IN THE YEAR 2000…
2000 was either the 2nd or 3rd time I went to Origins, and probably the first that I took on as a true “hobby gamer.” I had gone before, but all but ignored any booths that weren’t selling Magic: The Gathering cards. Back then, about the first 1/3 of the Origins exhibit hall was the open gaming / demo area (which is one reason why I’d like anyone that whines about the show “not feeling full” now to kindly shut their yap). In that area, on the very first day, I discovered the non-collectible card game Mystick: Domination by Anoch Game Systems. Over the next 4 days, I probably played the game half a dozen times including at least two games with the designer, Eric M. Lang.
That name should ring familiar to many that follow board games today. Eric has become one of the top designers around. He has practically invented the Living Card Game genre, he has designed or co-designed such great games as Chaos in the Old World, Quarriors, the underrated Midgard (one that, if I had a copy, would definitely be a nominee for inclusion on this blog), and the recent Kickstarter smash Kaosball. Today, though, I’d like to go back and take another look at his first published game, Mystick.
Mystick is a game playable by 2-5 players. I don’t believe I’ve ever actually played it as more than a 2-player game. The main reason for that is fairly simple: one “Pack” of the game only had enough cards for 2 people to play. So if you wanted a 3-4 player game, you had to own 2 copies of the game…and 3 copies for a 5-player game! Strangely enough, the game did not play 6, even though there were enough cards for a 6th player.
The theme of Mystick is that players are powerful beings that use the power of the Tarot to gain control over the physical world. In layman’s terms – each player is trying to either have the most power when all the power is taken, or the last player with cards left in their deck. And yes, if you so desire, you can even use Mystick cards as an actual Tarot deck if that’s your thing.
Upon opening the box, the first thing you’ll notice about the cards is the artwork. Instead of hiring artists of questionable ability, they went with the true masters. This gives the game a rather “epic” feel to the scope of the game. I will say that the back of the cards, with their quasi-neon suit symbols feel a bit out of place, however.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to describe the game as it comes out of the Basic Deck box (I’ll explain why later). In the box are 78 cards, 2 playmats, and rules. You do need to supply a set of gems / tokens / coins. There are 4 suits (Cups, Wands, Swords, and Pentacles) of 14 cards each in the deck of cards. This is very similar to a regular set of cards, with the addition of a “Page” with would fit between the 10 and Knight (or Jack in regular card terms). There are also 22 Major Arcana cards, denoted by the Roman Numerals 0 – XXI.
The cards in the box are already split into two playable decks, and indeed, if you get a sealed copy… there is an included tutorial which does a wonderful job of teaching the game. Assuming you aren’t playing the tutorial, you simply pick a deck, shuffle up the cards, and go. A typical deck in Mystick consists of just 39 cards: 14 from two different suits, and your choice of 11 of the Major Arcana cards.
The actual play of Mystick seems simple on the surface, but hides quite a bit of depth. Each player draws a hand of 6 non-Major Arcana cards (in this one case, any Majors you draw are reshuffled). Players then draw the top card for initiative. Whoever draws the highest ranked pawn is the start player. If you draw a Major Arcana at this time, too bad, it’s discarded. On a turn, a player has a choice of three actions: play, draw, or challenge.
The play action is simple – you play a card from your hand. What to play is a bit more complex. There are 4 different types of cards you can play: Environments, Pawns, Attachments, and Actions. Environments are world changing events that stay in play until destroyed or the game ends, Pawns are the characters you control, Attachments attach to pawns, and Actions are instant cards.
I want to spend just a little more time on pawns, as they are truly the most important cards in the game. Pawns have three key parts: their rank, their influence, and their abilities. Their rank is just like a regular deck of cards: a pawn of rank 7 is “better” than a pawn of rank 3. Their influence number is how much power that character is permitted to control, and how many cards they draw during a fate draw in the challenge phase.
Finally there are abilities on many pawns. Each suit of cards has a different trait. Cups, for example, can move and modify cards in a player’s Mystick Cross, whereas Wands have the ability to destroy other pawns. Combining the suits in different ways can make the game play in quite different ways (and greatly enhances replay value).
You draw a card. There is more that occurs once the third draw action is taken between the players, but we’ll come back to that later.
In the Challenge action. you choose one of your pawns to challenge either the Power pool, or an opponent’s pawn of equal or lesser rank. At this time, you do a fate draw. You draw cards equal to the pawn’s influence number, and place them onto your Mystick Cross play mat. For each Major Arcana and card matching the attacking pawn’s suit you draw you count 1 success. You may then discard any non-matching cards and redraw them (only once). Next, you resolve the actions drawn on any Major Arcana you drew this turn. Finally, you transfer as many power from where you attacked, to your attacking pawn.
Once all that is done, you score 1 point for each power you transfer over (plus any bonuses you might stumble across).
END OF ROUND
A round only ends one the Draw Action has been taken three times between all players. At that time, any bonus points are scored, then players check to see if the game ends. The game can end in two main ways. One is that the Power pool is empty during this phase. The other is if all players buy one are out of cards in the draw pile. And with 39 card decks, this can happen very quickly if you redraw several times during a round.
If the game doesn’t end, then players discard all cards in their Mystick Cross, and all the Power they collected that round. Most 2-player games will run 3-4 rounds at the most. It’s a short game to be sure, but there are plenty of meaningful and agonizing choices that can be made.
If this were all there was to the Mystick universe: I might say it’s a pleasant filler with interesting mechanics, but nothing with real staying power. You can mix the suits into different combinations, and use different combinations of Major Arcana to add a bit of variety. However, this is just scratching the Mystick surface.
…OR ARE THEY?
As I noted earlier, I described the game with the Basic deck. There was also a Power Deck released at the same time. The make up (number of cards, suits, ranks etc) of the deck is unchanged, but the card effects are generally more complex. You can play with just the Power deck, or you can now mix and match cards between these two packs to create your own decks (staying within the 2 suits of 14 cards and 11 Major Arcana framework).
In 2001, Anoch released Mystick: Companion decks. Another Basic and Power Deck that can either be played alone, or combined with the Domination cards for many more creative deckbuilding ideas. I dare say that with one copy of each of the four decks, you won’t get bored anytime soon playing with all the different abilities in this game. You have to look at this game as a direct ancestor to the Living Card Games of today. There’s no collectible aspect to the game, but there are customization opportunities galore. Sadly, this is where the Mystick (and Anoch) story ends. At Origins 2002, I ran into Eric at Fantasy Flight’s booth where he was demoing his new game: the A Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Back in 2001, I spent about 10-15 minutes at Anoch’s booth, talking to Eric about Mystick, and its future. I don’t remember much about the conversation (it has been 12 years, after all), but I do recall a few details that I’d like to share now. First of all, the card game was supposed to continue. I don’t recall in what form, but even in the Companion rulebook, it talks about being the end of the first “Cycle” of cards. Second, I remember that Mystick was supposed to be a truly all-encompassing property. I remember stories about tabletop miniature games, and an RPG, which is actually mentioned on the back pages of all the rule books. Unfortunately, I don’t believe either of those properties saw the light of day.
…OH YEAH, ONE LAST THING
In 2001, Eric also showed me parts of a prototype of a game called “Avatar.” Characters in the game were to be represented by small books. As I recall it, as they took damage and such throughout the game, you would turn the page on that character’s life (changing their abilities along the way). I’ve always wondered what happened to that game, and if aspects of it have ever appeared elsewhere…the world may never know.