James Nathan: Keyper

James Nathan: Keyper

Game: Keyper
Designer: Richard Breese
Publisher: R&D Games
Players: 2-4
Time:  90-120 Minutes
Times played: 2 times with a friend’s copy

For my group, the deluge of Essen titles to dig out from underneath feels like it’s coming to a close – so much so that we only played titles we had played before this week! (This sentence is from January 5th).  At some point, we’re also wrapping things up to clear the slate for Pandemic Legacy 2. (We’re now concurrently playing Charterstone and PL:2 in the same session once a week; this sentence is from January 20th).

This week there was less pressure to try something new, and I’m not sure that any of us brought something new-to-us (outside of a few small card games). Looking around at the options, I opted for Keyper.

So, here we are.

mvimg_20180103_230019684017213249351269.jpgFollowing in the lineage of Keyflower, it will involve placing meeples via a mechanic that is sensitive to their color; placing upgrade-able buildings in a home area; play over four seasons; and the meeples you take back each turn, will not be the ones you placed.

Past that, things start to diverge.

Here’s part of the game at setup.


Wooooh, boy.  There’s a lot there. OK, that board in the front there is your personal player board: on the left, there’s an area for some farm tiles, in the middle some village tiles, after that some harvest fairs, and then storage for your bits. (This review is unlikely to use the correct terminolo-key for things).

Up top is a point tracker, and up and to the right you store the meeples you get to place this turn.

Off to the left, each player starts out with an identical set of farm and village tiles. Above the board are the central boards where you’ll mostly send your meeples to work.

Here’s a closer look at one of those boards, and some other things.  Above and to the left of the boards is a public market of available buildings and additional harvest fairs.  Above and to the right are this season’s ships.


The image above represents an Autumn or Winter board, but you’ll get the idea.  On some of those spaces you get a gray cube; a green gem; split a barrel in to two barrels.  There are some that will let you build buildings; upgrade buildings; or take more buildings.

Those water spaces allow a boat to come into port!  With these boats, you can buy or sell the goods shown.  Buying is free.  Selling gets you points. Such boat related points are the only points gained during the game.


OK, with me so far?

So… remember how some of those boards a few photos up had multiple meeples on the same space?  Well, if you put your meeple on a space, you do that thing once.  You can do the space twice if the space has a colored border around it, and the meeple color matches (or is a wild color).

However, up to one player (in clockwise order), can also “follow” you to that space.  This is where meeple colors and other things come into play.  If somebody joins you, each of you can earn an additional activation of the space.  

If no one follows, a second meeple can still be placed on a later turn to invoke some of those boni.

The box has a flowchart to help you follow the details:


So, if you’re planning ahead, you may have realized that “following” may run some players’ meeples out before others.  If it comes to you and you are bereft of meeples, you can “lay down” some meeples for additional activations.  The meeples you can lay down are those you have placed on buildings you’ve built on your board, and those on a central board you have claimed.

Scroll back up to that picture of the central boards again.  See that waving red meeple with its hand raised? That shows that the red player has decided to keyp that board. On your turn, in lieu of placing one of your colored meeples, you can place your player-colored waving meeple.  There’s no inherent action associated with this placement, but it will determine which meeples you have to place next turn.  Once all players have placed their meeples, each player will take the board they stood on to wave, any meeples on it, and any meeples on their personal board – and that will be your meeple count and colors available for the next turn.

Hang on to that central board for a section, we’ll come back to it.  (That’s the whole reason you’re here.)

Below is a sample of my board after that Summer round, and you can see a few things we haven’t talked about.  I’ve got a pig over there on the left.  Some of the resource spaces gather animals, and while you don’t need to have room to hold them immediately, they will scamper off at the end of the round if you haven’t built them a keypen.

But! Before they run off, you can take them to the fair and show them off for blue ribbons and whatnot. In the picture below, you can see I showed my prize pig Keypig and his gray cube for two points (scored at the end of the game), and I showed off my Keywheat, brown cube, and brown cylinder for four points.


OK, one more thing in the photo above. That blue meeple off to the side in some sort of Keyp. If you take back more meeples than a certain amount, you throw them in the Keyp, and you’ll be able to turn them into a resource in the next round.

To prepare the next season, you wipe the public buildings and boats, and deal out new ones.

Oh, also, you flip the central boards around as you want.  Here are some photos to show some of the geometry:


There are some rules regarding how the resulting board must look, but you’ll have four options to choose from – trying to ensure the spaces you need to be available are, and maybe denying spaces that you think your opponents need.

Here’s what my board looked like at the end of Winter; let’s see if there’s anything I didn’t talk about.


So at the end of the game, you get points for whatever you shipped during the game; your farm tiles (e.g. I got 3 points for each goat); your village tiles (e.g. the Stonemason is worth 5; the Entertainer is worth 8 because I had 7 completed harvest fairs – not because it says harvest fairs are worth 8/7ths of a point, but you can generally only activate such scorings four times); and your harvest fairs.

There’s a lot of details I glossed over, but you get the idea.

I mean, look at these animal meeples.  I’m a sucker for a game with well designed meeples, and this is a quality eight(!) types of animals.


(That said, the grey and white meeples are sufficiently close in hue that I have to hold them next to each other to see which is which.)

The things I don’t like mechanically, are fairly nitpickey. This is a solid game.

In my first play, we each went for a heavy farm strategy; for me, this was based upon the buildings available at the start, and my plan to ship heavily (again, based upon the buildings available at the start) (In the first game, I had 40 shipping points by the end of the game, and in the second, no one had more than 4.).  None of us did much with gems, as, well, they don’t come out until later, and on a first play, it’s hard to value them.

In my second play, I went for a more focused strategy that would involve gems; another player, who was playing his second game, went for a village heavy strategy based on adjacency buildings and whatnot – a building that gave points for orthogonally adjacents; one for diagonally adjacent; one for all village spots full; one for how many upgraded buildings; etc.

In a way that I can’t put into words yet, at some point I am going to have a tirade about variable setups masquerading as variety in game experience or game strategy.  That’s not today  Keyper felt a little the same and a little different in pulling off different strategies the second game.

The tension of which color to use to activate an action (as you are trying to entice or dissuade others from following you) was persistent. The tension of when to play your waving meeple to claim a board (too early, and others may not place there; too late, and you may not have prime choice of colors) was persistent.  (The specific actions I wanted were different, but that’s just moving my hand a few inches in another direction.)

In the second game, I had more buildings on my home board that could be activated.  A nuance to that is that there is no opponents following.  There’s also no colored border, so you’re likely only activating such buildings once, but you may have a chance to lay down.  So here there’s a pressure to run out of meeples early in order to have a chance to lay down.  

In my theoretical tirade about variety in setup vs. variety in feeling, I have a fear that my conclusion will be that the games I love and think exhibit a good correlation of setup variety leading to game play variety can only reasonably be expected to reveal those characteristics after dozens of plays, and perhaps that’s generally acceptable, but un-expectable.

With where I’m at on Keyper, I think it would reach that point sooner than some others.  Key knowledge of the building pool seems likely to reward repeated plays in a fulfilling way.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan Blum (2 plays): The game bears some obvious similarities to Keyflower, but dispenses with the auctions and the need to transport things around your village, both of which help the game in my opinion (I got tired of Keyflower after a while). This is a different direction taken than Key to the City: London, which keeps the auctions but also dispenses with transport and removes the uncertainty from the big victory-point generating tiles; I like KttC and own it.

Keyper has many more differences from Keyflower overall, and I like a lot of what it does, but I am not sure how I feel about it yet. The random building draws don’t bother me that much since it is likely that something will enable you to score points from whatever it is you can produce, even if it’s not the optimal thing (there are always ships, for example). However, that aspect also means that the late game can be a somewhat tedious exercise in eking out an extra point or two, since there are so many possible combinations of slightly different actions. So far I like it and will continue to play it, but I haven’t ventured to purchase a copy.


Alan H: (10+ plays and I was a playtester) The game presents multiple routes to scoring points and with experienced players scores are tight. This suggests that these routes are balanced, but I have not got stats to prove this. I like two specific features – the ability to follow a player coupled with the uncertainty of whether you can claim the board that you want. The second aspect is the variable number of Keyples that you have each round and how having fewer Keyples allows you to lay down an existing Keyple and this balances out variable numbers in the game. Many of the other features of the game are recognisable from previous Key games, apart from the variable boards of course. I have tested an early expansion to the game which I thought improved the game further.


Joe Huber (1 play of the prototype): Keyper is a very clever game, that might have suffered for me because I played it back-to-back with another prototype from Richard which I enjoyed even more.  At that, it was still very close to the “like it” line for me; I just found that the game was a bit long for what I wanted it to be.  Which, for most, should probably be taken as a recommendation.


Simon Neale  (2 plays and I was a playtester): In the same way that The Castles of Mad King Ludwig reminds me of playing Dungeons and Dragons in my youth, Keyper takes me back even further to those strange paper based selection shapes where you pick a number, then spell out a colour before opening a flap to discover your future! The main playing boards pick up a similar style mechanic and are completely absorbing. Richard Breese has created a fascinating game which has a lot of underlying depth as to which strategy you will pick in order to attempt to win. I really like that fact that if you run out of Keyples then you lie them down to gain additional actions.


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!  Alan How
I like it. James Nathan, John P, Dan Blum, Lorna, Simon N.,
Neutral.  Joe H.
Not for me…


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