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)
Century: Eastern Wonders

Century: Eastern Wonders

The second in the Century series of games, Eastern Wonders blends with Spice Road to create a third game called From Sand to Sea. Maybe this is how they’re going to get to a hundred*.

*the author has no information suggesting they plan on getting to one hundred.

Where Century: Spice Road involved trading spice cubes with cards, Century: Eastern Wonders involves trading spice cubes with travel. The abstractness, then, decreases slightly—you’re on a boat! Rather than collect a hand of cards that lets you make trades, you place outposts on pieces of land that let you make trades (once the outpost is up, you don’t need to be on the tile to make that tile’s trade). The overall mechanics are similar, however—you place an outpost rather than take a card, make a trade where you have an outpost rather than with a card in your hand, or visiting a port with the cubes that will earn you the VP tile in that port rather than simply trade in the cubes for the VP card on the table. You also have the option to simply take two yellow cubes on a turn (harvest), in lieu of having a card that gives you that ability.

The difference in the core gameplay, if it’s not glaringly obvious, is the travel aspect. You move one space per turn, unless you earn upgrades that let you move more spaces per round. The faster you swing across the board, the faster you place outposts, especially since outposts are free if you’re the first one to place one in an area—once opponents have outposts up, it’s a little more costly, since your outpost costs one cube per outpost already on the tile. Thus, while sticking with one move per round is doable, two tiles of movement is very helpful; whether you want more depends on when you get your upgrades and, in many cases, how many players are in the game. You also can’t land on a tile with an opponent, so extra movement helps you avoid that scenario.

Upgrades are the main new feature in Eastern Wonders. You start with a board that has numerous outposts laid out in rows. Each row has a symbol replicated on some of the island tiles. If you place an outpost on a tile, you take the next outpost in line from the row matching the symbol on that tile. When you empty a column, you get an upgrade. You can choose from the aforementioned extra movement, extra cargo space, gain red cubes when you harvest, upgrade a cube when building an outpost, or take flat points for the end of the game. This, obviously, incentivizes spreading your outposts across certain spaces. However, the farther along a row you go, the more points each of those outposts are worth at the end of the game, so you’re doing fine as long as you throw down outposts wherever you can for free, and anywhere else that it’s worth the associated cost (keep some yellows handy).

Other than that, it’s still seventy percent recognizable as Spice Road. There’s not so much going on that you need to have played Spice Road to understand Eastern Wonders, but it definitely helps if you have that background knowledge so you only have to add the parts about the ships and the outposts. It’s probably better as a game in an objective sense; it’s just as solid, just as coherently designed, but there’s more going on, more options, and the lack of a hand of cards you need to reshuffle every so often smooths out the gameplay.

The option to sit in a space (like a port) and force an opponent to pay you a cube if they want to land there seems silly, but I got screwed over by it, so I’m definitely biased. Game’s still good.

(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)

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

How many fking castles does this guy need?

 

Between Two Castles is, as the name does not make any effort to hide, a mash-up of Between Two Cities and the Mad King Ludwig franchise. The core gameplay comes from Between Two Cities—there are two rounds, and at the start of each round, each player takes a stack of tiles. Draft two tiles, pass to the left, draft two tiles, pass to the left, until only one tile remains, which is discarded. You’re building a castle with each of the people adjacent to you, and your score is the lowest of the two castles you help build, which means you can’t let one of them suck.

 

The Mad King aspect is how all the tiles go together. There’s no spatial aspect like the original Castles of Mad King Ludwig; instead, you have several types of square tiles which can be placed around the core of your castle, the throne room. Like Castles, each tile has a type, and most tiles have a way to score points that relates to other tiles in the game. The most common adjacency rules are to score for tiles in the eight spaces around a given tile, or for all tiles above a tile, below it, or both. These can relate to the room type itself (utility room, outdoors area, etc), or the second icon on these tiles (swords, a mirror, and so on).

 

Another similarity to Castles is that you have much more freedom to build your castle however you want. Most rooms have to be built at the ground floor (the level of the throne room) or above, but there are downstairs rooms that can go below. Tiles have to be placed adjacent to other ones. The castle can go as high as you want, but all rooms must be supported by actual room tiles beneath them (you can’t place a tile above an outdoor area). Alternately, you can go as wide as you want—whatever works for your grand architectural plan.

 

Also like Castles, you get bonuses for fulfilling certain basic requirements. In this case, if you place three of a tile type, you get an associated bonus, and if you place five of one type, you get a specialty room tile that can add substantially to your final score. It takes some getting used to the bonuses; none of them are hard to understand individually, but understanding them well enough to grab them quickly in the flow of the game can be hard.

 

And if there’s a flaw in this game, the bonuses are it. Between Two Cities is a fantastic game. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game I don’t like playing, but which I can’t deny is well-designed—I’m just crap at spatial awareness. Putting together a castle in the Ludwig vein, according to BTC rules, is quite fun on a basic level. But the draft mechanic works best when everybody sorts through the available tiles, picks two, then everyone plays their tiles together and moves on to the next decision. When people get bonuses, new players will often overlook them because they want to move on to building more castle pieces; once everyone’s used to grabbing their bonuses, then the game either slows a bit while decisions are made (some of the bonuses require players choose from tiles or bonus cards), or some people move on with their next decision and are left to wait while the bonus earners catch up.

 

I didn’t have a chance to play this with a group who was experienced enough to blow through the bonus-grabbing process, so it’s theoretically possible the game plays very well once everyone is on point. Thing is, BTC is a fairly casual game, and it’s unlikely this game (especially with a bigger group) is only going to have experienced players in it. The rhythm of Between Two Cities that this idea relies on gets thrown off by the Mad King Ludwig aspects. Thus, while the idea is sound and the baseline game is pretty good, it winds up being about 90% as good as what you’d hope to get when putting two games of this quality together.

 

Still, when you’re working at this level, 90% is solid. If you liked both of the component games, you’ll probably like this. If you liked one and didn’t play the other, it’s worth trying. If… look, just play the game if you get the chance.

 

(4.1 / 5)

Orbis

Orbis

YOU ARE A GOD. The god of a pyramid-shaped universe. Make it a properly blasted hellscape.

 

Orbis is a game about managing two types of resources: your territory and your worshipers. Your goal, as is the goal of every reasonable god, is to accrue the most victory points (little known fact: the concept of victory points was first alluded to in the Book of Moses). By the end of the game, you’ll have chosen fourteen land tiles and one tile which solidifies your deific identity; this will create a pyramid, with yourself at the top, that is the finest universe in the cosmos, unless you lose.

 

Every round, you pick one tile from a 3×3 grid to add to your universe. Each of these hexagonal tiles has a color. You put a worshiper cube of the appropriate color on each of the adjacent tiles, then place the tile in your universe. And from this simple baseline, things get interesting (in the legitimate way, not the “I don’t have any other word to describe this” way) very quickly.

 

When you take a tile, you take under your wing all the worshiper cubes on that tile. These cubes are used for various purposes—at first, you might use them to pay for effects on the tiles you take, but relatively quickly you’ll need to start discarding certain sets of worshipers to take tiles off the grid. Tiles are placed according to a few particular rules. First, after you place one tile, all others must touch at least one tile already in your universe. Second, to place a tile on a level above the bottom row, there must be two tiles below it (so it makes the pyramid). Third, if a tile is placed above the bottom level, it must match the color of one of the tiles below it.

 

Once your on to your third or fourth tile, you already have some major decisions to make. Do I take the tile with more worshipers or that’s worth more points? You can only have a max of ten worshipers, but you can trade three of one color to get one of another, so you rarely have to discard any. Do I take the tile that’s more useful but which puts yet another worshiper on a different tile that I know one of my opponents is likely to take? Just how do I build my universe? (Something that doesn’t become obvious until you’re well into your first game is how the pyramid structure limits the types of lands you’re able to make maximum use of, since you have to string colors up the chain rather than place them wherever you want.)

 

On one turn during the game, you have to pick the god you want to be. Each of them potentially offers bonus points of you meet certain requirements. This choice is less impactful than it seems like it should be, as you will frequently be the only person able to make good use of a certain god. In many cases, you’ll wait until the end or take it on a turn when there are no tiles you want. However, in some cases—especially ones where a god is out that offers a bonus for having the most of a certain tile type, and you and an opponent are both going hard after that type—this does become a serious matter.

 

Now, what happens if you can’t pay the worshipers for a tile? Then you turn it into wilderness, which fits into a slot and is worth -1 at the end of the game. That sucks… except the wilderness counts as all colors. This means that it’s not just a penalty for poor planning—you can, and often should, strategically place wilderness in your universe so you can take a tile that doesn’t match the rows that come before. It’s another angle for building your realm that takes a bit of cleverness to use well.

 

All in all, Orbis is fairly light and easy to understand, but it’s a game that is going to leave people mulling over most of their moves. Planning is paramount, and for this reason an experienced player is going to have a major advantage over new ones, more so than is the case in most light games. But that just means you need to play it again. There are worse fates than a second go at Orbis.

 

(4.1 / 5)

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