Brr and zap and my beloved Snifflegator is history. And that’s only because the people from Mars couldn’t take over this lovely creature with their brain ray. All right, put the poor creature aside and prepare for the next move. I could of course take revenge and decimate the enemy units, but I don’t have to, it’s enough for me to collect Æmber once more, then I have enough left over to forge my last key in the next round to be the Archont who won in KeyForge.
KeyForge was one of the two unique board games that made their debut at SPIEL 18. After we already speculated about KeyForge after the first announcement, enough time has now passed that we can put our speculations aside and talk resp. write about Richard Garfield’s card game in plain language.
My cards, My deck, My KeyForge!
I was quite nervous on KeyForge and a bit sad when I had to leave SPIEL 18 without the card game. It was simply not finished. So I had to wait almost two weeks. At Mannheim Spielt! Oliver, a supporter from Asmodee, had brought his English KeyForge decks and so I could play a game against him to learn the game. I had to wait a few more days for my own deck, because then I was able to participate in a PreLaunch Event at the Wizards Well in Mannheim/Germany. Of course I was there and bought my two decks there without knowing which cards I actually got.
This is the special feature of KeyForge: From a defined card pool (there were 370 cards at the start), 3 factions with 12 cards each are selected to form your deck. The whole thing is calculated by an algorithm that is supposed to arrange each deck according to a certain aspect. If you take all possible combinations, you’ll get 104 quadrillion possible decks plus minus 1, of which almost 835,000 decks have been discovered since the launch, which is 0.0000000000000000008 percent of all possible decks, so almost all of them already gone!
However, for the sake of correctness it has to be mentioned here that the decks are not quite as unique as it might seem at first glance. The decks are always language unique, so it is quite possible that a German deck will meet its English equivalent in a match one day.
But back to the PreLaunch Event: So there I stood and looked at my decks. Inside I had hoped for a deck with the Untamed, since I had always preferred to play green during my Magic time. But that’s just the way it is with a card game, which completely avoids deck building. You get what chance gives you. And so I played my first games alternately with a deck consisting of Dis, Sanctum and Shadow or Brobnar, Dis and Shadow. At least I could win 3 out of 4 games in the evening, before my deck had no chance against Mars. Even if I had lost the last game, KeyForge had convinced me right from the beginning.
Away with the deck building
I also like to play Magic, but the (from my point of view) most boring thing about playing was the deck building. How efficiently I build my deck, how many lands I need in order to theoretically always draw enough mana, or which card goes well with which, etc. And since a new expansion came out every three or four months, the whole process started all over again. I just wanted to play and not plan any decks. If you believe the comments of Richard Garfield, this was his real intention when he developed Magic: a deck-card game that you just play and have to discover. In addition there was the from my point of view senseless booster-purchase-aspect and the hunt for the one card that completed or perfected the deck.
This is already better with the LCGs from Asmodee, but my wish to “just play” was only fulfilled by KeyForge. Because here I get my unique deck, which I can’t change anymore, because logo and name of the Archon are unique. I have to face the deck and try to understand the deck. Do I play it fast and aggressively or do I have to play a lot of creatures just to get Æmber to forge the keys quickly? And that’s what I just like about KeyForge: I don’t know what’s coming.
KeyForge the fast card game!?
KeyForge plays surprisingly simple. I see if I can forge a key, then I explain which faction I want to play, perform the actions of my creatures in any order, then collect a bit of Æmber if I can, and then draw up to six cards. Then it’s my opponent’s turn and performs the same steps. Sounds quite simple actually.
Of course, the devil is in the detail at KeyForge. For example, if I play Shadow creatures in a round, I can’t use the creatures of Brobnar that are already there. I’m just bound by the faction I’ve announced. And cards that you play will come into play “exhausted” at first and can only be used in the next round. You can see the dilemma I’m in. While in Magic I am dependent on mana, here I am dependent on the faction. If I only play the faction of creatures that are on the table, I might not get as many new cards in my hand as if I play cards of another faction from my hand to the table.
But that’s not the only tricky part. Of course, your cards are not without theirs either. Similar to Magic – after all, KeyForge is also by Richard Garfield – your cards changes the game mechanics. There are cards that don’t come into the game “exhausted” and can immediately affect the game. There are cards with powerful tanks that protect your other creatures, as well as cards that modify the cost of forging a key. All this is represented by keywords on the cards. On some cards, the keyword is also written on the card. For other cards you need to know this or look up the rules. Players with Magic knowledge will quickly find their way around.
I must confess, I still look at the rule book when it comes to skirmish and elusive, because here it is crucial when what damage is caused and when. How good that there is a rule book. But here FFG and Asmodee get a big minus in the B grade. A complete rule book is not included in the so-called starter set. I still understood that I had to download the rules booklet when I only bought the decks. But I can’t understand that it is simply not included in a starter set and that there is only a quick guide.
I’m not a tournament player. I would have appreciated a printed, attached booklet that I could quickly consult. I wouldn’t care how up-to-date it is, because I just want to play.
Forget the KeyForge starter set
So I must say that you don’t really need the Starter Set for Call of the Archons. Here you get two decks and two premade decks, which should help you to get started with the game. On the cards of the starter decks all keywords are explained. I like the approach for these ready-made decks very much, but you play these decks only once and then they end up in the box and are only brought out when I explain KeyForge to another player. But in most cases I leave it alone and just give the newcomer one of my decks in his hand, together with a printout of the glossary and explain the game while we play it.
The Starter Set also includes tokens for keys, damage, Æmber and chain cards, plus status cards that show you whether a creature is stunned or not. These cards aren’t really practical, and whether you spend the money on the other tokens is up to you. Until we received the starter set, we simply took dice or other utensils we had left over from Magic times.
Meanwhile, I simply recommend that you buy a deck and replace the tokens with something else. Either by something that is in your household or you complete this with acrylic tokens. These look better visually as well. Only if you don’t have any token material or something similar, then it makes sense from my point of view to buy the starter set. Somewhat more interesting becomes here the Starter Set of the next epoch. For beginners there is also a paper mat, which supports the game visually. This time, the publisher has completely dispensed with the ready-made sets, the quick start guide and the rules booklet. Instead of the status cards there are now status tokens. So if you want to have a Starter Set, you better reach for the Age of Ascension – Starter Set, which is scheduled for release in May 2019.
KeyForge searched and found
KeyForge is exactly the game I was looking for. I love playing deck builders like Shards of Infinity. But KeyForge takes it all to the next level. Exploring the deck, trying out new strategies and the satisfying feeling when I discover how to play my deck makes KeyForge a great card game for me. Also because I do not have to build a deck. Of course, it is also frustrating for me when I don’t draw the factions I was hoping for. But in my eyes this is more justifiable than buying a Magic Display and not being able to do anything with three quarters of the cards.
I also like the fact that KeyForge actually needs very little. I don’t have to stock up on boosters and upgrade. For a tenner I get a deck that I can theoretically play for years without having to modify it. And for younger players, the card game is not a pocket money pit. I think the price is just right for players who might just want to give it a try.
New cards are also already announced. These should fit in without problems due to the unique system of KeyForge. And even the actually excluded deck building could be implemented by house rules. Because at home I can easily rebuild the factions among each other, if I have enough decks. This would be similar to a Smash Up. When I’m really up for it, I build my own deck from the different cards and play it just for fun.
Of course it looks completely different in the official tournament framework. There is nothing with house rules here, you have to stick to your deck. And exactly this official tournament mode is a bit schizophrenic. For me the non-plus-ultra is the sealed mode: Here you get a fresh deck and start playing. You explore your deck as you play, just like Richard Garfield imagined.
The other mode is the one where you simply enter the tournament with your deck. While the chain mechanism that limits the number of cards you can draw is designed to ensure that strong decks are weakened over time to make them more manageable, it is also designed to ensure that your deck is not weakened. However, I don’t think it’s really well thought out, because strong decks are only weakened slowly over time if they win too often. And as it is in any random distribution, there are weak decks in addition to strong decks. These decks are not automatically upgraded and simply remain weak. If you have such a deck, with which you cannot win anything, you will be forced to buy a new deck sooner or later.
From my point of view the sealed mode is the most exciting and remains my favorite.
For me, KeyForge is a successful card game. The Unique-Game mechanism fits like a glove for the card game. I wouldn’t know offhand what KeyForge could do better. I like the simple game play and the shifting of priorities. It’s no longer about destroying the other mage and draining his life points, it’s simply about forging three simple keys. A game can be over in 15 minutes or even take over an hour. Discovering the decks and mastering the deck makes it exciting for me every time I unpack a new deck. And I can easily leave the deck building I never liked behind.