Key Forge

Key Forge


Keyforge is hailed as a game where “every deck is as unique as the person who wields it”.

To that I say… have you met people?

Keyforge comes straight from the mind of Richard Garfield, creator of Magic, and Fantasy Flight Games, publishers of card games that aren’t really like Keyforge at all. The premise is simple: most competitive card games have an effective entry cost, where you can’t expect to do much at even small tournaments unless you spend a certain amount of money building your deck. Keyforge attempts to do away with that scheme, selling full-fledged decks for $10 a pop and—most importantly—making them unalterable. The deck you buy is the deck you play with. Every deck is procedurally generated by a system that’s supposed to make them relatively balanced against each other, maximizing player agency and minimizing cost in the competitive scene.

Let’s cut to the main question: Does it work? Did they succeed?

The answer: Yes…?

Better answer: It mostly seems like it, though we’re early in the game’s run and that could change for better or worse.

By and large, as far as I can tell, not many decks stomp hard or get stomped hard. Given the breadth of the card pool, it makes sense. The number of potential deck combinations is bonkers, and mathematically only a tiny percentage of decks will roll over everyone (except similarly powerful decks) without the player needing to be better than her opponent. Likewise, rare is the deck that’s hopelessly outmatched by almost everybody. There will be small advantages for some decks over others, but it seems that you’re as likely to find those advantages because one deck matches up well against another as you are because one is simply stronger.

More importantly, to the designers’ credit, they’re implementing methods of curtailing the power of those oddly mighty decks on the competitive scene. First is the deck-switch method. Players play each other, then switch decks and play again. If the match is tied, if they each would prefer to play the same deck for a tiebreaker, they bid chains for the right to use it. This is a very useful way of keeping competition balanced, but may suffer from game length (more on that later).

Another method uses the game’s chain system. Normally, the chain system is similar to the overload mechanic in Hearthstone—play a card that’s very strong, but suffer consequences on later turns, in the form of reduced card draw. Competitively, however, chains are also used to handicap decks that overwhelm all the others.

On a small-time level, if a deck wins a local competition (going 3-0, for example), that deck is tracked and given a chain for its next competition. If it wins again, it gets another chain, because it’s clearly too strong for the available competition. If it doesn’t, the chain goes away, because maybe it’s only slightly stronger.

At larger competitions—and this is through the grapevine, nothing solid is written and posted—decks that keep winning will have chains added during the tournament. At a glance, this may seem unfair, like success is being punished. However, if a serious, large-scale competition didn’t have this in play, one of two things one happen. First, the slim percentage of powerful decks would run everyone else over, making serious competition feel like it requires either a lucky draw or buying the deck from whoever has it, killing the entire goal of making Keyforge a minimally pay-to-win game. Alternately, if decks were tracked and chained going into the tournament, it would incentivize players to never take place in trackable events and instead test decks on their own, which would hurt community events and participation.

In the long run, Keyforge’s viability will depend on the competitive scene’s foundations, which makes these questions of paramount importance. Let’s set that aside, now, and briefly talk about the game itself.

The system of play, where you choose one of your three houses and are free to play or use any cards from that house on that turn—but you can only use cards of that house, barring some special effect—will offer a welcome sense of freedom for some and a weird sense of limitation for others. Players who are comfortable using and manipulating outside energy sources in CCGs (mana in Magic, mana crystals in Hearthstone, wind stones in Force of Will, etc.) may find it awkward figuring out how to play efficiently with this system. The simplicity will be a major draw to some, though, and given time most players who are used to maximizing efficiency will adapt to Keyforge’s mechanics.

The games tend to run longer than other games, though. Things speed up once you’re comfortable with the game, but the mechanics combined with the fact you’re less likely to be familiar with what your opponent is playing compared to a Magic tournament (where the same relatively small subset of cards keeps showing up) slows down the proceedings. A best-of-three finishing in fifty or sixty minutes is less likely than in other CCGs, which is unfortunate since the aforementioned best-of-three style has the best odds of creating a strong competitive format. The game is young, though, so game speed may increase more and more with time, rendering this issue moot.

Finally—and this isn’t about the function of the game itself, but man, did it irritate the hell out of me—Keyforge is advertised as a game that doesn’t require anything besides a $10 deck to play and compete. Technically, that’s true. However, where cards on the battlefield in Magic have two states—tapped or untapped—that’s not the case in Keyforge. Tokens are necessary for a number of things, including stuns on creatures (stuns can add up, so keeping it tapped isn’t enough), embers (I’m not calling them ‘aembers’, bite me Garfield), and keys. You need something to represent these things. Unless you buy the starter set, the game doesn’t provide any of them. You can use whatever you want, be it coins, dice, whatever, but that still requires having those things available. Someone new to the game isn’t going to know that and is unlikely to be appropriately prepared, making the whole “buy a deck and play” not exactly how it works.

All that being said, if the biggest complaint I have is about peripherals, the game can’t be that bad. The biggest concern about Keyforge as a gaming experience is if long games (30+ min.) are the norm or outliers. In addition to the previously mentioned issues, because Keyforge is a game where the deck cycles its discard pile, you see the same cards again and again, which can become tiresome when the game just won’t end. But if the game matures and game times shorten to twenty minutes or so, I think that problem will be largely alleviated. Then it’s just a matter of whether or not they can sort out the competitive scene.

Short version, Keyforge needs work in some spots, but it’s better than I expected.

(4.2 / 5)
Illusion

Illusion

Look at the pretty colors… look at them… looooook…

 

How much color did you see WRONG WRONG WRONG

 

Illusion is a party game for a small party, which is to say it’s for a relatively small number (two to five), but also for people who don’t have to know anything about games to understand it and better if they’re all drinking.

 

The game is played with a deck of cards, each of which has a unique colored pattern on it. One card is placed face up and set on the table, along with a card from a smaller deck that just has a collection of colored arrows. The first player places one of the patterned cards face up and decides if it has more or less of the color on the arrow than the first card. So, for example, if blue is the color, the player decides if his card has more or less blue than the card on the table. If he thinks it has less, he places it closer to the arrow. If he thinks it has more, he puts it on the far side from the arrow. Simple.

 

The next player decides if the first player made the right choice. If not, she can challenge (more on that shortly). If she’s fine with it, she flips the next card and decides if it has more than both cards on the table, less than both, or should go in the middle. Then the following player decides to challenge or play the next card, and so on.

 

Once it comes around to a player who thinks the order is incorrect, they can challenge. The card is flipped over; on the back is the percentage of the card that is blue, red, green, or yellow. If any of the cards are out of order, the challenger gets the arrow card, which counts for a point. If all the cards are in the correct order, from lowest percentage to highest, the person whose turn just passed gets the arrow card. In essence, the challenge is to the previous player, saying they made an incorrect judgment either on the card they placed or in not challenging when they had the opportunity. Then whoever wins the challenge starts the next round. Play until one person collects three arrow cards, or just play through the arrow card deck (there are only twelve) and whoever has the most at the end wins.

 

If it wasn’t apparent, this is a game whose simplicity is its strength and weakness. Anybody can understand it and there’s no great strategy to it—you can try to figure out the math on when it’s good to challenge even if you’re not sure there’s anything wrong, but there isn’t much of an advantage to be gained. Everyone will get what’s going on almost instantly, so it’s a fun warmup, especially on a game night with some very casual players around. You’re not going to play it a ton, though; even if you’re extraordinarily fascinated by the game, eventually you’ll play so much you start to memorize the patterns and percentages on some of the cards, and that would be a huge advantage, possibly to the point of breaking the game for you.

 

Basically, if your collection could use a cheap casual game that acts as a good starter to game night when not everyone’s shown up yet, this is good. If you already have games like that which you’re still playing, you can hold off on buying this.

 

(3.8 / 5)

The Mind

The Mind

Can you read your friends’ minds?!

 

No. Stop trying. And if you do want to try, find another way.

 

This is what you do in The Mind: Everyone has a hand of cards equal to the level of the game. One person plays a card. Then another. Do that until everyone’s hands are empty. The goal is to play the cards, numbered 1 through 99, in numerical order while hardcore pokerfacing everybody at the table. You cannot speak, you cannot make expressions that potentially give away any information about your hand, nothing. (Of course, that’s necessary, since clues would make this game idiotically simple.)

 

Your group starts with a certain number of lives and throwing stars. As you pass through the levels, more of these become available. Lives are lost if someone plays a card and another player has a lower card in hand; throwing stars are used to allow everyone to discard one card from their hands. Run out of lives, you lose. Get to the end with any lives left, you win.

 

If you’re familiar with The Game, this is extremely similar, just with slight tweaks to make it more engaging. Its main advantage over The Game is this: The Game requires you to go through the whole deck, which means a bad shuffle can make it extremely difficult to finish. The Mind never has you deal out more than about one-third of the deck, so while you certainly can end up with a bunch of cards with similar values spread among the players, it’s less of a problem.

 

Problem is, they’re just tweaks, and it’s not much more engaging. The instructions have a bit that say “Don’t read until you’ve finished a game”, at which point they say this is a game about timing—the longer you wait to play a card, the farther away from the current card you probably are, so the players need to get a sense for how long each other will wait before playing a card X number away from the current one. They’re not lying; that’s what this game is, to the point that’s basically all this game is.

 

This is the kind of game that might have value with kids who need to learn teamwork, especially if you need them to shut up for five minutes. And there will always be people who enjoy this specific brand of mental cooperation. But as a game, it’s just.. not much of one.

 

(3 / 5)

Lost Cities

Lost Cities

I don’t know why I always assume games with the ‘South American explorer’ vibe revolve around Mayans. The Incas were pretty legit.

Screw the Aztecs, though. Stupid Eagle Warriors.

Wait, which game are we playing?

Lost Cities is a Reiner Knizia game, which is good! Reiner makes good games! So Lost Cities is… it must be…

Ok, look. This is a 2008 reprint of a 1999 game. Less was expected of the industry back then. It’s useful to go back and look at games like this so we see where our hobby came from while also looking towards where it’s going.

So.

In Lost Cities, you have five explorers and five tracks for them to go down. Each track has a randomized set of bonuses on certain spaces, and are worth a certain number of points at the end of the round depending on how far your explorer moves. There’s also a huge deck of cards, with cards numbered zero through ten and corresponding to the color of one of the tracks. If you want to put an explorer on a track, you play a card of that color. Easy.

However, if you want to move the explorer further along, you have to play a card of the same value or higher. Therefore, in order to move the explorer a decent distance (hopefully all the way to the end), you need to start with low value cards and work your way up as slowly as you can. You can discard a card and draw a new one rather than play a trash card; however, you can’t take too long, because as soon as a certain number of total explorers reach the break line on their tracks, the round ends, and explorers who haven’t moved very far are actually worth negative points.

The points get kind of stratospheric, which is neat—many games don’t go above fifty, and most don’t go above one hundred. If you’re not getting triple digits in a single Lost Cities round, that wasn’t a very good round.

But there’s not much strategy here. As the round draws nearer to a close, you may need to decide whether it’s worth the risk to start an explorer down a new trail when they could be worth negative points. It can be a consequential choice, but it’s about the only intellectual decision you’ll need to make. If you can go down a track and you have a low card, you play the card and go down the track. If you can hit bonuses that give you extra moves, you link them together as best you can. Maybe you play a 2 on one track rather than a 0 on another because you like the bonuses on that first track more, but you still have the 0 and you’ll still play it pretty soon.

I imagine that people looking for games that weren’t Twilight Imperium-sized but more friendly than Monopoly and less mindless than Chutes & Ladders were probably happy with this in 1999. Today, it’s quite possibly a good tool for teaching game basics to kids. Beyond that, it’s just a casual game that can kill an hour. Don’t avoid it like the plague, but it’s not much more than a thrift store purchase.

(3 / 5)

Tea Dragon Society

Tea Dragon Society

For some time, Renegade Games has been held up as an example of a company that consistently puts out quality products. I’m starting to wonder if it’s more a matter of them very consistently putting out products, and some of them are quality.

 

The art on the box is exactly like the art in the game: flipping adorable. If you want a game you can hug because it’s so KAWAII, this is definitely your thing.

 

For everyone else, it’s Fisher-Price: My First Deckbuilder. Everyone gets a character and a starter deck (differences are aesthetic only). You don’t have a hand of cards; all cards are face up in your ‘hold’. However, you draw cards and add them to your hold, which is functionally the same as adding them to your hand in a more normal card game. It’s like the entire point is to keep the information open so you can teach kids how to play, as if you couldn’t figure out playing with hands on the table if the kid’s problem was struggling with what to do without advice.

 

Cards can have up to four parts to them. Growth is effectively mana, the resource you use to buy cards. You can find growth in the upper left (that’s what she said…?). The cost of a card is in the upper right. If there’s an effect, that’s in the lower middle. Points are at the bottom/middle. And some icons are also in the bottom middle, while others are on the pictures, which is confusing but not a huge deal.

 

Your entire turn is drawing a card and, if you want to, buying a card. This at least has the effect of keeping the game moving. Your hand is sitting in front of you (that’s probably what she said), and you don’t throw it out every turn, so you already know how much growth you’re working with (she definitely said that) minus the card you draw next. The market and memory cards are all sitting there for you to peruse, so you’re considering your next play on other people’s turns, which don’t take long, and the game stays fairly active.

 

Market cards get added to your deck by using sufficient growth (do you think she said that? I do) and putting it in your discard pile. Memory cards also get added to your deck, but tend to be worth more points, have different effects, and are related to specific seasons—the game is played in four rounds, representing the seasons, and once one memory card is left you move on to the next season. When one memory card remains in winter, the game’s over. Count up your points.

 

It’s… fine. There’s not much here for adults to enjoy in terms of rich strategy. Anyone who comprehends deck builders will talk more about how cute the artwork is than the game. Bump it up in priority if you have kids in the mid-single digits to whom you’d like to teach very basic game ideas. Other than that, this isn’t going to entertain most people for too many playthroughs.

 

(3.1 / 5)

Scroll Up