009 – Keyforge – A Game Developer’s Review of the Unique Deck Game (UDG) Concept

Hello fellow adventurers,

and welcome in 2019. Let’s start this year by talking about the Unique Deck Game (UDG) Keyforge from Richard Garfield and Fantasy Flight Games. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the core concept of unique deck games and some of the mechanics of Keyforge in particular. Therefore, I decided to review Keyforge for today’s episode from a card game designers perspective. I will not talk too much about how to play the game or specific tactics. I am more interested in the game mechanics and how they work together. My goal is to identify interesting concepts that could be used by other game designers as well.

Topics in this episode are:

  • The concept of Unique Deck Games
    • Challenges and Advantages
      • Required Algorithms
      • Printing and Production Challenges
      • Flavor and Narrative Challenges
      • Balancing Challenges
    • Comparison with traditional TCGs, CCGs, and LCGs
  • Keyforge Review
    • House Choice as a determining factor
    • Resource System / AEmber
    • Combat System
    • Health Mechanic
    • Summoning Sickness and Turn Order
    • Battleline / Creature Positioning and Flanks
    • Archives as a Tactical Game Component
    • Chains as Balancing Tool

Conclusion:

Pros:

  • The border to enter the game is extremely low. Both money wise and timewise –> For less than 10 Euros you get a deck that is ready to play
  • In addition, the basic rules of the game are very simple. Much of the complexity is solved by the text on the cards. The game is easy to learn but hard to master.
  • Unique deck names are awesome. They remind me of the randomly generated monster names in Diablo. Actually, the unique names play an important role in player engagement with their deck.
  • Keyforge is very much about discovery. In the sealed format you start to play a game with an unknown deck. You are not even allowed to lock through your decklist. This creates a very nice aura of the unknown. However, if Fantasy Flight Games wants to keep that discovery moment, they need to produce a lot of new content to keep the players engaged.
  • House Choice is a Great Comeback Mechanic. Although it’s actually quite the opposite. The mechanics make sure that a player doesn’t get too far into the lead. It is more an Anti-Lead-mechanic.
  • New win condition feels surprisingly different
  • Fast gameplay & little downtime. Since you can hardly interact in your opponent’s move, you can plan your own move with half your attention.
  • Layout – The cards are well made, and look and feel really nice.
  • Chains as handicap mechanic (it is a fantastic idea)  
  • No netdecking. You can’t just look up what the synergies of your deck are or that the weaknesses are; you will only find out by playing. 

Cons:

  • Only one win/loss condition
  • The combat system is very deterministic
  • Artwork / Flavor (but I have also read that people like it so maybe ist just me)
  • No deck customization means there is nothing you could really do with the game in between playing sessions.  
  • Not enough hidden information
  • Not enough interaction (no instants)

Important Links:
Nerdlab Website 
Nerdlab Facebook Page
Nerdlab on Twitter
Nerdlab on Instagram

Sources:
Music by Mathew Pablo
Richard Garfield on Balancing Keyforge
Richard Garfield on Keyforge Game Design
Design Article on Unique Deck Games (on FFG)
Keyforge Rules Book
Keyforge Review
Reddit Post on Keyforge Printing

 

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