Jesse Anderson
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Keyforge

A Strategic Discovery Dueling Card Game by the creator of Magic the Gathering




I recently had a chance to purchase and play this extremely hyped dueling card game. I grabbed a starter kit and two additional random decks. I played the game with a friend who is new to board gaming and has never played a hand management card game before. It took us about half of a game (15 min) to learn how to play and strategize the cards in our hand after we figured out the flow of each turn. Once we learned how to play, the game got interesting, stealing Aember (the game resource), layering defenses, forging keys (from Aember) and eventually arriving at the end of the game where we were each a turn away from winning (forging the third key).

I was skeptical of this game at first, the reviews had been mixed, the randomly generated “gimmick” was interesting but problematic, and the hype seemed to largely cool off after release (partly due to limited stock). However, I really enjoy Keyforge. Let me explain, Keyforge is not a perfect game - It’s not balanced. It’s not a deck builder where you can strategize the perfect combination of cards, you will lose for dumb reasons and some decks will always seem to dominate. Keyforge however acknowledges these problems, embraces them, and is a good game once you move beyond them and realize what exactly the game is.

Keyforge is a game about system discovery, questions like; What does this deck do? How can I utilize the systems I am forced to have? Can I win with both decks in the match? The use of generated decks makes Keyforge a lovely discovery game - sit down with a friend, break open a brand new pack, and see what lies inside. The gameplay was engaging, the lore and artwork consistent, and the overall experience was a lot of fun and left me wanting more. It is not without its problems - as this review will outline and demonstrate - but at the end of the pond it is a game that's worth trying out whether you are a old school Magic fan hungry for a fresh system or new to dueling card games entirely.

Best at 2 players
Age range 14+
Complexity 2.5 out of 5
Average playtime 30min
Non-gamer friendly - Yes!



The Good
- Discovery - For me this game is about discovering the mechanics and strategy of the procedurally generated decks you open. This is not a competitive game in the sense of Deck vs Deck - instead the best way to play is to open a new deck and trade it after the game is over to see who can win the best out of 2 or 3 games.
- Accessible dueling game - Keyforge is an easily accessible deck dueling game. The rules are well written and clear, the gameplay flow is easy to follow and the win conditions / strategy is easy to see after a round or two of the game. This is a easy to teach entry level game with a reasonable amount of depth.
- Theme / Storytelling - I always try and imagine the story behind the game when I play and for me Keyforge does not disappoint. Warring factions are facing off in the Crucible, a regenerating planet in the middle of the universe. Various tribes have been pulled through the Crucible gates as multiple universes blend together. You (the player) are an Archon, a deity who carries knowledge and language to unite the tribes. You have gathered followers around you and set them to the task of uncovering vaults and gathering the lost knowledge of the Crucible’s Architects. For me, the visuales, narrative scripts, and design of the game all lend itself to reinforcing this theme. I can see the tribal forest dwelling creatures of the Untamed matching skills and battle styles against the technological strength of the Logos. Each tribe plays differently, some hide, defend, attack, or steal from the opant in a mad struggle to unlock the vault keys.
Mechanics are accessible - The gameplay is fairly straightforward, the cards display the actions each one can take in clear writing and images, and the turn order and steps are clear and consistent. While I have asked question about special cards from time to time, mostly dealing with the way they interact with other systems on my battlefield I have never felt like the game was unclear or inconsistent. This game works as a great introduction to a dueling card game.
- Randomized Decks - this is a feature that could go into the positive or negative argument depending on your personal preference and interaction with the game. I really enjoy the randomized decks, the fact that what I have is what I use even if it’s going to be a struggle from time to time. I enjoy the system discovery mechanic of the game and am looking forward to playing tournaments where we start with a single, unopened deck and see how we progress through the game.



The Bad
- The starter kit - Is often not worth the investment (with the cardboard tokens, two core decks, two random decks, a simple how to play rule sheet, and sun / power cards) the tokens are nice enough but they can be represented with any other gem or dice and the get started decks are good introductions to the duling system if you are new to the game entirely. The best bang for your buck however would honestly be to grab a mixture of random decks, some cheap amber gems, and explore the game with a friend. The rule book is all online and being updated with new information, the random decks and be registered and tracked through the Keyforge app letting you see the win / loss and balance them out against each other over time. This game is about discovering the systems you have - so the two classic core decks I own - likely won't be used much in the future.
- Lore / Theme - I have seen a lot of people complaining about the random and inconsistent theme of the game - the two worlds colliding - untamed wild creatures merging with green aliens and barbarian warriors. I have explained my opinion on this mixture in the good side of the review, however it is worth mentioning that the lore of Kayforge lends itself to randomness - to beings and interactions not classically seen in other types of games. If aliens matching forces with spiders, assassins, scinetecs, and barbarians is not your style of game - this is not the game for you. Keyforge will most certainly see this world and lore expand in deeper and much crazier ways.
- Competitive play - the competitive market place for keyforge is based on a few possible systems but has not yet found its footing, those systems are a deck balancing system, a randomized deck system, a bring your own deck system or a mixture of them all. The first - a deck balancing mechanic is being introduced currently. As you play you gain chains that reduce the size of your hand, the more wins you have or the better the deck you own is the more chains it will have attached to it reducing your hand size in the first few rounds of the game. This mechanic is not perfect and can not control for brand new decks or deal with a out of control deck during the tournament environment until after the deck has racked up a series of significant wins. Second - randomized deck system - this tournament system is one where you buy and open a deck at the start of the tournament then you play through the round with that brand new deck and use what you get. I find this to be the most fair and interesting model personally, however it still lends itself to unbalanced decks assuming the players are on even skill level. Third - bring your own deck - this model is basically the best against the best, you bring your best deck and match it up with the others. The negative element to this form of combat is largely the randomness of the draw, you may have to buy one, twently, or a hundred deck to find the one that suits you and comes with rare selection of cards your looking for and since you cannot combine or change decks you may be hunting for a while.
- Balancing randomized decks - The above balancing techniques for tournament play are usable and will adjust as the community grows. I still think the best way to play Keyforge is to open a brand new deck, play it as is, and then swap the deck with your opponent so you are testing player skill in a more controlled environment and can clearly see if a single deck has preference.



The Game
Keyforge is a dueling card game each player declares a house (one of three), plays or activates cards and resolves their abilities and then draws back up to their hand size. The game goes back and forth as each player collects Aember and forges keys (with 6 ember each) the first to 3 keys wins the game immediately. The gameplay is fairly straightforward and each card has clear language about what it can do when activated.

Step one - Forge a key - If you have 6 ember at the start of your turn you forge a key.
Step Two - Choose a House - Declare one of the three houses in your deck this house will be the only group you can activate for this turn.
Step Three - Play, Discard, and Activate - This turn your take actions with the cards from the house you selected - playing, discarding, archiving, and activating the cards on your battle line.
Step Four - Refresh Cards - Cards in the battle line that you used get refreshed.
Step Five - Draw Cards - End turn, draw up to your hands size and prepare for the next round.



Final Thoughts - Keyforge is best as Strategic Discovery dueling card game - open a fresh deck with a friend and spend time discovering the the card systems, links, and balance between the decks. It doesn't often lend itself to competitive play - however it is a great introduction to the world of dueling card games and at the moment it is my favorite system to play. Quackalope fully recommends Keyforge for those that want to play and don’t always have to win.


If you enjoyed this review please take the time to follow Quackalope on BBG, Youtube, FB, or Instagram to see more of my content!
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Evan
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Good review! You've prompted me to realize two things: 1) hardly any reviewers talk about the lore, and 2) Keyforge works way harder at its lore than it needs to for a game that's basically just "random dudes fight over unobtanium."

It goes waaay into not only the individual factions and their history, society, values, and technology, but also, like, the nature of the competition over vaults, how the archons recruit and interact with their teams, and so on. When I first read the game's description, I completely never expected to care about the geography of the Crucible or why there are chains or whatever, and the fact that I do says a lot.
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Jesse Anderson
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Thank you and I totally agree and really enjoy the lore of KeyForge - now I will admit that I am strange . . . I even go as far as seeing and talking about the lore / storytelling in games like Azul and how the gameplay reinforces that tile laying story.


Thanks for reading!
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John F
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Good review. The only thing I see lacking is the Adaptive play mode as possibly the best way to play competitive Keyforge. Adaptive is currently listed as one of the official variants on the Keyforge website.
 
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Stephen Sanders
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jd220 wrote:
Good review. The only thing I see lacking is the Adaptive play mode as possibly the best way to play competitive Keyforge. Adaptive is currently listed as one of the official variants on the Keyforge website.


Adaptive is amazing. One of the best tournament formats ever and it is a perfect fit.

Sealed is a blast, but adaptive makes this game shine.
 
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Jesse Anderson
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Yea your correct - I overlooked the Adaptive play on the site and it does seem to make the most sense! For anyone wondering - Players bring and play their own deck, they then trade decks and play a second game, lastly they bid chains (reduce the size of their hand) to choose the deck they want to play with and resolve the match. It seems like the best way to give players a choice of how to balance the decks.
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Ryan Kelly
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Quackalope wrote:
Yea your correct - I overlooked the Adaptive play on the site and it does seem to make the most sense! For anyone wondering - Players bring and play their own deck, they then trade decks and play a second game, lastly they bid chains (reduce the size of their hand) to choose the deck they want to play with and resolve the match. It seems like the best way to give players a choice of how to balance the decks.


By way of clarification for those not already familiar with Keyforge:

Chains temporarily reduce the size of one's hand by restricting card draws between turns. As card draws are foregone, the number of chains will reduce until they become zero and cards are drawn normally.
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