The Cardboard Hoard: Initial Thoughts on KeyForge
KeyForge: Call of the Archons has been floating around in small quantities since Fantasy Flight’s In Flight Report at Gen Con, but I hadn’t had an opportunity to check it out. Hell, I hadn’t even seen it in the wild. However, with the retail release in November quickly approaching, my local game store was sent two unique decks for demoing at the store, and I got to play "The World’s First Unique Deck Game" using those decks at the store the other night.
While I appreciate that Fantasy Flight wanted to build some buzz for KeyForge ahead of its official release, I question their strategy of sending random decks out to game stores instead of starter sets. The starter set comes with two training decks, two unique Archon decks, as well as keys, tokens, chain trackers, and status cards and, to quote Fantasy Flight’s marketing material, “provides you with everything that you and your chosen opponent need to start playing!” So, by their own admission, without a starter set, did we not have everything we needed to start playing? Not exactly, but it wasn’t an ideal set up either.
We used an assortment of random dice to proxy the tokens for the keys, Æmber, hit points, and other necessary effects, such as the keyword stun, which, while functional enough to work, affected how smooth the game played, as well as its thematic immersion. More importantly, the two random decks we had didn’t come with an instruction book, so we had to rely on the store owner, who had previously read the rules on the FFG website, to teach us the game. Again, not insurmountable, but hardly ideal, and it all definitely combined to make the learning game take a lot longer than it would have otherwise. But I digress.
The unique decks were exactly as advertised, with each Archon Deck coming with a dozen cards each from three of the seven total factions, and an additional card with the Archon’s name, the three factions found in that deck, and a complete card list of what is in the deck -- including a QR Code to link the deck to a KeyForge app.
I played an Archon called “Winslow, the Advocate of The Vortex,” and the back of each card showed his name and the three faction symbols in his deck, and his name was also found on the bottom right of each card front. By random luck, both decks each contained the Mars and Logos factions, with the deck I used also containing Sanctum cards, and my opponent's’ deck containing Untamed cards.
The card quality was fine, which in itself is impressive when you consider how each card is completely unique, and the printing wizardry that must require. The boxes they come in, however, are not resealable like tuck boxes, which is less than ideal for storing the decks in. I am sure there will be custom options, or people will just repurpose MtG accessories for their KeyForge decks, but that was still mildly disappointing.
There are a few things regarding game play that stood out to me. In KeyForge, there is no “mana” or “summoning cost,” and if your deck runs out, it is just reshuffled. You are also not aiming to destroy your opponent or their creatures -- although you can attack and destroy their creatures to slow down their path to victory. So in these obvious and key ways, the game plays very differently than Magic: The Gathering. The win condition in KeyForge is to forge three keys. A player can forge a key at the beginning of their turn if they have six Æmber -- although that number can be modified with card effects, and keys can also be gained through card effects. So the game, in effect, is a parallel race to forge three keys first, with players able to sabotage each others’ engines by attacking with their creatures and clever card play.
Of course, there is a key limitation to what you can play on a turn -- which creates the majority of the decision space in the game -- and that is that you are only allowed to play and use one faction’s cards per turn, although this rule, as with everything else, can be broken by the text on certain cards. This limitation creates some really powerful turns, where you can lay down a lot of creatures, items and spells, and use your existing creatures to fight and reap Æmber, and also creates some turns where you are able to do very little due to having a balanced mix of all three factions in your hand and on the board. The most interesting turns in my limited experience were where I had to choose between using a lot of cards of one faction that were already on the table, or using a large hand of cards from a different faction.
KeyForge has powerful name recognition behind it, being designed by none other than Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield, and being published by industry heavyweight Fantasy Flight, the publisher of collectible juggernauts like X-Wing, Arkham Horror, and Android: Netrunner. But does it have the addictive hook it needs?
My answer after a single play -- a resounding… maybe. While my one play did not blow me away, it made me curious enough to want to play again. It engaged my curiosity enough to want to see all the factions, and to see how much smoother it will play once I have a better handle on the rules, as well as having the tokens that will make the game’s bookkeeping easier.
If I continue to play and suspect that certain decks are just far superior to others, it will be easy for me to walk away from the game. And if, after repeated plays, it seems like the game hinges on getting a better card draw -- in KeyForge’s case a draw where most of your cards are of the same faction, and hence you have a head start by being able to play five or six cards on your early turns instead of two -- that will also make it easy for me to abandon the game.
However, if the game does show itself to be fairly balanced -- and really, who can say with something so new and novel like this, certainly not for a while at least -- I can definitely see myself continuing to casually explore the game, as I have with Dice Masters, Star Wars Destiny, and other similar two-player games.