31st Oct2018

‘Keyforge’ Deckbuilding Game Review

by Matthew Smail


The tabletop gaming world has no shortage of deckbuilding and card games, many of which claim to be innovative. Almost every one is designed to accommodate a particular need, whether that’s to be fast and fluid or deep and complex, with unlimited possibilities. Most of these card games deliver their particular style of innovation because of how they work, or in the case of the largest, most famous games (like Magic: The Gathering for example) because of the possibilities that their metagame creates. In the case of Keyforge, the innovation is within the actual decks, each of which is randomly generated and therefore likely to be completely unique.

There are currently two products in the Keyforge line, with the first being a starter pack that contains two pre-built decks that are designed to be used in order to learn the game, as well as two of the standard, randomised decks. The starter set also contains a quick start guide, a chain tracker for each player and a number of tokens for aember, keys and similar. The other product available is a single, individual deck.

I’m mentioning this because I’ve been testing four of the unique decks, but I don’t have the starter set, so please excuse the fact that these images don’t show actual tokens or other components. If Keyforge does appeal to you, then I think it makes sense to begin with the starter set, although there are enough videos and online manuals to enable you to learn it once you have invested in a few decks. You will, of course, also need to use something to represent your aember and your keys, which I’ll explain next. The chain tracker is used to balance the game when one deck is more powerful than the other and its hard to replicate that without the original component – so be aware.

So, you have your brand new Keyforge decks and you’ve assessed your cards, but what will you see? Well, each deck of cards is built around three of the seven houses that Keyforge features and it will have a unique name and its own card back. This effectively means that Keyforge decks can’t be merged or amended – you’ll have a thirty seven card deck that is effectively static and can never change. The houses each have their own play style, with Mars, for example, using keywords like abduction to match the gorgeous alien style or untamed using powerful animals and warriors to directly affect the board state.

The houses in Keyforge are not simply used to drive cosmetic or even thematic elements as in other games. Instead, when it comes to turn structure, all of the action in Keyforge is driven by choosing one of the houses in your deck. For example, if you select house Dis at the beginning of your turn, then you’ll be able to place any number of cards that are associated with house Dis from your hand onto the board (or discard them) and then activate any number of cards in the same house that were already placed. Cards enter the battlefield exhausted (turned sideways) which makes them ineligible for use on the turn they enter, unless an ability states otherwise.

The way that houses are declared in this way makes Keyforge very interesting. Clearly, it locks out deckbuilding (because it would mean that a deck comprising of a single, or even two houses would become much more consistent and therefore quite unbalanced. It also cleans up the play structure considerably and allows Keyforge to play out in a consistent and enjoyable manner that takes away some of the pain that can be associated complex card games that require some kind of payment mechanism – power or mana, for example.

The objective of Keyforge is always the same for both players (unless a card that I haven’t seen says otherwise, which wouldn’t surprise me) and that is to forge three keys. A key is forged at the beginning of any player turn in which they are holding six aember, which is earned as the result of playing cards that show aember symbols, or through other means like stealing it from the opponent or achieving certain text conditions. When a player can convert aember into keys, they must do so – it’s not optional.

This requirement to build or optimise an aember creation engine is really what defines Keyforge‘s gameplay. A player might have a much more confrontational deck that is capable of damaging the creatures, artifacts or other cards of her opponent, but having a massive power presence is never what will win the actual game. Instead, there’s a focus on optimising each turn and cycling back through your deck to get powerful cards back into play. This approach is also unusual for games of this kind, which I’d say generally use the deck size as a time limit, with decking out usually resulting in an immediate loss.

Keyforge also uses the board layout to do a few interesting things. Cards now occupy either the flank or centre space of each individual player side, whilst some cards can only affect one or other flank, or both, or the centre alone. This could mean (for example) that a spell designed to destroy a creature can only used on one flank, which will of course drive a savvy opponent to place weaker cards onto the flank of more powerful ones, thus protecting them. There are all of the card types that you’d probably expect in terms of creatures, artifacts, equipment/upgrades and so on, but the one interesting omission is anything that happens as an interrupt or instant effect.

This is just one of Keyforge‘s features that I think makes it easier to play and more accessible to newcomers, but which I suppose might put off those interested in higher level play. That said, there are loads of opportunities to build fantastic engines and create ridiculous combos in Keyforge that I think more than make up for any possible weaknesses in gameplay when comparing it to more traditional rivals. Even though Keyforge is structurally clean and quite fast paced, the cards themselves are packed with their own keywords and actions that, in general, allow the players to bend the normal rules.

Looking to the future, there are rumours that the QR codes on each Keyforge deck might be used to create digital versions of them, or at least that it might be possible to view some kind of power ranking online. It also seems reasonably certain that new sets of Keyforge decks will be released, which I suppose may or may not be compatible with those in this initial release, which is subtitled “Call of the Archons.” Assuming that there are more sets that add new houses and cards, then the possible variance between decks from one game to the next will be huge, which is a very exciting prospect.

If you’re looking for a reasonably complex, competitive card game that allows for lots of direct and indirect interaction, then Keyforge is worth a look no matter what else you might throw into the mix of considerations. Where Keyforge really changes the game is in how exciting it is opening a new deck and how much more effective that is in making new players combat ready immediately. Keyforge isn’t a game in which experienced hands can mock new players for their rubbish decks, or buy their way to power, nor is it a game in which introductory decks have no relevance – since essentially they don’t exist.

The sheer fun factor of opening new decks and learning them, alongside a game that is solid in its own right makes Keyforge a very interesting game to consider. It’s not even like I need to recommend that you do or don’t buy it, since it’s possible to pick up two of the decks for next to nothing and give it a try, then sell them if you don’t like it. Keyforge has exceptional artwork which makes it easy to pitch to newcomers and makes it look good on the table (especially when you factor in the really attractive tokens from the starter set.) All said, fans of moderate complexity card games will love Keyforge, whilst those curious about games like Magic: The Gathering can feel confident that it’s probably a friendlier place to start from, without any less of the strategic interest.

**** 4/5

Keyforge is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.


Comments are closed.