Key Flow is a 2018 re-implementation of Keyflower. It is an interesting game that is a cross between 7 Wonders and Agricola. Although suitable for two to six players, it is best played with four. A typical game will last about an hour irrespective of player count.
The game is based in medieval times where players aim to develop a village and farms along a river. By placing workers in their village or in neighbouring hamlets, they obtain resources and materials to build and upgrade. The game plays out over one year with four distinct seasons. All victory points are counted at the end of the winter.
Key Flow is a card drafting game from R&D Games. Before the game starts each player is dealt five cards to be kept and then played during the last season of the game (winter). These winter cards can determine how victory points may be achieved in your village. By knowing in advance what buildings or resources might score well, the player can plan and be selective about the way in which their village develops. Each person will therefore have a slightly different game plan or strategy.
Beginning in Spring, each season, players are dealt a number of cards. Some represent areas of the village where resources might be generated (e.g the wood, the gold mine). Other cards are fields with animals that also can yield resources and equipment. Still, other cards contain trades such as a builder or a workshop. Finally other cards are villagers, called “keyple” cards (Key Flow + Meeple = Keyple).
Each turn players simultaneously select one card from their hand, passing the remaining cards to their left or right (depending on season). This mechanism is identical to 7 Wonders gameplay. Cards are laid at the same time either to develop your village or to place a “Keyple” worker on a resource card. Any resources generated remain in that part of the village. To be of use they will need to be transported and used to upgrade other parts of the village. To do this, in subsequent turns, “Keyple” workers are placed with the farrier or cart owner to work in that part of the village and move the resources.
With each season the village expands. You might choose to concentrate on resource generation. This popular village will let you (and your immediate neighbours) gain resources by playing “Keyple” cards in your hamlet. These played cards become very valuable at the end of the game during scoring after winter. Other players may choose to focus on farming and building fields. Their animals can all score points. Some might develop their town with many other traders (such as jewellers) or perhaps build grand structures like a cathedral.
After three seasons (Spring, Summer and Autumn) your medieval hamlet has developed. A review of the played cards, in the light of the initial five winter cards, allows a player to consider how to maximise their points. However, only one of these scoring winter cards can be retained. The rest are shuffled and added to the remaining cards and re-dealt.
The final season is all about finessing your village, upgrading locations and moving resources to areas in order to maximise scoring possibilities. Each season lasts about 15 minutes so a game is always completed within an hour.
Thoughts about Key Flow
I must confess, when I was first given Key Flow it sat un-played for quite a few weeks. However, having got it to the game table, it has really grown on me and I am so glad to have it in my collection. Opening the box reveals a sturdy card insert. The cards (slightly narrower than a standard playing card) are colourful with clear symbols and pictures. As they are played and as the village grows, they create a pleasing map of your medieval township. The tokens are bright, well-crafted and fit nicely on the cards making it easy to see where resources need to be placed.
Key Flow sits in that sweet spot between a light filler game and a heavy Euro-style thinking game. Each game finishes within an hour and because each player selects cards simultaneously, there is no downtime between turns. Every turn provides numerous choices, dilemmas and possibilities. You can vary your village development depending on the availability of cards. Although there is worker placement for resources (as in Agricola), every player has an equal opportunity to claim these on that turn. This mechanism ensues that the whole game feels balanced and fair. There is no first-player bias.
The card drafting mechanism with the passing and receiving of cards (as in 7 Wonders) ensures that the game moves along quickly. Of course, there are some turns where you might receive a fantastic hand of cards. This will create a dilemma of choices. You could choose a card optimise your village yet pass on a set of cards that would benefit your neighbour even more. Alternatively, you could deliberately retain a good card for your neighbour (to try to thwart their plans) but this may not be to the advantage of your hamlet. How you choose to play to some extent will be determined by the experience and personalities around the game table.
This is a family game. The rules are not complicated and gameplay is sufficiently speedy to keep even young teenagers engaged. I would even suggest that bright 10-year-olds, who have played card drafting games before, could master Key Flow quite easily.
After three seasons, at the beginning of Winter, it is impossible to determine who might be in the strongest position. This does mean that you cannot predict if there will be a run-away leader. As the winter cards come into play so the gameplay can become more intense with harder decisions whether optimise your village, to hinder neighbours or to maximise resources. When all the cards are played the victory points are calculated.
My main issue with Key Flow is the lack of a scoring pad. Many games will provide a scoring sheet to assist in totalling a player’s victory points. This would have been a welcome addition to the game as a number of times during the first few plays one needs to re-read the rules to ensure that every victory point has been wrung from the available cards. The rules for Key Flow are colourful but some elements of gameplay could be made clearer. This is especially true for the initial set-up and initial selection of the scoring winter cards. This did mean that my first few games had set-up errors and some anomalies.
That said, having re-read the rules many times, and by watching a few YouTube tutorials, Key Flow soon started to grow in stature with each game played. It doesn’t need the subtle subplots of the occupation cards or minor improvements of Agricola. Every turn during each season can provide enough thought-provoking decisions.
Key Flow is family game that is an amalgam of card-drafting and worker placement mechanisms. Although it can play with two players it probably works best with four or five. This ensures interaction with neighbouring villages but also creates the tension of some resources being out of reach in other player’s villages. This game gives the thought-provoking challenges of heavier games but without the time commitments or long rule explanations that might be needed for new games.
Key Flow punches above its weight and is more likely to make it to the game table when a thinking game is wanted but when time might be a little tight.