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Richard Garfield and Fantasy Flight Games Found KeyForge, a New Model in Game Design and Production

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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At Fantasy Flight Games' In-Flight Report on Wednesday, August 1, 2018, the day before Gen Con 2018 opened, head of the FFG studio Andrew Navaro and designer Corey Konieczka made a number of game announcements that fit what one might expect from the company — a third edition of Arkham Horror with a modular board and other changes, a Mother of Dragons expansion for A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, new ships and figures for the Star Wars: Armada, Star Wars: Legion, and Star Wars: X-Wing lines — then Navaro introduced a short video that introduced this:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Navaro spent a fair amount of time covering KeyForge: Call of the Archons, a Richard Garfield design that has apparently been in the works for years, because while all of the other announcements already had a context in which people could frame what was being introduced, KeyForge is a new game that had to be covered from the ground up, starting with the setting in which the game takes place: "the Crucible, an artificial world built from the pieces of countless planets across the stars". This world is populated by god-like beings called Archons, who have assembled forces, tools and tricks from three of the seven houses "to find and unlock the planet's hidden Vaults to gain ultimate knowledge and power". Your goal in the game: Collect Æmber so that you can unlock your three keys (thereby giving you access to this metaphorical Vault) before the opponent does.

Board Game: KeyForge: Call of the Archons
Names and icons of the seven houses

The hook of the game, which is part of the reason this game was in the works for so long, is that each Archon is represented by a deck, and each KeyForge deck ever sold by FFG (*) will be a unique combination of cards not available to any other person who ever plays the game. (I'll explain the asterisk below.)

How does this work? The card set for Call of the Archons consists of a few hundred cards — I've seen the number 370 in passing, but I can't find a reference for this — spread across the seven houses, along with a few mavericks that belong to no house. When you buy a KeyForge deck, which will be sold individually for $10 starting in Q4 2018 when the game is released, you'll receive a deck of 36 cards that contains cards from three houses. These houses are indicated by symbols on the Archon card:

Board Game: KeyForge: Call of the Archons

What's more, each Archon is named and depicted through some kind of random name and image generator. Each Archon will have a unique name and image, and this name and image is printed on the back of every card in your deck, as you can see in this image from the first game that I played in a demo session following the In-Flight report:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Each Archon Deck as sold is complete, and you cannot swap cards or make substitutions from deck to deck because the backs of the cards won't match and the out-of-place cards will be clearly identifiable. (Yes, of course you can sleeve your cards to hide the backs, but I'm sure in organized play you'll be required to use transparent sleeves and swapping cards goes against the concept of what Garfield and FFG are trying to achieve.) The deck is meant to represent this particular Archon, and by wielding that deck, you are that Archon.

As Garfield explained during the In-Flight Report, this idea of the deck representing the Archon eliminates the concept of net-decking. You can't go out and buy the cards necessary to create a deck that someone else has made. Your deck comes complete with a certain percentage of common, uncommon, rare, and special cards spread across the three houses, and this combination of cards — which is printed on the back of your Archon card and summarized in a QR code — will exist in no other deck in the world. Yes, someone somewhere might contain a deck that differs from yours by only a single card, but given that the deck construction guidelines allow for more than 104,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible decks (according to FFG), you're probably not likely to find that someone, no matter how often you play.

You will find Archons that use the same combination of houses, but even then their decks will differ depending on which houses are most prominent and which particular cards are included.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
The decks that competed in my second game

The one exception to all of the decks being unique is that the KeyForge starter set (MSRP $40) contains two pre-constructed decks — Miss 'Onyx" Censorius and Radiant Argus the Supreme — that are intended to help new players learn the game. The starter set also contains two unique decks so that you can become someone new once you're comfortable with the rules, but you can also download the rules from the FFG website and jump into play by buying two standalone decks — or just one deck if someone else you know also desires to be an Archon.

Many people have asked whether all the decks are balanced (which seems impossible) or how you can ensure fair play since one combination of cards might be clearly better than another. FFG has promised that in organized play, it will have a system to handicap decks, with a deck possibly being forcibly retired if it's determined to be too successful. (The QR code on your Archon allows a tournament organizer to upload your deck contents immediately without you having to complete a decklist, and your OP results will be tied to your deck through that QR code.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin

You might bristle at the notion of not being able to use a deck that you bought, but you can of course continue to use that deck in casual play. Maybe you can play a pair of matches against someone, swapping decks between matches. If you win both matches, then clearly you're the better player; if you trade matches, then you compare how many keys and pieces of Æmber the loser of each game held.

Whatever, I say. To some degree, the point of the game is the explorative nature of the decks and the ability of the player to best learn how to exploit their cards. I spoke with someone from Asmodee North America about the game, and this person said that Richard Garfield had compared KeyForge to horse-racing. With Magic: The Gathering, Garfield's main contribution to the gaming world to date, a player can buy the cards needed to create a deck they've seen elsewhere; they still need to be able to play that deck well, but you can buy the tools needed to increase your chances of winning.

With KeyForge, you're more like a jockey riding a horse. That horse comes to you complete in one piece, and you can't transform it into a cyborg by attaching a guided missile system and installing a rocket butt. You, as the jockey, need to learn how to get the most out of that horse, and to do so, you need to ride that deck again and again until you know it inside and out. You will know all the tricks it contains and how to dig to find the creatures, artifacts, and spells that give you the best chance of winning.

Board Game Designer: Richard Garfield
Richard Garfield explains the game at Gen Con 2018

I've played KeyForge twice with different decks at Gen Con 2018 and am enchanted with the game design itself as well as the concept of the world. What's interesting to think about is that when Wizards of the Coast first released Magic in 1993, the company stated that it thought people would buy just a few starter decks and boosters and be content with that. They would create a deck and while playing other people, they'd discover all of these other cards that they didn't know about. The games would have a sense of discovery as you encountered new cards and found out more about the world of Magic. This concept failed, though, because people bought dozens, if not hundreds, of decks and boosters, and as the online community developed, everyone knew about every card in a new set within 24 hours of the set being released.

Now with KeyForge, you once again have that possibility of discovering something new each time you play. Not because of the individual cards, which you'll see after buying or playing a sufficient number of decks, but because of the combination of those cards into unique arrangements that exist nowhere else in the world. You get to discover those combinations with each new person you play, just as you discover the combinations of characteristics that make up each new person that you meet, and the more you play against a deck — that is, against someone — the more you discover about them and their nature, a beautifully fetching idea that's been embedded in the structure of this game.
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