Thank you for checking review #63 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
**Note: A review copy was provided in exchange for an honest review.
An Overview of Keyper
Keyper is a game designed by Richard Breese and was published by R&D Games/Starling Games in 2017. The box states that it can play 2-4 players and has a 90-120 minute play time and a BGG weight rating of 3.52.
Keyper is a game with high player interaction for two to four players played over four rounds. Each round represents a season: spring, summer, autumn and finally winter.
Each player starts the game with their own village board, a mini keyp board, 12 village tiles, a keyper (waving meeple) in their player color, and a team of eight multi-colored keyples, including two white keyples. Each differently colored keyple is a specialist in one activity: the brown keyper is a woodsman, the black keyple is a miner, the orange keyple a clay worker, etc. The white keyples are generalists who can represent any other color.
Keyper is a worker placement game. (Keyper is the eighth new title in the medieval Key series of games, with Keydom, the second in the series being widely recognized as the first of the worker placement genre of games.) What makes Keyper special is that when one player places a keyple on a country board, another player can join them with a matching colored keyple on the first player’s turn to the benefit of both players. In this way some players are likely to have played all their keyples before others. All keyples have the potential to work twice. If a player has played all of their keyples, but another player still has some, then on their turn the player with no remaining keyples can lay down one or more keyples on the country board they have claimed or in their village board to secure additional resources or actions. It can therefore be doubly beneficial to co-operate with your fellow players, although Keyper is not a co-operative game in the usual sense of the term.
The country boards are also noteworthy in that they can be manipulated and folded at the beginning of summer, autumn and winter to show one of four different permutations of fields for that season. A player will chose the one to suit their strategy, often hoping that another player will complement their choice. Certain fields on the country boards are available only in certain seasons, e.g., raw materials can be upgraded to finished goods only in spring and summer after which you can only convert using tiles in your own village. Gem mining occurs only in autumn and winter.
A player’s strategy is likely to be influenced by which (seeded) spring country tiles they acquire and by the particular colored keyples they have available in the later seasons. Different combinations will encourage a player to develop their farm or village, help with their shipping or mining activities, and prepare for the seasonal fairs. Players constantly need to evaluate whether or not to join other players, when to claim a country board, whether to play on their own or another player’s country board, when to use their own village, and whether to create a large or small team of keyples for the following season. The winner is the player to gain the most points, usually through pursuing at least a couple of the different strategies.
In addition to the theme and mechanisms, Keyper has similar traits to the earlier Key games: Game actions are positive and constructive, not destructive; player interaction is through the game mechanisms not direct, and like Keyflower, the previous game in the series, there is a lot of player interaction.
A special English-language Kickstarter edition of Keyper with “character” keyples and keypers will also be released.
Gameplay differences for 2 Players
Only two changes occur for the 2-player game: there are only two boards in the central area, and each player begins with 9 Keyples instead of 8 (the additional one is randomly selected from four possible choices: Brown, Green, Black, or Orange)
The flippy boards sound like a gimmick. They look and feel like a gimmick. But let me assure you, those boards are a great enhancement to the game because they allow each player to make sure what actions/resources they NEED for the turn are available (if possible). The planning for your next season begins right here, with the selection on those boards. Sometimes you fail horribly, like I did in my last play when I had literally no way of converting cubes into cylinders and had to spend half the round getting to where I could build a building in order to do that to fulfill a fair tile. Other times, it helps ensure you can get what you need…you just need to make sure you save the Keyples to execute those actions. This is a unique part of the game, and it steals a bit of the show.
There are a lot of animals. A LOT of animals in here. Plus a ton of resources. While organizing these might be a bit of a bear to tackle, there is no shortage of quality components in the box. If you’ve always wanted wooden chickens, deer, or goats then you’ll love them in here. If you like colorful gems, they’ve got it. I’ll be patiently waiting for the Meeple Realty organizer for this game to exist (or Broken Token, of course) to help contain them all and make the setup and teardown quicker…but man, it is great seeing all the stuff in this box when it is on the table.
Specialized worker Keyples! Six of them, to be precise (and a 7th being wild, and an 8th being your specific Keyper). I love that using the matching colored Keyple on a space makes their action more efficient. Like, anyone can go and gather clay, but only the specialized (or wild) Keyple can get you an extra cube. This adds a ton of strategy into which Keyples you play and when, as well as whether or not you really want to join your opponent…
Which leads me to the joining element. Hello player interaction! This game has it in spades, something that many worker placement games lack. In this instance, when a person places their Keyple on a central board, the players (starting with the one to the left) have the option to join in on that action until either a player joins, or all players pass on the option of joining. This essentially allows both players to do that same action, getting +1 of whatever the action is. However, the player joining must spend the same colored Keyple (or a white wild) in order to join. This mechanic is, arguably, the most critical one of the game and the part that makes the game really shine. Even with 2 players, it is an important consideration.
The big reason why it matters is because the round will start to end when the final player has played their last Keyple. All other players get one last action after that. How, you may ask? Because when a player is out of Keyples, they can start to lay down Keyples on their own village board and/or the country board they claimed with their Keyper (more on that next). This allows them to take that action again, and if there are 2 Keyples on the space they can lay them both with that action to get another boosted action on that space. Huge. So very, very huge. So while you might think you want to collect a horde of Keyples to place, sometimes it is better to have fewer so you can lay down Keyples and take advantage of repeating some essential actions.
Those country boards (the flippy ones) begin each season without any “ownership”. Every player can always place on any of these boards. However, every player has a Keyper in their own color, and at some point in the turn you’re going to have to place it. However, it can only go onto the space with the outline of a Keyper on it, and that essentially claims that board for the player. At the end of the round, you’ll get every Keyple on that board. This will be the board you rearrange at the end of the round. AND it is the only board where you will get to lay down Keyples if you run out before your opponent. An early claim often leads to everyone else putting workers on the other boards and avoiding your board like it is full of the plague. Claiming too late, though, can mean you’re stuck with the board you didn’t really want.
Gameplay in here is rich and rewarding. There appear to be many paths you can take, some of them dependent upon what building tiles appear at which time during the game. After a handful of plays, I still haven’t felt like I’ve really grasped the best strategies. I haven’t figured out how to effectively manage the shipping on boats, even though I netted 24 points via that last game (I still lost handily!) or even how to juggle the use of wheat. Replay value is something people want in games, and this one delivers via all those buildings, the order in which things will appear, and having a multitude of spaces available to place Keyples every turn. Animal shepherding appears to be an early optimization, but I’m sure it isn’t the only viable or an unbeatable strategy.
In a 2-player game, building tiles that give points per Keyple of a specific color have a bit of a cap on them. Best case scenario, one of you got an extra of that color so there’s a chance to get 3 of them if they all end up placed on the same board. Further in that best case, you’ve upgraded the building to get 2 points per Keyple of that color. So you’re capping out, in a best-case scenario, at 6 points. Not a bad score, but realistically it’ll net you in the 1-4 range the majority of the time. Those tiles are simply better with more players, as there will be a capped potential of 8 points, and should be a lot easier to get 4-6 as a payoff.
This game could use a player aid for the building tiles. Many of the tiles become clear, after a few plays, what they are intended to do. However, having a quick reference sheet prevents a single person from having to grab the rulebook every time new tiles flip out in order to answer the “what does this one do?” question that arises. It also helps make sure that you aren’t giving away, by asking, what tile(s) you might want to select. I understand this player aid would be large in size, but it would be thinner than the rulebook. And at the very least allow you to have more than 1 place to reference that information, enabling multiple people to look as they want to see what things do.
The rulebook is clear overall, but it is lacking on a few things. For instance, what happens if both players in a 2-player game place their final Keyple at the same time via a joining? Does the other player get another turn to lay down a Keyple, or does the round end? (Answer, according to BGG: they get that lay down, the person who did the initial placement of the Keyple does not) The winter fair tiles are double-sided and a player gets one at the end of spring if they completed the spring fair tile. Does the winter tile need to be selected onto a side now and locked in place? If you pick the side that has the summer & fall icons, does it replace the summer or fall tile you have, or do you have them both to complete? If you complete the summer/fall side, can you also complete the fall/winter side? (Answer on BGG: it sounds like you only complete one or the other, but no mention of where to place. It also sounds like you can complete several in one season) When you gain animals, do you need to have a valid place on your village board to place them at the time you get them, or can they sit off to the side so long as you have said place for them by the end of the season? (On BGG, it sounds like you don’t need the location as a strategy mentioned is to gain excess animals if needed to show at a fair, since that resolves before animals need to be placed onto a tile for the end of the round) Sadly, I couldn’t find answers to any of these in the rulebook, in spite of several attempts to find them. They might be in there somewhere, but lost in a spot that isn’t easy to find or worded in a way that simply didn’t make it clear enough to understand the intent. It was also difficult to find, on the fly, to confirm that the discounted building field space requires a minimum of 1 resource still paid. It is in there, but took some searching to find it.
Simply put, Keyper is a keeper in the collection. It provides some interesting worker placement, including the ability to lay down workers if you place all of yours first. Joining actions is a key mechanism in the game, and even with 2 players that can be a really important aspect. Especially once someone claims a board. Those flippy boards, by the way, are really amazing to use. Some will not like them, and almost everyone will get frustrated by them a time or two, but it is a really novel approach to the game.
I feel like there are so many paths to victory, and that I am just starting to scratch the surface of strategic depth available in Keyper. That’s probably reflected by the fact that I’m yet to finish closer than 17 points behind my wife in the game, but that isn’t the focus here. Yes, I’m bad at the game. Like, horribly awful at it. Yet I have fun each and every time in the midst of failure. There is a lot of stuff in here, and a lot of game packed into four rounds (seasons). Honestly, this game might just fire Caverna: The Cave Farmers for me.
I wish the rulebook was a little better. I wish that some of the tiles were easier to look at and understand what they did without needing to flip through the rulebook. I even wish they had taken those back pages with the tile descriptions and made player aids out of them. Then you’d avoid the “what does this tile do?” question, cuing an opponent in to something you might be eyeing for your strategy. Since there is no penalty to not build a taken building, you can definitely play a little hate draft when selecting tiles. That’s something that a group of gamers will love, while other groups will really hate.
Overall, Keyper is a fun to play and (for me) a hard to master gaming experience. It is different enough from the only other Key-series game I’ve played so far (Keyflower) to convince me that both can one day exist in my collection because they scratch very different itches. This one falls in line with the heavier worker placement giants where you use workers to gain resources and use those resources to build your own little personal board of things that score points at the end. However, the execution in this is excellent and the parts making up Keyper are interesting and unique enough to make this game stand out in a crowded Worker Placement genre. If you like that mechanic at all, you owe it to yourself to give Keyper a try so you can see if it is a keeper for you, too.
Hopefully you found this article to be a useful look at Keyper. If you’re interested in providing support for Cardboard Clash so I can continue to improve what we offer, check out my page over on Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/CardboardClash.
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Bonus: Starling Games is generously providing a giveaway for some Keymelequin promos for Keyflower, another game in the Key-series. Be sure to enter to win!