KeyForge is the latest two-player card game from legendary designer Richard Garfield. Attempting to innovate within the genre having already changed the hobby by creating Magic: The Gathering and Android: Netrunner. Keyforge is a Unique Deck Game, meaning that every single deck has a different combination of cards to every other deck.
With a procedurally generated name and card back you cannot swap cards between decks. This means, no boosters, no deck-building, no netdecks and no meta. If you like the sound of that, or aren’t deep enough into card games to know what that means, this could be the game for you.
There are seven houses in KeyForge, each with 36 cards, making a total of 252 cards in the game. When you buy a 36 card deck it will contain 12 cards from three of the houses.
How to Play KeyForge
The aim of KeyForge is to collect Amber to forge keys, whoever forges their third key first wins. There is no mana cost to the cards and no playing outside of your turn. At the start of a turn the active player names a faction. Only cards belonging to that house can be played and used, but there is no other restriction.
These can be creatures, used to fight or generate amber. Upgrades, which attach to creatures to grant them extra abilities. Actions, which will often generate Amber as well as have a range of powerful effects. There are also Artefacts, which sit back form the battle line and add passive effects or actions.
Turns can be enormous, with big swings happening due to well planned and executed combos. The game feels a lot like a scene in a film where two characters are trying to reach something before the other. The point isn’t to fight, it’s to get there first. Anything you can do that slows the opponent down or speeds you up is a good move. It's easy to get lost in the board and slap down big creatures that ultimately do nothing for you. It feels very different to other card game sin this genre as a result.
A lot of the fanfare before release focused on the Master Vault, which is a website and app that supports the game. Currently, all it allows you to do is register the decks you buy. There are a lot of features followed by the words coming soon. I hope they get this extra functionality up and running soon.
It makes sense that it would launch with basic functionality. It's not crucial to enjoying the game and a complex and untested app could have caused problems at launch. It would be good for the tournament scene if the extra stuff could go live within the next few weeks.
What's the Story
I managed to infect a few friends with my enthusiasm for this game. I’ve also entered a couple of tournaments at my Friendly Local Game Store. Meaning I’ve played against a good number of players. I have never had a conversation with any of these people about the theme behind the game. It doesn't come up or doesn't interest people.
The unique name and image on your deck is your Archon. The Archons are fighting for the right to open vaults in the crucible. Once you have forged three keys you open a vault.
It surprises me that I'm enjoying the game so much despite this. One of my favourite things about board games is the narrative you can force on games as you play them. KeyForge is providing me with so much enjoyment that I don't need anything else. I'm sure there are people out there devouring the fiction behind the game, but my guess is it's a small number.
The Art of the Cards
I love the tone they have gone for with the art in this game, supported by some great flavour text. One of my favourite qualities about anything is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The art you choose for a game needs to personify the feeling you want to get across to players and they’ve nailed it. This game is a blast to play and the art gets you in the mind-set that you’re there to have fun.
The mechanics are supportive of the playing for fun angle. The game is a race to three keys, so feels less confrontational than games with health totals. Fighting each other is only the correct play if doing so will allow you to win the race. Board control definitely still exists in this game but it’s used in a different way. It can be the best play to not play creatures, or not fight with the ones you have.
The less confrontational aspect should make the game less stressful and tilt inducing. One of the reasons I ended up moving away from Hearthstone was how frustrating losing could be. Either I’ve done a lot of personal growth since then or they’ve designed it out of the game. None of my losses have been difficult and negatively influenced my decisions in future games. I haven’t seen rants about losses son any of the social media groups as you’d expect with a game like this.
Don't Get Me Started!
The starter sets for KeyForge have confused me since I first learned about them. As well as tracking tokens and cards you also get two unique decks and two standard ‘learning’ decks. The two learning decks are the same in every starter set and are invalid for tournament play. The learning decks are a clever idea, they have text on the cards to teach the keywords and showcase a lot of the rules. But once you’ve learnt the game they don’t serve a purpose. The included tokens for damage and amber are good but then there are cards to represent stun and power. The cards are fiddly to use. I went to a pre-release event so had to cannibalise the rest of my game collection for suitable proxies.
It all seems like a series of strange decisions. I like the idea of the learning decks but not the waste they represent. I like the damage and amber tokens in the box but can’t understand why it’s cards for power and stun. The stock levels have been low everywhere and being hard to get hold of has added to the confusion.
It would have made a lot more sense to provide the learning decks to game stores to run teaching games. Then as a free print and play for those who wanted them. Official token packs would have been great as well. The game is near impossible to play without all the proper keys and tokens. The silver lining is seeing small companies do well selling third party token sets.
The scepticism attached to discussion about KeyForge is always cantered around balance. Can decks produced by an algorithm create a balanced game? The game comes with a balancing mechanic; chains. A chain forces you to draw one less card at the end of your turn. They will officially be applied to decks that have won tournaments. You can also use them casually, if your deck beats mine three times in a row we can add chains to your deck for future games.
In a game of KeyForge there are three factors that will decide a game:
1) Ability of the players
2) Strength of the Deck
3) The order the cards are drawn.
It’s easy enough to nullify the effects of the shuffle as this will even out over repeated plays. Swapping decks and piloting each other’s will show you if player skill that is the deciding fact. If one deck is still consistently winning then you know that it is a better deck and o add chains to the stronger deck.
Do as Much as You Can
There are a few touches and clever design decisions in this game that elevate it to a great game. A good example of this is the Do As Much As You Can (DAMAYC) rule. Whenever you play a card you resolve as much of the text as possible.
In practice this means you have to resolve the bits of the card that you can resolve and ignore the bits you can’t. This makes the cards behave differently at different times. Each card has a sliding scale of effects and effectiveness. Judging current effect against possible future effect to decide the best play is where a lot of the interesting decisions come from.
A game with so many variables in will always end up with problems that weren’t exposed during testing. The promise with KeyForge was an online rules clarification request and frequent updates. So far this has been the most disappointing aspect for me. The rules clarifications and rulebook updates have been slow. With some of the rulings going against the intent of the card.
Without official rulings discussions are circular and more likely to turn nasty. Unofficial rulings appear on Facebook threads sporadically. There is, of course, a lot behind the scenes we don't know about but to be able to interact on Facebook but not release an official ruling is disappointing.
Final Thoughts on KeyForge
I've been playing KeyForge for several weeks now. I’m still arranging games almost every lunchtime and getting excited about them. That makes the game an astonishing success for me. It not been as cheap a buy-in as I was hoping. But then I shouldn’t have got carried away buying a playmat on top of the tokens, sleeves and deckboxes I needed. Not to mention the six decks.
In theory you can buy one deck and play but in practice only a tiny percentage of players will do that. Most people I know have more than five decks. The game is not immune to impulse buying decks. If you have a problem with self-control and booster packs, KeyForge will do nothing to fix that.
If you’re interested because it takes away the between game admin of deck-building then I’d call this a must buy. Repeated plays against friends are rewarding because they can’t change their decks. Learning each other’s cards increases the information behind decisions, improving the games in every way.