Mystic Vale Conclave

I’m a fan of Mystic Vale. It’s a deck-crafting game. Unlike a deck-building game, in which you add cards to a starting deck as you play the game, in a deck-crafting game you modify the cards themselves. In Mystic Vale this is done by inserting mostly-transparent cards into the plastic sleeves of the cards of your deck.

I bought all the Mystic Vale expansions as they were released: Vale of Magic, Vale of the Wild, Mana Storm. The latest expansion is Mystic Vale Conclave.

While being a completist is joy unto itself (“You have Mystic Vale? I have Mystic Vale and all its expansions!”), it can pose a problem if you want to carry all of them around. The traditional solution for many games and gamers is to fit all the expansions in a single box. But after three expansions, it was getting harder to get all the extra cards and pieces into the original Mystic Vale box. Mystic Vale Conclave solves that problem, in that it comes in a much bigger box.


It’s a bit hard to tell from my picture, but the new box (on the left) has a volume that looks to be about four times bigger than the original box.

Even with all the new game materials included with Mystic Vale Conclave, it looks like a determined gamer could still fit all the expansions including Conclave into the original box. When I packed the game and all the expansions into the Conclave box, it didn’t take up more than a quarter of the available space. I speculated before I got this expansion that it might be last game in the Mystic Vale series. It’s clear that the publisher, AEG, intends to release many more expansions, if for no other reason than to fill up that box.

Mystic Vale is a four-player game. This is a bit of a disadvantage with my gaming group, since we often have five or six players looking to play at once. Mystic Vale Conclave includes extra decks and other materials so that up to six can play at once.

In our experience, Mystic Vale has very little “downtime” (the time you spend waiting for everyone else to take their turn). Typically there’s enough for you to do when it’s not your turn (shuffling your deck, prepping for your next turn) that sometimes everyone else will have played out their turns before you’re ready to take your next one. Nevertheless, Mystic Vale Conclave includes additional rules to make a five- or six-player game move faster, by allowing two players on opposite sides of the table to play at once.

For more experienced players, Conclave adds Totem cards. These are selected at the beginning of the game and add permanent effects for a player. As I looked through each one for the first time, I kept going “Oooh… Ahhh… I want that one!” And I haven’t even played the game yet! Once you become familiar with Mystic Vale, you’ll definitely want to play with the Totems.

The meat of the new expansion is the Conclave. This is a grouping of cards from previous expansions. Here’s an example:

To create the Upwelling Conclave, you have to sort through all 90 of your Vale cards and 252 of your advancement cards and pull out the ones that match what’s on the Conclave card. There are 14 Conclaves, so this took me about three hours.

This is not a criticism. I was in anal-retentive heaven.

Unfortunately it turned into anal-retentive hell. I discovered that I was missing three advancement cards out of the 252. It’s a not a game-breaking loss, but it made my first-world gamer soul ache a bit. Somewhere, those three cards are lurking under a piece of furniture in someone’s house, waiting to return home.

A more practical issue is that the list on the Conclave card is organized by expansion. This was a mistake on the part of whoever designed the cards. Unlike other card games with expansions, the Mystic Vale cards have no icon or other marking to indicate which expansion they’re from, so organizing a list of cards by expansion isn’t helpful. Simply listing them in alphabetical order would have made searching the Conclave card’s list against a particular card go faster.

You don’t have spend three hours between each game of Mystic Vale Conclave to re-sort the cards. The idea is that you pick a set of Conclaves (there are some recommendations in the rules) and blend them together. Afterwards you keep those cards as a single set; you can either build a new set later using a different group of Conclaves or play with a set you like. You only have to rebuild the Conclaves if you decide you don’t like a set for some reason.

Clearly, Mystic Vale Conclave is targeted at gamers who are Mystic Vale completists. If you don’t have all the expansions, you won’t be able to create all the Conclaves, and you probably aren’t having problems storing what you have in the original box. The exception is if you really want to have the five- and six-player part of the expansion, but at $50 (the base game is $45) it’s a bit pricey just for that feature.

Tally marks

A couple of days ago my friends saw a series of posts on Facebook.

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As a couple of people guessed, this had to do a fictional race called The Silence from the TV series Doctor Who. In the show, the chief property of The Silence is that you forgot about them the instant you looked away. The only way to be aware of them was to make quick tally marks on your arms for every one you saw… and then forgot.

A couple of weeks earlier, someone posted about doing the tally-mark bit as a prank. In a comment, there was a suggestion that this be done on April 23, the date that the Doctor Who episode The Impossible Astronaut aired. That was the episode that introduced the The Silence.

It was just a bit of silliness. If you do some searching, you’ll find other people celebrate Tally Mark Day.

It wasn’t the first time I did something like this. Many years ago, I celebrated Towel Day: In honor of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I wore a towel for the entire day draped around my shoulders. It showed all the hoopy that I was a frood who deserved to be sassed.

It turned out to a practical prank. During that day, a friend of mine called me and asked me to pick up his girlfriend at a local airport. How was she to identify me? No problem, I said. Just tell her to look for the guy wearing the towel.

As I drove her to my friend’s home, he asked that we stop and get some pizzas. They were really hot, straight from the oven, but the back seat of my car was filled with stuff. My passenger had to hold the hot pizza boxes on her lap. Was it a problem? No, because we had a towel. It kept her from getting burned, and soaked up any potential pizza juices that might have leaked.

So if you see someone wearing a towel on their shoulders, or with tally marks on their arm, it’s just a celebration of geekdom. It doesn’t mean the Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspacial bypass or annihilated to prevent the Last Question from being answered. Probably.

Life is Strange

I like Telltale-style games: Video-game stories that evolve as you make decisions throughout the game. Most of the games I’ve played in this genre are based on major commercial properties: Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, Back to the Future.

Life is Strange, published by Square Enix, is based on an original concept. You play Max Caulfield, a teenage high-school student in a Northwestern town. Within the first ten minutes of playing the game, you (and she) discover that you have the ability to rewind time.

This a significant ability in a story-telling game. Normally, once you make a decision you’re stuck with it for the rest of the game. In Life is Strange, if you don’t like the result of a choice you can rewind and play it again. This lets you look through all the dialog options with the other characters and make informed decisions for how you’d like a scene to play out. You can also use the rewind ability to solve puzzles, since items you pick up go back in time with you, and you return to the spot where you started the rewind.

Life is Strange‘s story falls into the “magical realism” category: Apart from the rewind ability, Max’s life is grounded in the real world reality of living as a typical mis-understood teenager. Max deals with career choices, making friends, fellow students who are dealing with depression, suicide, and drug use.

This leads to my one source of dissatisfaction with the game: it spends a lot of time dealing with teenage-style angst issues. It seems like a waste of time when there’s a potential murder to solve and hints that a disaster is coming that could wipe out the town.

The game has other rough spots: There were a couple of locations where I spent a lot of time wandering around looking for items that were hard to see on the screen, often for tasks whose only purpose was to resolve an unimportant plot point that the game wouldn’t let me skip.

Overall, I liked the game. It was a change of pace from the over-the-top fantasy action games I usually play. It shows there’s a place in the videogame world for human stories.

Batman: The Enemy Within

I enjoyed the first game in this series, Batman: The Telltale Series. It had a different take on the standard tale of Bruce Wayne as he transitions into his role of the Batman. It also set the stakes for a different origin of the classic Batman villains, especially the Joker.

Batman: The Enemy Within continues the story and greatly raises the stakes. It also puts a very different spin on the descent of the Joker; for example, in this version Harley Quinn is already criminally insane, and it’s the Joker who follows her.

Telltale games are known for their adaptive stories, which evolve depending on the decisions you make in the game. Batman: The Enemy Within take this to a higher level. Like all Telltale games I’ve seen, it’s played over the course of five episodes, but these episodes are longer (two hours or more) than most of their other games. The choices you’re presented with are more difficult; for example, do you try to make friends with the Joker in the hope of turning him away from Harley Quinn, or do you give up on him and allow him to descend into villainy? In this game, sometimes there are no “good” choices.

It’s my custom to play a Telltale game twice to get a sense of the different paths you can take within the story. The first time I play to be as “good” as I can be, the second time I make the worst possible choices to see how the story would turn out. Typically I see the same story “beats” no matter which path I take, though the characters react differently and there are some sequences that depend on earlier choices.

In the case of Batman: The Enemy Within, I was impressed by the difference in the story depending on your choices. In fact, when it came to the fifth episode, I played an entirely different game as a result of the difference between the “good” and “bad” paths; only a single scene was the same.

Another first, at least in my experience with Telltale games: The consequences of your decisions in Batman: The Telltale Series can, if you wish, carry over into Batman: The Enemy Within. Of course, I carried over my “good” Batman from the first game into “good” Batman of the second, and did the same as “bad” Batman. I really put Jim Gordon through the ringer in the latter; it’s a wonder he didn’t put a bullet in my head.

If you played Batman: The Telltale Series, Batman: The Enemy Within is a must-play. If you never played a Telltale game before because you thought the story might not be strong enough, this game might convince you otherwise.

A Witch Does Passover – 2018

The seder on Friday night was grand. It had all the usual elements: Good food, good people, and everyone wincing at the sound of my singing voice. (I can’t sing, but I never let that stop me.)

One major topic of conversation at this seder focused on the Wicked Son: why do people make a forced distinction between themselves and the rest of the world.

My usual notes:

– There’s always a debate on how well-cooked people like their roasts. I’d prefer an internal temperature of 140 degrees; rare-meat lovers would prefer 125. We settled on 135 so everyone could complain.

– The supermarket butcher told me, “You don’t have to order the roast in advance; we’ll have it.” He was well-meaning, but he didn’t consider that I might come in to get the roast just after the start of the butchers’ lunch hour. I had to hang around the supermarket for 45 minutes on shopping day. Always ask them to prepare the order in advance.

– I’d planned the seder to server 9 people, though only 7 could make it. There were barely enough latkes for 7. For the next large seder, get two boxes of potato pancake mix, perhaps using three envelopes.

– While we’re on the subject of latkes: Don’t forget that the latkes will get darker when I heat them up in the oven. They don’t have to come out of the frying pan fully brown.

– There weren’t as many matzoh balls from one box of the matzoh-ball mix as I would have wanted. Next time consider getting two boxes of mix, again perhaps using three envelopes.

– Make sure the oven is turned on when you bake the apple kugel. We had to hang around for additional half-hour after I noticed that it wasn’t heating. We spent the extra time and chatted with each other, so the time wasn’t wasted, but it did make for very late evening.

– “Behold this matzoh. It’s a symbol of our land. You can eat it at a seder. You can hold it in your hand. Amen.”