The game: KeyForge: Call of the Archons by Richard Garfield. The game was published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2018. I received my first three decks as a review copy from Asmodee Nordics, but have bought rest of it myself.
Elevator pitch: A dueling card game from the designer of Magic: The Gathering, using procedurally generated unique decks.
What’s in the box? The distribution model is twofold. The most important part is the unique decks: that’s a simple cardboard box, which holds a 36-card deck that is procedurally generated. It will contain three randomly selected houses of the seven possible and 12 cards from each house. There are some rules to govern the process, but mostly, it’s just random.
Then there’s the base box, which contains two unique decks, two basic decks which are the same in every box and some tokens and cards. The basic decks are not tournament legal, but are valid decks. They’re good for learning the game, but also meaningful for experienced players.
What the base box does not contain is the full rules of the game. There’s a quickstart guide, which is not very good. The full rules are available as a PDF, and have already been updated once after the release. I’m hoping there are more updates soon, as the rules do need updating, so I do understand why the full rulebook is not included in the box.
Some people think the base box is a waste of money and prefer to come up with their own tokens and buy just unique decks. I found the base deck a good purchase: I like the cardboard tokens (but not the Stun and Power cards), and the decks were fine.
In any case, if you know someone who plays, trying the game is cheap: just buy one deck. Start from scratch? Buy the base game, or buy two decks and scrounge up some basic tokens (three or four colors of poker chips will get you far). Trying this game is easy and cheap.
What do you do in the game? KeyForge is a dueling game, just like Magic or the dueling deckbuilders. It’s a two-player game and you’re trying to beat your opponent. This is not a hit point race, though: instead you’re trying to collect æmber, which is then forged into keys. The base cost of keys is six æmber, you get to forge one if you have enough æmber at the beginning of your turn, and whoever forges their third key first wins the game.
Each round you can play as many cards as you wish, but they have to be from one house only. Cards include one-time actions, artifacts and creatures that are played on the table and can be used every round and upgrades that boost creatures.
Creatures can be used to fight other creatures, to reap æmber (gain 1 æmber) and they also have a plethora of abilities which can trigger when the creature is played, used or destroyed.
The catch here is that using the creatures requires appropriate house activation as well. If I have a board full of Mars creatures, I need to keep on choosing Mars as my house if I want to use them every round, and that means I can’t play the non-Mars cards in my hand – not even discard them.
This game requires a new mindset. Creatures can seem quite strong, but then again, since the goal is not to hurt your opponent, big creatures aren’t quite as necessary as in Magic. There are also plenty of thorough board wipes that just kill lots of creatures – or all of them at once.
What’s fun in KeyForge is that all the power cards are common. I have couple of cases where the rares are actually the weakest cards in the deck. Rares in KeyForge tend to be more situational. This ensures that all decks have lots of potential, as they’re likely to have powerful common cards.
Lucky or skillful? Richard Garfield says he wants the game balanced on three accounts: the skill of the player, the quality of the deck and the luck of the draw. KeyForge does a fine job with this.
Some decks are clearly better than others, but it’s not all that clear: there’s a bit of rock-paper-scissors in the deck quality. There’s lot of luck and unpredictability involved, as the game doesn’t shy from powerful card effects (Richard Garfield is a well known fan of chaotic games), but in the end, there’s lots of room for skillful play as well, and getting to know your deck from repeated play is also important.
Abstract or thematic? The theme is all over the place. The background story is all about worlds colliding, and yeah, the seven different houses are all quite different, ranging from viking giants to imperialistic martians and weird demons. Don’t expect a coherent theme here.
Solitaire or interactive? Very interactive, it’s all about messing up with your opponent, controlling their æmber and creatures.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 14+, but clever kids will have no problems with this game.
What’s to like: The goal of the game is unlike most other duel games. The distribution format is interesting and leads to no wasted cards. The game is fast and full of interesting surprises. There’s a handicap mechanism that can be used to balance games between unequal decks.
What’s not to like: The rules are a bit of a mess; it isn’t a huge problem in casual play, but it sure is annoying. Some decks have fairly heavy antisynergies in them, cards that do not play well with other cards in the deck. Some decks are just overall weaker, so every purchase will not be great.
My verdict: KeyForge is a brilliant game. I played my first fifty games in just over a month, which is a record time for me. That tells something of my enthusiasm. Playing online at The Crucible Online helped to reach the goal.
This has been the year of dueling card games for me: first Shards of Infinity hit 50 plays, then I returned to Magic: The Gathering and now comes KeyForge. Of these three, KeyForge is right now my favourite by far.
It doesn’t have the depth and variety of Magic (but that would be a ridiculous comparison in any case), but on the other hand, it avoids all the boring stuff Magic has with lands and mana, I don’t have to worry about storing hundreds of Magic cards I’m unlikely to ever use and it’s easier to find opponents, since the barrier of entry is much lower.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, KeyForge gets Enthusiastic from me. It’s my favourite dueling card game at the moment.