Friday, 5 August 2016

Board Report: Keyflower

I'm a big fan of board games.

I think if you've met me at some point during my life you'd probably realise that. What you might not guess unless you're part of the hobby is that, from the perspective of other board game folk, I'm not what would generally called a hardcore board gamer; I tend only to like 'gateway' or 'family' games that the serious people look down on as being only for the casuals . One of the reasons for this is that I tend to find that the 'serious' games are either simulations (that I just don't find very interesting) or they often fall into one of two categories that I just don't enjoy, those categories are what we like to call Auction Games, and Worker Placement Games.

So when I heard this game Keyflower that the Oxford Board Games Society had bought was a Auction/Worker Placement game, I wasn't exactly jumping up and down to be included. Worse, its 'Complexity Rating' over on BoardGameGeek (the site for board games), is a big 3.3 out of 5 on a scale where my favourite games generally float somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 (the only rating higher than this in a game I actually like is the 3.7 for chess, but I think it's clear that BGG users have no idea how to rate chess, I mean, they think it's only the 36th best abstract strategy game, for heaven's sake...).

So imagine my surprise when it turns out that despite having mechanics that I generally don't like, and being more complex than the games that I generally play, I really like Keyflower. I've played it twice in last month or so, and though I'd probably need more plays to make up my mind, I'm confident that it's in my top 10 games of all time. That's not an incredible list to be on, I've played comparatively few games, but it surely means that it's a title I'd recommend to anyone with a gaming bent and couple of hours to spare.

What's Keyflower all about? I hear you ask. It's not just about the gorgeous art style of the absolute mass of pieces, that's for sure! Players are each building competing colonies over a period of four separate seasons of the game, beginning in Spring and ending in Winter. Each player begins the game with a home tile and some randomly selected workers in three colours. I might start with four yellow ones, a red and three blues, whereas you might have 7 reds and a lone blue. We also each begin with some 'Winter' tiles, giving us potential long-term goals to work towards, but more about those a bit later.

So many bits!
I've never quite worked out exactly what it is that I hate about auction games. Sometimes it's because the value of things can change hugely in unpredictable ways and the bidding so often gets out of control. Sometimes there's often an extremely limited market of options, often options you couldn't have effectively planned ahead for, and if you have less money than other players or just a bad spot in the playing order you're just stuffed. Sometimes when you lose a bid you're completely sunk. Sometimes there are booby prizes that no-one wants but someone is going to be stuck with. Basically, there's lots of things that can go wrong. Hardcore players might love that, but I want to feel like I have a chance in a game, even if things don't go exactly my way.

Keyflower seems to avoid these pitfalls pretty well. In each season there are a selection of different tiles that are up for auction, all of which are of a similar power level, but do interesting and various things that will help players fulfil their various aims of generating more workers or producing resources or whatever it is they're aiming to do in different way (as is the way with these sort of games), and the players take turns placing down workers around a tile to bid on adding that tile to their town (not to use it, that comes later, just to make it theirs). Once a worker has been used for a tile, only workers of that colour may be used for it. You can outbid another player by putting down more workers of that colour, but if you're outbid, you're allowed to move your workers so that they're not wasted (as long as you keep them together). You're effectively trying to manage three (or four, if you make the green workers) of currencies in order to maximise your profits.

In a four player game there's eight tiles. Remember how I said in Spring everyone has eight workers? That means that each player has an average of one worker per tile, so bids are extremely unlikely to get past two or three workers, and everyone is likely to get a tile or two unless they've really dumped all their eggs in one basket. Every worker that wins a bid will be lost back to the supply.

Proper English gaming. In a pub and everything.
I don't tend to like worker-placement games, mostly because the best things to do on the board are often exclusive, one person gets in first, claims that ability, and everyone else is stuffed often without giving the other players any shot at it at all.

In Keyflower, though, there's no separate auction and placement phase, it's all happening at the same time. Bidding isn't all you can do, you can also place workers on tiles (both tiles up for auction and tiles in any player's home settlement) to fulfil the action of that tile, even if you're not going to win it. In the same way as the bidding, if someone wants to do something someone else has already done, they just place more of the same coloured workers on the tile. Thus, you can still get frozen out of an action if you're out of the appropriate colour of workers (and trying to do that to other players is one of the things that the game is all about), but you can generally plan ahead to make contingencies or sacrifices to use the tiles you really need if it comes right down to it. There's an art to working out when to bid, when to use tiles, and when to bide your time and save your workers, but like all good arts, there seems to be a myriad of different ways to get it done.

"Wait a second, if I can just use other people's tiles, why would I ever bother buying them for myself?" I hear you ask. The reason is that any workers used on a tile go to the player who owns the tile on the completion of each season. This goes for any tiles bought as well as tiles in each players settlement already. This means that if you place workers on your own tiles, or you control tiles that other players are going to want to use, then you're reaping a bounty of sweet sweet workers to be able to use in future seasons. Since workers are potential actions, and thus effectively the currency of the game, this is a really big deal.

Each turn, players either play workers or pass, when each player passes consecutively, then tiles are distributed to their winner (along with their bounty of workers), a little bit of perfectly-simple-but-beyond-the-scope-of-this-article end-of-turn magic happens, and then the next season begins. Suffice it to say that come the second and subsequent turns, each player has wildly different numbers and types of workers, and different tiles in their home settlement. The various seasons are all different and interesting too, but that's getting beyond the scope of this broad-brush-strokes review too, so let's just jump ahead a little.

In Winter, most of the tiles that are up for auction are contributed by the players. Each players selects one or more of the Winter tiles that they were given at the start of the game allowing the owner to score points in a particular way, and puts them up for auction. A wise player has optimised their settlement and resources to make effective use of the tiles that they're putting down, ensuring that they should be able to score many more points than other players with the same tiles, making them more effective for them to purchase than for others. 

Winter, even more than the other seasons, is a fascinating game of psychological tension and breaking points. Is it worth more to me to get my own target tile or to try and take out theirs to stop them scoring big, or can I just ignore all of these new tiles and muddle along scoring points through my tiles from the other three seasons? It's one of the few multi-player games I can remember where spoiling tactics actually seem to be worthwhile, but aren't the be all and end all of the mechanics. Having been on the receiving end of a couple of massive screw-yous in the games I've played, I can say that it hurts, but as they were all that stood between me and victory, they were obviously the right call on both occasions. Delicious! All the more so for the way that it contrasts with the general flow of this game, which just seems to be kind and generous somehow in a way I'm still struggling to define.

This is a game that revolves around two of my least favourite mechanics, but manages to mitigate their negatives all in one classy and beautiful package. At this point, I can't see much not to like about the game. Yes, it's pretty long (so long that I wouldn't really want to play it with the six players it says on the box it can support, as the time could drag out), but with a sensible player count it doesn't drag on. Yes, there's a lot going on, but the mechanics boil down to something deliciously simple. Yes, it's got a lot of decisions to make, but with the two different crowds that I've played with it doesn't seem to cause too much decision paralysis, probably because you have so much control of your own economy of workers. Best of all, in the two games I've played and three other conclusions that I've seen, the winner has triumphed using a different strategy. That's a good feeling in a game like this.

Yes Paddy, you DO have a lot of points there!
Keyflower. I've just scratched the surface here, but I hope you get the idea. If you can get your hands on it while it's in print (the Key games have a history of being a little bit of a collectors item though 'flower is slowly changing that), you should. Better yet, get a rich friend to buy it, and you just jump on the tile and reap its rewards for yourself in the meantime!

Blaugust writing prompts:
1) What's the best <game you've played>/<activity you've participated in> this year?
2) What are your current top ten <things>?
3) What <game mechanics>/<parts of activities> don't you enjoy and why?

1 comment:

Hans 'Pichy' Stockmann said...

As you may have heard me mention once or twice, I very firmly feel that games are about self-expression. Keyflower manages to tie together its scoring options with resources so well that almost every form of playstyle can be accommodated, along with expecting some fluidity once the blocking happens. It's just the right level of passive-aggressive to make for a dyanmic experience rich with as much (or as little) player-player engagement as those in the game want.

Personally, me being fond of trying to rush game ends or kill momentum as much as possible, aim to monopolise the green men and just shunt everyone out of the goods they need.