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Subject: Keyflower: Meaty and satisfying...eventually rss

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Stephen Mould
United Kingdom
Sheffield
South Yorkshire
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Keyflower


I’ve been putting off writing this review. If you look at the other reviews I’ve written, with the notable exceptions of A Distant Plain and Terra Mystica, they’re mostly of lighter, or more thematic games. Whilst I love a meaty euro, I often struggle to think of why. It’s easier in light games to identify the interesting decision points. Good thematic games give you an easily identifiable emotional response. Shiny games with lots of components give you something to talk about, even when the game isn’t all that deep.

Keyflower doesn’t give me these hooks. It has interesting decision points, but so many that I don’t know which to pull out as most important. The emotional responses it produces are nothing to do with a crazy run of die rolls, or a well executed lie (although bluffing plays a part here) and everything to do with intellectual frustration/satisfaction. The art style is very nice, the pieces well produced and of good quality, but it doesn’t make you drool in admiration. There’s no plastic, no well used gimmick. Except maybe the cottages.


And in some ways, Keyflower makes itself quite difficult to like. The rulebook is badly written for initially learning to play (though it is an excellent reference once you know what you’re doing). It uses meeples, the overused zombies of board game components. There are hexes. It’s an auction game, but also a worker placement game and there’s a bit of tile placement in there as well. It plays up to six players, but at that number it drags on and on and there is too much information to make an informed decision. Oh, and your first game you won’t have a clue what’s happening until it’s over. And the second game you’ll forget and have to learn it again.Try selling that at Friday game night.


And yet, I think this might be my favourite euro.


The game glows in the warm light of careful thought and extensive playtesting. Ideas dribble out of it like honey, leaving a sweet and moreish taste. The game is split into 4 seasons and each season an array of new delicious options arrive in the form of boats full of new workers and a delightful buffet of new tiles to bid for.


The way bidding and worker placement works is fantastic. If someone has bid 1 red meeple on a tile you want, go ahead and outbid them, but you must use the same colour. Same with the worker placement. Want to use that timber mill that already has 1 red meeple on it? Put 2 on it and you can. Oh, except you just used 2 red to bid on that tile and now you only have 1 left. Sorry. And what happens when all those red meeples owned by different players end up on one tile? How do we differentiate then? We don’t. Whoever owns the tile, or wins the bid for it, takes the meeples, meaning you have to decide just how much you want that wood. Enough to give Joe two of your precious red meeples?






This is not a dry engine builder, devoid of interaction either, a charge that can fairly be levelled at some of my favourite euro games. Besides the inherent interactivity of an auction, the game uses a familiar worker placement staple for interaction, action blocking, and makes it integral. Because anyone can take any action anywhere on the table on their turn, no tile is ever safe. Building a mine in your town doesn’t mean it’s yours to use whenever you like. If another player plops his green meeple on it with his first turn, and you don’t have any green meeples, too bad for you. Except now you’ll have a green meeple next turn, as any meeple used to take an action belonging to somebody else becomes that person’s meeple at the end of the season. Similarly, if you want to take an action and don’t want anyone else to be able to do so, dump three of the same coloured meeples on it. A hex can never have more than six meeples on it and you must increase any previous number used to take the action by 1, so you’ve now made this unavailable for anyone else. Of course, you’ve also used 3 meeples, which could have been spread out to give you more options and given them to the owner of the tile.


Bidding on tiles becomes a tense game of brinkmanship. Although it becomes pretty clear by the second round of auctions who might be interested in what, you have little notion how many of what coloured meeple they have hiding in their cottage. And if you’re red heavy and want to make sure the auction takes place with red meeples, well then you have to decide how many to commit initially. Putting 1 on will probably mean that the other player bids 2, which means you will probably need to bid at least 3 to take it. But if you start with a bid of 3 and it turns out the other player really wants it, you’ve now got to decide whether to commit 5 or move the 3 you already committed off the bid, and those 3 guys are now stuck together, so have to go do the same thing, reducing your options and maybe ending up behind someone else’s screen for the next season.


And once you win the bid, the decision isn’t over. Tiles that produce stuff (wood, ore, gold) don’t generally do anything by themselves (assuming you get to take the action at all). You’ll need to move them to point scoring tiles or tiles that you want to upgrade. To do this you need to use the Transport action tiles. Everyone starts with one of these, but they aren’t very efficient and the new, more powerful versions that come up for auction quickly become the most fought over lots, both during auctions and to use as actions. They provide movement points that allow you to transport your raw materials around your village. But in order for the materials to travel, they have to move along connected paths between hexes, meaning there’s a whole mini tile placement thing going on in the middle of all of this. And often a tile placement game where you’re working on a wing and a prayer, because you aren’t always sure where you’re going to want anything to go at the end of the game, because scoring hexes don’t come out until the last 2 of the 4 rounds.


Ihate you, green meeples. Except when I love you.

At least you’ll have some idea what’s going to appear in that final bidding round, made up entirely of scoring Hexes, because you’ll have picked at least one of them from a random selection of 3 you were given at the beginning of the game. You can choose all 3 if you want, which might make it easier to get something useful, but might also just be gifting another player extra points in the end game.


I haven’t even mentioned turn order, tools, the way new meeples are added each round, upgrading tiles for points versus upgrading tiles that are better at producing resources, green meeples that are an extra colour that only turns up infrequently during the game making them extra-valuable, boats that provide special powers, the game of bluff and counter bluff that is passing etc. etc. This is a game that piles on the decision points like a bitter cafe employee loading up hot chocolate with enough marshmallows to bankrupt his employer. It’s a brain burner, an AP inducing monster.


The first time you play, it makes almost no sense. Because you don’t understand the scoring hexes you are given at the start, and you don’t have to pick which ones to add until the end, you’ll just ignore them for the time being as you try and come to grips with the tangled knot of mechanics in front of you. But this means you have absolutely no direction and spend the first season randomly bidding on tiles that you think are probably OK based on your knowledge of other euros. And by the time you start to get a feel for the game and think you might want to start using some of these resources you’ve been producing, you’ll probably have forgotten rules about movement of goods or upgrading tiles, that didn’t seem important when all you had was your home tile and bunch of random meeples but now seem to be vital. And now it’s the last round, you have to pick something to add to the auction and you realise that you don’t have any of the things that the three tiles you have to choose from score points for.


The second time you play, you’ll have more of an idea of the kind of thing that’s going to be useful both during the game and at the end. But now a whole bunch of tiles that you’ve never seen before start popping up. People start using tiles that you’ve added to your village. How dare they! You wanted that wood, that’s why you bid all those red guys for it!. Except, now, you’ve got all those meeples for next turn. And there’s a transport tile out in the auction that everyone is going to want to use to move the resources they’re creating, so if you got that maybe you could start saving up meeples, which if you win the bid for that scoring tile you were given at the beginning might provide you with the points you need to win...And it’s at this point things start to fall together.


This is actually a point salad game. You can get points for everything. Meeples, resources, tools, upgrades, roads, rivers, everything can score you points. The operative word being ‘can’. Because in order to score anything except upgrades and gold, you need to have bought a tile that lets you do so. And it’s a game that works backwards. Rather than knowing what the scoring conditions are at the end of the game and working towards them, you have a selection of resource generating options available at the beginning, which you gather in the hope that you might be able to turn them into points at the end.


As such, Keyflower rewards repeated play. The more you play the more you see the different strands of the game, the more the different routes to victory reveal themselves. As you begin to understand its structure, you begin to understand how to make it work for you, when to horde meeples, when to spend a season producing, when to bid everything on going first. And pulling your plans off is hugely satisfying. So satisfying, that winning is almost an afterthought at first. Just being able to say that you had a plan and took it to completion feels like victory.


Keyflower is a mean game, a heavy game, a game of betting the farm on getting that scoring hex that will bring all your plans together before watching someone start the bidding with a blue meeple, of which you have precisely 1. It’s unforgiving and brutal. And because of that, it’s deep and satisfying. And although your plans can be ruined by not getting what you need, there is always the chance that something thrown in by another player will serve your purposes almost as well, or that you can adjust your strategy in the final season to take advantage of something no one else has seen.


Positives


Meaty decisions, clever mechanics, and a genuine challenge. A constantly changing board state allows players to pivot and change their strategies to take advantage of new opportunities. Provides a great sense of accomplishment and an ego boost when your plans come off. For a euro, provides a great deal of interaction. And the player screens that look like individual cottages are delightful.


Negatives


So many clever mechanics working off one another that it can be very daunting to both learn and teach. The confrontational elements, though indirect, are very real and can be very punishing. The constantly changing board state can collapse an intricately plotted strategy through no fault of your own. I don’t think I’ve played a game that causes such intense Analysis Paralysis in some players. Although, you might be grateful for the extra time to think about your own next move...


Conclusion


Keyflower isn’t for everyone. It is complex and will result in a lot of blank faces for the first couple of games. Losing out on the tile in winter that a whole strategy has revolved around is enough to bring out the bad loser in most people. Figuring out a path to victory will result in long, agonising turns, when even the least AP prone amongst us will be staring down at our meagre resources, head in hands, cursing that useless lone blue meeple. But for all this, when you play it with people who understand its intricacies, Keyflower is a beautiful thing. Everything flows wonderfully, the decisions come thick and fast, the board state is in constant flux, each season allows for a mini-strategy within an overall strategy and it feels satisfying to accomplish each one. Keyflower is a game that, once you get it, pulls of the trick of making everyone at the table feel smart. You just have to get past the games where everyone feels stupid first.
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Mike Spartz
United States
Golden valley
Minnesota
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This review is more or less my exact thoughts on the game. I think it took about 3 or 4 games before I really had any idea what was going on. I bought it on hype alone and after the second game I was starting to feel buyers remorse. I think I kept playing it just because I stubbornly wanted to like it and I wasn't willing to stop because I didn't want to feel like I wasted money on it. Now it's one of my favorite games. Probably my favorite euro.
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David Janik-Jones
Canada
Waterloo
Ontario
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designer
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Slywester Janik, awarded the Krzyż Walecznych (Polish Cross of Valour), August 1944
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Stevemould wrote:
And yet, I think this might be my favourite euro.

Excellent review. This quote sums it up for me.
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Dan Hyer
United States
Vancouver
Washington
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The die is cast.
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You say OCD like it's a bad thing.
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Nice review. I wish I could write like you. You have a gift.
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Wheels
Australia
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Fantastic review for a fantastic game. I really like your ability to give a sense of the rules without a dry overview, and you give an accurate sense of how the game plays.

Keep it up!
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Stephen Sanders
United States
Henderson
Texas
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DNA results:Scottish, Dutch, English, Irish, German, French, Iberian Peninsula = 100% American!
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Stevemould wrote:

Positives
Meaty decisions, clever mechanics, and a genuine challenge. A constantly changing board state allows players to pivot and change their strategies to take advantage of new opportunities. Provides a great sense of accomplishment and an ego boost when your plans come off. For a euro, provides a great deal of interaction. And the player screens that look like individual cottages are delightful.[q/]

So, what exactly is the problem?

[q="Stevemould"]
Negatives
So many clever mechanics working off one another that it can be very daunting to both learn and teach. The confrontational elements, though indirect, are very real and can be very punishing. The constantly changing board state can collapse an intricately plotted strategy through no fault of your own. I don’t think I’ve played a game that causes such intense Analysis Paralysis in some players. Although, you might be grateful for the extra time to think about your own next move...[q/]

You say "very daunting...very punishing..." I don't see that with the flexible worker placement and ability to take back workers. What exactly do you mean?

[q="Stevemould"]
Conclusion
Keyflower isn’t for everyone. It is complex and will result in a lot of blank faces for the first couple of games. Losing out on the tile in winter that a whole strategy has revolved around is enough to bring out the bad loser in most people. Figuring out a path to victory will result in long, agonising turns, when even the least AP prone amongst us will be staring down at our meagre resources, head in hands, cursing that useless lone blue meeple. But for all this, when you play it with people who understand its intricacies, Keyflower is a beautiful thing. Everything flows wonderfully, the decisions come thick and fast, the board state is in constant flux, each season allows for a mini-strategy within an overall strategy and it feels satisfying to accomplish each one. Keyflower is a game that, once you get it, pulls of the trick of making everyone at the table feel smart. You just have to get past the games where everyone feels stupid first.


Ok, we didn't have "long, agonizing turns" but maybe you had a different set of tiles than we had - I don't know. I do agree that it "flows wonderfully" and is one of the best designed games I have played.
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Stephen Mould
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caltexn wrote:
Stevemould wrote:

Positives
Meaty decisions, clever mechanics, and a genuine challenge. A constantly changing board state allows players to pivot and change their strategies to take advantage of new opportunities. Provides a great sense of accomplishment and an ego boost when your plans come off. For a euro, provides a great deal of interaction. And the player screens that look like individual cottages are delightful.[q/]

So, what exactly is the problem?

[q="Stevemould"]
Negatives
So many clever mechanics working off one another that it can be very daunting to both learn and teach. The confrontational elements, though indirect, are very real and can be very punishing. The constantly changing board state can collapse an intricately plotted strategy through no fault of your own. I don’t think I’ve played a game that causes such intense Analysis Paralysis in some players. Although, you might be grateful for the extra time to think about your own next move...[q/]

You say "very daunting...very punishing..." I don't see that with the flexible worker placement and ability to take back workers. What exactly do you mean?

[q="Stevemould"]
Conclusion
Keyflower isn’t for everyone. It is complex and will result in a lot of blank faces for the first couple of games. Losing out on the tile in winter that a whole strategy has revolved around is enough to bring out the bad loser in most people. Figuring out a path to victory will result in long, agonising turns, when even the least AP prone amongst us will be staring down at our meagre resources, head in hands, cursing that useless lone blue meeple. But for all this, when you play it with people who understand its intricacies, Keyflower is a beautiful thing. Everything flows wonderfully, the decisions come thick and fast, the board state is in constant flux, each season allows for a mini-strategy within an overall strategy and it feels satisfying to accomplish each one. Keyflower is a game that, once you get it, pulls of the trick of making everyone at the table feel smart. You just have to get past the games where everyone feels stupid first.


Ok, we didn't have "long, agonizing turns" but maybe you had a different set of tiles than we had - I don't know. I do agree that it "flows wonderfully" and is one of the best designed games I have played.


1. There is no problem, this is the 'positives' part of the review.

2. Daunting to learn and teach. Lots of rules and lots of interactions between them. The flexibility of the worker placement is a hard thing to learn.
Punishing because you might need to take a particular action to progress your plan which you are then shut out of. It can be a difficult thing for a new player to pivot at this point and can indeed feel punishing.
3.the long agonizing turns are because of the fantastic array of options. More options means more time deciding on the right one.

Did you read this as a negative review? It wasnt meant to be.
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Michael J
United States
Folsom
California
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I liked this game a lot on my first play, and after 3 plays, I like it even more. It's a very satisfying Euro that offers lots of meaningful decisions and lots of ways to feel clever. It's fantastic.
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