Many Keyforge Players Are Asking the Questions...

Many Keyforge Players Are Asking the Questions...

Michael Barnes     
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What does it all mean, really?

ICYMI, we are living in Keyforge Nation. As you read this, someone is probably speaking in hushed, reverent tones about cards like Help From Future Self and the Four Horsemen in much the same way as folks did about Icy Manipulators and Royal Assassins in times gone by. Tournaments are being played and decks are being recorded in an innovative app currently in beta that supports organized play and all kinds of data tracking that will surely guide development. Cards are sold out everywhere, social media feeds are peppered with images of the decks with their surreal titles and colorful, Blizzard-like illustrations. There are already banned decks with offensive "random" names, sure to be the Black Lotuses of this initial release. The aftermarket is already cranking through its wild west, frontier stage. It's crazy, and it's rare to see this kind of commotion about a hobby game release these days.

This isn't a review because I think this game is kind of review-proof. If you have to know what I think about Richard Garfield's first truly viable (in a commercial sense) follow-up to Magic: The Gathering, I'll just say this. It's awesome and right now I love that it feels fresh, on trend, and unpredictable. It does feel like how Magic did in those early days when we were buying starter decks and playing with them, discovering synergies and combos for the first time. The hype is real.

So there's that answer. But Keyforge is a game that I think is asking more questions than it is currently capable of answering. The big one, of course, is if this whole unique deck thing is a gimmick or if it is as disruptive and game-changing as buying a game parceled out in trading card packs was. I remember the assumption that Magic was never going to make it, that it was all a gimmick. But it is still impossible to avoid wondering if Keyforge is going to be a concern next year, two years from now. Or if we will see decks and starters in the 2020 FFG holiday sale.

And then there is an adjunct question to that of longevity. When the second set releases, will it invalidate or unbalance the Rise of the Archons set? Will it introduce new mechanics or houses that overpower or render obsolete even the best decks being played today? Do my decks have a "shelf life"? Will expansions include existing cards alongside new ones, or will the first expansion be completely new? What happens if I decide to sell or trade a deck I've registered into my collection? Will these decks be junk one day, or will future tournament modes support a "vintage" format"?

For the more casual player- such as myself - there is also a question if this game is going to be entirely focused on in-store, ranked play. If that is the case, then I can't help but wonder if those of us who don't give a whit about playing randos in a store for some kind of FFG-issued trinket will be satisfied in the long term with the game. I've had 12 decks for less than a week and already there are at least three that I'm completely bored with, just from playing and teaching assorted friends. Will the random-but-fixed format result in boredom and homogenity, or will the occasional spike in power coming from rare decks keep it fresh- and keep people buying new decks?

And of course, that business about rarer decks offsetting the weaker ones introduces the ever-present specter of balance. Randomly generated decks inevitably means some decks are going to be more equal than others. My three crappy decks feel like they would not be competitive at all- and in fact, they've underperformed against others that I have. That may not be the case with a better player than I who might be able to make lemonade from lemons, but it is clear that some combinations and approaches yield markedly higher success rates. For example, cards that give Aember upon drop are almost always a favorable play. Having lots of creatures is far more impactful than having lots of artifacts or actions. And there are "special" and "maverick" rarities out there as well as decks that seem to have pre-seeded combinations of cards like the aforementioned Horsemen decks. These decks are already selling for big bucks courtesy a speculation market.

I also can't help but wonder if this game has an as yet unannounced digital strategy - it seems virtually custom made for online play. There are no instants or off-turn actions, like Hearthstone. It would totally make sense for players to plunk down $1.99 (rather than $10 IRL) to buy a deck in an online game to play through a tournament bracket- not unlike a ticket to a digital CCG's online drafting arenas. If this happens, I think it could actually kill the physical game. I know that as far as I'm concerned, the day this game goes up on the App Store is the day my cards go on eBay- even if you are able to scan the QR codes to add the decks to a digital collection, which you can already do with the Keyforge app. If I had to make one Keyforge prediction, it would be that this game will be on our phones within the next two years.

Who knows if all of that means anything in the long run. The thing is, none of the questions I'm asking can be answered right now. And I kind of love that. I love how anarchic and unknown it all seems as of today, which is at least part of the design goal here. I really hope the Internet doesn't break this game, that it maintains this bright and infectious sense of mayhem. It's a bold game with a bold marketing schematic that for right now, is hitting paydirt.

To close off this un-review of Keyforge, where I'm throwing up a bunch of questions I'm sure others are asking , I will say this. I think that anyone interested in games beyond mindless collecting, the Kickstarter content mills, and the generally tepid redundancy that characterizes the endless glut of new SKUs out there should play this game. I think it could be important, I think it could be significant. And I was a doubter, I scoffed at it when it was announced and even just a couple of weeks ago I was questioning why I'd want to play this over Magic.  But even if it fails spectacularly in the longview, right now it is doing something no other game is doing. It's exciting people and stimulating the hobby ecosystem in a rare way. Maybe that means something beyond the usual churning turnover of flash-in-the-pan releases. Or maybe it doesn't.

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Many Keyforge Players Are Asking the Questions... There Will Be Games

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Michael BarnesFollow Michael Barnes Follow Michael Barnes Message Michael Barnes


Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film. 

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Posted: 22 Nov 2018 08:23 by Jackwraith #286685
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Those are great questions to ask and part of my overall reluctance to get involved. I don't want to be swept up in the churn of the new. I've left many games behind (MTG, 40K/WHFB, etc.) because of that "lifestyle" that it entails. And, as you say, with the decks being essentially "frozen", I can see a situation of getting bored and wanting to buy new ones very easily, which is why I still think it's something that's just not for me.
Posted: 22 Nov 2018 09:15 by Gary Sax #286687
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First, really good review, Michael.

I guess I'm surprised to see you reflecting on its longevity! If there's one thing I've gotten from you (you've changed *my* attitude towards games a bit, tbh) in the last five years it's the transitivity of gaming experiences, and Keyforge seems right in line with that philosophy! It doesn't have to be good forever. It isn't important for something to make the forever shelf. If it's super good now, for the next 6 months and you play it a lot... then it worked! Sell it off when you're done!

I'm not calling you out or anything. I just find your extended ruminations on the long-run really interesting in light of how I feel like your gaming philosophy has evolved over time in your writing.
Posted: 22 Nov 2018 12:15 by Vysetron #286700
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Really good piece. These questions need to be asked and answered, if only because I want to know how long I'll be able to play sealed. Honestly though? More so than any other game in recent memory, I'm just happy to be playing it in the moment. Discovering all the interactions and the playstyles different decks enable has been a great experience.

Normally I'd be banging on my desk and demanding long term plans, but I'm just happy with where it is right now. I can wait on answers.
Posted: 22 Nov 2018 13:30 by ChristopherMD #286703
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Assuming you're playing regularly then price-wise this seems in line with playing an LCG where you're buying a new deck or two every month instead of those small expansion packs. Except this eliminates deckbuilding as well as the need to keep a card collection beyond a few favorite decks.
Posted: 22 Nov 2018 15:43 by Gary Sax #286704
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There might be a strong case in this game for trading decks with each other just to get new experiences. You could trade with other people in person, online, or at the flgs. Not even looking for a valuable one or anything like that. Just to get a new type of deck with new twists to learn.
Posted: 23 Nov 2018 17:49 by jeb #286739
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Yeah, I'm all for that. My deck seems pretty weak at first (and second) glance (Rio V. Shiuna, the Forty-First if you must). But what makes it especially weak in my local (i.e., in my house) meta is that my go-to card is Pocket Universe, which is really good; but my son got Gorm of Omm which lets him off-house destroy an artifact.

{sad trombooooooone}
Posted: 23 Nov 2018 20:28 by CranBerries #286744
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Gary Sax wrote:
First, really good review, Michael.

I guess I'm surprised to see you reflecting on its longevity! If there's one thing I've gotten from you (you've changed *my* attitude towards games a bit, tbh) in the last five years it's the transitivity of gaming experiences, and Keyforge seems right in line with that philosophy!

Barnes is the Marie Kondo of board games.He inspires me to fling my verbal feces at him in passive-aggression so I don't have to think about the invisible cage I dwell within, the bars constructed of my felt need to hoard everything, and more unsettling, the fear of loss. Perhaps it's the transitivity [great word] of all experiences that Barnes is leading us towards, and board games are just the first step on the journey.


Posted: 23 Nov 2018 23:09 by mtagge #286748
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So, I haven't played it and won't because I lack a local scene. However I am interested in it especially because I think that the "unique" aspect of it, especially regarding Discover: Lands Unknown, is an insult to all gamers and to the environment.

However this seems to be more akin to a card game that is tournament only. Sure you can use the same draft tournament decks after you get home in Magic, but why? How you all are talking reminds me of how my old group was when the original DiskWars came out. Boy did we have a lot of fun with a sealed draft. DW is still a sound game mechanically, but no one plays it anymore.

This game is really trying to replicate a sealed deck tournament with every game you play.

At the end of the day what turns MTG from a good to a great game is that you can show up to every Friday Night Magic with a different box of decks and completely different play style. I'm not sure this is in the same league as MTG.

I think you accidentally hit the nail on the head when you sort of asked if it would be better as an online game.
Posted: 25 Nov 2018 09:12 by Shellhead #286789
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Shellhead wrote:
Not Sure wrote:
The hype is way the fuck out of control, though. It's a good game. That's about it. If you skipped playing it forever, you're not missing anything critical. It's a fun asymmetric light wargame, set in a forest. There's some decent depth to it, and it does a lot with not too much chrome in the rules.

Predicted timeline for Root at this site:

Now: This thread picks up steam and goes to five pages.

Early 2019: Barnes names Root as Game of the Year, 2018.

Summer 2019: Barnes put up Root for sale.

2020: Nobody here talks about Root anymore, even in the What BOARD GAME(s) Have You Been Playing? thread.

2028: Ubarose starts a Flashback thread about Root. Several people rave about how it was such a great game and they played it just last month.

This is what Keyforge means: it is the latest novelty that will inspire obsession in people who tend to fall for each latest novelty. It is so laughably predictable that Archon will experience a dramatic rise and fall over the course of maybe two years, but some people lack self-awareness. You could replace every reference to Root with Keyforge above, and it would probably still be a solid prediction.

I'm a fan of Richard Garfield's card game designs, aside from the disappointing Battletech CCG that quickly sank from sight. But he is someone who creates these games and not the caretaker who sustains them. There were a couple of clans in Jyhad that were at a disadvantage in the base game, and the Corp player definitely had the advantage in the original base set for Netrunner 1st edition. These games can carry on because other people stepped in and designed subsequent sets that adjusted the play environment in hopes of a better approximation of parity. Keyforge is already known to have unbalanced decks that can never even be improved through deckbuilding, and I think it remains to be seen if chains can successfully restore balance. Expansions are likely to add new "colors" (with respect to Magic), and those are likely to also result in some unbalanced decks. And while I have never enjoyed the deckbuilding aspect of CCGs, it does seem like each individual Keyforge deck offers a very finite amount of entertainment because it can never be changed.
Posted: 12 Dec 2018 20:51 by Jackwraith #288051
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So, I picked up a couple decks because I was in the FLGS doing some Xmas shopping and picking up my pull (it's also the dominant local comic store.) I didn't pick up a starter box because I didn't want to spend that much money, but I discovered in the course of opening the decks that a) they don't have the rules in them and b) the starter does seem to be essential for a couple reasons.

I found the rules instantly online, so that's not really a concern. But all of those tokens and apparatus that people were dismissing as non-essential seem to me to be far more useful than initially considered. I'm fine with using dice or paper and pencil to track aember (just like MTG life totals, back in the day) but then you have to use dice to track wounds on every creature, since damage sticks around. And it's not feasible with just d6s, since I see power totals going up to 10. So, conceivably, you need a fistful of d10s. And you need something to track keys with. And you need a way to count power tokens. And record which creatures are stunned (turn them face down?) AND a way to track chains on each player, since it's not just a mechanic to restrain decks, but is an active part of the game that many cards implement.

So, it really seems like it's a wise idea to pick up a starter if you're going to play, unless you want to keep a laptop with a spreadsheet around and spend time typing in everything that's happening on the table. The problem I see is that I have no desire to spend money on or have a pair of "starter" decks sitting around. I'm smart enough to just dive in, thanks. What would be nice is a way to get the game apparatus without spending on starter decks and two more decks that I don't really want.
Posted: 12 Dec 2018 21:01 by ChristopherMD #288052
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Pocket change, mints, toothpicks, mixed nuts, etc. Tokens are easily found.
Posted: 12 Dec 2018 21:37 by Jackwraith #288054
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Right. But do I want to explain the system every time I play a game?

"OK. The orange dice are Aember, but all the d10s are damage. Power tokens are pennies. Rubber bands are stun tokens. Heads on the half dollars is a forged key; tails is unforged. And we'll keep track of chains on this scratch paper." Dunno. Seems like too much of a hassle. But given the number of times I'm probably going to play, another $40 isn't something that interests me right now.
Posted: 12 Dec 2018 22:04 by ubarose #288055
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Try . I’m sure there are folks churning out Keyforge tokens like mad there. You can probably get a nice set for $20 or less.
Posted: 13 Dec 2018 01:24 by Michael Barnes #288056
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The best ones I’ve seen are these things called Burger Tokens...they are those plastic dome like stickers and you put one on both sides of a penny. They are $20. But yeah, the third party market for Keyforge accessories is in full swing.

The Cadillac option is the Team Covenanr set, which includes randomly generated Æmber tokens...but they are mad expensive.

I’m still just using dice...
Posted: 13 Dec 2018 06:18 by Vysetron #288059
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Michael Barnes wrote:
The best ones I’ve seen are these things called Burger Tokens...they are those plastic dome like stickers and you put one on both sides of a penny. They are $20. But yeah, the third party market for Keyforge accessories is in full swing.

The Cadillac option is the Team Covenanr set, which includes randomly generated Æmber tokens...but they are mad expensive.

I’m still just using dice...

Don't buy TC's tokens for this. They're so hard to read and they cost roughly 3x as much as a good set if you want to actually get enough tokens.

Dice are fine unless you're going to an FFG event. I bought a $8 bag of 150 crystal-looking vase fillers and they've been perfect. Gave a bunch of them away at a tournament, kept enough for two players.

Posted: 13 Dec 2018 07:41 by Sagrilarus #288068
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My son found images of the tokens on the Internet and printed some. Cheap and quick, don't have to leave the house.
Posted: 13 Dec 2018 08:23 by RobertB #288070
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The tournament I went to last Saturday had eight players, and everyone had a different system. I had a mix of those yellow rocks shown earlier, and a bunch of cubes pulled out of a completed game of Pandemic: Legacy.

ETA: the best system I saw was a 2-quart tupperware bowl full of dice of all colors and denominations, and the translucent rocks in red and yellow. Yellow was amber, red was keys, and dice were anything else - chains, stuns, damage, etc. I wouldn't use it myself, because I don't want to dig two quarts of dice out of all my games. But its flexibility was very nice.
Posted: 13 Dec 2018 08:51 by barrowdown #288074
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A guy from my group 3d printed the keys in different colors and laser etched acrylic and painted in the etching for the amber. He made a set for everyone in my game group. It's super awesome.
Posted: 13 Dec 2018 08:54 by Michael Barnes #288075
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I think I’m going to get amber-ish D6s for that- if it’s moved off your deck card, it’s a forged key. Red D10s for wounds. Put any die on top of a deck for chains. Stun, Card is upside down.