Friday, 25 January 2019


Plays: 2Px1.

Keyforge is arguably the most important event in the boardgame / card game industry in 2018. The designer is Richard Garfield, who created Magic: The Gathering. Keyforge is declared a unique card game - each deck that you buy is different from every other deck in the world. This is a very new concept. Keyforge is not the only game which features this, but at least for now it is certainly the one with the highest profile. It is introducing a new business model to the hobby.

Keyforge is a 2-player head-to-head card game. Each player has his own deck of cards. There are 7 houses (factions) in the game, and every faction has its own cards. A deck that you buy has 12 cards each from three different houses, making a total of 36 cards. There are 7 factions, and each has many cards, so there are plenty of permutations to make a deck of 36 cards. Duplicates are allowed - one of the decks I bought has two copies of the same card. That makes even more permutations. Every deck has a unique name and card back, so you can't take a card from one deck and mix it with cards from another deck. Well, technically you can if you use card sleeves with opaque backs, but it's against the spirit of the game and also the official rules. So the business model is different from collectible card games and trading card games. In CCG's you buy packs of cards to collect individual cards, and use the individual cards to build your own deck (which can be the same as someone else's). Rare cards are not easy to collect. You may need to buy many packs to accumulate, say, a set of four. It may be cheaper to buy them from specialty shops selling single cards. In Keyforge you are buying a specific deck of cards, generated by an algorithm to make sure it is playable, and to make sure it is unique. You can't customise your deck. You see what you get and try to make it work for you.

Keyforge has a starter box, which is the recommended way to get into the game system. It contains basic components (markers, mostly) you need to play the game, and four decks of cards. Two of the decks are preset learning decks. It is the exact same two decks in every starter box. They are designed to ease you into the game system gently. The other two decks are regular decks - they are unique. The starter box sold out soon after game release. I had planned to try Keyforge, but had not preordered it. By the time I wanted to buy, it was too late. I would have to wait for the reprint. However, many people feel the starter box is unnecessary. Those two learner decks are not really valuable. You can probably borrow it, or even get them free, from people who have bought the starter box and are now done with them. They are a tutorial basically. As for the markers and such, you can use other generic markers. Not as pretty, but it's workable. Then what's left are the two unique decks. For the price of the starter box, you can get four unique decks, thus the argument that the starter box is unnecessary. I was planning to buy the starter box, for the components. It would be nicer to play with the official components. Unfortunately I did not have the option to buy it, since it was temporarily out of print. I didn't want to wait, so I bought two individual decks instead.

These two are the decks I bought - Tobias "Neurosis" Lilafiddler on the left, and Rector J. Litblade on the right. When you buy a deck you don't know which houses it contains. I am glad that my two decks cover 5 of the 7 houses. I want to try as many different houses as possible. The only overlap I have is Sanctum.

When you open the box of an individual deck, you will find the deck of cards wrapped in transparent plastic. The top card lists all the cards in the deck, so without taking off the plastic wrap, you can see the content of your deck. I saw some players selling unplayed decks at half price on Facebook. These unplayed decks still had the plastic wrap, so I am guessing they looked at the card lists, didn't like them, and decided to sell straightaway.

The Game

Only now I am getting to the actual gameplay. Keyforge is a 2-player only game, in which you race to forge three keys. You need to collect 6 ambers to forge one key. You use the abilities of your cards to collect amber, and you try to do it more efficiently than your opponent. Each player has his own deck of cards. If you use up your deck, you reshuffle your discard pile and continue. Normally your hand size is 6. There is no limit to the number of cards you may play on your turn. At the end of your turn you always draw up to your hand limit.

On your turn you must pick a house to be your active house, and on that turn you may only play and use cards of that house. This is a key concept in the game. The are four types of cards in the game. Creature cards you have deployed can help you mine amber and fight your opponent's creatures. Artifact cards are placed behind your creatures. They give you long-term benefits and normally don't get involved in fights. Action cards have effects that are resolved immediately, and they are then discarded. Upgrade cards are attached to your creatures, giving them additional abilities. They live and die together with the creatures they are attached to. There is no concept of attacking your opponent in this game. You are not trying to kill your opponent. You are racing to forge your third key. When your creatures attack your opponent's creatures, your main objective is to slow him down. Creatures can help to gather amber.

Creatures and artifacts enter play in a horizontal position, which means they are exhausted and cannot be used yet. Exhausted cards are reset at the end of your turn. Whenever you use a card, you turn it horizontal so that you remember you won't be able to use it again this turn.

Forging keys is simple. Whenever you have 6 or more amber at the start of your turn, you must forge one key. Even if you have enough to forge two or more keys, you still only forge one. The next key has to wait for your next turn.

There's an archive concept in the game. Some cards let you deposit cards into your personal archive. At the start of your turn, you may take all cards out from your archive. The archive is useful for saving up for a big play. You can save many cards of the same house into your archive, and then take them all into your hand on the same turn, to be able to play many cards of that house within one turn.

The first row is my creatures. I use the green chip to indicate that creature is Stunned, i.e. unable to act until the Stunned status is removed. The second row is my artifact. This particular artifact has the Omni keyword, which means it is active regardless of my active house. The stack on the left is my discard pile. I use the dice on the right for tracking my Chains, since I don't have the official game components for doing this. The Chain concept is for temporarily handicapping a player, reducing his hand limit. When you have 6 or fewer Chains, your hand limit is reduced by 1. If you have 12 or fewer, it is reduced by 2, and so on. Dice work nicely for tracking this, because every dice you need equals one card fewer. Every turn your Chain reduces by one, so eventually you will be back to your normal hand size.

The pink chips at the top right are for tracking injury. The blue chips for increased Power. At the far left, the purple chips are amber. The leftmost card is my character card. It is for storing amber and keys. Next to it is the draw deck, and then the discard pile. On the right, the first row is the creatures, the second row the artifacts, and at the bottom the archive.

The above are the basic mechanisms. There are a few other concepts I want to mention. There is a Capture concept where your creatures Capture your opponent's amber and keep it until they get killed, after which the amber is returned to your opponent. You can't use such Captured amber yourself, but this slows down your opponent, and that's valuable. There is a Steal concept where you actually take your opponent's amber and make it your own. This of course is much more powerful. It slows down your opponent and speeds you up at the same time. There are many concepts and keywords which are applicable specifically to creatures and how they fight. Some creatures are Elusive, and do not get injured the first time they are attacked. Only when they are attacked a second time within the same turn that they would be injured. Poisonous creatures kill their targets as long as they are able to deal damage, even if the damage dealt is less the health value of the target. Creatures which can Skirmish take no damage when attacking. Many of these concepts will be familiar to CCG players.

There really is not a lot to the basic game mechanisms. By themselves they don't define what the game is. To truly get a feel of the game, you need to look at how the 7 houses are designed, what kind of powers the cards have, and what kind of interactions and strategies emerge form all of these.

The Play

I asked Allen to try Keyforge with me. Neither of us are CCG players. We have played some 1v1 card games, but not many. We dove in without much preparation or study.

The game flow feels quicker, compared to CCG's that I have tried. Not that I have played many, or played much of them. One reason for the brisk pace is there is no currency concept. You don't need to spend mana or money to play a card. You can play a card as long as it belongs to your active house of the current turn. You don't worry about generating enough mana, or generating enough mana of a specific type.

Selecting your active house is not as straightforward as it sounds. Although playing cards is free and you can play many on the same turn, most of the time they enter play in the exhausted state, so you don't get to use their powers immediately. To be able to use their powers, you need to select the same house again the next turn. By then, you may not have that many cards of that same house to play. Sometimes you are torn between wanting to play cards and wanting to use cards.

The is a race game, and collecting amber is what helps you win. Creatures mine amber for you, so you probably should not think of them as fighters who can do some mining on the side. They are actually miners who can do some fighting on the side. I'm making the game sound like one of tin-mining gangsters (Yap Ah Loy retheme anyone?). The game is first and foremost about forging keys, not fighting. Fighting is just a means of slowing down your opponent. When he has fewer miners than you, you will mine amber more efficiently.

Each of the seven houses has its characteristics. You want to play to their styles. Your deck will have cards from three houses, and you will try to make them complement one another. Things change quickly. Sometimes many cards enter play at the same time. Sometimes many creatures get killed by a single clever play, wiping the battlefield clean. This is exciting and fun. Each side tries to squeeze out some advantage over the other, and also try to negate any advantage the other side is having. When you get more familiar with the houses, you can anticipate better your opponent's plays and thus plan better how to play against him.

These are some cards from House Mars. Zyzzix the Many (bottom left) and Incubation Chamber (bottom right) let me put cards into my archive. Orbital Bombardment (bottom centre) lets me deal damage to opponent creatures depending on how many Mars cards I have in hand. If I use the first two cards to stockpile many Mars cards in my archive, then draw them all on one turn, then play Orbital Bombardment, I would be able to deal a massive amount of damage.

These are House Sanctum cards. The Sanctum faction is a faction of noble knights. They protect (increase armour) and they heal. The cards in the bottom row all have an orange gem at the top left corner. This orange gem is amber. When playing such cards, you gain amber.

The Thoughts

If I am to talk about the game mechanism, I can say this is a fast-paced game where the board situation changes quickly. It is fun trying to make effective combos. The houses do feel different, and feel like they have consistent stories. The same can be said of many similar card games though. Keyforge doesn't seem significantly better or different. In terms of craftsmanship and design quality, I think it is top-notch and it does not lose out to other top games. The only more obvious difference I see is it is more streamlined and fast-paced.

What's more interesting to talk about is the whole game system and how it compares to other games as a hobby. When comparing Keyforge to games like Magic: The Gathering and Android: Netrunner, the analogy that comes to mind is mobile games vs PC games. Normally "mobile games" is derogatory, but I don't mean it that way here. Mobile games fill a different need. You play them in your fragmented time. You don't need to sit down and commit one or two hours to enjoy them properly. They are easy to get into and they appeal to a wider audience. They are not limited to hardcore players. It is not surprising that some hardcore PC gamers consider mobile games not proper games. Keyforge has no deckbuilding. The deck is already built for you. You just play. You don't worry about collecting cards to build a dream deck. You don't need to spend a lot to get into it. You just need to buy one deck, then find other players in your community. I bought the Android: Netrunner base game and many expansion packs, but I never really got into it because I couldn't set aside the time to learn it properly and to do deckbuilding. I couldn't commit to playing regularly with other enthusiasts. Netrunner takes more effort, but it is also rewarding when you learn to play well and when you play against other good players. Keyforge requires much less commitment. You can play casually. It feels less intimidating because I don't need to spend time on deckbuilding and studying how to make good decks. I just make the best of whatever deck I play.

Another analogy is dating vs marriage. Marriage is a big decision and needs commitment. A date is much more relaxed. Not that you are not serious about it, just that you are not expected to make any promises. Let's just play and see where it goes. Keyforge feels like a much more welcoming game, and more suitable for casual play.

Quite a few boardgame cafes and groups in Kuala Lumpur are doing Keyforge events. I have not joined any, nor am I part of any local Keyforge community, so I'm not really sure how things work. Magic and Netrunner are games that need communities. You want to regularly play with various people with different decks and play styles. Everyone regularly tweaks his decks. This is what keeps the games interesting. You can play the game again and again because if this variety. You fellow players are creating new content for you to enjoy, as you are for them. You learn from one another and grow together. I think CCG's are inseparable from their communities. If the community is lacking, the game as a hobby feels incomplete. I think Keyforge needs a community too, even if the level of commitment required is less. I think a big part of the fun is getting to play with and to play against many different decks. Every deck in the world is different!

I imagine players in a Keyforge community can regularly trade decks. Once you've played enough of a deck, trade it with a fellow player, and both of you will get to try something new. It's win-win. If it's a deck you like and want to keep, you can still lend it to your friends.

I am curious how Keyforge will be like as a consumption model. I have seen people buy decks, open them to see the card list, and then immediately deciding to sell them without even opening the plastic wrap. A deck is not expensive, so for a player to be regularly buying and trying out new decks is a reasonable consumption model. This may be cleverer than CCG's. In Keyforge I may be buying the same card many many times, but because it appears in different decks, the card backs are different, so these many copies of the same card are not really the same. I wonder whether an average Keyforge player will be spending more than an average Magic player in the long run. Netrunner players probably spend less than Magic players, since they buy a finite set of expansions.

I wonder whether there will be new cards introduced to Keyforge. Or maybe the question is when, not whether. Magic has a regular release schedule, introducing new cards and expiring old cards (expiring as in disallowing them in standard tournaments). The game stays fresh. Players get new toys to play with. The game company continues to make money. It's good for all. I wonder whether Keyforge will have something similar. I don't think the business model, the consumption model, or how Keyforge works as a hobby is stable yet. The game designer and publisher may have their intentions for the game system. I wonder whether the game system is shaping up to be what they had imagined. I am curious to see how this goes.

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