It mixes up a lot of mechanics gamers will be used to – tile laying, bidding, worker placement, route building, pick-up and deliver – but in a fresh and intuitive way.
Designed by Sebastian Bleasdale and Richard Breese, it plays well across all player counts (although two-player feels pretty cut-throat) and you should be able to find it for less than £30. I’d say this is a great price, as the game has a lot of replayability and great components: more than 250 wooden counters (resources and meeples), 100+ cardboard tiles (hexes and skill tiles) and some charming player screens. Art and presentation is top notch throughout.
In Keyflower each player will bid/spend on workers, resources and tiles to add to their village over the four seasons of a year. These will be used to generate victory points throughout the game, with the player best managing their resources taking the win.
While Keyflower is a complex game with a lot of moving parts – and pretty daunting to set up first time – the game is surprisingly simple to teach to relatively experienced gamers (if I haven’t and wouldn’t try it with new players to the hobby).
What aids this simplicity is that Keyflower has a branching set of decisions that goes from manageable early on to almost overwhelming by the end game – but by then players should be focused and tuned-in enough to be able to cope. In that respect it reminds me lot of ‘Le Havre’.
Players start their village with a single tile that works in the same way for everyone; alongside a random and secret selection of meeples (workers). Six to 10 ‘spring’ village tiles and placed face up for all to see, alongside one boat per player (filled with meeples/skill tokens for the next round) and tiles on which you can bid for the boats.
This will happen at the start of each season with the exception of winter. At the start of the game players are also dealt a few winter tiles and when winter comes (and it’s coming) you’ll decide which of yours you wish to put up for bidding. Winter also sees the boats go from being full of meeples to being extra end-game scoring opportunities.
To use a tile you simply place a meeple on it and do its action; a subsequent player wanting to use it will place two meeples, and a third would have to pay three. This can be done on any tile – those being bid on, or those in any player’s village.
To bid to own a tile, you place a meeple on your allotted side next to it. Another player can outbid you – letting you later move your losing bid, or saving those meeples for next round.
But the important thing is that as soon as a meeple is placed on or next to a tile, that sets its colour for the whole season. And equally importantly, any meeples on a tile owned by a player (either already in their village, or won with a bid that round) will go back to that player at the end of the round. This makes for some delicious decision making.
Each seasons’s tiles very much shape the arc of the game. Spring tiles largely allow you to gather resources; summer brings special abilities only you can use, alongside ways to turn resources/meeples into ones you may need; autumn introduces the first tiles purely aimed at victory points; while winter lets those who have focused on a particular strategy (and there are many) score points for them – if they can win the tile, of course.
So in round one, as you teach the game, you’ll find players will largely just bid on winning tiles to add to their village – while later, once they’re getting the hang of things, they’ll begin to use their own and other people’s tiles as they develop a strategy. This learning arc really helps players ease into the game.
The four sides
- The writer: Keyflower is terrific fun for those liking bidding-heavy euro games with a fair sprinkling of chaos thrown in. It’s a game I doubt I’ll ever be good at, as by the end I struggle to see the best opportunities as there are so many options overloading my tiny brain. But at the same time I find each game hugely enjoyable and really don’t care whether I win or lose. Keyflower has surprised me as being a hit with everyone I’ve played with and well deserves its top 20-ish position in the BGG board game roster – a fine achievement for a big game with humble beginnings.
- The thinker: There’s no doubt this is a thinker’s game, but for me it is very much more tactical than it is strategic. Not all the hex tiles are used each game (especially with lower player counts) and there is plenty of luck of the draw with both meeples and skill tiles throughout. And although this can often be mitigated, this uses up valuable actions. It will probably drive a pure planner mad with frustration – but if you don’t mind some random it is a triumph. The decision tree explodes later in the game, making for some thoroughly enjoyable head-scratching while also trying to second-guess your opponents.
- The trasher: How can such a cut-throat game look like a children’s book?! Keyflower embodies all that’s great in euro games for more aggressive players: poker-style reading of players and the board; tactical shifts after almost every action; both offensive and defensive strategies; it has everything but some dice rolling. I really didn’t expect to enjoy the game and after turn one I wasn’t convinced, but the minute a player had used one of my tiles with a meeple of a colour I didn’t have just before I was going to – it was on! I’ll be back for more.
- The dabbler: While I will never win a game of Keyflower I enjoy and respect the atmosphere it creates around the table. Actions are super snappy so things are always moving, meaning the game doesn’t even drag with six players – an achievement for a thinky euro. Player interaction is seemingly non-confrontational (as you can usually in theory use any space someone else uses), but in reality it is pretty high impact due to the four colours of meeples and the fact you only have ten or so of the little buggers each round. So not a game I’d pick, but one I will play.
Only blue, yellow and red meeples start the game but three of the hex tiles you can use and bid on (one per season) give you the opportunity to convert meeples into green ones.
This gives you a real edge, as if you’re the only player with green meeples you can close out a whole tile by placing green on it – both to bid on and use. But doing so is taking up turns and usually costing meeples, while other are getting on with other things.
And there are the winter tiles you’ve had from the start which you need to decide (in the final round) whether to place to let people bid for. Do you go for these throughout yourself; or maybe throw in ones your opponents want to make them fight over them – and hopefully leaving your own target tiles free? You REALLY have to pay attention throughout to win.
So of course not everyone loves Keyflower. Downtime due to AP (analysis paralysis – there are many options to choose from on each turn, and you have a lot of turns) of some players is understandable, and if that is an issue in your group this should probably be avoided – or if you have one very slow player, I wouldn’t put this on the table with them unless you wee playing two or three-player to see how they got on.
Others describe it as ‘a mess’ or accuse it of being overly complex and I can this being a very hard game for a group to play first time if no one has experience with it. If this is your situation, I’d highly recommend Rodney Smith’s Watch It Played video, which gives a brilliant run through of the rules. All I can say is that it rewards your patience over a few plays – but with so many games out there, I guess patience is a rarer and rarer commodity in modern gamers spoilt with choice.
Especially with lower player counts, the low number of tiles used means certain strategies you may aim for early can become useless if the right combination of tiles don’t appear.
This is why I call it tactical, not strategic – you really have to react as the game turns move forward. But it can sometimes seem like you’ve been doomed by the draw and I could see this being a game-breaker, specially if thing are running long due to inexperience.
Some describe Keyflower as dry, soulless and themeless. Personally I like the theme (although it is pretty thin) and have found the player interaction through bidding and the usage of other players’ tiles adds more than enough lubricant to the somewhat spreadsheety gameplay to make it sing.
But these complaints are from a very small minority of BGG users – at the time of writing there are 22 pages of people rating the game 6 or higher (it has an average of 8), and less than two pages rating it lower. No game is popular with everyone and if the complaints above don’t bother you, this game comes highly recommended by most euro gamers.
Don’t let Keyflower’s whimsical box fool you – this is a tough euro packed full of decisions and the kind of mean streak that will see people swearing silently (or not so quietly, depending on your group!) throughout. It has a fantastically interactive mix of bidding, engine building and worker placement.
The game can seem a little overwhelming, especially late on as the amount of choices spirals higher and higher, and I wouldn’t suggest this for gamers that are new to the hobby. But if you have enjoyed euro style games from designers such as Uwe Rosenberg (Agricola, La Havre, Caverna) and Stefan Feld (Castles of Burgundy, Bora Bora) I would comfortably predict this to be right in your wheel house.
Thanks to its popularity it has also had two big box expansions (The Merchants and The Farmers) and a slew of little promo tiles, adding even more replayability and options for those who enjoy the base game and keeping it fresh for regular players. I’ll take a closer look at those in later posts.
NOTE: If you like Keyflower, also check out my review of Keyflower: The Merchants.
* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.