As a concept, KeyForge is enthralling. The game is the latest effort from legendary Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield—and the big idea here is that every sealed deck is unique. Decks are pre-constructed and can’t be altered; there’s no card chasing, and there’s certainly no over-arching “meta” game that must be respected.
This is a head-to-head two-player battler like no other.
The “unique” gimmick is great. The initial card pool numbers 370, and each 37-card deck you snag off the shelf consists of a completely one-of-a-kind mixture. This is accomplished via cryptic algorithms that govern deck construction. These 37 cards become your deck, your personalized slice of KeyForge that no one can take away. The bizarre naming conventions of each set only further the mystique and foster an emotional attachment to your cards.
Keys and vaults
Yes, there is a setting for KeyForge, but it’s almost irrelevant. Your deck represents the followers and the abilities of an Archon, an all-powerful being. These Archons live and die in the artificial world of the Crucible. This maelstrom is a ravaged place where champions scavenge keys in hope of unlocking hallowed vaults. So we battle as we always do.
Two unique concepts govern play. The first is that this design bucks the standard collectible card game (CCG) trend of attacking your opponent’s life pool. You can still throw blows back and forth, but in KeyForge it’s creatures defeating creatures as a means to slow an opponent’s engine or to eke out an advantage. The way to victory lies in amassing precious Æmber.
You will excavate this resource by triggering effects and then reaping Æmber with creatures. In a clever twist, each creature can forego violence against an opponent to farm the golden fuel. This makes even the weakest of agents useful in pushing toward victory.
You must turn in six Æmber at the beginning of a turn if you want to forge a key—achieving victory if this key is your third. Garfield astutely focuses play around this simple “three key” goal, always nudging you forward and offering a clear direction. It’s also a refreshing change of pace to swap out direct violence against opponents for a race with escalating tension.
Designer: Richard Garfield
Publisher: Fantasy Flight
Playing time: 15-45 minutes
Price: Starter set $40 / single deck $10
The second unique component of KeyForge is the house system. Each deck includes cards from three of the game’s seven factions. You must choose to activate one of these houses on each turn, which restricts your ability to play cards. You will run into situations where your hand is jammed with Aliens, but you really want to activate that line of Brobnar creatures you deployed earlier. This is a simple and clean decision point with nuanced strategic implications.
You may play cards from the chosen house freely from your hand and without cost. Those cards deployed to the table in previous turns may also now be activated to attack other creatures or to reap Æmber. There’s a balance to be struck between playing free-wheeling action cards and maintaining a strong table state. Each deck approaches this balance from its own angle and results in some of the game’s more subtle considerations.
The house system naturally emphasizes card draw. This is an issue in the genre as a whole—random draw having a significant impact on results—so it’s somewhat unfair to single out KeyForge. Those moments of anguish when you get the “right” or “wrong” card form some of the most satisfying sequences of play. Even at its worst, this is a much more pleasant system than attempting to top-deck “land” over multiple rounds.
The use of three houses per deck, the randomly generated deck lists, and the volatile board state all produce a style of play that is very swingy. The entire affair can end in an explosive 10 minutes—or it can lag to 35 as you grind out each chunk of Æmber. By its very nature, KeyForge is an unpredictable experience.
Crucibles and minds
KeyForge is an extraordinarily solid game. Its buy-in is incredibly small, as you can toss ten bucks at a deck and then cobble together the necessary other components. The full “starter set” is a nice product, but its primary asset is a pile of tokens you can easily replicate from other games or with household items.
The hope here is clearly for this less expensive, less time-intensive system to gain widespread traction. It doesn’t seem ludicrous to imagine running into fellow hobbyists at a convention and having everyone pull out a deck of cards that’s uniquely theirs. If this notion is realized, then KeyForge will become a common language for the gaming community writ large. It could be to 2018 card gamers what Settlers of Catan was to 1995 board gamers.
This potential feels realistic due to the boundaries this game crosses. It should have wide appeal to those who have drifted from the CCG scene, burnt out on deck building and “keeping up.” It’s enticing to novices, since the rules are simple and cost is minor. The commitment is so small, in fact, that even those heavily invested in the competitive Magic or Netrunner scenes will likely give KeyForge a shot and play casually.
Beyond the broad appeal and interesting mechanisms, the most intriguing aspect of the game is the psychological element. That concept of a “unique and unchangeable deck” is fascinating. I quickly noticed that newcomers did not want to play with the two constructed teaching decks found in the starter set. They wanted to graduate to randomized card sets, to get a feel for what they deemed “authentic” KeyForge.
It’s also a bit limiting. Having a pre-constructed deck where you can’t tinker with card lists or alter your collection does ease play and lower barriers, but it also means you may reach a point at which you have squeezed everything possible from your deck. You can’t then break it down to its elements and reconstruct a new legal deck—though you can purchase a new deck and repeat the process all over again. While games like Magic can be exhausting and expensive to keep up with, they do at least provide continued depth as you tweak your deck endlessly.
This all becomes even more complicated when you factor in the range of deck quality. The algorithm that generates KeyForge decks is supposed to balance them all, and while balance seems relatively stable across most builds, I have noticed decks focused on Dis and Shadow houses that seem… extremely formidable. This concern may take some time to shake out, as players discover strategies and counter-strategies, but it remains a concern about the system at its outset.
Yet for all of these worries, KeyForge clearly succeeds. The strongest asset of this new product approach is actualized in community. By this I mean that it’s a release that’s as exciting to talk about as it is to play. Trying to crack the rules of the algorithm and to compare unique experiences is at the heart of this game. It lives beyond the boundaries of play, and it promises to keep KeyForge going strong for months to come.