Mystic Vale: Essential Edition is a game for 2-4 players in which players slowly modify their deck by modifying their own cards through transparent inserts that “crush” the card through their so-called “Card Crafting System”. This Essential Edition contains the base game plus the first three expansions, plus a storage box and must-have playmat.
Although the box is medium in size, it is very dense as there are a lot of cards packed in this deck. From the very start of opening the box, the presentation is quite solid. The game comes with four huge stacks of wrapped cards, which thankfully come with a label on the front that shouldn’t be opened until you’re ready for the new expansion’s content. Although they give dividers, a small downside is that they are too small to be really useful.
The gameplay starts out quite simple, each player starts with a deck of the same 20 cards including a mix between blank cards, a few negatives and a few small positive cards. On a turn, a player flips cards that randomly generate “mana” based on what’s on them to spend on upgrades. The amount returned is determined by the amount of negative symbols called “loot” that appear, once 3 appear the action stops. Players can choose to push their luck and keep flipping, with the goal of trying to extract some extra mana, with the downside that if a fourth loot spawns, you lose everything.
From there, assuming the player doesn’t collapse, they can use mana as a one-turn currency to purchase card boosters. This is where the core of the game comes in. A map is made up of three distinct sections, a top, middle, and bottom. On the playing field are a few random cards of different costs, all doing slightly different things. These can range from simply giving you more mana, such as crafting some of the blank cards, into increasingly powerful mana farming cards. Others could be to generate points or give spirit tokens, or some of the lagging cards outright negate a few of the loot symbols.
As you might expect, the key to the game is knowing how to build your deck each game. One strategy can be to go for victory points, so even if there aren’t many cards turned up each turn, a card or two can generate a lot of victory points. Others may opt to cancel loot symbols so that in a single turn a player can often go through a significant portion of their deck and get plenty of mana to spend.
One of the other keys is that certain cards generate Spirit Tokens, which are another type of point resource generation, which can be spent on titular “Vales”. These are basically locations with great artwork that mainly generate victory points. They are not necessary to win, but rather an alternate path to victory that players can follow.
The theme and art of the game is very good and really cool. The idea of taking this land and slowly making it more and more magical and fertile as the fields become more productive as the mystical guardians start coming too is very cool. Pretty much across the board the art on the valleys is very well done, the only minor criticism is that they don’t get too much action. They usually sit there for most of the game, someone picks it up in a pile, and that’s it.
This last part comes down to one of the criticisms of the game, not so much the player interaction. For the most part, players just do their own thing, play cards, and ultimately decide whether to carry on or say goodbye. The only interaction is potentially buying a card that someone else was looking at, but with 10 cards available at any one time, that doesn’t happen all that often. Also, people often go in different directions, so there aren’t too often even cards wanted by the same person. The rules even tell players outright to set their fields up to the “push” section of the decision. It’s a shame because one of the pleasures of the game is to see how other decks evolve and to watch what happens to other players.
Other issues are present, as mentioned, the organization is a bit difficult, there are a lot of different cards which are all difficult to separate. For example, for card making, there are three levels, delimited only by three small dots in the corner. When the game is over, dismantling the bridges is a bit of a long process which detracts from the experience. Each carefully crafted card must be “uncrafted”, so to speak, to its original state, by looking for those little dots and placing them in the correct pile. Although the “push your luck” is meant to be a central part of the experience, the cost of elimination is often so high that people just go to all three and stop. As a result, one of the key decisions that are supposed to be present seems muted.
Expansions add good content in the form of an extension of the main gameplay, without really adding anything too new. There are leaders that basically act as a decent bonus to use on occasion, or there are spirit tokens that also give a bonus once in a while. So while it expands on the good parts of the game, they don’t fix some of the slight flaws the game contains. While there’s a lot of cool new content, fundamentally the base game doesn’t change much, which can lead to longevity issues, since it mostly feels like a single-player deck-building experience.
The set is solid, the art and theme are absolutely perfect for a druid/fairy/eco themed game. It’s fun mid to late game when decks come together to see how many points and extra cards are turned up. The load of different types of cards to follow makes setup, teardown, and organization more cumbersome than playing generally simpler. The game desperately needs more player interaction as it is mostly a solitary experience.