I love games, but I think I love deep, thinky games that hurt my head even more. Don’t get me wrong: I love a short, funny game as much as the next guy, but give me a game that forces me to think long and hard and you’ve got me. It doesn’t have to be a long game, mind you, although I’m not averse to that either. But give me a game with some meat on its bones, a game where decisions matter and you can feel it when, a few turns later, you find yourself cursing over what seemed the right decision at the time and you’ve got me hooked.
Keyflower (Game Salute) by Sebastian Bleasdale and Richard Breese is such a game. With a very simple ruleset, this game gets its hooks in you and lets you sweat out every little decision. What’s more, it’s one of those games where you’ll find yourself thinking a few days later “Should have done this, then that would have changed to this”. In other words, it makes my head hurt and I love it.
At it’s core, Keyflower is a worker placement game combined with a bidding game. The game is broken down in 4 seasons, with Winter being the final season. On their turn the player will do one of three actions: a) bid on a tile; b) activate a tile; c) pass. Once all players pass, the season is over. Simple, no? Well, not really.
First, let’s go over the game materials and the play area. The game comes with a stack of hexagonal tiles, meeples in 4 colors, goods token also in 4 colors and skill tiles. There’s also 6 player shields for the players to hide their skill tiles and meeples behind. The tiles are broken down into 4 types: boats; homesteads for the players; turn tiles; and season tiles, which are further divided into the 4 seasons.
The tiles are what the players will interact with during the game: either they will bid on them to make them part of their village or they will activate them (whether they own them or not) to use the tile’s power. At the start of the game, each player will receive a random homestead tile as well as a number of Winter tiles, which they can look at but must keep secret. All the homestead tiles are the same except for a number on them which will indicate who will be the first start player. Then, a number of boat tiles will be placed, as will a number of turn tiles and spring tiles. The red, blue and yellow meeples are all placed in the draw bag, from which each player will draw and place behind their screens 8 meeples. The last color of meeples, the green ones, are simply placed beside the play area. The goods token and the skill tokens are placed beside the play area as well.
All the active tiles are in the middle of the play area. The Season tiles are what the player will bid on or activate and hopefully use to grown their villages. As such, they all have a number of icons on them which indicate what they can do: either give the player some resources or skill tiles; allow the player to exchange meeples for green or random meeples; or transform one resource for another one. Some of these tiles will also be worth victory points at the end of the game. All tiles are flippable (except for Winter tiles), as long as the player has the correct resources/skills to pay for the flip and uses the homestead power to do so. Once flipped, the tile is worth even more victory point and also confers a better version of the base power. Note that not all of a season’s tiles are used. There are 12 tiles in every season and only a subset are used during a particular game. Since they are drawn at random, this adds to the replay value of the game and forces the players to deal with the situation instead of having an unbeatable winning strategy even before the game starts.
Right next to the Season tiles are the turn order tiles. Players will only bid on those and they will dictate two things: who will be the first player next season and in what orders will the boats be taken. A clever little twist here is that whomever takes the first boat will not be the one who is first player, unless he bid on two tiles (but he won’t take two boats). The last type of tiles is the boats: these boats bring new meeples to the players and can also hold some skill tiles. The meeples are placed randomly at the start of the season and they are the main way to acquire new meeples. Since all players will get a boat, it might be less important to be the first player to get one of them.
So on his turn, a player has three choices: bid, activate or pass. To bid, he simply takes a number of meeples of the same color from behind his shield or from a tile where he has been outbid and place them on his side of a tile. If there is already a bid on that tile, he must bid at least one more meeple and they have to be of the same color as the original bid. Ditto if the tile was activated already. To activate a tile, simply take one, two or three meeples of the same color and place them on the tile. The tile doesn’t have to belong to you or to any players. If there is already meeples on the tile, you must put one more meeple, thus if one meeple was used to activate it, you need to place two meeples, and so forth. There can be at most 6 meeples on a tile. The rule about color from the bidding applies here as well. You can also pass and if you are the last person to pass in a row, the season is over. You can always pass and play later if you wish.
One of the important part of the game, and the part that makes the biggest difference to me, is that the different meeple colors do not belong to anyone. They are just different types of “currency”. No color is better than another, but they “lock” a tile when they are first used to bid or active at tile. For example, if someone uses a yellow meeple to activate or bid on tile X, that’s the only color that can be used to further bid or activate the tile, event if the original meeple was used to bid and then you want to activate. That’s it, no other color can be used for the rest of the round. You can see easily see that the color you use becomes very important: do you use a color that you are short of or do you go with a long color? What if someone outbids you? or if you want to activate the tile again? Are you giving another player too many of that color? Simple action, deep implication.
Activating a tile allows you to gain something in exchange of something else, and it can also allow you to move goods around your village or flip over a tile. If the tile you activated was your tile and it produced a resource, the resources are placed on the producing tile. If the tile was in the middle of the table or it belonged to another player, the goods go onto your homestead. The amount of goods you can move and how many spaces they can move is based on the value of the “horsey” tile you used. Goods must follow the roads on the tiles as well. To flip a tile, you need to activate your homestead and the resources/skills have to be on the tile you want to flip, which adds a small dose of goods delivery to the game.
Once everyone has passed, the clean up phase begins. First, any meeple that were used in non-winning bids are taken back by their owners. Second, all the meeples used to win tiles are placed back in the bag (including green meeples) and the tiles are taken. Next, the turn order tiles are looked at, with players with winning bids taking boats in order. Last, the first player token is given to the player who won that bid. Any meeples that are on tiles that you own (no matter if you just won them or if they are in your village) are taken back behind your shield. This little rule cannot be stressed enough: any meeples, be they from someone else or your own, that were used to activate one of your tile is now yours. So, while it might be interesting to activate a tile in the middle of the table or someone else’s tile, keep in mind that you’ll be giving them your meeple to use in the next turn or possibly to score with.
The players must now place their tiles in their villages, making sure that sides are matching: roads must connect to roads and water must connect to water.
The players then re-set the playing area for the next season. Winter is a little different, with the players choosing a number of Winter tiles from those they received at the start of the game. Once everyone has made their choice, the tiles are revealed and placed in the middle of the table to start the bidding/activating process all over.
Once Winter is over, the players who win their bids for turn order take that tile along with the boat tile and can now integrate them in their village. Points are counted and a winner is declared.
I love this game. Simple mechanics which seem very familiar but with just the right twist to make them fresh again. The questions on your turn go deep: what color do I use and do I activate or bid? While the players are not in direct conflict with each other, they can still screw up your carefully arranged plans with a simple bid or even an activate action. And that, in and of itself, means that you need to pay special attention to what color meeple they’re getting from the boats and what others are potentially giving them by activating a tile they own or that they will own.
Keyflower‘s use of hex tiles is also a stroke of genius: first, it means that you can play up to six simply because that’s how many sides there are on the tile. Also, it makes the villages a little more problematic to build, adding a nice touch of planning. Those tiles are also very clear and the added design element of showing what is on the other side is brilliant.
Can it be a problematic game with Analysis Paralysis prone players? Probably, but at the same time, since they only have one action to do, it shouldn’t be so bad. The range of action also quickly diminishes, so while they may take a long time to make up their mind, they at least have less choices to make.
I’ve yet to try the three small expansions (the Key Celeste and the Emporium & Monument) but while they should be interesting, they shouldn’t change the game too much. The Key Celeste adds another tile to the turn order tile and allow the player who gets it to “scare away” another player’s bid, which should be interesting. The Emporium & Monument are Winter tiles that are added to the 12 other tiles and as such add a different way to score points. I am however looking forward to the larger expansion that’s coming later in the Fall, The Farmers, which seems to add an Agricola side to the game.
We were only 3 players at Ubisoft this week, with Francois and Mike joining me. The rules explanation went pretty smoothly, or at least as smoothly as I could make then being as I had never played before. During the spring turn, we were still puzzling out the implications of activating vs bidding on a tile and groping our way through it. Both Mike and Francois ended the first turn with lots of tiles in their village while I perhaps spent too much time activating thing, which ended up giving Mike lots of meeples for the Summer turn.
By the end of Summer, Mike’s village had grown considerably, with something like 5 or 6 tiles, with Francois not far behind. I had 2(!) tiles, including my homestead. On the other hand, I was able to score the better boat in both turns, so I was still doing ok meeple-wise.
In Winter, I went all out on the bidding front, seeing that there were many tiles that had a lot of victory points, either because of their basic power or once flipped. Mike got screwed by not bidding early enough, instead concentrating on activating his tiles to flip them, which meant that while he had some nice green meeples, he couldn’t use them since I had locked the bidding on most tiles with yellow meeples.
All things considered, I did fairly well at the end, with a small village but managing to gain 38 points to Mike’s 52. Oh, Francois won with 56, which I did not expect. This first game shows me that there seems to be many paths to victory and you need to pay close attention to the Winter tiles you get at the start of the game.
Love this game and can’t wait to play again.