Thoughts on KeyForge

So, Fantasy Flight Games worked with Richard Garfield and come up with an entire new class of card games. To be honest, I haven’t touched it yet, but the idea is intriguing. I don’t know if it’s my bubble, or if it really is making waves, but hey, it’s an entire new concept from the man who pretty much revolutionized card games.

The name of the game is KeyForge, and it’s an Unique Deck Game. What does that mean? It means that every deck you buy is a procedurally generated, unique deck. It also means that you’ll play the deck as it comes out of the box, without ever making changes to it. There is no deckbuilding.

This part I definately needed to warm up on. Part of why I like Magic: The Gathering is that it is a form of expression. I play the game the way I like to play it, with cards of my own choosing. But, reading the justifications Richard Gardfield made on the Unique Deck System it does make sense. Am I really free to play any deck in Magic? The truth is, there are so many cards that most cards just don’t ever make the cut in my decks, and the metagame forces my hand if I want to play something competative.

Sure, I play Commander a lot, which does allow me to include some pet cards, and Draft, which restricts my card pool, but in a Unique Deck Game all my cards are relevant. At least that’s efficient.

I will miss both customisation and “leveling up” my decks. The only way to improve a KeyForge deck is playing it and learning all the lines of play, and discover it’s potential. The only way to really “deckbuild” is to think of a hypothetical deck I want and buy the closest thing I can find on the secundairy market. – But that’s more of a hack than the intended way to play. And even then, the deck will never upgrade, only downgrade due to the chain system.

Yes, there are billions of possible decks, but there are around 50 different cards per House, and you get 12 of them in any deck. Since the Houses should at least have some self-synergy, the archetypes become at least a little bit limited, so some decks should at least share archetypes. Still, each deck has 3 houses, so there are still a lot of combinations. I also heard there is a chance a “Maverick” card shows up, where a card from a House is printed in a different House, which is exciting and throws the system a curveball. I don’t know how often that happens though.

Normally, Anaphiel is house Sanctum, but he can show up as a Maveric Untamed card.

Missing out on leveling up your deck and customising it does impact the balance though. And that is seen in the gameplay itself. Since you can’t throw in all the best cards you have and call it a deck, the game can offer some freedom, like the the complete abscence of a mana-system. In Magic, the factor limiting the amount of big, swingy cards is the mana system involved. You could put in 40 7-mana creatures, and all of them would be very powerful, but you’re likely to be overrun before you get started.

Since you dont make a KeyForge deck, the balance of the cards kinda has been dealt with already. Sure, it’s possible to play a couple ginormous monsters on your first turn, but the game has you covered.

Tabris is an example of a creature that can be considered “big.”

First, there is the house system. On each turn you can play and use and do other things with cards from one of your houses only. This often means that at one point you’ll have to choose between using cards on the table, or playing new ones.

The second is that this game is not about attacking opponents, but about forging keys. So, a big creature like Champion Tabris does have a good time fighting other creatures, but doesn’t help fighting opponents directly, since that option isn’t really there. So, while she is trouble, she doesn’t end the game much quicker than a small creature. The dynamic here is that you’ll have to forge 3 keys, and that can require Ember. Creatures are a way of generating Ember, but most of them ‘reap’ Ember one at a time. Combat is more about controlling how many creatures each player has, and how quickly they can generate Ember.

Another big difference with Magic is that in KeyForge, turns are isolated. This means that you can’t do anything on your opponents’ turn. So, no sudden counters or combat tricks. This does make the game a bit more accesable for some players. There is no frustration of having your spell countered, for example. While some players will miss this kind of interaction, it also forces you to play ahead a little more. However, it can create situations where things happen, and you don’t have an option to do anything about it. Then again, how often are such things relevant in a game of Magic?

So far, it seems like there where choices made that are defendible and make sense in context of this game. Also the cost of entry seems low; For just 10 euro you’ll have a deck. Sadly, that means missing out on some components, like Ember tokens, damage tokens and stun tokens, as well as the Chain tracker. These are included in the big, 40 euro box, which also has 2 random decks and 2 fixed decks. That’s a more expensive point of entry, but to be fair, still cheap compared to CCG’s in the long run.

The UDG (Unique Deck Game) system is pretty clever. The card game market is pretty saturated, and just a few CCG’s are doing fine. Magic has a solid fanbase, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh are doing fine internationally, but after that the player base drops off significantly. Fantasy Flight Games did move to the Living Card Game years ago, with fixed, you-know-what-is-in-the-pack expansions. Some of these games ended as well, because even coming up with 20 new cards monthly or so still is a lot of work.

The UDG Model means coming up with a significant card pool once, but since the decks are semi-random/procedurally generated, and you don’t upgrade your decks, the card pool can be sustained for quite a while. I do wonder about the future plans for this games, and changes to the card pool and other updates. The only expensive part about the game is that it requires special printing technologies to make every deck unique, not only in card contents, but in the procedurally generated card back and deck names. Also fun is that, at least with the print run, you can end up with some, let us say, unique decknames, as the algorith for generating decknames sometimes came up with some unfortunate combinations of words.

I don’t think that’s a bug, but a feature, however FFG ofcourse thinks differently. I can understand how they wanted to avoid printing a deck that’s called The Emperor Who Pays For Boys, for example. They fixed that problem in subsequent print runs, which means missing out on some collectors items.

Anyways, the procedural stuff makes creating new content quite sustainable, and this could be a game that’s around for years, even decades, maybe.

I did watch somes games on Youtube and the game looked like fun. I wonder how long you can milk a deck before getting bored with it, but getting a new one isn’t that expensive.

There are a few gripes I have, though. Granted, most of them apply to playing tournaments, and shouldn’t pose a problem in kitchen table games.

Once a card goes missing from your deck, it makes the entire deck useless. This means paying close attention in public places. I don’t know if someone will misplace a card on purpose to sabotage my deck – I doubt it – but if that happens, there is no replacing the missing card.

Then there is the “Check!” rule. If you have enough Ember to forge a key at your next turn, you’re supposed to warn the opponent and say “Check!” – I don’t know how enforcable this is in a tourney setting; You might say it, but your opponent isn’t paying attention somehow, then blames you for not saying it. It’s not one of the best rules. Everyone should pay attention to the gamestate by themselves, right? Also, the fact that you are forced to forge a key at the beginning of your turn if able seems like a weak rule. Now I have to remind you that you must take an action to win the game? I hope these weak rules go the way of manaburn. Pay attention to your own game!

As for tournament rules; FFG stated that if you want to sleeve a deck, use opague sleeves. This seems like a bit of a design flaw. Sure, it helps a bit against cheating, since every deck has a unique card back, and it helps avoiding sneaking in some good cards from other decks. But if the card front was better designed so such tricks are more obvious at a glance than they are now, this could have been avoided. What can I say, I like using sleeves to add a bit of personality to my decks. And transparent penny sleeves generally are flimsy and don’t shuffle well.

Then there was something said about using dice to keep track of stuff. I know, dice can roll over, but that’s a matter of responsibility. You can’t use dice though, according to the rules. Meh. It doesn’t help that the only reason to buy the 40 euro box are the cardboard components. Well, dice are perfect components. And since chains work with increments of 6, D6’s are good components to keep track of that too. And they’re good for helping keep track of damage on creatures, and work well as a stun counter.

These are minor, but somewhat aggrevating cases of meddling though.

What you get is a game where every opponent is (at least somewhat) different and you won’t face the same metagame deck one after the other. Entry is cheap, and for some people, building a deck is a huge hurdle. KeyForge is pickup and go. You’ll own a one-of-a-kind thing, with it’s unique name and card back. Reception has been good, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find other players, eventually. Pick it up quickly enough and you have a chance of getting a really problematic deckname, which are banned in tournaments, but at the very least make a good, unique collectors item.




Posted under Other games

The heroes of Boss Monster 2

I recently purchased Boss Monster 2, because I liked the original game well enough, and it functions like an expansion. This means more different bosses, and more different rooms to build. The main problem is the Hero deck, however. The rules included suggest to use either the Hero deck from the first game, or the second one. The same goes for the Epic heroes.


The problem with this method is that the heroes are a known quantity. Yes, the order of heroes differs, but the more the deck is used up, the more you know what heroes are left, and things get a bit predictable. Eventually all heroes show up, and the randomness is gone. You basically know 3 of each type will show up, and the fool, before the epic heroes show up. I don’t know why the designers of Boss Monster went for this. The Hero setup is fiddly, having to gow through the deck to adjust it to the number of players.

I guess it was done for balance, making sure each strategy has an opportunity to draw in the heroes and the predictability allows for planning ahead. It does seem to be the safe choice though, and I’m just more used to variance, so I’ll probably pick another method. After all, when things get out of the ordinairy in a game, that’s where memorable things happen.

Fortunately, the rules section on the Boss Monster Wikia gives another method:

The number of Hero cards that should be used is based on how many players there are. The player icon located at the bottom part of the Hero cards indicate the minimum number of players that should be playing to use the card. For example, a Hero card with 3 player marks at the bottom should be used when playing with 2 or 3 players. However, one could simply randomly select the suggested number of cards for each amount of players.

2 Players: 13 Ordinary Heroes, 8 Epic Heroes

3 Players: 17 Ordinary Heroes, 12 Epic Heroes

4 Players: 25 Ordinary Heroes, 16 Epic Heroes

This system of randomly selecting becomes necessary when playing with any Promo Cards or Expansions to prevent there from being too many Ordinary Heroes slowing down the game.

I like this far more, as it makes it more uncertain as to what heroes show up, the setup of the game is easier and faster and there is more focus on improvisation. It also makes sure all the games content has a chance to show up. More variance also levels the playingfield among differently skilled players, so there is that.


I guess the makers of the game where a bit too risk averse making this game. I’m glad the random-hero method was suggested by the rules indicating that there isn’t a high chance of the game breaking because of something I missed and it’s actually a tried and tested way to play the game.

The designers suggested making a hand-tweaked deck and keeping a balance between the 4 types of heroes, but when doing things randomly, on average there is a balance of types anyway.

Some other notes on Boss Monster 2:

I like the new setup which drops the “discard 2 cards” bit. Larger hand sizes seem to help you doing the things you want to do. I might even adopt the setup method of drafting an opening hand instead of just drawing. Theoretically it helps players start at a more equal footing.

Furthermore I looked at what expansions to add to my collection, and the one that jumps out is Tools of the Hero Kind, because it makes the heroes even more unpredictable.

Posted under Other games

Review: Boss Monster

A couple of weeks back I saw Boss Monster in a game shop. The packaging immediately appealed to me; It looked like an old Nintendo game cartridge box, a pixelated hero fighting a pixelated monster. The theme and art style looked pretty cool, but there wasn’t really a way to find out if the gameplay was good enough, and since it was just before Spiel, Essen, I decided not to get it. Yet.

At Spiel I saw a demo booth, and even though there where no free tables, I decided to look at it closer and in action, and wait for a seat to open so I could try it. So, here are my impressions of watching a game, playing a game and looking through the contents after I bought it.


 The game works as follows: You are one of the Boss Monsters, and you’ll have to build a dungeon of up to five rooms to lure and kill a steady flow of heroes. One hero shows up every turn for each player and it ends up in ‘town.’ From there it will see if there is a dungeon with the most treasure type icons matching that hero. If there are no treasure type icons matching that hero, or the highest number is tied, it will stay in town. However, if one player has the most icons of the mathing type, the hero is baited and will move to that dungeon. When you attract a hero he or she tries to reach you and deal damage to you (bad) but you’ll try to make sure the hero dies so you get souls you need to win (good.) Certain types of heroes are attracted to certain types of treasure, so you’ll try to balance this and hope no overpowered heroes show up.300px-BMA066_Johnny_of_the_Evening_Watch

The heroes are a quirky bunch, and often a riff off famous characters, like Johnny of the Evening Watch, who may or may not be related to Jon Snow of Game of Thrones fame.

Johnny is a Fighter, and thus attracted to dungeons that has a lot of sword icons. The trick of the game is to manage your icons, making sure you attract the heroes when you are ready for it.

Even though the heroes appear in random order, from my (limited) experience playing the game and watching it being played, you stand a good chance of running out of the Ordinary Hero deck, which means the odds even out later, until the Epic Heroes show up.

In the game I played, I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning, so I made a dungeon that lured in lots of clerics, before I was ready to deal with them. Early on, a lot of clerics showed up and they went through my dungeon uncontested, dealing me a lot of damage. Oops!

That did mean that as we went through the deck of heroes, less clerics showed up later, giving me some breathing space to correct the problem. The only downside was that I didn’t have a buffer to deal with unforseen problems, and I wasted a lot of opportunities to kill some heroes. Fortunately I caught on and managed to make a dungeon that used the early setback and turn it into an advantage, by lucking into a Vampire Bordello and managing to kill some heroes in it.

revised_gameplay_exampleThe most random part of the game is the room cards. There are no guarantees you’ll get a certain room. Still, at the beginning of the game you draw 5 room cards, and 2 spell cards, and then discard any 2 cards in hand, so there is a little wiggle room in setting up. Looking through the available cards in the game revealed that each room associated with a type of hero (Fighter, Mage, Cleric and Thief) also had a certain theme. For example, Mage cards tend to help drawing extra spells, while Fighter cards help drawing more room cards, or play more rooms, or even getting more rooms from the shared discard pile. So, with a little luck it’s possible to nudge yourself towards a certain play style.

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As with a lot of cardgames, the most fun can be had when you manage some combos. This is where the true depth is revealed. For example, Bottomless Pit is a very strong room, allowing you to kill a hero you can’t manage normally. But that’s just one time. However, if you have a Dracolich Lair you can start fishing it out of the discard pile, and if you have some cards that allow you to draw an extra room card, you can keep rebuilding the pit and taking down heroes with it.

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There are also Spell cards. You start the game with two of them, but some rooms help to draw more during the game. Spells have a similar role as rooms, but are powerful one-shot effects, and often can infuence opponents directly. Unlike room cards, you don’t draw more spells automatically, and that’s fine; The focus is on building dungeons, after all.


One of the people I’ve played a demo game with wasn’t really sure if it was the game for him, because it appears very random when you play it for the first time, and don’t really know your options, or what to expect. I do think that once you learn a bit about the game, there are enough opportunities to strategize and control the flow of the game a little better. Figuring out all the tricks and combinations makes it even more tactical, so you can make better use of opportunities. Furthermore, the game has a little bit of rubberbanding here and there, with cards like The Fool, a weak hero that goes to the dungeon of the player who is behind the furthest and who will probably die.

300px-BMA080_The_Fool 300px-BMA081_Katelyn,_Angelic_Healer

Heroes will just stay in town if you manage to create an equilibrium with the treasure types opponents have. And the longer the game lasts, the less random things become. Embracing the early randomness did help me win a game through luck, so even that is an option. Looking around what’s happening on the table goes a long way in timing when heroes enter your dungeon, or trying to steal them from other players.

Design wise it’s not the most elegant of games. With seperate hero, room and spell decks it has lots of moving parts for what seems a simple game. The expansion adds another deck. the fact that you’ll need to add/remove certain cards depending on the number of players is somewhat cumbersome, but I can see why it’s done; There is some balance in when the Epic heroes show up and speed things up a little.

The hero deck could have been more; Aside from The Fool there isn’t much variation. Ordinary heroes only differ in type and and the number of hitpoints (4-8HP) and do little to distinguish themselves from each other except for flavour.  The expansion helps mixing things up by giving the heroes items. I haven’t played with the expansion yet, but they do seem to make the heroes a little more unique and exciting.

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Conclusion: I like this game. It’s portable, funny, quick and it has some nice hidden depths. It’s easy enough to explain and random enough for new players to at least stand a chance.  It might get a little repetative after a while, but most short games have that. It’s interesting enough for me to keep an eye on expansions and maybe even chase down a promo or two. There still is some room for small improvements here and there, but there are no obvious flaws so far.

If you like dungeon crawling, and can appreciate the pixelized art style, and you’re not worried about a little randomness in your game, I can recommend this.

Posted under Other games