Lagniappe: Mystic Vale: Twilight Garden expansion review

Board Game Gumbo is pleased to present a new Lagniappe segment from Sagan Ezell, fellow game group member.  We love expansions, and we were excited to get a reviewer copy of Mystic Vale: Twilight Garden from AEG.  We turned to fellow game group member, Sagan, who graciously taught us the original game and the expansion. Sagan is an omni-gamer from Lafayette, Louisiana, and helps run the Southern Board Game Festival. Here are his thoughts on Twilight Garden. You can reach him on Twitter @SaganEzell

When it comes to deck building games, it’s easy to look at the large number of games that incorporate the mechanism and see only a little variation with the core rules from set to set. If you know deckbuilders you could pick up nearly any other deckbuilder and get by pretty easily with minimal effort. Mystic Vale introduces significant changes to the tried and true deckbuilding systems, and is all the better for it. The game takes what could easily be a throwaway gimmick, bolsters it with smart, focused design, and in doing so creates something truly different.

What is Mystic Vale?

In most deckbuilders, the name of the game is to streamline and optimize your deck and your combos. If a move that you can make results in you drawing more cards, or culling the weaker cards from your deck, it’s typically a move worth making. Mystic Vale, from AEG, tweaks the standard deckbuilding formula in a refreshing way.

First, when drawing cards, there is no set hand size. A player can draw as much of their deck as they want to draw. The counterbalance to this idea is the game’s “spoiling” mechanism. Particular cards have icons for “decay,” and if a player reveals 4 decay from their deck, they spoil, and lose their entire turn. With almost half of the 20 card deck having decay to start the game, and many powerful pickups adding even more decay as the game progresses, the risk of spoiling is not insignificant. This sets Mystic Vale apart from others immediately, because it carries risk along with the reward of drawing more cards.

Secondly, and perhaps more substantially, is what AEG refers to as the “Card Crafting System.” Instead of adding and removing cards from the deck, players will change the cards that they start the game with, but will continue to cycle the same 20 cards for the duration of the game. This is accomplished by means of sleeves on each card, which can be filled with the clear plastic “advancement” cards. Each advancement can take up the top, middle or bottom third of the card, with an additional slot running vertically along the side of each card. When playing a card, what you see is what you get, meaning that a player can buy advancements that take up the top and bottom slot of a card, and sleeve them together to make a nice combo. Later on, I can slot a middle advancement into that same card to make a supercard. This system allows players to guarantee that some of their combos will always come up together, because the components of the combo are physically all on the same card.

The rest of the game is standard deckbuilder fare, with a system by which permanent upgrades (vale cards) can be added to a player’s area, and a point race serving as the end of game timer a la Ascension. The base game of Mystic Vale really focuses in on its innovative ideas, doesn’t reinvent the wheel in other areas that are unnecessary, and it just works. On its own, Mystic Vale is a great game, and is a very refreshing departure from the norm for a deckbuilding fan looking for something a little different. Several expansions have been released for the game over time, adding new ideas to the game sparingly, and keeping the focus right where it should be.

Mystic Vale At A Glance

A deckbuilding game that brings in significant new ideas to the tried and true genre.

PROS:

  • Different from any other deckbuilder you have played
  • Fairly quick gameplay with lots of interesting decisions
  • Easy to teach, and easy to setup, even with expansions

CONS:

  • Higher luck factor, especially early, than other deck builders
  • Like most deckbuilders, an early lead can snowball into an insurmountable one

What’s new in Twilight Garden?

This brings us to Twilight Garden. This particular expansion adds in the regular mix of new advancements, new vales, new leader cards, and a few ideas of its own. The big idea of Twilight Garden is the curse token, which will amount to negative victory points at the end of the game.

Advancements that make a player gain curse tokens are typically cheap, and provide lots of other powerful benefits. The balance that these cards strike is a fair one. By adding a cursed advancement or two into your deck early in the game, its possible to really jumpstart your combos and quickly gain other powerful advancements. The tradeoff here is that each time a cursed card is played, more negative points are accumulated, meaning that getting one early translates to more point losses over the course of the game. In another smart design choice, this expansion also brings players the tools to counteract the curse tokens and the negative VPs on some advancements. Certain cards let you discard the curse tokens from your accumulated pool, while others instruct you to ignore the curse symbols on the same card altogether.

More subtly, this expansion also introduces more options for player interaction than the game has had in the past, including cards that see you copying other players cards, forcing them to pay you points, and even stealing cards from their deck into your own.

This expansion, like the others before it, keeps the focus on what the game did right from the beginning. Smart use of comboing with the card crafting system and a little bit of luck can completely neutralize the negatives of the curse cards, leaving players with powerful early options, but a decent amount of risk to boot. If you’re a fan of the base gameplay from Mystic Vale, but really want to add more interaction and risk/reward scenarios to it, then Twilight Garden is a good addition to the game. If you prefer to mind your own business and not be interfered with too much, then the game’s other expansions will serve you much better.

The only negatives that come along with Twilight Garden (beyond the curse tokens) are the very slight issues that don’t have a strong gameplay impact at all. Like all Mystic Vale expansions, there is no distinguishing mark on any card to denote which set it comes from. If you wanted to pull an expansion out of play, it would be very tough to do so. There is very little reason to do this because all the sets are designed to be permanently mixed together, but a small icon on the cards would be a nice addition. Next, the rules include clarifications on a few of the cards added in each set, however some of the cards can be a bit tough to figure out and are unclear on exactly how to use them. There has been a fair bit of misinterpretation of cards in my recent games, and because not every card receives a clarification in the rulebook, it can be a bit frustrating to some players. These gripes are small, and there is a lot to like about Twilight Garden. While it is not an essential expansion, this set is a good addition to the game.

All in all the Mystic Vale system is growing by small steps, not by leaps and bounds, to ensure that it keeps its gameplay tight and focused. It’s the kind of game that I would have no issue teaching to a new player with every expansion included, yet it adds just enough with each new release to keep me coming back in to see what other interesting combos that I can pull off with the system. If you’re a deckbuilding fan, it’s definitely worth trying out Mystic Vale, and if you love making risky plays that might just pay off in the end, then Twilight Garden is the expansion for you.

Twilight Garden at a glance.

Mystic vale, but with much more risk and much more messing with opponents.

PROS:

  • Adds another layer of risk/reward thinking beyond the base game
  • Much more opportunity to interact beyond just buying a card someone wanted
  • Integrates easily with the base set and any number of other expansions

CONS:

  • There is no easy way to tell the expansion cards from one another to play without a particular expansion
  • Some of the new more interactive abilities are ambiguously worded and tough to figure out
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