Unique games might not be the absolute future, but they’re certainly a part of it. When buying a board game, you generally know what to expect inside the box – the contents are listed, and there are nice, bright pictures of them on the back. Fantasy Flight Games however, has decided to shake the formula up a little. Unique games aren’t quite as directly descriptive as they might sound – the games themselves aren’t unique, all having set rules and victory conditions, but the contents are. Discover: Lands Unknown is a boxed board game, with fixed base gameplay mechanics, but every single copy ships with a different combination of map pieces. You could be exploring a number of different environments, and even similar environments will likely have different layouts to that of another copy. Whilst not every game should have random elements such as these, it’s certainly a fresh idea and an exciting premise.
Card games still fall under the board game umbrella, but they’re a little different. The majority of the trading card game economy is based around opening sealed packets with mystery contents, and using those cards in combination with others to trade, buy and sell in order to construct the perfect deck and maximise your chances of victory. Fantasy Flight Games now ask what would happen if instead of constructing your deck via booster packs, the deck themselves were the booster packs. The Answer is KeyForge: Call of the Archons. Designed by Richard Garfield (the chap behind Magic The Gathering), KeyForge is a Unique Deck Game. As with Discover, the contents of every package are wildly different, although pertaining to a couple of rules.
You’re always going to get a full, playable deck of cards. Every deck in Keyforge is different from the last, and the game is far more about growing as a player and mastering the deck you are given, rather than copying someone’s top tier list and spending £400 to make it. Decks can be wacky, but they’re always going to feature 36 cards (plus an extra Archon card), 12 cards from three of the seven possible houses. Speaking of wacky, every single card will be tied to your Archon – an algorithmically generated character in the KeyForge universe – that you embody whilst playing.
When we say algorithm, we really mean it. Most aspects of Unique games are controlled and produced by set algorithms – which can create endlessly different combinations of parts and pieces that would just be nigh on unfeasible for human designers. They all make some sort of basic sense, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a little wild. We’ve had the likes of “The Boy who Basically Headbutts Heaven”, “The Child that Prays for Hunger” and “The Ghost that Brings About Sadness”. I’ve been lucky enough to open the gloriously Russian “Ivanov the Red”, but some players aren’t quite as fortunate.
All decks have a QR code attached to them, and to play your deck in an official tournament, you need to upload it to the KeyForge Master Vault app and claim it as your own. The clever clogs that created the algorithms however, forgot to omit some unfortunate words and combinations. If you happened to open “Wang the Abominable”, “The Cave Warden that Votes for Racism”, or “The Emperor who Pays for Boys”, you may very well be met with an error message telling you that your deck is too hot for TV – although Fantasy Flight will be happy to supply you with a replacement.
This all means that you absolutely can not swap cards around from deck to deck. Got a deck you don’t like? You’re stuck with it, unless you trade the entire deck. Unfortunately named decks, automatically banned by the Master Vault are slightly problematic too, as you may find you have the absolute perfect combination of cards for your needs, but can’t use it, and will never see another exactly like it. There are such a wide variety of cards that even decks featuring the same three houses may play completely differently.
Speaking of which, we should discuss the gameplay mechanics. KeyForge plays relatively similarly to Magic The Gathering (if you’re at all familiar), but with a few major differences. Instead of reducing your opponent’s life total to zero, you’re instead trying to further yourself towards forging three Keys, and you do this by generating Amber. Once you’ve six or more Amber, you declare check, and you can forge a Key at the start of your next turn. The cost for a key is six Amber, and if you have enough, you must forge one. Having enough isn’t guaranteed though, as your opponent may steal or capture some of your Amber before you get the chance to use it. As well as fighting with them, every creature in the game can perform the Reap action, tapping/exhausting it to generate one Amber. Creature positioning is also important, with cards being arranged in a horizontal Battle-line. Creatures on the end of the row are considered to be on a flank, with those in-between not. This can matter more than you might think, as certain abilities may only target creatures on a flank, or those that are not.
There’s also no Mana, or energy system – you instead have cards from various Houses, and can only play and/or use cards from one House per turn, limiting your actions. This means you really need to play smart, as not only do you ready/untap your cards at the end of your turn rather than the start, but you also draw at the end of your turn too. You only draw cards in KeyForge if you have less than six cards in your hand – meaning that more cards played means more new cards drawn, and less cards played means older cards sat clogging up your hand. Some powerful cards give you a Chain in exchange for using them, a temporary reduction to the amount of cards you draw, so you’ve really got to pick your plays carefully. At times, you can also Archive cards – temporarily taking them out of your hand to free up space and keep them safe, but without discarding them.
There are seven houses in KeyForge, with playstyles ranging from slightly to wildly varied. Brobnar is full of large, punchy vikings, with mechanics revolving around fighting, and doing a lot of it. Untamed still have a lot of big creatures, but are more focused on swarming the board, overwhelming your opponent and generating a lot of Amber in the process. Sanctum is full of armoured knights, that often become even more powerful when arranged in a certain order in your Battle-line. Houses Shadows and Dis focus more on control – Amber and board respectively, whilst Logos and Mars both tend to Archive cards. Logos is generally used as a card draw engine, whilst Mars Archives in order to set up big combo plays.
The houses are different enough to stay fresh and interesting, but not so unalike that you feel as if you’re playing a different game. But that’s one of the major points to KeyForge, creating a fun game that feels comfortable and familiar, yet at times wildly new and exciting. Cracking open a brand new deck should feel special – you’re getting a one-off item, you’re getting an original character, a special set of cards and tools completely unique to you. It’s your job to learn the deck inside and out, get familiar with it, get good with it, and truly make it yours. People in the community have opened some decks, had a quick look at the card list and immediately discounted them – only to later find some amazing combos and synergies they would have never even thought of beforehand. It’s certainly not going to be a game for everyone, but at an RRP of £8.99 per deck, it’s really quite accessible (even if nothing else), and I implore you to at least give it a try. I’ll see you on The Crucible.
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