Dale Yu: Review of Keyforge: Age of Ascension

Keyforge: Age of Ascension

  • Designer: Richard Garfield
  • Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
  • Players: 2
  • Time: about 30 minutes
  • Times played: ~10 (I honestly have lost count), most with review decks sent by Asmodee NA

Keyforge: Age of Ascension is the name for the newest card pool in the Keyforge Universe.  Keyforge is the Unique Deck Game that first came out last year from Fantasy Flight. Using modern printing techniques, the catch here is that every single deck in Keyforge is unique.  That’s right, each one is individually printed, named, and shrinkwrapped. Per their algorithm, no one should ever have the same exact composition of a deck as you do. So, unlike it most other deckbuilding games where you explore the cards and then try to add in new cards to improve it – here, you simply get a deck – the composition of which never changes – and spend your time instead trying to make the cards in that deck work for you. 

In the game, each player is an Archon, found on the Crucible (the world where Keyforge takes place) with you deck – this is your team that is trying to find three keys which will unlock the Vault which wins you the game.  OK – enough backstory. It’s your deck against your opponent’s. Be the first to forge three keys to win.

Your name (remember, you’re an Archon) is printed on the back of each and every card in your deck.  One card is your identity card which you always keep face up in front of you. It shows your picture, your name, and the three houses which can be found in your deck.   There are 7 different Houses, and each has a different feel to how they work. You’ll have to just play with a bunch of different decks to figure out how they work… or not, maybe you’ll only ever buy one deck, and you’ll just know how the three from that deck works; that’s ok too.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, let me point you to a decent primer on the houses:  https://techraptor.net/content/introduction-to-keyforge-houses-your-guide-to-the-unique

 Each player thoroughly shuffles their deck (and if you don’t trust each other, offer the opponent a chance to cut your deck).  A start player is chosen. That player draws 7 cards, the other player draws 6. The game is played in alternating turns, ending when on player forges their third key.  Each turn follows a rigid order.

1] Forge a Key – if you start your turn with 6 or more Æmber, you must spend 6 of your Æmber to forge a key.  Flip one of your unforged key tokens over to the colored side. (and, before you ask, no I have no idea why they chose this name.  We just say Ember and if I spell it that way going forward, just know what I mean!). 

2] Choose a House – You declare which of the three houses will be the Active House for the turn.  You should carefully look at the cards in your hand before declaring, as you will only be able to play and use cards from your designated Active House this turn.

3] Use Cards from the Active House – You can Play, Use, and Discard cards – but they must all be from the chosen house.

Playing cards means taking cards from your hand and putting them in play on the table. There are four kinds of cards – Action, Artifact, Creature and Upgrade.  Each plays a little differently. Action cards come into play with a “Play:” ability written on them; this is resolved and the Action card is discarded. Artifacts and Creatures come into play, and are immediately exhausted on entry  – that is they are placed on their side. Creatures are played in a battleline, and each time you play a new creature, it is placed to the extreme right or left of your battleline. Upgrade cards can only be played on a creature; when they come into play, they are overlapped on their target creature.  If the creature leaves play, the upgrade goes with it (and also, the battleline compresses together so that there are no gaps in between your creatures). With all cards, there may be an Æmber bonus on them, printed in the upper left corner. Anytime such a card is put into play, collect the depicted Æmber and place it on your identity card.

Using cards involves cards already in play; again, they must be of the active house of the turn.  Upgrades and artifacts may have an “Action:” ability on them, you can resolve said action so long as the card started the phase in the Ready state. After using the Ability, tip the card over on its side.  Creatures also have “Action:” abilities which can be used. Creatures also have a “Reap:” ability – this will give you an Æmber when you exhaust the card, and you can also do whatever is written as the “Reap:” ability.  Finally, a creature can also be sent into battle. Exhaust your creature, pick a target opponent creature, and each deals an amount of damage equal to their power (seen in red on the Creature banner). Some damage can be blocked by armor, but any excess is marked with damage markers.  A creature dies when it takes more damage than its power rating. If the attacking creature survives its round of battle, it can also do its “Fight:” ability as printed on its card.

Discarding cards means taking cards from your hand and placing them in the discard pile.  This is usually done to free up space in your hand to allow you to draw newer (and hopefully more useful) cards in the final phase of this turn.

4] Ready Cards – Cards that are used end up tipped over. Or should I say tapped over.  This means they are rotated 90 degrees (onto their side) when used. In this phase, you can un-tip/un-tap cards which are used back into their upright ready state.

5] Draw Cards – Draw cards from your deck until you have 6 cards in your hand.  If you already have 6 or more cards in hand, you simply do not draw anything. If you do not have enough cards in your draw pile, shuffle up the discards to form a new deck. If you happen to have 6 or more Æmber in this phase, you have to say “Check!” so that your opponent knows that you’ll be able to forge a key at the start of your next turn.

There are a couple of other concepts that come up – but only if you have cards that need you to know about them.  One of them is the Chain card. There are some cards which require you to collect chains as a result of a card ability or sometimes as a cost to use a card’s ability.  You track this total on a separate Chain card, and depending on how many you have, this might cause you to draw fewer cards in the Draw Cards phase.

Your deck might also ask you to form an Archive – this is a facedown pile of cards which sits near your Identity card.  In the House Choosing phase, you are allowed to access your Archive and take any cards from there and add them to you hand. Finally, creatures can be stunned as a results of an action; this puts a “Stunned” token on them. This token can be removed by activating the creature on your turn, rotating it, but NOT getting any of the benefits of activation.  A stunned creature can still defend normally though. There are other things which might come up as you play, and they will either be explained by the cards or you can access the full online rules for clarification. 

As with many games with rules on cards, the general rules are easy to understand, and you must always remember that specific rules on cards will generally supercede the general rules.  As each deck in Keyforge is completely unique, the rules included in the box really are just enough to get started. It would be a waste (IMHO) to include rules on 25 special actions/abilities if your particular deck doesn’t even have most of them.  Here, you can hopefully learn what you need from the card itself, or you can look it up, but this keeps the rules quite manageable otherwise.

It’s hard to talk about strategy here because, again, each deck is different.  And, to be honest, for me the fun of the game is the exploration of a deck trying to see how the different cards can work together.  Repeated plays will lead to increased knowledge of the contents of the deck, and this might even help you decide if how/when to play or even discard cards from your hand.  There is a lot going on in each deck, and even if you know the cards well, you still have to get them into your hand together (or at least on the table and in your hand) in order to get the synergies to work.

As far as what is different from the original set of cards (Call of the Archons) – I have found a few new rules/card effects:

·         Alpha – a card with “Alpha” on it has to be the first card you play in the turn.

·         Omega – If you play a card with “Omega”, this ends your play phase

·         Deploy – Allows you to deploy a creature anywhere in the battleline instead of on a flank

·         Splash – An attack which deals its splash damage to creatures either side of the targeted creature

Otherwise, it seems that the cards are just different.  Not better – as far as I can tell – but just different. You can play any deck from Ascension against one from Archons.  The FFG press stuff says that the cardset is 370 cards (same as Call of Archons) with 166 coming from the Archons set and the other 204 being new.

Thus far, we’ve had a pretty good time playing with the two decks included in the starter set as well as a few hand-me-down decks from local gamers who have invested a bit more time (and money) into the game.  Each deck runs about $10 (https://amzn.to/2ZZO2OU), and there is definitely a bit of exploration that can be done with each deck that is new to you – as you have to figure out what’s in the deck and how they work together.   While some have complained about this system where you might end up buying multiple decks, given the cost of games in 2019, you can buy 5-7 decks for the price of a “regular” boardgame, and I venture to say that you could/would get at least the same amount of gameplay out of those decks.

For now, I’m happy with the decks that I have, and I can carry one or both around for a quick game.  The starter set is a bit more expensive as you get player mats and counters and whatnot (https://amzn.to/301aLtX) , and it’s definitely a game system that I’d recommend trying out, especially if you liked any of the collectible game systems that were (maybe still are) the rage.    While I think that I’ll eventually get a few more decks to explore the system with, it’s nice to have a complex card game where there isn’t the same constant necessity to get new cards like Magic: the Gathering (also Richard Garfield’s creation)…

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Brandon K– I bought into Keyforge at a pretty big clip, picked up the original starter set, plus about twelve decks to go with it. I shouldn’t have. Keyforge is really original in it’s distribution, and I think it’s really an interesting way to do things. Each deck individually packaged and unique, but beyond that the game is simplistic and since your decks are static, you know what you can, and most of the time, will do each game, so it’s honestly kind of boring. There is little to no variation here outside of me going to buy new decks at ten bucks a pop and games like this live for variation and constant min/maxxing. But I can’t do any of that here. I pop open a deck of cards and I play it, see what all the cards do, see if there is any synergy whatsoever, which there is because the card powers really aren’t that different, and go. There is no finding different cards to plug into the system, there is no player knowledge or skill that can help prior to playing it. I know, I know, no one wants to get into another CCG card chase where the money wins, but ultimately, that’s what made Magic fun, experimenting and finding those cards that would work and mixing them into your chosen deck. Keyforge forgoes that and just plugs into your FOMO by making you think, just one more pack, the next deck will be better. But hey, at least it’s only ten bucks a pop. 

Nathan Beeler: The most fun element of Keyforge is seeing if you get a deck with a particularly wacky or even naughty name. The game itself is a snooze, and brings nothing I can’t get in a ton of other games.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral. Nathan Beeler
  • Not for me…Brandon

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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