Game at a Glance
The game shown in this preview is a prototype; components and gameplay in the final version are subject to change
Mercurial is set in a world where magical elements are unstable and in a state of flux. You are a mage who has taken a pilgrimage to this strange new land to seek your fortune.
This is an engine-building, dice-manipulation game themed around spell crafting. Throughout the game, players will roll elemental dice and manipulate them with their Skill Alteration card deck in the hopes of combining spells in powerful ways. Once a spell combination has been cast, its effects can be used to perform heroic deeds and collect Arcanas (both of which are worth Victory Points).
The turn structure is fairly simple. Players start with a small hand of Alteration Cards, a few crystals, and a specified number of Elemental Dice (that are rolled before any new spell creation phase). During their turn, players choose to take and play a card or to cast their spell.
As spells are acquired, players must pay the cost. Spell components cost elemental dice and/or crystals. A Spell Card on its own is not powerful enough to perform heroic deeds, so the mages must combine several to create a combination that results in an intense effect.
The end game is triggered when a player completes a certain number of heroic deeds (depending on player count). Then players add up their victory points from all collected Heroic Cards, Arcanas, VP Tokens, and Sigil Bonuses. The mage who earned the most victory points wins.
There are a lot of gameplay similarities between Mercurial and Century: Spice Road (or Century: Golem Edition). The cards are of similar size and function, the resource-conversion engine is familiar, and they even share the same end game trigger. While Mercurial does draw much inspiration from Spice Road there are quite a few distinctions. In the Century games, the resources are converted and used directly in the purchase of the VP Cards. In Mercurial, there is an entirely different and fluctuating resource in the Elemental Dice with the gems acting as supporting currencies. These resources are not used directly to purchase VP Cards. Instead, there is a layer in between these two actions – spell crafting. This adds a lot more weight and complexity to the game.
Mercurial adds a few additional ways to score VPs which adds additional complexity. There is a race to Arcanas which can be used to rake in end game points and there is a set collection element as well. Both of these methods for acquiring VPs should not be overlooked as they may add a significant point boost to the final score.
The Elemental Dice add randomness to the game. A little luck keeps things exciting and the use of the Skill Alteration Cards ensures that bad luck in rolling will not be a player’s downfall. By constructing a good deck players should be able to manipulate their Elemental Dice to suit their needs in most situations. When this isn’t possible cards can often be played for their secondary effect: rerolling a specified number of dice which is helpful when choices are limited.
Each dice face represents an element: Fire, Water, Lightning, Earth, Aether, and Void. Fire and Water are the primary elements powering Ruin and Restore spells, respectively. Lightning and Earth elements are useful for purchasing supplementary spell cards that tend to be useful for enhancing the spell in a variety of ways. Void and Aether elemental dice are not used directly in the purchase of spells but serve as a transitional element and a spell boosting element, respectively.
The spell crafting in this game feels fresh to me and provides a crunchy puzzle that resets after each casting. A large part of this puzzle is earning enough Restore or Ruin values from each spell to purchase a VP Card. If a spell contains both Restore and Ruin values, these opposing effects cancel each other out. Generally, it’s best to focus on just one value for spell crafting purposes; however, if a mage can find a way to balance Ruin and Restore in their spell, Equilibrium can be achieved resulting in an even more powerful effect. This is a risky gamble – finding a balance is not always easy and I have had Equilibrium attempts backfire on me more than once leading to a dud of a spell that barely eeks out any Victory Points. But when it does pay off, it pays off big and is incredibly satisfying.
Casting a disappointing spell does not equate to total disaster. Once spells are cast and their effects are resolved, the player resets to begin crafting a new spell. All used Elemental Dice are returned to their pool and rerolled. All of the Mana Crystals allocated to spells are returned to their player board, and all spent Acuity is discarded. Used spell cards are set aside for use in end-game scoring, and then they’re ready to start drafting new spell cards. This blank slate works well to give the player a fresh start.
If a spell is used to purchase a Heroic Card, the Mage “levels up” in a sense by earning another Mana Crystal which is a permanent boon. This is reminiscent of an RPG where your character gets more powerful as they gain experience.
The game comes with three double-sided Arcana cards which can be earned during casting when the right conditions are met. These cards tend to be a bit more difficult to earn than the Heroic Cards but can offer powerful end-game scoring benefits and are worth putting more effort into a spell to acquire them. In addition to the Arcanas, many Heroic Cards have one or two Sigils that should not be overlooked. Not only do these Sigils have to potential to boost the effects of a Skill Alteration card, but also can add VP to the final score if you can collect sets. Although Heroic Cards will make up the bulk of a player’s VPs, Arcanas and Sigil Bonuses should not be ignored.
Although Mercurial shares some of the Spice Road DNA I would say it’s quite a bit heavier and might not be as accessible to entry-level gamers. The turns are a little more complex because players are often taking two distinct actions instead of one. There are additional ways to score and create combinations that add weight to the game. Perhaps the most significant complexity comes from adding a degree of separation between the resources and the VP. Players must translate Elemental Dice and Mana into a spell, which is essentially a mathematical equation, to create a result strong enough to purchase a VP card. That alone is a little crunchy, especially when trying to pull off an Equilibrium spell. This complexity is even stronger with the addition of other players who are drafting spell cards from the same market. Understanding how to build a spell is not terribly difficult on its own, but adding in additional players who will likely grab a key spell component forces players to think on their toes and find ways to pivot. And sometimes when that happens, it’s not easy to figure out how to save the spell.
Most of the time these unexpected wrenches in our plans were fun tactical problems to solve. Occasionally this caused a bit of “Analysis Paralysis” in my husband and me. It didn’t happen often but sometimes the Spell Cards in the market would not synergize with either of our spells, and we felt the pace of the game slow down. At those moments, the game would start to feel like it was staying past its welcome. Eventually useful Spell Cards would start appearing in the market and the pacing of the game would speed back up. I think at higher player counts this issue likely resolves itself due to the quick card market turnaround.
There is a lot of in-game lore and terminology involved that might add a bit of time to the teach. I appreciate that the world is well thought-out; however, it’s possible to teach the game with simple substitutes (“blue crystal” vs. Mana, etc.) For the purposes of teaching the game, the language doesn’t much matter, because Mercurial is language-independent. The symbology in this game is very clear and easy to understand once a basic understanding of them is achieved. It took me a few rounds to pick it up but once it clicked, it was fairly intuitive.
Asymmetry in the game helps to boost the replayability, as does the variable setup from the card markets, randomized Arcana bonus cards, and the luck involved in the dice rolls. Each player starts with a unique class of mage that has a slightly different strength.
There is quite a bit of interactivity in the market and a race for the Arcanas, but in my experience, the game never felt mean. Balancing an intricate spell equation means it rarely makes sense to take a Spell Card simply to mess with an opponent – you need to ensure it will work with your spell first. That isn’t to say my husband was not taking spells I desperately needed – it happened quite often but was not done out of maliciousness but out of necessity. I was certainly paying attention to his spells but mostly to try to anticipate if he was going to snag the card I wanted, not to try to take what I thought he needed.
Fans of High Fantasy artwork are in for a treat here. The cards are illustrated beautifully. The Alteration Cards often showcase mages in dynamic poses caught in the middle of an elemental alteration. I particularly enjoyed the Heroic Cards that feature epic fantasy battles with mythical creatures and the discovery of mysterious rune-inscribed monuments. They each hint at a story that allows the players’ imaginations to wander. The spell cards rely more on graphic design which helps distinguish them and also ensures legibility.
Mercurial is multi-layered and there is much to consider with each move. Perhaps it loses some elegance for the sake of complexity but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes I want to spend an evening crunching numbers and hoping to balance out a spell in a powerful way. It’s not always easy to pull off, but if I can make a complicated spell work well it feels so incredibly satisfying.
Mercurial might have some familiar mechanics to other card-engine games, but it can stand on its own. The simple fact that each spell is constructed uniquely serves to de-emphasize the card engine which makes it feel unique to other titles in this category. The real heart of the game is in the tactical spell crafting which is wonderful because that part was a lot of fun for me.
I really enjoyed Mercurial‘s game progression. As mages complete tasks, they “level up” in a sense and can afford to construct more powerful spells. This really works well with the theme. And the lovely fantasy artwork makes this game a treat for the eyes and imagination. This game is a stunner!
The biggest complaint I had playing the prototype was the game length. Sometimes it felt a bit longer than I would have preferred. Fortunately, the designer is looking into shortening the length and enhancing the engine-building aspect of the game. I think a few minor adjustments in this regard will do a lot to improve a game I already am quite fond of. I am extremely excited to see how this project progresses and to play the final product.
Mercurial is coming to Kickstarter on March 22, 2022. If you love high fantasy, dice manipulation, and resource conversion games this is certainly worth a look.