The first card crafting deck builder has landed on mobile devices.
Android, iOS, & Steam
# of Players
Mystic Vale is a deck building, card-crafting game with Nomad Games providing the port of the AEG title. Players take control of druid clans attempting to cleanse the curse upon the land. Play cards to improve your deck and generate victory points (VP) until the supply is empty. The big twist here is that players actually upgrade their cards rather than just adding new cards to their deck as is the case in a more traditional deck builder. Once the VP pool is gone, that turn finishes and the game ends, the player who secured the most VP wins, this typically takes about 15 minutes, but can that can be cut down to ten or so using the “fast mode” option.
The big hook of Mystic Vale, the physical game, was that your deck was sleeved cards which you would purchase mostly transparent advancements to slide into the sleeves, instantly improving your hand without adding any new cards. They dubbed this “card crafting.” This makes for a really interesting game to port because much of the appeal was in the physical act of upgrading a card. How would that translate to digital?
Play begins with each player having a 20 card deck. Eight of those are blank, three simply provide one mana (the game’s currency), and nine provide one mana and one decay. The top card of the deck is flipped and if the decay on the card does not bring your total to three or higher, it is moved into play for the turn. This repeats until you do reach three decay, at which point you must decide whether to accept all of your in-play cards as your hand for the turn or if you want to push and place the card on top of the deck into play and flip the next. Should that next card put you over three decay, you have spoiled your hand and do not get to spend the mana or use any other abilities provided by your cards in play this turn.
If you avoided spoiling, your mana is totaled, along with spirit symbols, VP symbols, and any other symbols or card abilities are enacted. You will have a mana total, spirit symbol totals, and VP totals. The mana is used to buy advancements, which get placed onto one of the cards you played this turn to improve it. Each advancement takes one third of the card (top, middle, or bottom) and you must place it into a card which does not have an ability in that slot. You may purchase up to two advancements per turn. If you have enough spirit symbols you may purchase vale cards, also limited to two per turn. These remain in play at all times and may provide an extra mana, VP, spirit symbols, or some other ability on each turn which you don’t spoil.
Play cards, optionally pushing your luck to get more cards into your hand, purchase advancements and, later in the game, vale cards, eventually earning VP. That’s the basic game cycle. There are two types of VP. Blue background VP are taken from the common pool which acts as the game timer. Grey background VP count the same in the end, but do not deplete the common supply. Both are provided through higher priced advancements and vale cards.
The game changes traditional deck building by allowing you to update cards rather than add new ones, and also in the fun push your luck aspect. One of the side effects of the updating system is the lack of card trashing which is so prevalent in some others in the genre.
What does it all add up to? For me, it’s okay, not great. I really like the idea of card crafting and the push your luck aspect. With the base cards, the card abilities are a bit limited and it makes the games get fairly repetitive rather quickly. The app includes the first expansion for free, it increases the number of advancements by roughly 50% out of the gate. That’s a good start, and some of the new abilities are fun and interesting, but the majority of them are just the same base symbols distributed a bit differently. In short, I think Mystic Vale presents a really interesting concept but not necessarily a really interesting game as far as the core set goes. As I will mention later, the expansions do a great job of adding interesting strategies to the game.
Barrier to Entry
Mystic Vale is taught through a series of four tutorials along with a quick reference text overview of the game. The tutorials walk you through the basics of the game, from how a deck builder works to the specifics of abilities, icons, scoring, etc… Each tutorial moves by pretty quickly, you should be able to complete them all within about 20 minutes. These are pretty well made and do a good job. The quick reference guide is a bit odd in that it doesn’t explain some of the very basics (like how you buy advancements for existing cards), but rather walks you through the turn phases.
The bottom line is that if you are familiar with deck builders, the tutorials will feel a bit drawn out but will teach you the unique deck builder twists Mystic Vale offers. If this is your first deck builder, the tutorials are a good way to learn.
Starting the tutorial
To push or not?
Look and Feel
The game looks good. The menus look great and are easy to navigate. The artwork is nice and gets to shine when cards are sitting in the purchase row. Once the advancements are added to your hand, the artwork is minimized, but even the thumbnail views are pleasing to look at. On each turn, seeing your tally of purchase power and spirit tokens is the key piece of information. This is readily available via a small icon bar above your play area. Your cards are automatically played until you reach three spoil markers, with the cards in play easy to navigate, swiping to view extras if you have gone off of the default screen area. Scores and the remaining VP are displayed towards the side of the screen. All of this is fine, but is a bit cramped on even a large phone.
Control-wise, the game is mostly well done. You will drag-and-drop when acquiring new advancements or vale cards and it works well. The decision whether to push or move to the harvest phase is controlled through small icons on the bottom of the screen. They are well separated from each other, so a mishit isn’t likely, but they are quite small so I could see them being easy to miss on a smaller phone. This feels like an artifact of porting from the PC version. Swiping between the advancements and vale cards took me a few games to get used to, but works fine. One thing I have done a bunch of times is forget to stop pushing before I attempt to purchase. I’m not sure of an elegant solution other than me remembering the rules.
The game features an undo button on purchases. It also features a “fast mode” option in the settings menu which skips over much of the AI’s turns. I’ve found this cuts my playtime by about 40%, so just under ten minutes if a normal game takes me 15. The game has other nice convenience features such as reminding you if you are ending a turn while there are still cards to purchase.
The game features real time online play, which is cross-platform between Android, iOS, and Steam, along with local pass-and-play. Games are created and joined via an online lobby, you choose the timeout you want (from 30 to 120 seconds, or “off” which is not to be confused with an asynchronous game), which expansion(s) to use, and whether to add any AI players to the mix. The game creator gets the choice to start the game as soon as somebody else enters the game. You can make a private game so that other players can enter the same room name to join. An invite system would be a welcome feature for private game.
Online play works just fine. Games fly by quickly given the small timeouts and I haven’t had any issues while playing. There is an in-game chat. The game features an online leaderboard as well. The game was updated to include local pass-and-play.
Single player has five different AI levels to play against which scale from easy to hard. When starting a new game you select the number of opponents, which expansions you want to use (some have specific settings you can toggle), and what VP pool you want to use, which will adjust the length of the game. I’m new to the game but have experience with deck builders. I found the first two AI levels to be rather easy, although not quite pushovers. Beyond that, I’ve found the AI to be pretty good. It will soundly crush me on the third difficulty level if I swing for a strategy and don’t connect, which happens a lot for me in this game as you can build strategies which require you to fill advancements with certain card types, and it’s easy for those plans to fall apart. I've earned victory against the 4th level AI, but haven't come particularly close against the toughest in limited attempts.
When you leave a local game, it will automatically save and you will be given the option to resume it next time you go to play. The game does not feature any stat keeping, but does have 32 achievements to chase, which is always a fun addition for the completionists.
Deck builders and expansions go together like Keats and Yeats (niche reference alert!). The app comes packaged with the first expansion: Vale of Magic. This does what first expansions generally do and adds “more of the same” to the base game. If you played with it from the start, you’d be hard pressed to pick out which cards came from it versus the base game. More expansions which do more and cooler things are on their way.
A second expansion, Vale of the Wild, has been added as an in-app purchase. This beings to add more varied advancement abilities as well as leader cards.
Mana Storm was added as the third expansion and, after playing with all three expansions, I've been really enjoying the game. Mana Storm adds a transparent card type, new amulets which change the bonus you get after spoiling, and the standard new sets of advancements and leaders. The game has shifted from a few really interesting mechanics without much behind it to a game with a few really interesting mechanics with a variety of fun cards and abilities to round out the game.
The Wrap Up
I like the core concepts around the game, and it really starts to shine as you add in the available expansions. The app is well made, without any obvious implementation flaws holding it back and provides tough AI opponents. The primary complaint is that online play is limited to real time only. Additionally, the decisions on what made it into the release are a bit head scratching at times. I am able to spectate an online game (admittedly, a very cool feature we’ve not seen elsewhere), but the app doesn’t track my win/loss record?
After the first few waves of updates, Mystic Vale has landed in a good spot. It is still missing some features we'd love to see (most notably, asynchronous online play), but what is there works really well and the expansions have really done a great job in rounding out the game. For me, I will only be playing with the expansions going forward, which makes the overall purchase price a bit steep, but that's a decision for the user.