Keyper is a worker placement, resource gathering, village building game for two to four players from the designer (Richard Breese) of Keyflower, Key Market, Keydom and a couple of other games known collectively as the Key series.
So, what distinguishes this worker placement, resource gathering, village building game from others you will doubtless have played? Four things:
- Worker Specialisation – Workers may be used for any action but are best suited to placement spots that match their colour. Each player starts with a selection of coloured meeples, including a couple of white “wildcard” meeples. You almost certainly start subsequent seasons with different workers because….
- … The board is segmented, and each player claims one segment during each season and will start the next season with whichever workers are assigned to that segment. So, workers change hands, and this is an important part of your decision-making.
- The board segments are reconfigured at the beginning of each season. Players reconfigure the segment they claimed, so have some control over what actions are available each season.
- The worker placement mechanic has a “follow-me” variation that, in combination with the worker specialisation, gives the game its strategic depth.
The Follow-Me Mechanic
Whenever the active player places a worker on a spot, they must invite their rivals to “follow” by assigning a worker of the same colour (or a wildcard worker). The invitation passes clockwise round the table. For example, if the active player places a brown worker, you may follow with a brown or white worker. If a worker is “followed” then the action is more productive – and both players get the benefit, so it is mutually beneficial. When deciding which workers to place where, you must consider the likelihood of rivals being tempted to follow.
Judging whether to follow, and how to encourage or discourage others from following you, provides the strategic depth of the game. Following not only yields extra resources, but also enables players to play out of turn. This means that players will run out of meeples at different times, which has its advantages and disadvantages. In most games, when you run out of meeples, you are forced to pass and wait for everyone else to run out. In Keyper, you continue to play, but instead of placing a meeple, you re-activate a previously placed meeple. This means that you could reap the benefits of a particular meeple and its follower more than once.
This option to follow is a very neat innovation of the familiar worker placement mechanic. It fixes the frustration of many games where players can simply block each other out of spots. In Keyper, you are incentivised to share the benefits of an action. Likewise, the ability to keep playing even after you have played all your meeples is a neat innovation that incentivises you to follow rivals and also eliminates the downtime of many worker placement games. The player with most meeples does not necessarily have the most productive turns.
The next innovation is reconfigurable boards. Rather than provide a fixed palette of worker placement options, Keyper enables each player to claim a segment of board and reconfigure it for the next season. Each season offers a few configurations, and each player selects the configuration that suits their game plan best. The other effect of claiming a board segment is that you will get the workers assigned to that segment as your workers for the next season. This provides more strategic options as you might start the following season with a smaller or larger crew, and with a different combination of specialists. You might claim a board segment specifically because you want to claim the mix of meeples on that segment.
There is much more I could say about the mechanics, but these are the essentials – specialised workers, the option to follow, the ability to reconfigure the board to suit your strategy, and the ability to claim a board segment to determine which workers you get in the next season. In combination, these create a lot of strategic options.
Final Thoughts on Keyper
When I first played Keyper, I was not immediately grabbed. For me, the graphics are functional but uninspiring and the prospect of yet another worker placement, resource gathering, village-building game had me worried. However, by chance, the game was selected as a tournament game for the Europe Masters competition at Essen, so I had to play it A LOT.
Happily, the more I played it, the more I realised its depths. The tactical choices provided by these mechanisms, and the lack of downtime because you continue to play even after you run out of meeples, provide for thoughtful game play. If you like a bit of worker placement, resource gathering, and village building, then you should check it out.
Finally, there is a Keyper expansion in the works which should offer even more strategic variety.