The Key series of games has a rich history leading back to 1995 with the original game in the series, Keywood. Since then a half dozen games have been released sharing the same setting, artwork, and characteristic (as well as the word “Key” in the title). The underlying concept was to “give rise to a positive and enjoyable gaming experience” by limiting combat and violence while still providing player interaction. I know this because of the fascinating designer notes that line the outside of the game box. Keyflower follows in the tradition of the Key series and is perhaps the best title to date.
How It Plays
I like to describe Keyflower as a mix between a worker placement and auction game. It manages this by providing the players with workers that can be used to either activate tiles (the worker placement half) or bid with and spend to acquire tiles (the auction half). I’m getting a bit ahead of myself so we’ll start from the beginning. You pull the box off the shelf and it looks like a pretty friendly game. The cartoony artwork is pleasant and depicts happy settlers alongside the majestic Keyflower. But don’t be deceived, much like Agricola the artwork is inviting but doesn’t quite convey how heavy and deep this game actually is. Let’s dive right in and see what Keyflower is all about.
You’ve just arrived in the new world and settled a nice little home for yourself but you’re looking to expand into a bustling village, one with a lot of points! So you send word back to your friends and family inviting them to join you. The next boat that arrives in the spring brings along some able bodied workers to help in your vision. The game takes place over the following year and is divided up into four rounds depicting the four seasons from Spring to Winter. You start in Spring with eight workers that are drawn randomly and can come in three different colors: blue, red, and yellow. There are rumors of special green workers but there haven’t been any seen around town yet. You’ll also have a single Home tile which represents your village at the start of the game. Finally you’ll receive a number of Winter tiles which will give you an early look at what might show up in the final round, we’ll come back to this later.
Now that you have your tiny village in order and your workers ready to go it’s time to see what this season has to offer. A number of village tiles are drawn from the Spring supply and placed out for all the players to use and bid on. The players will now take turns sending their workers to the village tiles. You can assign one or more workers of the same color to a tile in one of two ways. First, you can place them next to a tile in order to bid on it. The tiles are six-sided so you will place them on the side facing you to indicate that it is your bid. If someone else has already bid on the tile then you must place more workers on your side to beat their bid. In future turns you may also add more workers to your bid in order to beat someone that has outbid you.
The second way you can assign a worker is by placing them onto the tile in order to use it. The first player to use a tile only needs to place one worker, after that you are required to place one more worker than the previous placement (up to three workers). After placing your worker(s) onto a tile you will immediately take the action depicted on it. There’s one more restriction to how you can assign your workers. Once a worker has been assigned to a tile (either by bidding or using it) all other workers assigned to that tile must be of the same color. So if I place a blue worker next to a tile to bid on it then any future bids or activation of that tile must be done with only blue workers. Workers that have been placed on a tile (to use it) are left on the tile and may not be moved. Likewise, any workers that represent a winning bid may not be moved. However, workers that are part of a losing bid may be moved in order to place a new bid or use a tile. Along with the village tiles there will also be a number of boats (equal to the number of players), each with some workers and tools that will be arriving at the end of the season. Next to the boats there are turn order tiles which players can bid on (but not use) in order to determine the order that they will get to select one of these boats.
Players will continue placing workers or decide to pass until all players have passed in a row (players may take an action after passing if the round continues). Once everyone has passed the players will take the tiles in which they have the highest bid, along with all workers on them, and discard (spend) the workers that were used in the bid. Workers from losing bids are returned to their owners. These tiles will then be added to your village, placing them adjacent to your Home tile or other tiles in the village such that their features match up (roads, grass, water). Players finish the round by selecting a boat, gaining all workers and tools on it, in the order represent by their bids on the turn order tiles. At the conclusion of Spring (and Summer) new village tiles are drawn and the boats are refilled with workers and tools for the following season.
Starting in Summer (the second round), players have the additional choice to assign workers to the tiles in their village or those in the neighboring villages in order to use them. Essentially you’ll have the choice of using any tiles from the current season and all previous seasons (unless they weren’t bid on). To ensure that there aren’t too many options in the later rounds, some of the tiles in Autumn and all the tiles in Winter don’t have an action and can only be bid on. At the end of each season players will retrieve all workers that were placed in their village and add them to their supply. You must be careful when using tiles from a neighboring village because you are effectively giving them any workers placed in this way. Likewise, placing in your own village will ensure that those workers are returned to you at the end of the round.
Let’s take a look at some of the actions that village tiles can provide during the game. First up you have tiles that allow you to gain more workers. When they are used you simply take the corresponding number of workers from the bag at random (potentially paying a cost to do so). Some of these tiles will allow you to take green workers instead of drawing randomly from the bag. Green workers are rare because they are only added to the game through the use of these tiles so they will be more likely to provide winning bids. Next up are tiles that allow you to gain tools. Tools come in three type (anvils, pick axes, and saws) and are kept in your supply until you decide to use them. Similarly there are tiles that produce resources. There are three basic resource (iron, stone, and wood) as well as gold which can be used as if it was any resource type. Unlike tools, resources are kept on your village tiles and may only be used by the tile they are on. When you produce resources from a tile in your own village those resources will be placed on that tile, if you do so from a tile in a neighboring village or the central area then the resources are placed on your Home tile instead. Last up you have transportation tiles that let you move goods between tiles in your village and upgrade buildings. All buildings (except those in winter) are double sided and have a more powerful version of their initial power on the back side along with additional points. In order to flip a tile to its back side you must move the resources listed in the upgrade cost and use an upgrade action, when this is done the resources used to upgrade it are discarded. Upgrading a tile will provide you with additional points and more powerful actions that you can use or attract workers from neighboring villages.
The Autumn and Winter seasons contain tiles that have no action but will reward a lot of points. In Autumn there are tiles that provide a large point bonus for upgrading or storing resources on them. In the Winter there are “goal” tiles that will reward you with points for certain conditions such as having groups of workers, tools, or resources. As mentioned earlier you are given Winter tiles at the beginning of the game and instead of drawing tiles randomly as in the other seasons, each player will decide which of the tiles they were given will be available for auction during Winter. Another difference during Winter is that no workers will be arriving by boat and the players will be bidding to take the turn order tile itself along with one of the boats and add them to their village. Turn order tiles provide points for adjacent tiles and boats provide points for conditions in a similar manner to the Winter tiles.
At the conclusion of Winter the players will score points from a variety of sources. First they will earn any points that are showing on their tiles, often as the result of upgrading. Then they will score any Autumn tiles that reward you for accumulating corresponding goods on them. Next they will score their Winter tiles by assigning groups of workers, tools, and resources to them. You may not assign anything to multiple tiles for scoring purposes so if, for instance, you have multiple tiles that score resources you must decide which tile to allocate each resource to. Finally you score one point for each Gold that has not already been allocated to a scoring tile. The player with the most points is the first mayor of the town! Reward yourself by taking a moment to let your brain relax.
Settle in the new world or Stay home?
It can be difficult to form an opinion on heavier games so this review has been a long time in the coming. When I first played Keyflower I wasn’t even sure if I liked it, in fact I would go so far as to say that I disliked part (or all) of my first play. But Keyflower is a tricky game in more ways than one on top of being pretty heavy. By the day after my first play I was already thinking about it obsessively and I continued to do so until I finally got the chance to try it again. On my second play everything clicked together and I was able to start appreciating the brilliance of Keyflower. So what took a game that I actively disliked and turned it into one that I’m singing the praises of today? I’ll start by talking about all the things that I like and then move on to looking at that tragic first play.
The first thing that I like so much about Keyflower is the incredibly clever combination of worker placement and auction mechanics by having the workers double as currency. Part of the reason why this works so well is that it plays off of the tension present in both styles of games. In worker placement games you are often trying to figure out which actions you should take without knowing what will be available on your following turns. In auction games you are trying to outbid the other players without having to pay more than you need for what you want while driving up the prices on your opponents’ bids. Now imagine trying to do both of those things at the same time while having limited resources that are shared between those tasks. All players have the same limitations but it’s still excruciating to have an action taken that you wanted and get outbid between your turns. I mean this in the best possible sense, the feeling of uncertainty makes every decision feel important. I’m aware that tension is not always a selling point for some people but when it is done well I find it to be extremely alluring. Keyflower gives you a great combination of tension from multiple genres that combine to be extremely enjoyable.
On top of that you have three different currencies (potentially four) that you are trying to balance. If it wasn’t clear enough that your bidding and tile activation were tied together by a common currency (workers) it should become crystal clear when they are linked by color dependency. Being able to control the color that must be used for further bidding and activation of a tile is very clever. Paying attention to what colors the other players are picking up can allow you to get extra activations out of a tile or win a bid for cheap simply because you picked the color of a tile. Or perhaps you can block a tile that you know your opponents wants by using a color that is scarce for them. This leads to another layer of tension, not only do you have to decide between bidding and taking actions but you may want to pick the color that a tile will use without necessary wanting to use/bid on the tile yet. Is it more important to make sure that the tile uses the color that you want or that you get your key actions before they get blocked? Controlling colors can be just as important as using the powerful actions early or establishing a key bid. This is topped off by the fact that one currency (green) is more rare than the others and can be used even more effectively at just the right time.
Another aspect that makes Keyflower’s combine system unique is the need to balance bidding and using actions. If you use most of your workers to take actions then you won’t have much to do with the tools and resources you get and will not score many points from your village tiles. On the other hand if you use your workers mainly for bidding then you’ll get a lot of tiles but may run low on workers and find it hard to use and upgrade most of your tiles. Balance is necessary as is knowing how the tiles that you acquire and actions that you use can be translated into points. In a lot of auction games winning something win give you exclusive access to whatever it is you won. This is not the case in Keyflower as all tiles are available to all players. What you do get is the points that the tile can provide (particularly when upgraded), the ability to take those actions without losing workers, to earn workers from other players, and to place resources closer to their intended destination. Winning the bid on a tile is useful but you have to make sure that it’s more useful than simply letting another player take it and then using it from their village. Sure you ideally would want everything you need in your own village but if you can use the workers that would have been spent on bidding and get something more useful out of them in the current season then it could be worthwhile. These kind of decision are present due to the fact that you have extremely limited resources and, in turn, available actions. Any workers that are used to bid on a tile that you don’t really need won’t be taking useful actions while those assigned to actions that are less than effective could have been used to bid on a lucrative tile.
Keyflower also takes advantage of the staple worker placement tendency to introduce complexity gradually by providing more actions as the game progresses. The first three seasons provide new actions (tiles) that are then distributed to the players’ villages as new ones come out. Since there’s no main game board it can be a hassle at first to track all of the actions that are in the game, whether they’ve been upgraded, and where they are. However, it becomes much easier to parse and filter the available actions with experience as you learn to track only those that are most useful to your current strategy. Even though the actions end up spread out in the villages you get to see them first in the central area so you’ll at least get the chance to know which actions are in the game before they are distributed. I didn’t like this system at first but the icons are very clear and easy to see across the board and it allows new actions to be dynamically and naturally added into the game.
Now let’s move on to the importance of timing. I’ve already touched on the fact that you are having to decide between a lot of useful options (bidding, activating, controlling colors) at the same time. Another important aspect of timing is upgrading your tiles. The problem with upgrading is that everyone else gets first crack at your upgraded tile before you do. This can be great if you’re trying to gain some workers for the next turn but if you were hoping to use the upgraded tile then it can prove challenging. You can try to do so late in the turn or during a critical moment when you think the other players will be distracted. You could try placing one worker on it before upgrading in hopes that other players won’t want to send two workers (of the chosen color) to your village for that action. But most of the time you have to be willing to change your plans when your action gets blocked or you get outbid. Luckily there are a lot of options for when your plans fall through and the game can be extremely tactical in allowing you to switch directions in the middle of your turn. In fact, much of the game is built around tactical decisions and drives the players to reassess from turn to turn and season to season. The tile mix in each game is random so you won’t know if there will be tiles that provide workers or tools or specific resources, they could be plentiful or missing entirely. The prevalence of actions changes the viability of certain strategies and scoring tiles, what seems strong in one game my be nearly worthless in the next. Even if you get what you want in Spring it doesn’t mean that supporting tiles will come out in the other seasons or that you’ll be able to win the auction for the tiles that you were hoping to pick up. This adds a lot of variability to Keyflower since each game plays out differently from the last due to the tile mix and how the players interact and assess what is available. Auction games often create variation by challenging players to assess what things are worth based on the game state, this is done extremely well in Keyflower.
There are also many balanced and varied strategies to pursue based on the available tiles. You can collect tools, get additional workers, try to monopolize green workers, focus on producing one resource, or strike a balance between all of them. Some paths are more flexible than others but they can all pay off greatly given the right game conditions. And there’s one small bit of knowledge that allows player to formulate some form of strategy in spite of the very tactical nature of the game: the Winter tiles. You’re given a glimpse of what tiles could show up in Winter at the beginning of the game and it’s up to you to try to focus your strategy around a tile that could score a lot of points or ignore them entirely when what comes up doesn’t match your tiles. These end of game goals can really help to focus a player on a specific strategy rather than leaving them wide open to try and piece something together from a random mix of tiles.
This leads into the problem that I had in my very first game. It is incredibly hard to figure out what you are supposed to be doing in the first half of the game when the scoring tiles don’t actually show up until the last two rounds. Unless you have a really good teacher, chances are you’ll just be guessing at what a decent strategy is during your first game and then see if you can pull everything together when the scoring tiles arrive in Autumn and Winter. What I experienced was frustration at wanting to be able to correlate my actions with earning points. This is not at all how Keyflower works. A lot of the actions let you gain something: tools, workers, and resources are the main things that you will gather over the course of the game. You can use tools and resources (along with movement/upgrade tiles) to upgrade your tiles for points. You can use your workers to acquire tiles and gain more things that will hopefully translate into points. But the main source of points will come in the scoring tiles from Autumn and Winter that will let you translate those things directly into points. However if you don’t get the tile to turn something you’ve been collecting into points then they will get wasted. I’ve often heard people ask if workers are worth anything at the end of the game and I respond “only if you have a tile that lets you score workers.” It’s the same way with everything in the game. You’ll find that scoring has two parts, collecting something and then getting a tile that will let you score what you’ve collected. The learning curve comes from trying to set up the ability to start gathering something with competition from your opponent and without knowing exactly what things are going to be viable for scoring come Autumn and Winter. Luckily you have some Winter tiles from the start to give you direction but you won’t often win by focusing exclusively on your winter tile. This is where the other half of the learning curve comes into play. You aren’t merely trying to take actions solely for the purpose of scoring points in the early game but rather you are trying to set yourself for success in Autumn and Winter by being more efficient with your actions than your opponents. It’s critical to recognize synergy between the tiles that are available in order to properly set yourself up to benefit from the numerous possible scoring tiles that can show up in the late game. This correlates a bit to how knowledge of the available cards in a deck can provide a sizeable advantage against someone that is drawing blind. But the learning curve is worth it (as it can often be with heavier euros). Once you learn the value of the various tiles and how to maintain flexibility into the late game when you can really focus in on how you’re going to score then you’ll be able to effectively execute a cohesive strategy throughout the whole game. And that’s the big payoff.
There’s no doubt that Keyflower is a heavy game with a big learning curve. It has a somewhat unintuitive scoring system that introducing the highest scoring elements late in the game and requires players to know what they’re doing early on in order to succeed. But once players invest some time and become familiar with the system it opens up a very deep and tactical game that has tremendous variation and replayability. The clever combination of worker placement and auction mechanics makes for an incredibly tense game that keeps players involved and constantly adapting throughout the whole game. This is a tactical game that heavily rewards player for efficient play and the ability to evaluate the worth of actions and auctions based on changing circumstances. I highly recommend Keyflower to fans of heavy euros or anyone that wants a twist on traditional worker placement or auction games.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Game Salute for providing us with a review copy of Keyflower (and an additional thanks for their patience).