Why is KeyForge so Intriguing?
Fantasy Flight are well known for their collectable games. On this blog we have already covered a few over the past couple of years. There is X-Wing, the Star Wars style space miniature game where players build their own squadron for epic space battles. There is the A Game of Thrones: Living Card Game, where great houses battle it out in the hopes to take the Iron Throne. There is Arkham Horror, which we have but have played criminally little of, and of course there is also Star Wars: Destiny.
All of the above games share a few things in common. The first is that they come with a base box set that contains all the basics you need in order to play the game casually at home. It is possible, in a non-competitive environment, to play the game with everything contained within. That being said, in all cases it doesn’t end there. You need to buy more to keep the game going and play it in a more competitive environment – more cards, more dice, and more miniatures. Just…more.
Thus, such is the model of the collectable card game, the miniature game, or the living card game – the latter being a structure entirely unique to Fantasy Flight. They are enjoyable types of game, and often they have huge followings, but they can become expensive. All of them are great games that have fond places in my heart, but, from a personal perspective, my wallet sincerely wishes that wasn’t the case.
Here is the place where KeyForge enters in. KeyForge is a game that I currently know very little about how it plays. I don’t know the rules, however, the meta around the game is really interesting and worth talking about. In fact, KeyForge may be one of the most interesting games to have come out in the past five years. It has me sincerely intrigued, and in this article I hope to impart some of that intrigue-ed-ness (Intriguedness? Intrigosity? Just “intrigue”?) on to you.
First and foremost we need to acknowledge the mind behind KeyForge. KeyForge was created by none other than Richard Garfield, the man who created the incredibly popular Magic the Gathering and Android: Netrunner card games. In the board game world, Garfield was also the brain behind the hit games King of Tokyo and Bunny Kingdom. Those are some heavy board game credentials that place Garfield (who I keep wanting to call Andrew Garfield, but that is someone entirely different) in the pantheon of great board game designers. He is up there with Vlaada Chvátil, Bruno Cathala, and Antoine Bauza. Richard Garfield is, without a doubt, one of the greatest board game designers of all time, and I implore you to find a gamer who will argue otherwise. Even if you don’t like any of his games, you have to seriously admire the mind behind them.
Secondly, we need to look at how KeyForge bills itself. What does this mean? Well, let’s take a closer look at the decks, and this is where it gets really interesting.
Each deck in KeyForge is given a unique name and a unique combination of cards. This doesn’t mean that each deck is put together by players resulting in unique combinations – instead, it means that each deck is legitimately unique. You can’t take decks and mix/match them with other decks. Instead, each has its own deck list and and name to go with. Such names include, and I am taking these from a BGG (Board Game Geek) forum (that you can read here) “Slaughter, the Druid of Dust” and “Harmgrate, Spawn of Locolen”.
Asking my friend, who is playing and trying to get me to play, what his favourite deck is called, he said that his current favourite is called “Garcia of Skidslide”, although he also likes “Calloway, Survivor of the Children” and “Dancing Tycllo of the Mountain Top”.
What this means is that, in theory, there are millions of combinations of unique decks, each one playing differently, and also each one having its own unique name.
Each card is, however, not completely unique. Instead decks are drawn from a pool of 370 possible cards. There are seven key factions within the game, 50-ish cards in each, and the deck building algorithm (which I imagine as one of the most complex Excel spreadsheets of all time) pulls 12 cards from each of three lists to make a deck. A singular unique card is then printed with the deck list on it (you can read the source for this here).
It is, however, not entirely random. Certain cards bounce off one another, for instance if the Horseman of Pestilence is included in the list then it will also pull through the other three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This is known as a “Four Horseman” deck, for obvious reasons, and is currently very highly sought after. Recently, a deck was sold with two sets of the Four Horsemen in it, an incredibly rare combination, and we’ll talk about this a bit more later.
It is said to be the same with other cards as well.
What this still leave though is a shed load of combinations, and already there are hundreds of thousands of different decks that have been registered online. There is a KeyForge app called the KeyVault where players can register their decks. At time of writing there have been 285,471 unique decks registered. This also makes each deck limited edition, since there will be only “so many” combinations with your card in.
The Balancing Mechanic
One of my initial thoughts was that a unique game like this brings an issue with balanced play. If you have a deck and I have a deck, but yours is intrinsically better, then that would suck for me. It would make tournament play phenomenally difficult.
Where there is no way of balancing this in casual play, and Fantasy Flight’s explanation on their website is uninspiring, in tournament play there are handicaps in place. If a deck wins too often then it will have a handicap placed upon it. I’ll need to do more research into this but, from a tournament perspective, that is a really interesting concept.
So yes, there is a balancing mechanic for tournament play; however, that balancing mechanic will have to, in due course, be adapted for casual play as well.
At the moment, and this is where my main wariness of the game stems from, the fact decks can be unbalanced is accepted by Fantasy Flight and they explain that it shouldn’t hugely matter. To paraphrase the KeyForge FAQ section (link here) they acknowledge the potential unbalance and say that even bad decks will:
- Help delve more into the mythology of the game.
- Act as practice for certain combinations.
- Be able to be swapped with your opponent to see how they play with it.
For me, personally, those reasons don’t really feel like justification.
The corollary to all this is that if anyone can make a balanced card game then it is Richard Garfield. There is also an app for telling whether your deck is stronger or weaker than the average deck based on a strength value given to the cards. This is a nice way for decks to be judged, and apparently there are only 2 decks that have trampled on everything so far. Out of over 200,000 registered decks, those are fairly good odds.
What this had done, interestingly enough, is create a new sealed style of tournament where players get two decks as a buy in and need to play with those. It sounds both brilliant and really confusing. I can’t wait to learn more.
We have an expensive hobby – that fact isn’t new. Board games regularly cost between around £25 and £50 in the UK. That being said, for the majority of the hobby, once you have bought a game then that is the initial investment out of the way.
For CCGs, LCGs, games like X-Wing, and Unique Games (as Keyforge is being billed) it is not the same model. The concept with Keyforge, that decks are completely random/un-expandable and so you don’t need to buy more than one set, is a beautiful one, but it is also one that isn’t entirely true. Being familiar with the idea of buying decks one card at a time (I did that for Star Wars: Destiny to ensure I got the deck I wanted) I initially thought that Keyforge would do away with that economy.
That is not the case, and instead there has been an economy sprout up overnight based around buying whole decks. There are sites out there opening decks and selling them separately, unboxed, so you know what you are buying. A singular 8x Horsemen Deck (as mentioned earlier – two sets of four Horsemen) was in such high demand it sold for $2,300 just the other week. That’s $2,300 for a single deck for a single card game. The hugely ironic thing is no-one really knows if it was a good investment as very few people can actually compare or know what that is like to play. Looking on the UK version of eBay, single Horsemen decks (so decks with the 4x basic Horsemen) are selling for between £50 and £200 each. It’s an economy in its own right.
In hind sight, KeyForge has a lot of intrigue surrounding it, and ultimately, I think this comes down to one thing.
KeyForge is a NEW Kind of Game
We, as gamers, have never seen a game like KeyForge before. As an industry, games move fast, but the competitive card game model has remained more or less the same for the past 10 years. Not since the LCG have we seen something breathtakingly new within that market and here we are – presented with something that is new and shiny and promises a new world of competitive card games.
It is because of this that we are going to have to see how this plays out. I have no doubt that KeyForge is a magnificent beast beneath the surface. Richard Garfield is a very well established designer with a seriously impressive resumé, and so the question isn’t quite whether KeyForge is a well thought through game. Instead, it is a question about how that beast evolves. What will KeyForge competitive play be like when it become more widespread? What will KeyForge look like in a year? What will KeyForge look like in two years? What does the future hold for the game?
It’s intriguing. It’s interesting. It is a series of questions that I, for one, am looking forward to finding out the answers to.
So, am I Investing?
Coming up to Christmas, no, although I will seriously consider it in the future.
Today I thought I would write about what it is about this game that I find so interesting; however, it also has me torn. I have barrelled head first into enough CCGs and LCGs in the past to know that I am not usually that kind of gamer. I love new and exciting and having a kind of gaming polygamy. I fear commitment with card games.
I also hate the false economy that builds up around CCGs, but that is a story for another time.
So, I am not investing, not yet. As I mentioned a few times throughout this article, I have a friend who has invested. He is going to do a taster evening with me and another couple of the guys in my gaming group. From there…well…we’ll see.
WHAT IS KEYFORGE LIKE?
Ahh, yes, a question in all capital letters – and that is because I am really interested. I hope that you, as a reader, may have a view or may have seen the game played? Maybe you have a few decks yourself. If so, please tell me about them. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.