Dale Yu: Review of Key Flow

Key Flow

  • Designers: Sebastian Bleasdale, Richard Breese and Ian Vincent
  • Publisher: R&D Games
  • Players: 2-6
  • Ages: 14+
  • Time: 60-90 minutes
  • Times played: 3, with copy purchased at SPIEL 2018

Key Flow is the latest game set in the Key-universe.  In this particular version, players are drafting cards trying to create the most successful village over the four seasons in the game. Each player starts with a single home card as well as a scoring card.

Before the game can start, there is a bit of housekeeping. You will end up with a curated set of cards for spring (green), summer (yellow), autumn (orange) – which will be comprised of some “K” cards as well as some player-count specific cards.  There will also be two winter (white) decks. Each player will be dealt a set of 5 Winter “K” (building) cards which are put aside for now. These cards can be examined at any point in the game – and it is advisable that you look at them during the game – but you will not get a chance to play any of these until just before the start of winter.

number cards on left, K cards on right
here’s what’s on the back

The game takes place over four seasons, and each follows the same pattern.   First, all the cards of the current season are dealt out. In a 4p game, this will be 6 cards in spring, 7 in summer, 8 in autumn and eventually 9 in winter.

Then, the cards are drafted and played.  Players take their hand, examine the cards and then choose one card to play.  All players choose secretly and simultaneously. Any unchosen cards are passed to their neighbor – the direction of passing is conveniently found on the back of the cards.  All chosen cards are revealed and then played.

picture taken by the designer, Richard Breese

There are two kinds of cards.  First, there are village cards – which can either be land based, usually with a building on it, OR water based (with water at the bottom).  Land cards are always played to the top row of your village and water cards are always played to the bottom row. The top and bottom row are offset by half a card’s width.  When you play a card, you must play it to the appropriate row for its type, and it must be touching at least one other card. It could be possible to leave gaps in either row in your village as you build it out.

Some river cards have instant production bonuses on them; if you play these cards, immediately take the one-time bonus.  Most building cards have an action or set of actions on them. Any particular card will provide the upper most visible action at any time.  If the topmost action is covered with a tile, then the next lower visible action will happen when activated. Some cards produce resources. Others let you move resources and/or upgrade your buildings.  A third type of building simply scores points (and scores more points as it is upgraded).

The other type of card are keyple cards. These cards are what activate the buildings.  These cards can show 1, 2 or 3 keyples on them. The number of keyples on a card must exceed the number of previous activations of that card for this round.  A card can not be activated more than three times in a season. There are also arrows on the keyple card. The direction of the arrows tell you where the keyple card can  be played: on your own buildings, your right-hand-opponent’s buildings or your left-hand-opponent’s buildings. Some of these cards also have a keyple token (grey circle) shown on them.  You can collect that token as you play the card. The token can be used immediately on that card or it can be saved for later.

So, players are drafting cards.  If they choose a building card or a river card, it is played to their village in a way that it is adjacent to at least one other card.  If they choose a keyple card, it must be played on a valid target – that is in a village that matches the arrows on the card; and on a building which has been activated fewer times than keyples shown on that card.  The keyple card is placed on top of the card which it will activate; and then the card activates. The final, and not-often-used, option is that you can discard your chosen card to get a keyple token.

possible start to a game

The card might produce resource cylinder(s) – there are black, brown and grey resources as well as a gold (well, it’s actually orange) resource which can be used as a wild for any resource. It might produce skill tokens.  It might make keyple tokens. Take the appropriate stuff. If it is a building that you own, the resource cylinders stay on the card that made them. If it is a building of your opponent’s, the resource cylinders are placed on your home card.  Any tokens (skill or keyple) simply are in your supply; their “location” is irrelevant. Other cards may allow you to transport resource cylinders – this is important because some tiles require cylinders to be physically on them to either score them at the end of the game, and any tile which requires cylinders for upgrade costs can only use cylinders that are found on that card.   If your activated card has an upgrade icon on it, you can upgrade any building in your village – simply pay the cost as seen on the large white arrow between boxes – again remembering that any cylinders used to pay for the upgrade must be located on that same card – and then cover up the top most box with an upgrade tile. The upgraded card will now have a better action available, and it may now also be worth more victory points.

Once all players have played their card and resolved them, they pick up their new hand of cards, and repeat the process of drafting and resolving.  This continues until all the dealt cards are gone. The game then moves to the keyple phase. All players now have the chance to spend any collected keyple tokens they have on their OWN buildings to activate them.  All the regular activation rules must be followed. A building can still be activated a maximum of three times in a season, and you must play a number of keyples greater than the number of previous activations. As each keyple token has 2 keyples shown on it; you will play one token to activate a card for the first or second time this season, and you will pay two tokens (4 keyples) in order to activate a card for the third and final time this season.

Once all players have taken all the optional keyple token actions they want, the villages are cleaned up.  All keyple tokens are discarded to the supply. All the keyple cards which were played to your village (regardless of who played them there) are collected and placed under your score card.  You can look at the cards as you collect them, but you are not allowed to refer to your scoring pile during the course of the game otherwise. The keyple cards may have animals pictured on them; and this will become important in winter.

When spring is done, the summer cards are shuffled and dealt – there will be 7 cards in each starting hand in this season.  It is played in the same way: drafting/resolving, then optional keyple token actions then clean up. Autumn follows with an 8 card starting hand.  However, after the end of this season’s clean up, there is a special one time draft.

Remember that hand of 5 Winter cards that you got at the start of the game… the ones that you were supposed to be looking at during the course of the game?  Well, each one of those cards has an endgame scoring criterion on them. At this point, all players get to choose one of those 5 cards and immediately play it into their village.  So, if you were a good Key Flow player, you would have already been planning some of your strategy and actions to meet the criteria of the one card you knew that you were going to keep here…. Or, if you’re more the fly by the seat of your pants kind of player, you could survey what you have going on at this moment in time and then choose the card that best suits you now…

The unchosen winter cards are all shuffled in with the Winter player-count-specific cards to form a new winter deck; then each player is dealt a final hand of 9 cards for this last season.  The flow of the game is unchanged from the previous three seasons. When the winter season is over, there is a scoring round (well, this is the only scoring in the game).

First, look at all of your cards – some will have VPs on them for being upgraded, and a double upgraded tile is worth a single VP.  Tally these all up. There are also a few autumn storehouse cards which score points for resource tokens found specifically on those cards; tally up the points and then discard any resources used to generate points on them.  Now would be a great time to boot up your smartphone calculator app because there’s a lot of things you have to add up!

In general, the bulk of the scoring will likely come from the winter cards that you have chosen to build in your village.  The rule with these is that any card or token can only be assigned to a single scoring card. Thus, if you have a card with a 2 yellow meeples and a pig on it; you could score it at your farmyard which gives 1VP per card with a pig on it OR you could score it at your Healer which gives 2VP for each card with 2 keyples shown on it.  Some cards require a combination of an animal/meeple and a resource; again these things can only be applied once. So, now is the time to do the math calculations to max out your scoring. Once you have allocated all your things to scoring cards, tally up the scores.

Finally, any gold resources not used otherwise above are worth 1VP each.

The player with the most points wins. Ties go to the player who had the most sheep.

My thoughts on the game

Key Flow was one of the games that was high on my list to get at SPIEL 2018.  First, I had had a chance to watch some folks play it at the Gathering earlier in the year, and all of the early reports of the game were positive.  Also, I have generally liked the games in the entire Key-series, and it seemed like this one would not disappoint either.

At its heart, Key Flow is a drafting game.  In each season, you will get a starting hand which you can examine to figure out your own strategy as well as see what your opponents might do.  For me, I generally concentrate on the cards that will help me the most. If I worry too much about what my opponents are doing, I’ll take forever to choose a card, and honestly, I might pick the wrong one anyways.

all of the different cards –
picture taken by the designer, Richard Breese

Given the way the game works, it’s not the end of the world if your neighbor gets a powerful or useful building as you’ll still be able to trigger it with a Keyple card.  In fact, the fact that you own a building doesn’t guarantee that you’ll ever get to use it. I do like the way that the game has moments where it forces you to decide between adding another card to your own village versus playing a Keyple card to power a building (whether yours or one of your neighbors).  It adds a nice timing element to the card choice as you have to decide whether to take a building/sea card to add to town or a Keyple card to trigger an action.

As you get a small hand of Winter cards to start the game – one of which you are guaranteed to put into play – you do have some way to plan your endgame scoring.  The Winter cards that you did not play at the end of the Autumn round go into the general Winter deck, and it is likely that you’ll see some of those cards again, but there is no guarantee.

The end result of this is that it’s really hard to have a coherent plan early in your game – at least as far as end game scoring goes.  You can try to set up certain production loops and/or accumulation of goods and animals – but in the end, you won’t know what endgame scoring cards you have until the Winter round starts.   

So, unlike 7 Wonders, where it feels like you start with a strategy in the first round and then you build upon it in the following two rounds; in Key Flow, you just try to set up a nice collection/production engine over the first three rounds, and then hope like hell that you get scoring cards which match up to the stuff that you have collected/can make in that last Winter round.

Many of the scoring cards overlap to a degree, so as long as you are making stuff or collecting stuff, you’ll likely find a card where you can use that resource/card/animal/etc to score – the question is whether you’ll do it more efficiently or not.  This constant re-calculation can cause the last round to bog down a bit as you may find yourself trying to figure out how to score all your stuff as you add scoring cards to your town.

Is this a bad thing?  No, I do not think so.  I have enjoyed the puzzle presented by the final round of Key Flow.  It definitely involves less strategy/planning in the early stages of the game and more speculation.  And, this isn’t to say that there are some cards in the earlier rounds which can be valuable. You could draft the cards which score bundles of points if upgraded twice or the warehouse cards which score decently for goods stored on those actual cards.   

Scoring at the end definitely requires a smartphone in our group.  I have found that it is easiest if all players just bring up their calculator app; I can read out the different categories of scoring, and each player can input their score for each thing into their phone and then sum it all at the end.

Colors are a bit wonky – I would have liked the colors to be consistent – the keyples are colored in the traditional gaming colors of green, yellow, red and blue.  However, this only kinda matches up to the season colors of green, yellow, orange and white. While it isn’t much of a stretch to figure out which color keyple goes with which season – it still seems like it would have been easier to make the colors consistent to reduce any confusions.   Anyways, the meeples are only printed on the cards; they don’t even have to match up to commonly found colors. Which makes the mystery of why they don’t match the season colors greater… The other color weirdness is that all of my gold resource cylinders are actually orange. And, I know from my Puerto Rico set, that these sorts of cylinders come in a bright yellow.  Again, not sure why a less confusing (and seemingly readily available) choice wasn’t made here.

The rules are the typical R&D affair.  All the rules are found in the rulebook; I do not think that I found anything which was left out.  But, like many other Key-games; the organization of the rulebook isn’t the greatest. Unlike many other Essen games, I didn’t really get a good feel for how to play this from reading the rulebook; it was not until I set up a practice round and worked my way through everything once that I found that Key Flow is actually quite easy to play, and the flow is rather intuitive and the icons are honestly easy peasy to understand.  I know that I’m not the only one who has had this issue – you can find an unofficial re-organization of the rulebook done by a fan which reads much easier (IMHO). It also provides a much needed synopsis of all the building icons in a single place. I do wish that these all came on one sheet, and I have manually cut and pasted them together in a single page to allow for players to have a personal reference – which is sorely needed in any drafting game. https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/171165/key-flow-unofficial-manual-rewrite

my personal one page cheat sheet – made with a color copier

Overall, I am enjoying Key Flow.  There are a few quibbles with the rules and components, but in the end, the gameplay is solid and we now get a very enjoyable and challenging game in about 40-50 minutes.  There is a bit of complexity to the game, and despite that level, it still plays quickly. It is certainly not a copycat of other drafting games (think 7W here), and I think it is different enough that there is room for both in the game collection.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Dan Blum (3 plays): Dale decided not to mention Keyflower in this review for some reason, but I’m going to, because while Key Flow obviously bears a resemblance to other drafting games it’s also a lot like Keyflower in many ways; in both games you have to figure out how to get the items and movement required to upgrade your buildings and also figure out how to accumulate the necessary items for end-game scoring.

Of course the central mechanisms – drafting vs. bidding – are very different. I can certainly see many people preferring Keyflower because they prefer the auctions. (Or because they like the expansions, although if Key Flow is popular I suspect it will get similar expansions.) I prefer Key Flow – I have no objection to auctions in general but I tend to find the multiple simultaneous auctions of Keyflower overly sharp. I also like the way the winter buildings are handled in Key Flow – you see more at the start of the game, you’re guaranteed to get one you see, and another player can’t remove one you like from the game except by taking it themselves. Key Flow also handles up to six players well, whereas I wouldn’t play Keyflower again with more than four.

Breese and Bleasdale earlier revamped Keyflower as Key to the City: London, which I also think improves on Keyflower (in part by having all the “winter” tiles to be used visible at the start), but I like Key Flow better.

Greg S:   I was not the biggest fan of Keyflower, but enjoyed the Key to the City: London version as I felt it streamlined the game and made it less fiddly.  I wasn’t particularly eager to play Keyflow, as I understood it had strong similarities to Keyflower. It was described to me as a mix of the 7 Wonders “take a card and pass the rest” mechanism with the Keyflower system.  This proved to be a very accurate description. The game was fine, but not different enough from Keyflower to warrant acquiring.

Simon Weinberg:  One thing that really blew me away about Keyflow is that fact that at Essen we played a 6-player game in less and 60 mins including explanation. For such a solid game, where you are totally engaged throughout, I think that’s a major achievement.  And Keyflow really is engaging; there is never any downtime (apart from the time to chat between rounds) and you are always keen to get your next cards from your neighbour and get one down on the table. It’s so engaging in fact that after doing my own demo post-Essen at my local games club every adult around the table immediately ordered a copy. That’s how good it is.

I think we are all so used to it that people no longer appreciate the cleverness that lurks behind Keyflower and it’s new sibling. A resource collection game with no in-game scoring; a clever mechanism which requires you to move some resources onto tiles (or in this case cards) in order to score them; a race which pushes you to trade-off between upgrading for points or getting new potential scorers down; and finally an end of game scoring over which you have some control from the beginning. And that’s not mentioning the auction system in Keyflower which is not found here. These are all good, solid ideas and Keyflow adds the additional mechanisms of a smooth drafting of cards, the multiple uses of the Keyple token, and the pull between the need to play keyple cards to activate cards you already own and the need to get more of these cards which give you points and resources down, so that you are faced with numerous interesting choices during drafting.

You do have to watch what your neighbours are doing, in particular for one or two scoring cards which yield big points if they collect certain cards; but you learn these little tricks after your first game.  I like the fact that you have incomplete information for scoring: it prevents analysis paralysis and keeps the game more on the light side than it would be otherwise; this in turn keeps the game to its surprisingly short length.  Anyone who trades off owning Keyflow with Keyflower has misunderstood. You need them both, they are very different games.

Joe Huber (7 plays, including 3 of the prototype): I am not a huge fan of drafting games.  I don’t mind a little drafting in the play, but I don’t want it to be the focus on the game.  I found Fairy Tale mediocre, and 7 Wonders not even mediocre. But I had the chance to playtest Key Flow – and I’m always up for playing unpublished games.  But to my delight, the game offered some of the elements I enjoyed most in Keyflower – the route development, movement of resources, and upgrades – but with drafting rather than auction, speeding up the game significantly.  As a result of this, the game doesn’t feel like Keyflower to me – but a separate game that has more of a place in my collection. I enjoy both games a similar amount, really – with a slight edge to Key Flow, even with the drafting – but because of the faster play time, Key Flow will keep hitting the table.

Karen M (1 play, so take with a grain of salt; and even the one play was incorrect in that we had way too many cards in the final round) But I feel pretty sure that my opinion would not change even if played correctly. I found the end game scoring to be quite a burden and feel like I’d get a different result if i recalculated a couple times. I also feel like this is a game in which it is possible in inadvertently cheat quite easily. I wouldn’t mind giving it another go but am not chomping at the bit to do so.

Simon Neale: Being a fan of Keyflower I have been interested in following the development of this game from playing the prototype through to the final version. The game plays very quickly and most games will complete in under an hour. The experience it gives is reasonably deep as the decisions you make as the rounds progress gradually build up. I probably fall into Dale’s “fly by the seat of my pants” category so the difficulty in setting an early strategy doesn’t overly bother me. I would be happy to play Key Flow when given the opportunity but would prefer to play Keyflower which nearly hits the one hour mark with seasoned gamers in my group.

Larry:  I’ve only played the prototype of this a couple of times, but I really enjoyed it.  Keyflower is a fine game, but there’s a bit too much going on in it to sit in my comfort zone.  Key Flow has the same level of complexity, but I now enjoy it more, since I don’t have to worry about checking out all the options during the auction.  It’s probably my most anticipated of the Essen games and there will be a shiny new copy of it sitting under the Christmas tree for me, so I’ll finally be able to play the final version of this very shortly.  If it plays as well as the prototype did, this will very likely become my favorite Key game!

Jonathan F.: I really loved my play of Key Flow.  I am hoping a slight variant adds a few more end game scoring cards earlier in the game so there is more than one target to shoot for until the final season, but the game is smooth, thoughtful, and well designed. It might be my second favorite Key game after Key Market, but only time will tell if it can beat Key Market.

Alan H.: I was a play tester some time back but had no role in the development. Like other simultaneous play games, this means that everyone is involved all the time as well as speeding up the game. I am not generally fond of drafting in games, but in Key Flow it works well. I also like that it is easier to see other people’s tableaux so you have some idea what not to pass. This is one criticism I have of a Keyflower when the village development is so large that you often miss an option. Nonetheless Keyflower remains my favourite Key game, through Key Flow now pushes this close. They both will be in my collection forever as they require different thought processes and play quite differently.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dan Blum, Simon W, Larry, Jonathan, Alan H
  • I like it. Dale Y, John P, Lorna, Joe H., Simon N.
  • Neutral.  Greg S., Karen M
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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1 Response to Dale Yu: Review of Key Flow

  1. huzonfirst says:

    So I’ve now played the published version twice, once with 4 players and once with 2, and it’s just as good as I remembered it. It plays very quickly, just as you’d expect with a drafting game, but the decisions are not straightforward and give you interesting things to think about just about every turn. I like the tension between grabbing new structures or taking cards to activate existing ones. I also like the option to turn in a card for a keyple token, so that you’re guaranteed to be able to do something useful every turn. I enjoyed my multiplayer game a little more than the 2-player one, but it was still very good with 2 and, even though 3 or 4 may wind up being the sweet spot, it’s a real bonus that the game can easily handle 5 or 6 players.

    My one criticism is, like Jonathan, I feel that it’s a little strange to only have one Winter scoring card that you can guarantee getting, only to then be inundated with a bunch you haven’t seen before once Winter begins. Obviously, this is intended to reward you for building a sound village and accumulating lots of things, but, since only a fraction of the scoring cards are used each game, it still feels as if something great could fall into your lap, or if you could be screwed if the cards you need are never available to you. After my first game, I thought that if each player chose *two* of their initial Winter cards, instead of just one, it might make things more balanced and allow you to plan for more than just one card during the first three seasons. I tried this in my 2-player game and I thought it was a decided improvement. I’ll probably stick to the rules in the box for now, particularly with new players, but I suspect my preference will eventually be to draft 2 of your 5 cards during the “When Winter Comes” phase. But all this will do is make an excellent game even better, so I look forward to more games in any form!

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