Keyforge – a Unique Deck Game

This is a post about the design and development of a currently unnamed Shipwreck Game. You can see the other Blog posts at the Index for the Game.

Fantasy Flight have released the first 2 of a new type of Board Game – the Unique Game. Keyforge is the first, and is specifically a Unique Deck game, followed by Discover: Lands Unknown, which is a Unique Board Game. They are both packaged and sold on the premise, that the components in a given box are randomly selected from a much larger pool of components, and thus each game box is sold as unique and individual game, different to any other. This is a somewhat similar goal to a Make-as-You-Play game, which creates an individual game from the ground up and the rwinder gave their thoughts at their blog. I haven’t played Discover yet, but a Unique game of exploration and survival, seems very similar to my goal in my MaYP Shipwreck game. I will definitely be investigating it when I get a copy, but for the moment let’s take a look at card games.

2 Player Card Games

I have played a lot of 2 player card games in my life, with a standard deck of cards. I grew up next door to my grand aunt Muriel, and I could not calculate the amount of time I spent there playing any number of games. A favourite of ours was Euchre. It’s a trick taking game, played with a shortened deck (7 to Ace), with a Trump suit and bowers. Players are dealt 5 cards, and the person who takes the most tricks earns a point. If you win all 5 tricks, you earn two. Points are tracked by revealing pips on an unused 5 and 6 from the deck, and the first person to 11 points wins the game.

Euchre Scoring Cards

I have also played an awful lot of Cribbage, taught by my grandfather, Jim. A hand of cribbage has 2 halves: the Play, where the players take turns playing cards, scoring points for the combinations they can make on the back of their opponents cards and the Show, where players reveal their hands and score points for the combinations they have in their own hands. Points are essentially earned in the same way during the Play and the Show; straights, flushes, 2, 3 or 4 of a kind and combinations that add up to exactly 15. Points are counted by moving pegs around a board and the first to 121 points wins.

Crib Board

The trick taking of Euchre is the most basic form of card combat. Highest card wins, except when bested by the power boost of a card of the Trump suit. Cribbage is about building a hand, keeping the cards that work together in the best combination, and discarding the weakest cards. These two games; both of them hundreds of years old; illustrate the 2 basic mechanics of any modern 2 player card game; building a hand of cards that plays well together, and/or besting your opponents cards. There are countless modern games that utilise a specialised deck of cards, and use these 2 mechanics.

Magic: The Gathering

Magic Card Back

The most famous of these modern games, is unarguably Magic: The Gathering. Game play revolves around cards that earn Mana, and other cards that use Mana to deal damage to your opponent, in an effort to drop their health to 0, before they do the same to you. Hand management and combat. Plus it has 2 game play elements that separate it from games that use standard playing cards.

  • Cards are played to a Tableau in front of the player, and can be used in multiple turns.

Instead of a card being played, used, and discarded, a card in MTG is played in front of a player, and can be used as long as it remains there. Hand management is required beyond the hand of cards you have been dealt, and extends to your Tableau, and the cards you choose to add to it. It also means you can see what cards your opponent has in play, and your attack and defense decisions are more strategic then a game like Euchre, where combat is essentially blind.

  • Players have their own decks, instead of drawing from a communal deck.

MTG is a Collectable Card Game, in which players build their own decks from cards that are available to purchase. Players have to choose from among the hundreds of new cards that get released in a set (plus the thousands that are already out) to build a deck for play, of maybe 40 or 60 cards. There are 5 colours of magic in the game, which each have a different theme (White is order, Red is chaos, Blue is technology, etc) and players choose the cards they want from what’s available, because they enjoy a certain style of play. The end result is, that 2 players face each other with 2 totally different decks. They will be, to a certain extent, Unique. Or that was the plan.

Unique Decks?

Richard Garfield, creator of MTG, credits Cosmic Encounter (1977) as the inspiration for his game Five Magics (1982), which he retooled into Magic: The Gathering, first published in 1993. What he loved about Cosmic Encounter, was the asymmetry of playing one of the many alien races, that all had different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. There wasn’t just one strategy to win the game. The race you were playing, altered which opponents were more of a threat, and which paths to Victory were better than others. There was a large amount of variability in the game, and a lot of altering strategy to defeat your opponent. He wanted to distill that essence of play from the board game into a card game, and created a game where the opposing players would have completely different decks. That was a decent ambition in 1993. But 25 years later, the incredibly popularity of the game, and the internet have made a thriving Secondary Market for MTG cards, which have stymied that aspiration.

MTG is played competitively, with tournaments all over the world, culminating in a world championship played since 1994. Like any competition, statistics are kept and poured over by those that take it seriously, and one of the most obvious statistics in game where players make their own deck, is exactly what cards were in the winning deck. A Google search of “best magic deck” will get you a ton of hits showing what decks are beating others since the last release. It’s a simple thing to find one you like the look of, and decide to make your own copy.

600+ million cards are printed for each quarterly release of MTG. This means, that there are hundreds of thousands of copies of even the rarest card in a release, and finding someone who wants to sell one of them to you, is just a mouse click away. No longer do you have to buy sealed booster packs, with no idea of what might be in them, and building a deck out of the cards you get. You can buy the Singles, of exactly what you want, and build your deck one card at a time. This means multiple copies of identical decks exist in the game, which is exactly the opposite of what the game creator was going for.

Barrier to Entry

Magic is something I’ve thought about getting into over the years, but the thought of starting from scratch, with the choices available, and the research I would have to do, seemed too overwhelming. I had the idea of getting into Legend of the Five Rings when it was released, as a way of starting something from it’s beginning, but the idea of having to keep up with regular releases did not appeal to me either. I enjoy deck building, and getting combinations of cards that work well together, but I prefer Marvel Legendary, where the release is limited, and the deck building is something that happens organically during game play, rather than something that needs to be thought about in great detail before you even start to play the game. I just want to get my deck of cards, and play. Keyforge was designed for players like me.


Keyforge Deck

Keyforge: Call of the Archons, is another asymmetrical Card Game by Richard Garfield, and he has designed a game that revels in deck uniqueness that has been his long time goal. Instead of bulk printing the cards in a release, and selling them to players to build their own decks, all the decks in Keyforge are pre packaged, one of a kind, and not able to be changed after the fact. Each deck is generated from the available pool of cards, and the included cards are labeled with a unique deck name, front and back. There is no mixing and matching after the fact.

Keyforge Deck Names

There are 7 factions in the world of Keyforge, each with their own personality, and they each have 50+ cards. Each Keyforge deck is made up of 12 cards (some of which can be duplicates) from 3 of those factions, to make up a 36 card deck that is different from every other deck produced. Each deck is given an individual name, to differentiate them, and they are sold sealed, so you don’t even know what factions you will be getting, let alone the specific make-up of the deck. All the information of each created deck is kept by the manufacturer, and it is made available to the public, once a deck is registered by the QR code printed on an Index card included in the deck.

Keyforge Index Card

The game designer has been trying to make this Unique Deck Game for over a decade now, but the printing technology required to name the decks, and generate the cards for production, has only recently become available. At the time of writing, 365 509 individual decks have been registered by players, and every card printed (save for duplicates in a deck) is a one of a kind. It is obviously a much different endeavour to print 12 million total copies of 350 designed cards, than it is to design and print 12 million individual cards. But it seems this incredible mass production of one-of-a-kind decks, is making a decent sized splash in the board game market. People seem happy to give it a go, and see what they make of it. And because each deck is self contained, it is easy enough for 2 people to buy a couple of decks, and sit down immediately to start playing.

Game Play

The object of the game is resource collection. You need to collect 6 Æmber to forge a Key, and the first player to forge 3 Keys, opens the Vault and wins the game. Combat still plays a role, as you need to decide whether to use your creatures to collect Æmber, or eliminate your opponents creatures to stop them from collecting Æmber. You can only use cards from one of your 3 factions on any turn, so play becomes a consideration of which cards will be the most beneficial.

The deeper strategy of the game, comes in getting to know your unique deck. The cards that make it are not completely random, but are chosen by an algorithm so that the 12 cards of each faction work together. Different combinations of cards can be played to great effect, but you need to find those combinations in your premade deck, as opposed to having carte blanch to build any combination from scratch in a MTG deck.

Keyforge Secondary Market

There is already a Secondary Market in Keyforge Decks, as the laws of supply and demand get to work. A deck that gets assigned one of the 4 Horseman cards, automatically gets assigned the other 3 (Cards 245 to 248), and these are sought after decks, with the appearance of being stronger than usual decks. And the algorithm at work that creates the individual names, can result in some fairly amusing names, and there’s a market for those as well. But you still have to sell the whole deck, so the uniqueness is not being tampered with.

Unique Games

Most game play experiences of modern board games are a one of a kind, with the random elements of chance and variability ensuring that the game plays out differently each time. This is why players have favourites that they can play over and over, and why a game like Monopoly is shunned, for being exactly the same experience every time. But board games have been trying to take that to an extra level of late. Campaign and Legacy games are trying to give a one-of-a-kind experience, unable to be repeated, and people have been turning to them in droves. People love having something which is uniquely theirs; not available to anybody else. Keyforge is definitely capitalising on that emotion, and Discover: Lands Unknown, and the future Unique Games from Fantasy Flight will be doing their best to deliver on that as well. It is certainly the driving force behind creating a Make as You Play game.

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