What Is KeyForge?
KeyForge is a card-game for two players from Fantasy Flight Games. Players take on the role of an Archon, a leader of cast-offs from three unique Houses (seven Houses in all). Players use a unique deck to put creatures, artifacts, upgrades, and actions into play. The goal is to obtain Aether that will unlock three keys to win the game. Aether can be obtained during battle, by playing certain cards, stealing from another player, and other methods.
KeyForge is being described as the world’s first Unique Card Game. Using new computer and print technologies, each deck of 37 cards will contain a unique mix of cards made up from 3 of 7 different Houses. Fantasy Flight Games states that there are 104,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (104 Septillion) possible deck combinations, pretty much ensuring that every player’s deck will be unique. A player’s deck will not be modified or upgraded as with other CCGs (collectible card games).
A typical game will last around 45-60 minutes. A simple set of rules is provided for players to get started with no experience and a more advanced rulebook fills in the rest of the rules.
Note: This review is based on two sample decks that were provided to me by Fantasy Flight Games at Gen Con. During Gen Con, I was able to take one of my decks to the FFG booth and learn to play the basic game. The basic game includes components that I was not provided and will only come in the KeyForge: Call of the Archons Starter Set. For home games, I have been able to play the game using tokens from other games as stand-in components.
Included in the Starter Set box will be the following components:
- 1x Radiant Argus the Supreme Starter Deck — this deck will be included in ALL Starter Set boxes
- 1x Miss “Onyx” Censorius Starter Deck — this deck will be included in ALL Starter Set boxes
- 2x Unique KeyForge Archon Decks — these decks are unique to YOUR Starter Set
- 2x Chain Tracker Cards and Tokens
- 6x Key Tokens
- 10x Power Status Cards
- 10x Stun Status Cards
- 22x Damage Tokens
- 26x Aether Tokens
- 1x QuickStart Rules (click to download)
- 1x Rulebook (click to download)
Two of the Starter Decks are NOT unique to your purchased game of KeyForge. These are used for learning the game. The other two decks are 100% unique to the Starter Set you purchase.
How to Play KeyForge
Players will attempt to unlock (flip over) three Key Tokens. To unlock a Key Token requires 6 Aether Tokens. Aether Tokens are obtained by playing cards from a 36-card deck; Aether can be obtained through combat, playing special cards, stealing Aether from another player, and other methods. The first player to unlock all three Key Tokens wins the game.
Unlike other CCGs, KeyForge is fairly fast to setup. Because each deck is unique, it is a simple matter for an opponent to take an opponents deck, flip it over to view the backside of the deck, and then fan through it to view the unique name given to the deck. Any card that is not part of the deck can be easily spotted. There is no drafting or configuring of your deck with other cards from other decks.
Damage tokens, Aether tokens, and Status cards are placed in a common area. Each player will place in their own area their deck (face down) with the deck’s identity card (a checklist card that also displays the three Houses that deck will use) visible by their opponent. The identity card can also be used to verify all cards that should be found in the player’s deck. Each player should also place their three Key tokens facedown (locked). An area should be left clear to serve as the player’s Battleline. Ideally, players will face one another with their Battlelines running parallel.
There are five basic steps to perform during a player’s turn:
- Forge a key — this can only be done at the beginning of your turn. If you have 6+ Aether, you MUST forge a key by flipping over one of your Key Tokens and returning 6 Aether tokens to the common area.
- Choose a house — you must declare which one of the three Houses you will be using your turn. Only cards in your hand or in play on the Battleline that match that declared House may be used. (There are special cards that will allow players or opponents to use cards from other Houses.)
- Play, discard, and use cards of the chosen house — Cards played from your hand are immediately exhausted (turned sideways). Cards on your Battleline that are not exhausted may be played; this can involve attacks and other special actions that will exhaust a card.
- Ready cards — After you’ve played all available non-exhausted cards, you ready all cards (by rotating them upright).
- Draw cards — you draw back up to your maximum hand size of 6, although this hand size can be altered by special cards or Chain rules. (I’ll explain Chain rules shortly.)
Most of the time for your turn will be spent during Step 3 where you will play cards. Numerous actions are possible – fight, upgrade a card, use an artifact, reap, use an action, and discard.
Fight: You may choose to attack your opponent. Players place Creatures (that can have Upgrade cards attached to them) on the Battleline. Creatures have a Power value and some creatures have an Armor value. When you use a creature card to attack an opponent creature card, you compare Power values and Armor values. Combat is done simultaneously and damage tokens are applied to each creature equal to the power value MINUS any Armor value. If Attacking Creature 1 has Power 5 Armor 1 and Defending Creature has 3 Power 0 Armor, then Attacking Creature will take 2 Damage Tokens (the 3 Power damage minus its Armor 1 = 2 Damage gets through) and survive to fight another day, remaining on the Battleline. The Defending Creature has no armor, so the 5 Power exceeds its 3 Power value and it is discarded. The rules state it’s a one-vs-one attack, so any left over power doesn’t apply to another creature and any creature cards that survive the battle are exhausted.
Upgrade: Upgrade cards can make changes to a creature’s Abilities, Power, and/or Armor. The Upgrade stays in place until the creature is defeated (both creature and upgrade go to Discard pile) or another card is played that modifies the upgrade in some way.
Artifact: Artifact cards can be played and stay in play until used. After played, they are exhausted although some Artifact cards must be sacrificed when used and those go directly to the Discard pile. Most Artifact cards can only have their Ability used if they match the declared House. Other Artifact cards (labeled Omni) can have their Ability played no matter which House is declared.
Reap: All Creature cards, when in play, can be used to collect Aether by Reaping. If you use a Creature card to reap, it cannot be used for Combat and is immediately exhausted before claiming an Aether token. If the Creature card has the Reap: ability printed on its card, this provides an additional ability (written on the card and used after exhausting the card) if you chose to use that Creature to reap during your turn.
Action: Instead of Reaping or Fighting, a Creature can also use any special ability that is labeled Action: on its card. The creature immediately exhausts and then any special abilities are applied.
Discard: At the end of your turn, you’ll always draw back up to a specific number of cards. Discarding will allow you to discard cards you do not need (or do not wish to play) and free up space in your hand to draw at the end of your turn.
KeyForge also has an interesting concept called Chains that needs to be explained. Chains (represented by two small round rings and two tracker boards, one set per player) are obtained typically by using certain creature abilities during their turn. Each player moves their Chain token on a small board; as they gain more Chains, they will draw up to a smaller hand size. The maximum hand size is 6 cards, so a player that has between 1-6 Chains will only draw back up to 5 cards. 7-12 Chains reduces hand size to 4, 13-18 reduces to hand size 3, and 19+ reduces hand size to 2. (Of course, there are special cards that may be played by a player that can increase or decrease hand size as well.)
Obviously controlling the number of Chains you possess is important — gain too many, and you won’t be able to draw enough cards to make good plays. The good news is you can shed one Chain each turn when you draw up to your maximum hand size. If you have 7 chains, you’ll only draw back up to 4 cards but then you can reduce the Chains tracker by one, taking you down to 6 which means on your next turn you’ll draw back up to 5 cards.
Chains is also going to be used for handicapping decks. If you and your opponent agree that one particular deck is slightly more powerful than another, you can agree to assign a certain number of chains to the more powerful deck before the game begins. There are even rules for bidding on starting Chains to take control of a deck that both players may wish to use.
The first player to successfully unlock all three Key tokens wins the game. Because a Key token is unlocked at the beginning of a player’s turn, players are required to notify their opponent at the end of their turn if they have 6+ Aether and are preparing to unlock their last Key token. The rules state you must say “Check” to alert your opponent to this possibility.
Why You Should Play KeyForge
I played a ‘magical’ card game during college. I loved it. It was fun, and I remember opening a new pack and examining it for a rare card or some useful ability to enhance my deck. But it didn’t take long before the enjoyment faded; cards started showing up at the local gaming store for individual sale. If you had enough funds, you could buy that card and upgrade your deck… often with a substantial increase in your odds of winning. Small tournaments quickly got out of control with some players bringing in impossible-to-beat decks. I was a poor college student, and spending $20 or even $50 on a single card just wasn’t smart. I walked away from that game and have never come back.
I listened to KeyForge’s creator, Richard Garfield, as he spoke at Gen Con 2018 about his new game. Every bullet point he mentioned in favor of KeyForge struck a chord with me, especially those dealing with pay-to-win card games. The game sounded interesting, so I took my two decks that were given to attendees of the FFG event, and I headed to the Exhibit Hall to learn how to play the game.
Why should you play KeyForge? It’s FUN! I had a grin on my face as I once again found a card game I could enjoy and not worry about keeping up with the Joneses. With the way the game is designed, every deck is special… and waiting for its owner to examine and figure out unique strategies for its specific cards. I found myself laughing as I jumped ahead of my opponent by patiently playing creatures with abilities that didn’t seem all that threatening until I chained them together with a well-timed (and lucky draw) of a card that unleashed all of them at once. I defeated many of my opponents creatures, collected Aether at the same time, and was able to flip over two Key tokens before he had his first Key unlocked. Of course, there were some good plays by my opponent using cards that I didn’t have and probably would never see again given the amazingly large variance of cards to be found in each of the seven Houses.
I couldn’t wait to play again… so I did. I opened up the second deck and played a game with it. It was just as fun, but I didn’t like the three Houses in that deck as much as the first deck. I jumped back to my first deck and played again. I lost. But it was close… and so much fun. I played again and won. I switched to the second deck and played again. And lost.
I couldn’t wait to get these decks home and show to my oldest son (age 11). He’s grown bored of Pokemon and he hasn’t shown much interest in that other popular card game he sees at gatherings at our local game store. I gave him the second deck, explained the rules, and we played. (I had to grab some tokens from a few other games because I didn’t have Key tokens, damage tokens, etc.). He loves it, and he wants me to introduce it to some of his other friends. He wants to take it to school to play during breaks.
I’m sold. And I’m anxious to get my hands on the Starter Set. I’ll probably buy two — one for me and one for my son so he can carry it in his backpack. (Reminder to self: Buy him smaller bag/box to carry all the components.)
I don’t know if KeyForge will ever be as popular as other CCGs, but I can tell you that it is enjoyable to play. The variation in just the two decks I currently have is substantial. With seven Houses and each deck pulling three of them into its card collection, it’s going to be amazing to watch it played at tournaments. I can already see players examining each others decks for new cards they’ve never seen before. Of course, this will drive players to purchase additional decks to see what other special cards are to be found. The rulebook states there are four different rarities of card: Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Special (unique icons on each card will represent a card’s rarity). But there are also special cards called Mavericks (special icon for this one, too) that represent a “extremely rare instance of a card that has left its standard house.” I guess what all this means is that there will still be that desire to go hunting (aka buying) down decks for Rare and Special cards inside just to test out that deck to see how it plays.
Note: I almost forgot — there’s also going to be an app (free) that will allow you to track the wins and losses of your specific deck. It’ll also alert you to nearby tournaments!
Examining My Deck
My deck is called Sleepy Etrian of the Town. Its three Houses are Untamed, Mars, and Sanctum. I’m going to include some close-up photos of various cards in my deck so you can see examples of the artwork, creatures, abilities, and artifacts. Notice in one photo that all the cards have “Etrian of the Town” printed on the back of each card near the bottom. I can easily flip through the deck to verify that a card (or cards) from another deck have made their way into this one. Cool.
If I’m doing my math correct, there are 7x6x5 Three-House deck possibilities or 210 possible combinations. My Untamed-Mars-Sanctum is one of those.
I’d like to also point you to the Index card that contains a summary of all the 36 cards in my deck. Notice under the Untamed section (of the Index card) that the highest numbered card is 370 Way of the Wolf. I do not know how many cards are in each House, but let’s say it was just 100 (and I suspect it may be higher)… that’s a LOT of possible combinations for a three-House deck. Let’s see… carry the 1, take the derivative, raise to the power of… you get the idea. The odds of you finding a deck just like yours are slim to none. Very cool.
Note: You can find out more details about KeyForge at the official website.
Disclosure: James was provided two KeyForge decks during attendance of the Fantasy Flight Games Pre-Flight session prior to the start of Gen Con.