17 January 2019
A competitive card game that’s truly one of a kind
There’s something magic about KeyForge. Of course, there’s something Magic about KeyForge too, coming as it does from the man behind the hugely influential collectible card game. Yet Richard Garfield’s latest goes beyond its impressive novelty factor – every single deck in the world is different – to offer up a gaming experience that genuinely feels like no other.
KeyForge pulls off its ‘unique game’ trick with aplomb, taking the thrill of opening a blind booster pack and applying it to an entire deck of 37 cards. (Every copy of the game’s starter set, which includes the various tokens you’ll need, has identical decks designed for learning the basics, plus two unique decks.) Though the cards are plucked from an initial pool of 350 or so that can technically reoccur across multiple decks, your individual selection is given a ridiculously elaborate procedurally-generated title and image stamped on the card backs that hammers home KeyForge’s greatest strength: it’s an enormous amount of fun.
In play, KeyForge is swingy in all the right ways. Eschewing a conventional whittling down of health points in favour of a tug-of-war over the resource of Æmber – working out the pronunciation of which (‘amber’, apparently) is the hardest thing about the rules – needed to forge three keys for victory means that powerful cards that clear the table of creatures become a natural part of the back-and-forth flow, rather than frustrating game-winning full stops.
This is complemented by the game’s generous rules substitute for Magic’s card currency of mana, allowing any number of cards from one of each deck’s three ‘houses’ to be played and activated each turn, which stops any turn from feeling wasted or limited in options and lets a match jump into high gear almost immediately. The more immediate ability to react to your opponent’s actions and your own card draws without being tethered to a restrictive resource pool gives KeyForge a refreshingly full-throttle pace and high intensity, making strategies more satisfying and effective to pull off in each moment than other competitive card games’ need to plan multiple turns ahead and know your entire deck to stay a threat.
Although KeyForge indulges in entertaining seesaw moments, it always feels fair. ‘Chains’, which temporarily limit card drawing after especially strong actions, are a slightly tacked-on balancing measure needing to be tracked on a separate board, but in practice they work effectively. We played with over half a dozen different decks, and never felt that any one of the randomly-generated combinations was overpowered or weaker versus any of the others. While the houses have a distinct feel to their play style – from Dis’ habit of clearing creatures to Logos’ card-churning draw abilities – every one feels viable and worth digging into.
KeyForge blows apart the conventions of trading card games and remakes them in a brand new form. The ability to pick up a deck and know that it’ll offer you something new every time is ingenious, brilliantly embracing both the ability to casually pick-up-and-play and learn your own unique combination of cards inside-out. Although the fixed decks seem restrictive at first, the openness of the gameplay provides plenty of freedom for players to use their cards as they want.
It won’t be for everyone – those who enjoy spending hours fine-tuning a custom card list that reflects their personal play style might be left feeling a bit bored by the need here to seek out a deck that fits their needs, and at some point you may tire of seeing the same cards pop up without being able to remix them freely – but taken as a whole KeyForge brilliantly breathes new life into the genre that Garfield helped originate. I can’t wait to see what my next deck brings.
Far more than a gimmick, KeyForge cleverly takes card game conventions and re-energises them with fast, open gameplay that hands power to its players and an endless list of new combinations to explore. Most impressively, it does all this while feeling balanced and just as approachable whether you’re playing casually at the dining room table or in a tournament.
Designer: Richard Garfield
Time: 45+ minutes
This review originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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