Design by: David Brain
Published by: R&D Games
3 – 4 Players, 1 ½ – 2 ½ hours
Review by: Greg J. Schloesser
Richard Breese has designed some very unique and creative games, most of which have at least initially been released under his own R&D Games label. He has become well known for his “Key” series of games, all of which are themed around the mythical and medieval “Keydom” kingdom. While sharing a similar theme, each game in the series has been quite different, and a few of them have even been re-printed by larger publishers.
The latest game in the series is Key Market, which marks the first time in the series that a game has not been designed by Breese. The game is designed by David Brain, but if one did not know this, it would be difficult to tell as it has the same feel as other games in the series. It seems to be a bit more complex than others in the series, with a thorough and verbose rule book that is a bit of a chore to digest. Don’t let this deter you, though, as it is one of the most challenging games in the series.
As with all games in the Key series, the box overflows with cardboard – boards, counters, player aids, etc. The central board is formed by aligning four square boards, each depicting various farm fields in a 3×3 grid. Players will place their farmers on these fields in an effort to reap bountiful harvests. The resulting harvest will be used to promote workers into various guilds, construct a manor house, secure more workers, provide for workers’ retirement and simply sell for a profit.
Each player receives a collection of worker counters, a farmhouse mat, a few gold coins and one of each type of resource – fruit, vegetables, wheat, fish and sheep. In a nice touch, these resources are wooden and shaped like the actual commodity as opposed to being generic wooden cubes. All of these except the farm mat are kept behind the player’s privacy screen. Players alternate placing two workers onto the fields, following some strict placement rules. I will explain these when I explain a bit more about the fields and movement. Finally, each player must pay for their farm by expending the resources indicated. Each player’s farm requires the expenditure of a unique resource plus one additional resource. Players reveal these simultaneously, and these are added to the commodity market, thereby setting the initial commodity prices, which can range from 1 – 6.
Before jumping into the sequence of play, let me explain a bit more about the board. As mentioned, each of the small boards depicts fields in a 3×3 grid. Each field is either round or square and produces the depicted resource, but the amount produced will vary by season. The central field of each board is a town, which produces a luxury good. Luxury goods can be treated as two different resources, but are also needed to perform certain tasks. When like fields, whether round or square, are adjacent they form “areas.” Generally only one worker can be in a field or an entire area. Further, a player may not have two of his own workers adjacent to each other, regardless of the type of field they occupy. These rules can make placement and movement tricky, and makes competition for more productive fields quite keen.
The turn sequence is divided into distinct phases, with each phase being completed by all players before moving to the second phase. It is easier to understand the game by explaining these two phases.
Farming Phase. Each player performs the following actions in order:
1) Move worker(s). The player may move workers from field-to-field at a cost of one gold per field moved. If a player opts to move into a town field (“settle” in game parlance), the cost is a hefty five gold pieces. Players will move workers from field to field as the production of fields vary with each passing season.
2) Hire ONE worker. Getting more workers into the fields will increase one’s yield, but workers don’t come cheap. The hiring cost increases with each additional worker, and workers must be paid – or fired – at the end of each turn. Deciding to maintain or fire a worker or workers can be a tough decision.
3) Receive resources. Players receive resources from the fields where they have workers. Normally round fields produce one resource and square fields produce two resources, but this can vary based on the season markers. These markers can increase production for certain fields up to three resources while reducing the production of other fields to zero. These markers cause players to scurry about the fields, attempting to farm the most productive land. Winter is particularly harsh, as only the towns produce.
4) Promote one guild member. There are seven different guilds wherein players may place workers. These guilds grant specific privileges to the respective players, and one of the major features of the game is attempting to best combine these various powers into a winning strategy. Guilds have three levels and only one or two workers can occupy a level. Players must progress in rank in the guilds, starting at the lowly apprentice level. The cost to enter a guild is two different resources, while promotion to a higher level costs one more unique resource per level.
The guilds are immensely valuable due to the powers they convey. However, they also are a major source of gold (victory points) at game’s end, with points varying from 5 – 15, depending upon the level achieved. As with the productive fields, there is usually keen competition for the prime guilds.
5) Upgrade Farm House. Players can upgrade their farmhouse to a manor house, which will allow the player to sell up to three goods at the market and retire workers. Retired workers earn the player 15 victory points apiece, so this is something players will likely pursue as the game progresses. The cost to upgrade is the same as the original farmhouse cost, with the addition of one luxury good.
6) Retire one worker. As mentioned, each retired worker earns a player 15 victory points at game’s end. The cost to retire a worker, however, is steep: four different resources.
Market Day. Players must sell at least one resource at the market and perform one guild action. Players alternate performing one action at a time. The procedure is interesting, as players must pre-commit the resources they will use, simultaneously revealing them. This phase of the turn can take a bit of time as players contemplate the actions they desire to perform and decide which resources they must commit. It is wise to consider the resources your opponents collected during the turn and attempt to guess the actions they will likely take.
1) Sell. As mentioned, a player must sell at least one good at the market, but can sell more. However, they can only sell at most two goods of the same type in one transaction. If they desire to sell more than two of the same type of goods or different goods, they must wait until their turn arrives again. Players place one of the sold goods on the market, with the remainder being placed in the common supply. Thus, the price will change for any remaining players who wish to sell or purchase goods of that type.
2) Guild Action. A player must perform ONE and only one of the following guild actions.
a) Sponsor or promote a worker in a guild. The cost and benefits have been described above.
b) Retire one worker. This is the same as described above.
c) Buy 1 or 2 resources. These must be the same type of resource. This can be particularly useful if your opponents have sold a lot of the desired resource, thereby driving the price down.
d) Take cash. The player receives five gold pieces, less one for each of their workers in the fields. Money can be tight, so this can provide some needed cash. An additional advantage of selecting this option is that the player moves his token to the top of the favor track, thereby breaking the next tie in his favor.
After each full turn, players must pay each of their workers – 2 gold pieces apiece – or fire them. The market is adjusted by removing the indicated number of resources, and players move their tokens along the season track. Turn order is re-determined, with players having fewer workers in the fields going earlier. Ties are broken using the priority indicated on the favor track, which changes each time a tie results. For example, if red and green are tied for the fewest workers in the fields and red is atop the favor track, he will move first during the next turn. However, his marker is then moved to the bottom of the favor track, pushing every other marker up one space. This track was pioneered by Corné van Moorsel in his entertaining Zoo Sim game.
The game is played over the course of two years, with each year comprised of four seasons. As described earlier the production of various fields will vary from season-to-season based on the season markers. Winter is deadly, as only towns produce goods. The game concludes after the second year, which means there are eight total turns. Players convert everything into victory points, either using the score chart on the reverse side of the season and market boards or simply converting them into gold pieces.
Like many games, the early turns pass quickly, as players don’t have many workers in the fields and money is tight. As they get more workers into the fields and begin collecting more resources, more options become available, which causes the game’s pace to slow a bit. Even though there is a lot to ponder, I have never felt that the game drags. Our games have taken two hours or so to play to completion, but I have been thoroughly engaged throughout.
Key Market is a rich game with lots of options, decisions and strategies to pursue. Moving workers into the guilds is a vital element to one’s success, and deciding which combinations of guild powers you desire to achieve and implement can be tough. There is also a race aspect, as it is possible to get blocked from entering or advancing in a guild. Choosing which action to implement first – selling at the market or advancing in a guild – can be vexing. Choosing when to retire workers and where to take them requires precise timing.
The powers one gains from the guilds will likely drive one’s strategy. If a player earns more resources from certain fields, he should steer his workers to those fields. Earning extra victory points from the gathering of diverse resources should encourage the player to diversify his production. There are twelve different guilds, each granting unique powers. Only seven are in play during any game, so varying these seven guilds from game-to-game will help keep each game fresh. The expansion possibilities seem considerable as it would be easy to introduce new guild tiles and powers.
Key Market is one of the deeper and more challenging games in the Key series of games. There are tough decisions to be made throughout the game, and players want to perform far more actions than they are allowed. This produces considerable angst, and forces players to ascertain their best options and pursue them fervently. There are also some nifty timing and race aspects to the proceedings. All of the games in the Key series have included clever ideas and force the players to make numerous difficult decisions. My two favorite games in the series are Key Town and Keythedral. I can now add Key Market to that list.
Opinionated Gamers opinions:
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I always liked Richerd Breese.
Nathan Beeler: While I largely enjoyed my handful of plays of Key Market (once we got the rules correct), I worry about long term replayability. The guilds and modular boards are clearly there to address this issue, but they didn’t seem to change things enough for me. Each successive game has had a nearly identical feel to the games I’d played before. This is not to say those games were unenjoyable; as Greg said it was engaging throughout. And perhaps in today’s world a handful of good plays is all you can expect to get out of a game. So in that sense, Key Market is a success for me. But I’m still not going to buy it.
Patrick Korner: I found much to like in Key Market. The concept of a worker placement game where your workers stay out for protracted lengths of time is interesting – depending on how much money you want to spend, you can keep them in the fields for a very long time, but that will ultimately limit how many of those workers can make it into the guilds, where you might get more back for your buck. I also like the way the game forces you to deal with Winter right in the middle of everything – if your economic engine can’t stand a round of nothing, then you’ll be in trouble. I liken it to sugar in the gas tank – once you clean things out again you’re fine, but there’s a good chance you’ll be dead in the water for a bit. I have played the game twice and haven’t worried about replayability too much, although it’s possible that more play will reveal the ‘samey’ quality that Nathan mentions above. For now, it’s an “I love it” from me.
Larry Levy: I’ve only played this once and I’m pretty sure this is a hard game to judge after a only a single attempt, so put a little more stock in the views of the more experienced players. My first impression was that there was really nothing innovative in the design and the theme was mundane in the extreme. However, there are enough restrictions and a tight enough economy to make this an enjoyable game. I suspect the, uh, key is to come up with the proper mix of guild memberships. This seems a little odd, because there’s usually plenty of room for your workers at the guilds, but making sure that each worker pulls his weight and combines well with the crops you produce is probably the best way to approach the game. The game play can be a bit claustrophobic and there are times that I wish the design did a little bit more, but overall, this is a solid game. However, the fact that I haven’t gone out of my way to get in a second play indicates that this title hasn’t truly grabbed me, at least not yet.
Love it: Greg Schloesser, Patrick Korner, Mike Siggins
Like it: Nathan Beeler, Larry Levy, Jonathan Franklin, Tom Rosen
Neutral: Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Joe Huber
Not for me: