The waters of the great Avulsion have receded. New lords have claimed their scattered inheritance. War is coming again and threatens the land. From a disparate empire, you must now conquer and build. Will your cities rise and teem with stonemasons, merchants, and mystics? Or will ancient dragons be your undoing? What does that all even mean? I haven’t a clue. Hopefully you’ll discover it all as you fight to be “Master of (some place called) Mythotopia!”
How it Plays
In Mythotopia players are nobles conquering, defending, and improving territory in the imagined, titular fantasy land. You earn points for holding provinces and achieving certain other stipulated objectives. It is an area control game which uses deck-building. However, instead of deck-building as a purpose in and of itself, like in Dominion or Ascension, the mechanic serves as a means to accomplish various actions resolved on the game board.
As with any deck-building game, you begin with a small hand of general all-purpose cards. As you progress, you acquire more which provide extra resources, better abilities and strengthen your deck. In Mythotopia, your starting deck consists of an Army, Ship, Market and Build cards, plus a number of Province cards corresponding to the random territories you control at the beginning of the game. Most cards, but especially Provinces, provide a resource – either food, stone, gold or armies. These are essentially the game’s currencies which you’ll spend for a variety of actions.
There are a lot of available actions in Mythotopia – 15 to be exact. I won’t go into great detail about each one here, but essentially you’ll use your hand of cards to resolve most of them. You begin a turn with 5 in hand, play and discard however many needed to take 2 actions, and then draw back to 5 before ending your turn. Like any other design in the genre, when your draw deck is exhausted you shuffle your discard pile and start over. This deck-builder has a few unique twists, however.
One, the pool of available cards to draft consists only of 16 unique copies of single cards. There are more than 16 in Mythotopia, so these will not always be the same every session. There are no piles of similar copies so that everyone has a chance to nab the same abilities. Second, you do not automatically clean up your entire hand each turn. You must spend one of your actions to actually discard anything. Otherwise, you retain any cards not played. That can be good, if it’s a nice card that will be of use next turn or very soon. Or it can bad, if it’s worthless to you. Third, you have a Reserve card on which you can place others, for 1 action. This saves that card for later use without clogging up your hand in the meantime. Your normal reserve limit is 2 cards, but that increases with the more cities you build.
Again most actions require cards. Some are straight-forward in that the card itself is an action. For example, Alchemist allows you to exchange a victory point token for one of higher value. Some of these are free actions, such as Providence which lets you simply draw 2 cards. The Build card is an action that requires additional attachments. First, play the Build card and declare what you are constructing – a city, castle or road. Let’s say you’re building a city. In that case, you must also play the Province card matching the location that you wish to urbanize. Then you must play 2 more cards with a stone resource to pay for the city. That’s a total of 4 cards: the Build card, a Province, and 2 with stone. Just to build one city.
Invading can use up a small arsenal of cards, as well. First you must declare the territory you’re invading and then play the matching Province card of a territory you control adjacent to your target. Then you need to play another one with a food resource (two if invading over hills). Finally, add a number of cards with enough army resources equal to the forces you’d like to march in with. That just starts the war. You cannot end it until your next turn and only if your army strength is greater than the defender’s when your turn begins. After capturing a province, you obtain its card and thus access to its resource the next time it comes around to your hand.
Other actions are simpler. For example, to draft one of the powerful Improvement cards, you simply play a card with a gold resource. These Improvements provide benefits that trigger with other actions or while sitting in your Reserve. They can ease the restrictions of card play by converting resources, replacing resources, and providing nifty, all-around rules-breaking abilities.
As you strengthen your deck and resolve actions to move armies, capture land, and build up your kingdom, you will be earning points. Each territory is worth 3 points, adjusted during play along a score track that rings the board. There are also 7 objective cards with varying amounts of point tokens placed on them. Three of these include earning points for building cities, castles, and roads. The other 4 are chosen randomly. They may be simple, as in paying 2 gold to earn 1 point. Or they may be a bit more involved like getting a ship into 3 or all 4 of the map’s sea territories. In any event, as you meet one of these criteria, you take one of the tokens. When at least 4 objective cards are emptied of their chits, the game may end.
About that end game. Essentially it just sort of “happens.” If you have the most points at the beginning of your turn, you may declare victory. Getting people off your back so that you can reach that point might be another matter.
A Few Acres of Myths?
While I’m aware Mythotopia is based on Wallace’s previous A Few Acres of Snow, I’ve never played that predecessor – but not because I didn’t want to. Apparently, its relationship to that one is more significant than merely foundation. The designs are so close in character that the rule book suggests those familiar with the former title may be able to play this one just by the rule book’s summary! While A Few Acres of Snow sounds steeped in theme, the story in Mythotopia is slightly more nebulous, to say the least.
I think the best way I can describe Mythotopia is as a connoisseur’s game. It’s not necessarily complex. However, there is a lot of layered nuance. Its elements blend seamlessly together and you can tell it’s a superbly crafted game. I’d say it’s even like a work of art. And that’s a testament to veteran designer Martin Wallace’s experience. At the same time, it’s not tremendously exciting – or even a little bit. If it were a movie, Mythotopia would be a narrated Indie playing at the Cannes film festival, not an action-packed summer blockbuster on popcorn-fueled big screens. Then again, it is from Wallace’s own independent studio, Treefrog, so perhaps that’s fitting.
Mythotopia has four major characteristics that lend it a sense of Indie artistry. The first is its pacing. To be blunt, it develops slowly. Or, to stress the design’s strategic nature, methodical might be a better term. The two action points per turn are not the issue. In fact, that keeps downtime to a minimum, which is a plus. The problem is that it can be difficult to muster the required cards for certain actions. The main culprit is in producing that Province card in which you’d like to build or stage an invasion from. But it can also be difficult to gather the necessary resources for other actions. Wars can also drain your hand. Feeding troops into a siege requires both army and food resources (unless you’re defending) which can delay your other plans – or spread you thin.
This is where the Reserve card comes in handy and it’s a creatively positive twist to the deck-building element. It allows you to set a card aside for later use, giving you time to gather the necessary resources to conduct the game’s more logistically cumbersome actions. While this is tremendously useful, it is still part of the game play’s methodical nature. Indeed it adds to it.
The second element is the design’s balance. It’s so precisely tuned. Now, it’s certainly possible to experience some unbalanced sessions, but not with experienced players, nor seasoned gamers. Each player begins with identical action cards. There is some asymmetry in starting resources, which are based on the provinces you’re randomly dealt. But in the beginning, those are purely luxury, as you still have enough resources with your action cards to get a few rudimentary things done. With that, you have as much opportunity as anyone to capture Provinces that will flesh out your resources, if needed. And everyone has equal access to Improvement cards. As with any game, some of those may be more powerful than others, but that’s all subjective and depends on your strategy, anyway. There are plenty of attractive options in that card pool. That speaks well of the design’s play-testing. As long as you don’t foolishly let individuals make an unopposed run on victory tokens or Improvement cards, you’ll have a well-balanced game that will be decided by player decisions.
Mythotopia’s third over-arching aspect is theme – or lack thereof. While it may include dragons and rune stones, they hardly impact game play. Dragon tokens significantly increase a neutral region’s defense, but there’s nothing special about them. That just means you need to bring more men. A few cards have fantasy-sounding titles. For example, Portal allows you to invade any territory on the board. In reality, it’s just a clever way to initiate an attack when you don’t have the right Province card to declare your location. Cities, castles and armies are simple tokens. It’s all adequately illustrated and flavorfully implemented, but rarely do you approach even a sense that you’re delving into a world anything like Game of Thrones-lite.
Finally, you just sort of stumble upon the ending. As you and your opponents set about building your empires, those victory point tokens dwindle little by little until you’ve collectively exhausted enough objective cards to trigger the end game. At that point, the pace can drag even more. Sure, players will be jockeying for position trying to eke out every extra point they can. There may even be some going after the leader. But rather than creating a tense showdown of brinksmanship, it’s a constant counting exercise to see who has enough points to win the game. And you may even realize who the winner will be before his/her next turn with no way for anyone to dethrone the victor, and so you just go ahead and end it then. Essentially it all wraps up like an exposited denouement rather than an acted-out climax.
Prior to reaching that endgame, there are plenty of juicy strategic nuggets to savor. The deck-building element is fascinating. With only one copy of each Improvement card available, you probably want to decide early on which ones to try for. Since you can only buy one per turn, you’ll also be hoping no one else beats you to something. The interesting result is that after several rounds no one will have anything close to a similar hand – unlike other games of the genre. Gathering the necessary cards takes time because you can only use each for one benefit. If you’re using a Province card to build in its location, you cannot also use the stone resource that might be on it. That can be frustrating, but also rewarding when you pull it together. And militarily, there is a decision-laden tug-of-war across the map. Choosing where to commit armies and which territories to improve and defend means there will be a lot of give-and-take as you decide to sacrifice one area to gain strength in another region.
Mythotopia is a difficult game for me to formulate a solid opinion. It’s technically sound, but thematically flat. While playing, I can certainly tell it’s brilliantly designed. Its unique and limited style of deck-building blends smoothly with other mechanics to create a strategically interesting Chess match of considerable variety, lots of choices and fluid interaction. Yet the overall experience lacks a certain vigor to really hook the undecided. The action moves slowly, often at a crawl, and that limits the game’s appeal. Still, hardcore gamers looking for a more tranquil, strategic battle of maneuver, siege and wits should gravitate towards this one. Especially fans of Martin Wallace. You can definitely see the experienced designer’s hands throughout Mythotopia – and quite honestly that’s the only reason it rises above mediocrity.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee Games USA providing a review copy of Mythotopia.