Dale Yu: Review of The Key: Theft in Cliffrock Villa

The Key: Theft in Cliffrock Villa

  • Designer: Thomas Sing
  • Publisher: HABA
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 8+
  • Time: 15-20 minutes
  • Times played: 4 with review copy provided by HABA USA (both solo and multiplayer)

the key theft at cliffrock villa

The Key was one of the games that I was very interested in learning more about in 2020 – but then COVID showed up, and it became a lot harder to get games from Germany over here.  Thankfully, HABA USA has decided to print this one here domestically, and now American gamers can enjoy this one.  From the publisher blurb: “There has been a shocking string of robberies at Cliffrock Villa. Valuable works of art have been stolen! The players start their investigations and combine clues about the perpetrators, time of the crimes, stolen items, and escape plans. They need to generate the right number code to put the thieves behind bars. In the end, it’s not necessarily the fastest investigator who wins the game, but the most efficient one.”  

the key bits

Each player gets a briefcase screen and an investigation file.  There are 140 cards in the game: 72 witness statements and 68 lab cards.  Each of these cards has a combination of colored squares on different areas of a 3×3 grid – the colors of the boxes shown tell you which cases the card is good for (i.e. only choose cards that have a box matching the key in the middle of the table!).  This entire batch of cards is shuffled and then strewn on the table in reach of all players.  It’s OK and in fact recommended that some of the cards overlap each other.  In the center of the cards, clear out a space and randomly select one of the 9 wooden keys to place in the center; the color of this key will determine which case you are solving in this particular game.  There is a solution board with a bunch of number combinations on it, but it is not needed until the end of the game. BE SURE TO NOT LOOK AT THE BACK OF THIS  BOARD!

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In some more detail than the publisher blurb, there are 3 thefts that occur, at 1pm, 2pm and 4pm.  In each, something different was stolen.  Also, each criminal had planned a different escape route.  The players need to combine the information found on the cards (witness statements and lab results) to determine which thief stole which thing at what time and also how they planned to escape. To recap

  • When: 1pm, 2pm, 4pm
  • Who: Nick Rizzo, Rob Gonzales Ortega, Greta Sable
  • What was stoled: mask, elephant statue, crown
  • Escape: propeller plane (blue/red), blue diving suit, red paraglider

The cards have a value on them (2 or 3 for witness statements, 4 for all lab cards), and the icons at the top tell you what type of information is on the back side (perpetrator, time, stolen item, means of escape, time of crime).   

When the game starts, all players play at the same time. There are no turns!  All players simply choose a card from the table, evaluate it, compare the information on the card to previously known information (as well as that in the investigator booklet), and then any notes can be taken on the inside of the briefcase screen.  You keep all the cards that you draw – because the value of all your chosen cards will be summed up at the end of the game.  As you go solving the linked logic puzzles, you will eventually come up with an order of who, what and how for each time slot, and this will be transposed into a 3 digit number, with each being between 1 and 6 – one option representing each of the different possibilities.

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Note that the higher point value cards tend to give you more information, but then again, they also increase your card value total at the end of the game.  Pay close attention to the types of information offered on each card as you will want to focus your attention on cards that provide you information on things you don’t already know!

Keep drawing cards and recording information until you think you have solved the cases.  Using the chart on the left of your briefcase, you will generate a 3 digit code. If you are the first person to finish, grab the key in the center of the table.  Now, everyone else continues on, without time limit, until they think they have solved the case.

Now, get out the scoring board – BE SURE NOT TO LOOK AT THE BACK – and the player with the key gets the first chance to see if they have solved the case correctly.  Scan the board and see if the 3-digit code is found.  If so, poke the key in the hole and then flip the board over to see if there is a matching rectangle of color same as the key.  If so, this is the right answer!  If not, quickly flip the board back over and let the next person clockwise check their code.

Once the right code has been found, all players who have that code see who was the most efficient – by totaling up the value of all their clue cards.  If the player who finished first is in thig group, they are allowed to discard the lowest valued clue card from their total. The player with the lowest total wins!  Ties broken in favor of the player with the fewest lab cards.

The game can also be played solitaire, with your success being judged on how few points you required to solve the case.

My thoughts on the game

The whole idea of a mystery game that rewards efficiency over speed is immediately appealing to me.  Additionally, the pedigree of the designer led me to instantly be interested.  Mr. Sing’s previous game, Die Crew, is a fascinating cooperative trick taking game which really breathed a gust of new wind into the trick taking area, and I was hoping for a similar revelation here in the deduction arena.  I wouldn’t say that there is anything groundbreaking in The Key, but it’s a nice deduction game that gives everyone enough time to solve the case at their own speed. 

The game is replayable, possibly infinitely, as nothing is destroyed and with 9 cases, only those gamers with a photographic memory will be able to remember the solutions to the different cases.  The one catch for immediate replayability is the answer board.  The answers are located on the back side, and I have found that I unwittingly see the other colors as we look at the back side (though we try to look as briefly as possible!  In the short term, this means that I might see by accident that the green answer is in the upper left and this might sway my solving in that case in the future?  However, if you follow the rules and hide the answer board, you shouldn’t be able to use this information to aid you.  We play one case per game session, so there is little chance anyone would be able to remember locations or possible codes between sessions.

the key promo

My set is multilingual, English and French.  Much of the information is depicted in language neutral icons, and when there is text, the two languages are printed in nice large font.  The briefcase screen is also essentially language independent so the game can really be enjoyed by gamers of all ages.  We had no issues playing with some younger visitors to the house; really the age limit is more about whether or not the child can simply process the logic puzzles or not.  We did a few test cards with the youngsters – i.e. what if the witness says the 2pm theft was done by a male?  And then show the kids what things to mark off on their board, etc.

The puzzles themselves seem to be of moderate difficulty, and for adults, the trick is deciding which cards to choose – using the icons shown on the back to hopefully pinpoint the information you need.  There is still a nice speed element as the bonus for getting the correct answer while being the fastest is helpful, but it definitely does not guarantee victory, and because of that fact, I really have grown to like the game.  It’s a short game, perfect for an opener/filler/closer, and once everyone knows the rules, the game can be set up, played, and boxed up in about 15 minutes.  We threw an extra baggie in the box, and we’re transferring keys that we’ve played into a “finished” bag so we don’t inadvertently repeat a case that someone remembers part of the solution… 

This is a great introductory logic/deduction game, and I like the fact that it’s playable to a young age and that speed is not the main focus of the game.  There are already three entries in this series, so if you like it, there is plenty of variety to be had, and I think this proves that the main ideas behind the game are sound.  Would definitely recommend for anyone looking for a new challenging game.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

James Nathan (Also some plays of Oakdale Club): This is a game that I expected to be right in my wheelhouse: Haba + Sing + deduction, but unfortunately it isn’t. I was excited about the promise of being able to pull cards that focus on the areas I have the least knowledge in, but too frequently those clues only gave me information I already knew! I had one solo game where I drew 4 consecutive cards that focused on the areas I knew the least information about, but received no new information that I didn’t already have. For what seems to be one of the features of the game, it has been for me a frustrating flaw that turns me off to the system.  In my solo games that has shown to be more of a problem than in multi-player games, where it may be happening to all of us.

I also had some quibbles with some of the nature of the person clues.  In Oakdale Club, some cards refer to a person wearing glasses, but, well, there’s no reason to think any of them do.  Some of them may be wearing contacts, but how would we know.  The game intends that to refer to the person with sunglasses, but, uh, that person’s sunglasses are on their head, and the card doesn’t say sunglasses, it says glasses. Moreover, as a wearer of both glasses and sunglasses, either this person is wearing contacts, so as to easily slip non-prescription sunglasses on, or they don’t wear contacts either and can easily slip non-prescription sunglasses on.  If they did wear glasses, they would be on their face!  So another bit that should be innocuous and clever, but turns frustrating and hinders my enjoyment of the game.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral. James Nathan, John P
  • 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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