Keyflower

Keyflower is a game, that much I can say for sure. I think the idea of it – not that you will see it explained anywhere – is that we are leaving the Europe-ish environs of previous installments in the Key-games to found colonies in a New England-ish place. Immigrant workers arrive at our colonies to build buildings, harvest resources, and generally earn victory points. Or something. The advertising copy doesn’t do a lot to explain what’s going on.

Like previous games in the brand, the game is found not in the setting, but in the mechanical details. Keyflower is worker placement game, but with enough variation on this well-worn theme to be novel. Workers come in four colors or suits. You are given 8 random (hidden) workers at start, and will earn more (probably many more) over the course of the game in various ways. Each turn, you allocate small groups of workers (usually 1-3) to either bid to acquire new buildings, or to do work in existing buildings. Buildings in all the players’ colonies can be used by everyone, but workers used to activate a building are kept by the building’s owner. The key detail of worker allocation is that once a certain color of worker is committed to a building, either for activation or bidding, all following workers (used to either overbid or activate again) must be of the same color.

As a worker placement game, the major trade-off in Keyflower is usually the traditional one: how “hot” various available actions are and therefore what needs to be done now vs. what can be put off. The color rule adds a neat twist though. Instead of “hotness” being evaluated strictly by looking at a given action from the point of view of every other player at the table, shortages or surpluses of colors in the players’ hidden inventories can make a very significant difference. For example: if there is action I really need to take that is only available on only one spot – say spending a skill tile to get some gold – and I have no red workers, I can get totally locked out if another player goes there first and uses red. Since a building can be activated up to three times, it may be a lot less hot if I only need to activate it once and have a good range of colors and can jump in even if someone gets there ahead of me, freeing me up to take something else I need that will be more competitive. Similar complications are added to the bidding for acquiring buildings, as you likely have different capabilities to bid in different colors and at different times during the game you may have different needs for long suits of workers (to activate crucial buildings multiple times) vs. worker color variety (to give you flexibility).

Additionally, the fourth color of workers, green, is comparatively rare and can be acquired only through buildings. They are powerful due to their scarcity and therefore their ability to lock out other players. Unlike the standard three colors (yellow, red, and blue), which players will have quite a few of and will be cycling all the time, the comings and goings of green workers are rare and easier to track, which can be a powerful deterrent – everyone’s a bit worried about where you’re going to drop them until they finally hit the table.

The game goes through 4 scripted “seasons”, with new buildings becoming available for bid each turn. Spring is heavy on infrastructure buildings, with point-bearing buildings mixing in with greater frequency as winter comes on. For the final winter turn, we get a selection of “6-buildings”, buildings that give you big point bonuses for stuff you’ve done the rest of the game. You’ll be dealt some number of these at the beginning of the game, and before the last turn you throw some or all of them into the mix. So you may have some idea what will be worth points in the end, but you still have to win the auction to actually get the building, and as only a random subset of the buildings will be available each game (at least with fewer than 6 players), not all strategic paths may be viable. Like Puerto Rico, I think Keyflower is a tactical game that taunts you with strategies.

From a technical standpoint, probably the most daunting thing about Keyflower is easily accessing the large amount of game-state information you need to make decisions. With 2-3 buildings per player coming into the game each turn, all of which can be activated by anyone, and some of which are going to end pretty far away from you on the table, there are a lot of options and not all of them are going to be easy to see. The graphic design on Keyflower is actually very nice, with game-relevant information clearly and cleanly presented. The problem is just that a lot of it is too far away.

When I first played Keyflower, I liked it. The different colors of workers, with each player playing from a hidden supply, neatly mixes up the worker placement genre in a way which I liked. It makes the evaluation process a little more about what is crucial to me, and less about what is crucial to everyone else, which I think is a good thing – it makes the game more intuitive and more personal. It also adds an element of risk analysis which I personally find more entertaining than scenario analysis. It’s also got a nice empire-building flavor, gathering resources to build and upgrade things.

The more I played it, though, the more its grip on me faded. It’s undeniably mechanically tight. It just doesn’t seem to be in service of anything. I mean, what’s the game about? The copy text offers no background information, only a mechanical summary, and the traditional introductory setting text in the rules is absent.

This is fine, but these little “fluff” bits can offer a glimpse into the designer’s mind, what he or she is trying to do with the game, and can assist the player in understanding and appreciating it – especially when there is a lot of system complexity, as there is here. If you read the copy text on the back of Agricola or GIPF, it gives you some idea of the central idea or theme of the game (food management in the case of Agricola; creating sets of 4 in a row in the case of GIPF).

If Keyflower has a central idea or theme, I could not find it. As I played more I was trying to figure out why the game was moving from season to season or what the these little wooden pieces wanted out of their imaginary existence, or what the game systems wanted me to be doing with them. Basically, why I should care whether an action gave me slightly fewer or slightly more VPs. I couldn’t do it. There was no feeling of direction, motivation, or consequence to anything in the game.

I still think Keyflower is OK, just because it is undeniably clever, and will certainly find a niche for players for whom the mechanical details of a game are enough. That just isn’t me anymore.

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