Mystic War

A board/card game for 3-8 players by James Hlavaty, published in 1992 by TimJim/Prism Games
These comments copyright 2002 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated April 23, 2002, (a link to another site) with the bulk of the comments written February 8, 2002

What You Get, if you can still find it ...

Mystic War is probably out of print - in fact, I think the game company is out of business. It's too bad, because TimJim/Prism (a union of two small game companies publishing together for economic reasons, I suspect) made some good games. This one is my favorite of them, though. It's a fairly unique game - I haven't seen any others quite like it. Expect it'll take a little explaining, then.

The game comes with eight player mats, 56 resource chits, 12 Victory Condition cards, 82 Action cards, a first-player card, rules and summary cards.

While there is no real board as such, each player has an 8.5" by 11" mat they use to track their progress in the game, and seven resource chits to help them do it. Each mat is identical, having a brief Sequence of Play aid and four areas to track different things. Three of the tracking areas look pretty similar: five large spaces labelled 0, 10, 20, 30, 40 and some text in each box, and a smaller track of ten spaces labelled from 0-9. Six of the resource chits are used in these areas: one to track the "tens" value and one to track the "ones" value for the three different resources.

The three resources are:

  • Followers
  • Mystic Power
  • Gold
You start the game with 5 of each: put one resource chit in the large "0" box and another in the small "5" box. Thus you have 0 tens and 5 ones = 5 followers, 5 mystic power, and 5 gold.

The fourth tracking area, using your final resource chit, is your Wealth status. I really like this aspect of the game: your wealth status changes frequently and it's easy to keep track of. If you ever have less gold than you have followers, you're Poor: put the resource chit in the Poor box. If you have at least twice as much gold as followers, you're Rich: put the resource chit in the Rich box. Otherwise you're Content, and the chit goes there. Printed in each box is the result of your wealth status: being Poor halves any resource cards you play, and being Rich doubles any. Them that has, gets more; them that lacks, gets less ... very real world. Everyone starts Content, of course, since you start with 5 Followers and 5 Gold. If you lose even one gold from this position, though, notice that you become Poor ...

Determine an initial start player (giving him/her the Start Player card), deal out two Action cards to each player, and you're ready to begin.

The Objective

Well, it depends. There are four different ways to victory in the game, and you don't know what the others are shooting for. At the start of the game, the twelve Victory Condition cards are shuffled and everyone secretly takes one, without revealing the excess. There are three Victory Condition cards for each of the four ways to victory, which are:

  • City Victory: at least 40 followers, 10 mystic power, 10 gold
  • Archmage Victory: at least 40 mystic power, 10 followers, 10 gold
  • Hoard Victory: at least 40 gold, 10 followers, 10 mystic power
  • Balanced Victory: at least 20 followers, 20 mystic power, 20 gold
But there's a catch: you not only have to meet the requirements printed on your card (only you know what it is, of course), but you must have those levels when one of the three Judgement action cards are played. So you may get there, but if there's no Judgement card that round, you're vulnerable to being knocked down before one can be played ...

When the 82-card Action draw deck runs out, by the way, you have the option to draw a new random Victory Condition card from those left and shuffle your old one back into the remainder.

The Basic Play

There are four phases in each turn, as printed on each player mat. Every player performs actions in a given phase before going on the next phase, so no one is doing phase-two actions until everyone has done their phase-one actions, etc. The phases are:

  1. Perform One Special Power
  2. Receive All Resources
  3. Draw Action Cards
  4. Play Action Card or Pass
Special Powers: right off the bat the game has a very attractive feature. Remember I said above that every "tens" box contains some text? Some of that text grants you special powers; other text gives you resources. In the Perform One Special Power phase you may, if you wish, perform one of those special powers, just as you might have guessed. What you might not have guessed is that you're actually limited to exactly the special power described in the "tens" box you're in. Example: you just went from 19 followers to 20 followers: you're no longer in the "10" box, you're now in the "20" box. At this point you may no longer perform the special power of the "10" box, but may perform the special power of the "20" box during this phase.

Sometimes you'll have more than one special power available: having 20-29 followers, for example, allows you to research mystic power: convert ten followers to five mystic power. And having 30-39 mystic power allows you to summon a demon to destroy some of an opponent's resources. If you have both of these conditions, though, you can only perform one (of your choice) in a given Special Power phase.

Receive Resources: in the second phase, everyone collects resources based on the "tens" boxes they've recorded. 10-19 gold, for example, grants you 2 followers while 1-9 followers also gives you 2 followers. (You can never go below 1 in any resource, by the way, nor above 49.) This phase is very mechanical and everyone performs it at once - nothing you can do to influence anything now.

Draw Action Cards: in the third phase, everyone, starting with the Start Player, draws more action cards. This is determined solely by the number of followers you have:

  • 1-9 followers: draw 2 cards
  • 10-19 followers: draw 3 cards
  • 20-29 followers: draw 4 cards
  • etc.
Thus there's strong incentive to gain followers even if you're not going for a "City Victory" - though lots of followers can lead to poverty ...

Play Action Card or Pass

The fourth phase of the game is the heart of it, and so deserves its own section. It will usually consist of more than one round. Starting with the Start Player, you may (sometimes must) play one Action card or pass. If you pass, you may play an Action card in a later round - this phase lasts until all players pass consecutively. The number of Action cards you may carry over from one round to the next is based on your mystic power level: 1-9 mystic power allows you to hold 2 cards, 10-19 mystic power allows you to hold 3 cards, etc. You may not pass if you have more cards than you're allowed to hold. You also may not pass if you have one of the three Judgement cards - playing a Judgement card triggers a victory check, remember. You don't have to play a Judgement card early in the phase (though you may), but you must play it before you pass.

There are four types of Action cards:

  • Resource Cards
  • Spell Cards
  • Deity Cards
  • Event Cards
Resource cards, over half the deck, are pretty straightforward: playing one allows you to increase the named resource by the number of points listed on the card. There are resources that increase followers, or mystic power, or gold, and some (dragons) that allow you to destroy resources of another player. There are also some wild resource cards that let you name the resource when you play the card.

Spell cards may be played out of turn (though only in the Play Action Card phase). These can impact other cards played: negate, or double resource cards, mostly, but some allow you to transmute the named resource to another type, and others allow you to take resources another player has just lost. Anyone can play any card on any player, by the way.

Deity cards either give the receipient special abilities, and remain face up on the table, or affect other deity cards - removing or stealing them, mostly. It can be tricky to play a Deity card - you can't remove them once played except by other Deity cards. So though it may sound like a good idea to play a card that protects followers (you can't lose any), it also cancels your ability to exchange followers for mystic power or gold - possibly for the rest of the game!

Event cards are a grab bag, ranging from disasters to mega-blasts to pennies from heaven to forcing a player to reveal his Victory Condition to the Judgement victory check cards. Quite entertaining when you play them, less so when played against you ...

So each round in the Play Action Card phase you play one card. At this point, anyone with a "Play anytime" card may play it, usually to negate or modify or transmute the card you just played. You may then counter with one of your own "Play anytime" cards, and others can join in the fun. The rules give a fairly complex and detailed example of such card play just so you can follow along. In addition, there are two identical player-aid sheets to pass around that spell out the exact effects of each card in the deck - nicely done.

Oh, and remember Wealth status, which can change repeatedly throughout any given phase? When you play a resource, check your wealth status: if you're Poor, halve the resource points. If you're Rich, double them ...

The first person to pass in this phase, by the way, claims the Start Player card for the next round. The only advantage to being start player that I can see is in the first phase, Use Special Power. You can use a special power without risk that someone else may alter your ability to use it - or you may be able to affect another player with your special power, changing their special power status, if you suspect they were going to affect your position. A pre-emptive strike ...

Major Interaction and Options

And that's the game. You continue like this until someone meets their victory condition when a Judgement card is played. (Two of the Judgement cards are shuffled into the deck, by the way, and the third, a different color card, is always put at the bottom of the shuffled deck.) But, oh, what a wild ride until that moment!

The game is best with 4-6 players, I think. This is where the table talk gets interesting and people begin to speculate about the others' victory conditions and start to make deals:

"Look, if he's going for an Archmage Victory, he's only 2 mystic power from winning! If you play a dragon on him, I can double it ..."
And so on. I find this type of game most enjoyable, myself - we call it a bowbing game.

But that's really only part of it. There are many nuances in raising and lowering your various resources throughout the game. Unlike most games of this type, there are actually excellent reasons to lower your resources at times! Sometimes you want to move back to a lower "tens" box to get a specific special power. Other times it's useful to lower your followers so you become Rich to double your resource cards. And sometimes there's an event that is better if you have lower resources. I like this aspect of the game very much - it makes for some interesting play. In addition, there's the bluffing aspect: no one really knows what your Victory Conditions are, so constantly manipulating your resources up and down can confuse them, yet can also ultimately work towards the best possible situation for you.

So it's primarily a game of bluff, picking on the perceived leader - who may not really be the leader at all! - and manipulating your resources both up and down to get the best ultimate position. There's both strategy (you really can plan long-term in this game, though it's often hard to implement such a plan!) and tactics involved: which cards do you play in which order? Which cards do you save for defense, and which do you use to help another player attack a third opponent? What resource do you build right now and which do you convert to a different resource? And so on - really lovely choices, the heart of any game.

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

First and possibly foremost, if you are of a religion that believes it's wrong to play a game in which people summon demons, stay away from this game. In this game world, a player-character wizard can summon a demon to destroy another wizard's resources.

Fussy folk might not like the components. Aesthetically, the player mats have been called anything from plain to ugly, but nothing outside that range. The cards are okay graphically in a monochrome way, but nothing special. None of this bothers me - I only dislike components when they actually interfere with playing the game, and pretty components are as likely to do that as plain ones. There is no problem in that regard: all components are quite functional.

Of course, you may not like pick-on-the-leader bowbing games. In that case, definitely stay away. I like such games, myself - I find them great fun.

With certain types of players, the game can go on a bit longer than is fun - some people spend more energy knocking each other below victory levels than working on their own victory levels. If you have a group of such players, I don't recommend this one. Also, the Judgement card spacing can be really bad - if you get the two shuffled ones in the first draw, it's a long way to the next one.

And finally, the game wasn't that popular among gamers when it first came out. It was regularly panned. I have no idea why, actually, but be warned that I'm in the minority in liking this game.

Summing Up

A very entertaining game which takes anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours to play, depending on how much bowbing you do and the spacing of the Judgement cards. I have no idea of availability, but if you like what read here and see one, pick it up - you won't regret it!

Late Note

(Added April 23, 2002)

I notice that Brian Bankler has added a fix for those players who find the game takes too long. Personally, I've never had this problem, but if you do, check it out! It looks simple and effective - nice job, Brian.

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