. It really does feel like you’re playing the game in a vale with mist all around you, just brimming with potential magic and relaxation.
How about the game itself?
I love the card-crafting idea of not adding cards to your deck but adding more power to the cards you already have. Alderac had a bit of a miss for me with Custom Heroes which used a similar mechanic, but Mystic Vale is just wonderful in that respect.
I like how sometimes if you have some high VP cards in your field but you don’t have much mana, you have to just move on to the Harvest phase, not earning any new advancements, because spoiling would mean you wouldn’t get those VP.
There are definitely some great decisions there.
Want online multiplayer?
You can get it. Live only, unfortunately, which in my opinion is a crime. This game is just calling for asynchronous play, as there is nothing going on during your turn that will affect anybody else.
Why do you need to play a live game for this? Hopefully that will be added/updated at a future date, or at least when it goes to iOS/Android.
As it is, I tried twice tonight (granted, it’s a Saturday night) and there were no open games in the lobby. I don’t know if the lobby’s always this dead, but at the moment it looks like if you want to play this online, you have to get some friends involved (there’s no friend system I could see either).
It’s a shame. (if it is asynchronous multiplayer, please point out to me how it works because it’s not intuitive at all)
All in all, Mystic Vale is a wonderful app. Nomad Games has knocked it out of the park with this one. The game is fun, the interface works wonderfully, the animations are awesome, and if it just had good multiplayer it would almost be an almost perfect game.
Mystic Vale is available on Steam for $17.49 CDN (the web isn’t giving me the US price, but the incredibly talented and handsome Dave over at Stately Play says that it’s $15, which means we Canadians are getting a deal!).
The Vale of Magic expansion is $5 US ($5.69 CDN) or you can get a season pass for $10 US ($11.49 CDN). The season pass will get you all three expansions (when the other two are released), essentially getting you one for free (assuming the same price for all three expansions).
If you like card-crafting games at all, especially if you find you’re not getting this one to the table that often and want to play it anytime, you should definitely pick this up.
Come on, $15 is a steal!
(Editor – your parentheses keys are getting worn out)