Tuesday, January 15, 2019

GTMTM '18: Keyforge, a Whole New Card Game


Do you know who Richard Garfield is? I honestly have no idea how famous he is by name, but he's like a god to me. A lot of fields--especially young fields--seem to have a figure emerge that just produces an impossibly large amount of extremely high quality work. Think Michael Phelps or LeBron James--just the absolute stars of the stars. For videogames, that figure is Shigeru Miyamoto. It's just not fair to the rest of the industry that one guy was able to create Mario and Zelda and Donkey Kong and Pikmin, and that he has consistently produced content of the highest quality in all of those franchises at an impressive clip for decades on end. For card games, though, that figure is undoubtedly Richard Garfield. 

I read in a chemistry book in high school that if Einstein hadn't come up with the theory of relativity, he'd still probably be the most accomplished scientist of his generation, if not all time, for all the other work he did. That's how I feel about Richard Garfield and card games. Even if Richard Garfield hadn't created Magic: The Gathering, the undisputed king of card games, he'd still probably be one of the greatest designers in tabletop gaming history for Netrunner, King of Tokyo, The Great Dalmuti, and more. He just has an astoundingly great output of top-tier games.

But I've always had to learn about Garfield's games after the fact. I've had to play them after they've risen to the top, and had to read about their history in the past tense. I've never had the privilege of being there on day 1 for a Richard Garfield masterpiece. Not until 2018, anyway.

When I talked about Laser League, I said playing it felt like being at the start of something big. Well, so far, anyway, that hasn't worked out for that game. I got that same feeling about Keyforge, and this time it looks like that feeling was answered by real success.

If you've never heard of Keyforge before, I totally understand, but for those of us who follow tabletop gaming, it was quite the hyped game this year. You see, Richard Garfield designed Magic: The Gathering in 1993 and changed the world of tabletop gaming forever with a novel distribution method, an extremely open and flexible system that could accommodate a wide variety of play styles and variations, and infinite expandability, all in an accessible package because the rules were printed right on the cards. It was so influential that since then, trading card games have very rarely strayed from Magic's formula, especially in terms of distribution: there's always pre-constructed starter decks, there's always booster packs, there's always tiered rarity, there's always some equivalent of the mana system for resource management, there's always customized deck-building, etc. The design was just too good to not imitate, it seemed.

With Keyforge, though, Richard Garfield was back, 25 years later, on a mission to change up the way card games are distributed and played all over again. At first glance, Keyforge looks a lot like a typical trading card game: it's focused on two-player matches, there's creature cards that stay in play and action cards that have an immediate effect and are then discarded, there's various factions that focus around different play styles, and more. However, there are some major differences that put Keyforge in a whole new camp. Fantasy Flight, Keyforge's publisher, purposely tried to play up these differences in the game's marketing by coining a whole genre of card game: a unique deck game. Let me describe Keyforge a bit and you can decide if a whole new genre is warranted.

The biggest differences between Keyforge and other card games are (1) there are no boosters whatsoever, you can only buy pre-made decks and (2) you can't customize your deck in any way, but (3) every deck printed in the game is unique, and will never be printed again. This is all accomplished by one of gaming's favorite tricks of the last few years: procedural generation. If you're not familiar, procedural generation is a process where you feed a computer a bunch of unique components, then a bunch of rules of how to combine them, then have the computer create every possible combination of those components based on those rules. Think No Man's Sky or Dead Cells but instead of enemies, animal parts, weapons, and environment art being the pieces that the computer combines in new ways every time, it's cards.

This quick sleight of hand by Garfield and the gang transforms gameplay and cards that look like pretty standard TCG fare into a whole new world of possibility that actually requires a lower barrier to entry for players. With Keyforge, you can skip the deck-building step--meaning you don't have to worry about finding a competitively-viable combination of cards, then try to acquire those cards before you get to play. Instead, you plink down ten bucks, rip open the cardboard, and you're playing with a combination of cards that will never be repeated in the exact same way ever again. Every deck you buy, no one else in the world ever gets to play that deck (unless you sell, lend, or trade it to them, of course). It's a brilliant new way of looking at things that lowers barrier to entry, but still keeps an incentive to buy more cards and dig deeper into the game.

Keyforge neatly solves another problem of the Magic-era card games: mana burn. In most card games, there's some resource that the player needs to spend in some way in order to play other cards. This helps naturally balance the game so that the most powerful cards always come later, giving players time to prepare for each other's greatest threats, and opening up different strategies like "rush," where you try to outpace your opponent, or "control," where you try to purposely manipulate the pace of your opponent's play until you can setup your own combo. However, even in the most well-balanced and thought-out decks, the random shuffling can burn you in these game styles, and you can end up with dead hands and dead turns that can seriously turn the tide of the battle through no fault of your own. 

Keyforge solves this problem through the rules of its procedural deck-building. Every deck has 36 cards, divided into twelve cards each from 3 of the 7 available "houses" in the game. Houses are basically the "colors" of Magic, the different factions that roughly represent different strategies of play. The kicker is that no card--no matter how powerful or game-changing it might be--has any kind of "cost." Instead, at the beginning of your turn, you declare which house you are using that turn, and then you can only play or activate cards of that house. This naturally keeps power balance throughout the game but means you'll never be out of options, no matter what shuffle you get. And since you always draw up to a full hand at the end of the turn, you can't get burned by drawing a hand full of just one house and playing them all at once--you'll have a whole new hand next turn. It's brilliant.

Images source: Fantasy Flight Games

Surprisingly, this distribution model also opened up more excitement for me in opening decks as opposed to opening boosters. It meant I was always buying cards that I knew I could actually use--which is a huge plus for me--and it meant there was more potential for surprises because I don't know all the rules of the procedural generation. On top of all that, I knew if I got a deck that was really exciting, no one else could ever have it, which was doubly exciting because that meant I could surprise people I play against with a shocking combination of cards they'd never seen before.

When I explained Keyforge to a Magic-playing coworker of mine, he said, "But deck-building has always been one of my favorite parts. It's where you can express yourself." I see where he's coming from, but I never felt that way about any trading card game, because I wanted to win, and in every trading card game, there's decks that consistently win over other decks, and so there go your hopes and dreams of building a deck full of Pikachus--it'll never be fun because it'll always lose. So I found Keyforge very freeing, actually. There is no meta (okay there is), there is no tier list, there's nobody laughing at the combination you thought might work but never will--everybody's in the same boat of opening a mystery deck and having to find a way to deal with it. It might not be for everybody, but I love it.

On the day that Keyforge launched, I was actually on a business trip by myself in Orlando, Florida. I had waited for this game all year, so I wasn't going to let my travel situation ruin launch for me. I called up a Lyft and went to the closest Cool Stuff Games and bought two decks all by myself. I got way excited by the possibilities, but didn't find anyone to play with at the store, and I realized I really did need to buy the starter set because the tokens and stuff are pretty necessary in order to actually play the game. So that weekend when I was back home, I got ready early on a Saturday morning, packed up my oldest son in the car and drove to our nearest friendly local game store. When I walked in, the place was empty, and I asked the sole cashier on duty if they had an Keyforge starter sets left. He said no and apologized. Then I turned and saw one on the shelf and asked him if that one was for sale. He said, "Oh, is that Keyforge? I thought it was some kind of trading card game. A few people have called this morning and I told them we didn't have it."

I just kind of find that story funny so I wanted to tell it, but it highlights how Keyforge actually has shaken things up a bit. Even a guy who works at a board game store hadn't quite yet wrapped his head around the concept. It was a new kind of game that borrowed pieces from lots of different familiar ones, but with just enough twist to be new. It's a rare and truly exciting thing to see in any field, but especially in gaming, where the nature of production means playing things safe is the overwhelming norm.

The Master Vault

And so far, despite some confusion at launch, this risk seems to be really paying off. At the time of writing, the Keyforge Master Vault, an online browser and app service to register your unique decks into a searchable database that will eventually be used for competitive play tracking as well, is barreling quickly toward 500,000 unique decks registered so far. On Board Game Geek (the IMDB of the board game world), it's already rocketed up to the number seven customizable game of all time, beating out even Magic: The Gathering. To say the least, things seem to be going well for Keyforge. 

So, while Laser League failed to take off as anticipated this year, I feel like I still made a successful bet by hitching my hype cart to Keyforge. I can't wait to see where this take this strange and wonderful new kind of game next.

Now if only I could find more time to actually play the thing....

(Thanks for reading! This is the ninth post in my "Games That Mattered to Me in 2018" series, posted one a day between January 7 and January 16, 2019. Go here to see the rest of the series.)

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