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Keyforge: Call of the Archons – First Impressions

After a great weekend judging Destiny at Gencon, I’m finally recovering from the “con zombie” status ailment and Pearl Yeti has coerced me into writing a KeyForge article [Editor’s Note: if coercion fails I will order a bullwhip].  I was able to find time to get into a demo on Sunday, so I do have some first-hand impressions to talk about, but first let me cover some information for those who haven’t looked into the game at all.

keyforge spread

KeyForge was a surprise announcement during the in-flight report Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) hosted on Wednesday night and as details started leaking out it quickly became one of the hottest demos and most talked about games at Gencon.  The game was designed by Richard Garfield, who is basically Hall of Fame/Legendary/God Tier status when it comes to card games – generally when he is involved in something people pay attention.  KeyForge is particularly ambitious though.

Unlike basically every other customizable card game that has existed, KeyForge is a collectible “Unique Deck Game” – meaning in each “booster” you are randomly getting a 100% unique, complete constructed deck.  There is no customizing your deck by switching cards in and out, what you get is what you get – which honestly might be a detractor to some.  On the other hand though, a “booster” deck is MSRP at $9.95 and there are no two decks in existence that will be exactly the same.  Don’t like the deck you have?  $10 and you can get an all new one or you could trade your whole deck for someone else’s whole deck. The game is launching with a core set that includes two decks and the tokens to play the game for two players, and the first set of “booster” decks.

Every deck has a unique procedurally generated card back

FFG’s website officially says there are 104 quadrillion possible decks.  Obviously way more than they would ever actually print, but the point is every deck is completely unique.  They do this by using an algorithm that procedurally generates decks – with some tweaking and concessions for balance and to ensure certain cards always appear together.  Then each deck has a unique “Archon” (your character basically) with a procedurally generated unique name, card art, and the symbols of the 3 (out of 7) houses that are included in your deck.  The unique Archon name is printed on the back and front of each card, so it can never get mixed up with any other deck.

Alright, onto gameplay – the goal of the game is to be the first player to forge all three of your keys (KeyForge, get it?).  To forge each key you need to accumulate 6 Æmber, then you cash it in at the start of your turn and get your key.  Easy enough.

The game starts with randomly determining a first player – first player gets a starting hand of 7 cards, second gets a starting hand of 6.  Then during the first player’s first turn, they only get to play/discard a max of 1 card and the second player gets to take a normal first turn.

On a player’s turn, they choose one of their houses, then they can play any number of cards from their hand of the chosen house (with the exception of the first player on their first turn).  There are no resource costs to play cards, your only limit is the number of cards of that house in your hand.  There are four card types: Creatures, Upgrades, Artifacts and Action Cards.

Creatures enter play exhausted (turned 90°) in you “battleline” (the front row on your side).  They have to enter play on either end of your battleline – the flanks.  When a creature leaves play, you shift all your creatures in so that new creatures will always enter on a flank.  Creatures have the ability to fight opposing creatures OR they can “reap”, which means they go collect an Æmber for you.  Either option requires you to “exhaust” (turn 90°) the creature which means it has to be “ready” (upright).  Since they enter play exhausted you can’t do either of these on the turn you play them.

Artifacts also enter play exhausted on a row below your battleline.  Artifacts stay in play and have “actions” on them that you can use on your turn.  You have to be able to exhaust an Artifact to use its action, so you can’t do it the turn you play it.

Upgrades attach to a creature in play and have game text that will modify the attached creature in some way.

Finally Action Cards have one time abilities that you resolve when you play them, then they are discarded.

There is no specific order for the main phase of the turn.  You can play cards, fight, reap, and use actions in any order – the only restriction is that you can only do all those things for the house that you picked at the beginning of your turn.  Once you have completed all the things you wish to, then you go into a “ready” step, where you turn all your cards upright, then you draw back up to 6 cards in your hand, then your turn is over and it’s your opponent’s turn.

A couple other things:

Fighting – each creature has a power number which serves as both the damage they do in combat and their health pool as well as an armor value which blocks the first amount of damage they take each turn up to the Armor value.  You can exhaust a creature to fight any of an opponent’s creatures, then both the attacking and defending creature deal damage to each other equal to their power (minus armor).  Damage is marked with damage tokens and stays in play unless something heals it.  When a creature has damage on it equal to its power it is defeated.

keyforge battleline
The battleline

Æmber collection – reaping with your creatures is the primary way to get Æmber, but there are a lot of card effects and other ways to get it.  There are also a lot of ways to make your opponent lose their Æmber or steal it.  At the end of your turn if you have 6 Æmber, you are supposed to announce “Check!” to your opponent to let them know that unless they do something to prevent it, you will be forging one of your keys at the start of your next turn.

There are a few other things, but that is a good enough high level review of how the game is played.

When I sat down for my demo at Gencon, I was given a Dis/Mars/Sanctum deck to use versus my opponent’s Logos/Mars/Sanctum deck – not that that means much to you, but those are the houses that were included in our decks and we shared 2 out of 3 houses, but I felt like our decks played out quite a bit differently.

My Sanctum creatures had a lot of synergies that focused on their positions on my battleline, with some that granted armor bonuses to each of their neighboring creatures, some that protected their neighboring creatures from attack and some that got bonuses if they were on the flanks of the battleline.

The Mars creatures didn’t have as many tricks, but they had higher power than the Sanctum creatures and low armor for the most part.  I could use the Sanctum creatures to augment and protect my Mars creatures assuming I built my battleline carefully to take advantage of the Sanctum abilities.

Lastly were my Dis cards, the demons, and they basically seemed to specialize in blowing everything up – my stuff and my opponent’s stuff.  If I felt like my board position was slipping, I would have Dis cards that could reset things.

During my demo game, I was able to get out to a pretty significant creature advantage on the battleline, which resulted in me being able to take some turns to reap with a good amount of creatures to get up to my 6 Æmber.  My opponent wasn’t without tricks up his sleeve though, with the help of some of his Logos cards he was able to steal the Æmber I was generating and we ended up having a few back and forth turns where he would get to 6 and get me under 6, then I would have to use my turn to get him under 6 and myself back up to 6 and vice versa.

In the end he ran out of tricks to stop me and I was able to forge my key – the demos only went to the first key forged.

KeyForge surprised me with the depth of strategy considering I was basically using a randomized deck.  There are a lot of synergies with how you play the cards, even from different factions that makes the sequencing of your turns feel strategically deep.  Like I could use my Sanctum knights to give armor bonuses to my Mars aliens so that when I played a demonic Dis action that dealt 3 damage to all creatures on the board my Mars creatures were protected.  There is a lot of little combos that you can work out like that and with the restrictions of one house per turn, planning a few turns ahead can be hugely beneficial.

To fans of sealed and draft play in other games, this game will probably appeal strongly to you.  You are rewarded greatly for finding optimal ways to use the tools you are given and you never quite know what could be coming from the deck across from you, nor do they know what could be coming from your deck.

The genius part of KeyForge, to me, is that the barrier to entry is so incredibly low.  $10 and you have a complete deck ready to go and you’re not necessarily at any disadvantage to any other player. (Minus needed tokens – not sure if there will be accessory products or you have to buy the starter set.  I’m sure third party stuff will be a thing)

It leaves very little reason NOT to try it or at least dabble in it.

If you do want to take KeyForge seriously, you have the option of buying many decks looking for the “best” ones.  So I think there will be appeal to that hardcore gamer type as well.  KeyForge seems set to appeal to gamers across a wide expanse of demographics in a way that we haven’t seen previously collectible card games.

As far as organized play information goes – details are sparse at the moment.  I imagine there will be a “standard” format where you bring a deck and a “sealed” format where you buy a deck.  They have announced that there will be a companion app that sounds like it will be a combination of tournament software and deck tracking.  I didn’t mention it above, but each deck will have its own unique code that can be used with the app to track the deck’s performance – which will be used to track meta data that anyone can access.

Balance-wise, if a deck is found to be too dominant they will have an Organized Play framework to handicap or eventually retire that deck.  Which ties back into the deck tracking app, but again no concrete details on what exactly that will mean yet.

I had a lot of fun playing KeyForge at Gencon and my interested is piqued.  I know I will for sure be buying at least a starter set and maybe a booster or two on release, assuming I can get my hands on them.  I have a feeling this game is going to be wildly popular on release and I don’t know what to expect with FFG’s previous track record with production delays.  If you’re even slightly intrigued by any of this, I whole heartedly recommend you give the game a try.