KeyForge is a game for people who are jaded about card games and are looking to try something familiar and different at the same time. After a few turns of an introductory game, a veteran card-flopper will feel right at home. The game has a sense of discovery built into it. Each time a game is finished, the player wants to uncover more. What does the next deck hold? What happens when two specific cards meet?
The unique deck aspect is a siren’s call for collectors. The nature of the game makes it impossible to own all of it. A player can choose their engagement level with the game, but the game is certainly alluring to those who like to hoard cards. The fact that every deck can be played is a testament to the game’s design. Whichever deck wins the KeyForge World Championship will truly be unique. The deck will have a pedigree, and collectors could find themselves in a bidding war to own a piece of card game history.
Collectible card games will always have a bulk problem. Anyone who has played Magic long enough will have piles of cards that were opened and discarded. KeyForge is still new enough that it is difficult to see if it has the same problem. The nature of the game means that are no unused cards printed. Limited Magic formats, like booster draft and sealed are the best analogues to KeyForge. Players have to improvise with the cards at hand.
The game-play is quick and prone to huge swings. This can lead to an initial whiplash compared to other games. Turns of this game often feel like late-game Magic: The Gathering Commander games, where players drop hay-maker after hay-maker. An average game between two players takes around twenty minutes. Some games can go longer, and two evenly matched decks can find themselves at an impasse. More often than not, games will end with one player winning the turn before the other could.
There are several axes that the players are fighting over. It is very easy to underestimate who is winning based off a quick glance at the board state. The players are trying to forge three keys, with each key requiring 6 aember to make. Creatures can be used to generate aember, which make their presence on the board strategic. Many cards generate aember when they are played, which often encourages players to play cards instead of hoarding them.
Catch-up mechanics abound in KeyForge. In Magic, a large creature kills the opponent faster than a small creature. In KeyForge, a large creature and a small creature produce the same amount of aember when reaping (excluding Dew Faerie, for the crowd who prefer to be technically correct). There are many types of board-wiping effects, and chances are high that any given deck has a way to deal with a lopsided board.
There are subtle game design choices that make the game play faster that might escape notice on the first play-through. Cards are drawn at the end of a turn, giving a player the span of their opponent’s turn to parse information. Only one house can be chosen each turn, and once that decision has been made, the rest of the turn will play out quickly. This does not make decisions any less easy as a game develops, and the sign of a great game is one where the player if forced to constantly second-guess every decision.
All decks are not created equal. This is a sticking point for a lot of people, and rightfully so. If a gamer has a small budget, and the one deck they can purchase is not very good or fun, then that could sour someone on the game. Some decks are incoherent messes, and it can be difficult to see some of a faction’s themes in these decks. Players have different play-styles, and the optimal way to play a deck may be antithetical to a player’s preferred strategy.
The houses each have a different identity, and a different play-style. From a game design standpoint, this feels well implemented here. Mars gives the sense of an impending invasion. The Martians are frail, but the robots they command are foreboding. Fans of giants crushing villages need to look no further than Brobnar, the embodiment of a drunk MMA fan taking swings at people in the parking lot of a bar. While Sanctum is just as capable as Brobnar in a fight, Sanctum is more concerned with capturing resources and protecting allies instead of burning it all down. Logos encourages players to plan and often rewards a single big turn that took a few turns to set up. Shadows avoids direct conflict, and prefers an opportunistic approach. Untamed mimics the unchecked growth of mutating plants and animals. The demons and imps of Dis like to inflict torture upon their opponents.
The interplay between these house make decks feel like they have a personality. Some decks are violent and some are crafty. Some decks reward direct confrontation, and some decks want to be left alone. There are currently 35 combinations of houses, and even when playing a deck with an identical house composition, the differences between decks can be very stark.
KeyForge is designed around the unique deck aspect. After playing twenty or more games, it becomes apparent that the game would not be fun if players could choose what ends up in their deck. Fortunately, that scenario isn’t the case. Organized play offers several variants that should keep the game fresh until the first expansion comes out. The Triad format seems promising for veteran card game players. In that format, players bring three decks and each player picks one of their opponent’s decks to ban before any games are played. Then, a player has to win with the remaining decks in a best of three series to win the match.
Final Verdict: KeyForge is familiar in a comfortable way, but with enough of a gimmick to keep a player coming back to it. The strategy is nuanced, and it can be easy to miss at first glance. The buy-in to the game is cheaper than its contemporaries, but resisting the urge to binge can be difficult. The design of KeyForge keeps players asking questions. The foremost question: “What comes next?”