PuzzleNation Product Review: Mystic Market

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[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

If you’re familiar with ThinkFun and their challenging and clever logic puzzle games, you know that most of them are one-player endeavors designed to pit the player against the game itself, playing repeatedly with increasing levels of complexity added as the Challenge Cards toss new twists and turns your way.

It is a formula that has worked well for them in the past, and yet, it’s one that they’ve completely put aside with their newest offering, Mystic Market.

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Rather than focusing on deduction in some form — through completing tasks, paths, or circuits — Mystic Market requires players to react to both their opponents’ actions and the ever-shifting demands of the game moment-by-moment in order to achieve victory. You see, players at the Mystic Market are competing to earn the most money. But how do you do that?

By buying and selling magical ingredients, as well as the potions you can make from those magical ingredients, of course.

To start, players receive four ingredient cards and five one-point coins. They then take turns interacting with the communal Ingredient Market and Potion Market, where they can buy, sell, or swap ingredients, as well as craft or play potions.

Each potion you craft and play not only brings in a profit, but it also allows you to take actions that affect the game (even when it’s not your turn).

But here’s where things get much trickier. The cost of ingredients (when purchasing them) and the value of ingredients (when selling them) changes throughout the game.

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Say hello to the Value Track. This inclined plane contains samples of all six ingredients in the game, representing their current value on the market from least expensive to most expensive. (The numbers represent the value of ingredients when sold as a set, while the dots indicate the cost of ingredients.)

The value of ingredients can be altered in two ways: by player actions or by random supply shifts.

When a player sells ingredients — either as single cards or complete sets — they move the colored vial representing that ingredient to the top of the Value Track, lowering its current value (because there’s now more of that ingredient on the market, so the price comes down). The other vials shift as a result of this action, and any vials that were previously cheaper increase in value due to relative rarity in the market.

This mechanic not only brings an element of randomness to the game (because prices aren’t static, as they are in many other games), but it also introduces a deeper level of strategy and opportunism to the gameplay as well.

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Because you can purposely affect the market, either inflating or deflating the value of ingredients through your purchasing and sales, you can create new chances for investment or spoil the attempted investments of your fellow players if you see them stockpiling certain ingredients.

You also have to keep a close eye on the Value Track, because you want to spend as little as possible when buying, and then strike while the iron is hot and sell when your ingredients are worth more.

There are a plethora of resource management games out there, with tons of mechanics for buying, selling, and swapping resources between players or with some sort of market or bank, but I can’t think of another game that simulates an ever-changing spectrum of prices and values for those resources as simply or as elegantly as Mystic Market does.

So, really, you have to play two games in one. You’re not just an alchemist working to create magical potions from otherworldly ingredients like phoenix feathers or mermaid tears; you’re also a savvy entrepreneur looking to corner the market on the ingredients you need and make a tidy profit from your investments.

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It’s certainly a lot to manage, and it took a handful of playthroughs before I really felt like I had a good handle on balancing all of the game’s elements. But with each successive round of play, I understood and enjoyed the experience more than the previous game. Because as you get better at taking advantage of the Value Track, so do your opponents. Each game becomes the magical equivalent of an arms race as you try to build your fortunes and make the most of a dwindling supply of resources.

This isn’t the sort of game I’d expect from ThinkFun — competitive gameplay isn’t really their style — but that only made Mystic Market a delightfully surprising treat that still ably represents their core values: teaching through play. This time around, they manage to make business, investments, and the stock market all integral parts of a terrific gaming experience.

[Mystic Market is available from ThinkFun and other participating retailers.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Constellations

Plenty of games offer ambitious goals for the players to achieve. You become a real estate tycoon in Monopoly, a castle owner in Castellan, and a time-traveling adventurer in U.S. Patent Number 1. You could traverse the country in The Oregon Trail, save the world in Pandemic, or conquer it in Risk. That’s part of the magic of games.

But what if you could build the night sky? What if you could harness the stars themselves, assemble constellations, and place them into the heavens above?

Now that is a puzzly endeavor worthy of your attention. And that’s the concept behind the game in today’s product review. We’ll be trying out Constellations by Xtronaut Enterprises.


Constellations combines the resource management card game mechanics of Just Desserts with the pattern-matching tile play of Carcassonne to create an educational and engaging play experience.

Each player starts with five star cards. Each star card represents a different type of star (or in some cases, two of that type of star). The star cards are used to assemble various constellations in order to score points.

The game begins with one constellation already placed in the sky, as well as three possible constellations to build. Players may reserve one of the three constellations, making it their primary goal and removing it from play for the other players.

As you can see in the picture above, different constellations require different combinations of star cards. Some constellations are simpler, so they’re worth fewer points. Other constellations have higher values, but more complex combinations of star cards, which may be harder or more time-consuming to collect.

[One constellation tile, plus the star cards played to complete it. As you can see, you can use extra stars as needed (like a Two B-Type Stars card above), as well as using O cards as wild cards (as I did for the two A-type stars needed to complete this constellation.]

Once a player has gathered all of the star cards necessary to complete the constellation, they then must play it in the night sky, placing it adjacent to one or more of the constellations already completed.

You score points by placing a constellation so that the gemstones along the edges match the neighboring constellation(s), and there are additional points available for placing constellations beside other constellations (as they would appear in the actual night sky). For instance, Leo Minor offers a two-point bonus when placed next to either Leo or Lynx.

Different arrangements of gemstones around the edges of the constellation tile require you to be crafty when and where you place your tile, since more matching gemstones means more points.

[In this layout, Taurus was added perfectly, matching gemstones with both Perseus and Ophiuchus. Pegasus, on the other hand, matched Perseus nicely, but only matched one gemstone with Orion.]

Unfortunately, you have to play a completed constellation, and sometimes the gemstone patterns don’t match up at all. If that’s the case, you’ll lose two points for a constellation played out of place. (Once again, the closer you get to placing your constellation as it would actually appear in the night sky, the better it is for your game.)

All of the game’s mechanics are designed around actual science, which is a very cool touch. The star cards include “Did You Know?” facts about each type of star, and the instruction booklet also includes a short guide to stargazing, star classification, and little write-ups for each constellation included in the game. (There’s even a criss-cross-style crossword on the back page!)

Constellations is great fun, requiring strategy, timing, and puzzly observational skills in order to effectively play the game. The educational aspect doesn’t detract from the gameplay at all, and the alternate rules offered in the back (as well as rules for shorter and longer gameplay times) offer an impressive amount of replay value.

All in all, Constellations mixes card games and tile games with ease, and it makes for a fun and mellow gameplay experience.

[Constellations is available from Xtronaut Enterprises and other select retailers.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Hoard

Stealing a dragon’s treasure is an iconic adventure trope, a classic test of a hero’s mettle or a thief’s craftiness. But do you have the skills and luck necessary to pilfer from a sleeping dragon and get away clean?

In the card game Hoard, you’ll get your chance to do exactly that as you and your fellow players maneuver around a sleeping dragon, trying to collect matching sets of treasure while defending yourself from or attacking your fellow plunderers, all with the ever-present threat of a slumbering fire-breathing beastie looming over you.

In fact, waking the dragon (or lulling it back to sleep) is a key part of the game play, since it could be to your advantage to wake the dragon after securing some treasure for yourself.

Hoard combines the resource management aspect of numerous other card games with the luck and wherewithal of Memory. As you move around the board, you have the choice to look at one of the dragon’s treasure cards. You can either take that card, or you can leave it (and hope you remember what you found there, in case you need it later). If you leave the card, you’ll instead draw a random card from the deck.

You might find helpful treasure, a sword to attack with, a shield to defend with, a way to wake the dragon, or a way to soothe the dragon. The variety of cards makes the relatively small playing area a rich field, rife with possibilities.

Wait a minute, why would you WANT to wake a dragon?

Simple. You play for several rounds, and each round can only end in one of three ways:
A.) The last card from the deck is pulled
B.) A player begins a turn with no cards in their hand
C.) The dragon wakes up

So, if you’ve secured a good bit of treasure and you think you’ll win that round, it’s to your advantage to wake the dragon and end the round before the other players can catch up.

Only the players with the top two point totals (amassed from making treasure sets and other related card patterns, similar to Go Fish) receive victory points at the end of the round.

The first player to five victory points wins the game.

The strategy involved is what makes this a terrific game for puzzle fans. You need to make sure that you keep finding matching sets of treasure (both by remembering what cards are around the dragon and seeing which cards you get from the deck), defend your treasure from the other players, and avoid getting outfoxed in manipulating the dragon.

The mechanics of the game are simple, but the sheer number of options available to the player — as well as the element of chance involved — make for a very replayable game experience. One round, the dragon could be your greatest ally, while another time, the dragon wakes at the worst possible moment for you and your meager treasure hoard.

A great game for families, casual players, and hardcore board gamers alike, Hoard is gorgeous, well-executed, and great fun.

Hoard is a Cheeky Parrot Games product, available online now!


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