KeyForge – Call of the Archons: A four-sided game review

KeyForge – Call of the Archons is a ‘unique deck game’ which seems two players battle head-to-head, each with their own deck of cards. It’s stated at 14+, but a 10-year-old gamer should be fine with it.

While a starter set is available (at around £30), you don’t need one – as long as you’re happy to cobble together around 50 tokens (the rules are only available online, so you’re not missing out on those).

Instead, what most players will do is buy an individual pack of cards and play versus their friends. Each player needs their own ‘Archon Deck’, but these cost less than £10 each (which feels reasonable). Each of these decks includes 37 cards and, well, that’s it. They’re perfectly adequate quality, the iconography/text is clear, and each one is chock full of teenage boy fantasy/sci-fi hybrid artwork.

As with Discover: Lands Unknown, every Archon Deck is unique – but this is a very different game, which feels much better suited to the concept. You’ll get a unique set of 36 cards from a pool of 350, which according to the blurb equates to one of more than 104 quadrillion possibilities. The 37th card is your unique character card – giving your deck a name and picture it’ll keep forever. Because, despite being designed by the man behind Magic: The Gathering (Richard Garfield) this is not a deck-building game. Every card in your deck has your character’s name on it, and you’re not supposed to mix and match them (my favourite name out of mine: Lopez the Poetically Adventurous!).

Teaching KeyForge

While KeyForge is very much its own beast, anyone with previous knowledge of card combat games should feel immediately at home. Those coming new to the genre may want to look at the Starter Set, which comes with an additional two basic decks designed specifically to teach the game (these really aren’t very useful for experienced players – although you may want the ‘official’ tokens and counters also included).

I should also note that you won’t find rules in the box – you’ll have to download them. While this seems cheap, this kind of game has pretty much a living rulebook so in a way it make sense. But at the same time, yeah, it’s pretty cheap…

The game’s total pool of 350 cards are split into seven 50-card factions: and each Archon Deck contains 12 cards from each of three of those factions. But these aren’t completely random: an algorithm groups certain cards within each deck that should complement each other, giving each a direction to push in that gives it some personality. Each deck I’ve seen will have some cards repeated (the most I’ve seen is three of a card), often helping you define a strategy to push towards.

While this is a combat game, it is more nuanced than many. It is perfectly plausible to win by turtling (not attacking), for example, if your deck backs that up. Because rather than ‘killing’ your opponent, you will defeat them by essentially filling three bags with magic space rocks (or ’ember’) before they do. The fact these rocks will largely be collected by huge, ravaging, tendrilled and terrifying monsters is purely by-the-by.

Mostly you’ll have a hand of six cards (as this is a ‘cards with words’ game, many of them will break the rules in one way or another – so I’ll stick to the basics). On your turn, you announce one of your deck’s three factions then play (from your hand) or use (from the table) any/all of your cards that match it. Cards come in standard types: creatures; upgrades (which improve an active creature); artefacts (which stay in play and give effects) and actions (one-shot effects which are instant, then immediately discarded).

Creatures can attack your opponent’s creatures, or they can ‘reap’ – meaning they gather ember. Fighting is pleasingly deterministic: you do your damage simultaneously, and creatures that die go to your discard pile. But there are a host of special abilities that make it more interesting; armour, elusive, flank, poison, skirmish, splash – they’re all in the four-page glossary. And of course some creatures will do special things when you play them, when you reap with them – even when they die. You’re going to have to get to know that deck well to really get to grips with all the ins and outs.

But however much you may like a good punch up, ultimately it’s all about the ember. You can get it in other ways (some cards give you one simply by playing them), but reaping tends to be the most common. If you start a turn with six ember on your character card, you can bank it. Do this three times and you’ll win the game. So if you have six creatures of the same faction out, for example, you can harvest a third of a win in a single turn – proving once and for all it pays to be a lover, not a fighter.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: In an asymmetric game where you can’t change your deck, it’s impossible to make all decks – and cards – equal. The way KeyForge tackles this is with ‘chains’ – a penalty that reduces your hand size the more of them you accumulate. Powerful cards will add X chains, but you lose a chain each time you redraw. They can also be used as a handicap system; in friendly play to simply recognise one deck as being stronger, or in competitive play to ‘bid’ to play a particular deck. It’s a simple system but does its job well.
  • The thinker: I wasn’t expecting to be impressed, but I found myself enjoying the challenge of recognising a new deck’s strengths and adapting my play accordingly. Once you’re familiar with a deck, there are still interesting decisions to make as you do have different routes to victory. While you always need ember, assessing your enemy’s deck strengths and game position make for good strategic and tactical conundrums. Do you fight to keep your enemy down; or reap to push towards victory, while letting your enemy build their own strength?
  • The trasher: The internet killed Magic: The Gathering for me. Tournaments became ‘who can copy/buy the latest killer combo deck the quickest, leaving only ‘sealed deck’ for the true gloves-off scrapper. KeyForge manages to take that spirit and run with it, taking away the slow and often painful tourny drafting away and leaving you with what you’re dealt. A lot of players will turn their nose up at that, but for many this is a wonderfully functional levelling of the playing field that still leaves a lot down to chance. Sometimes you’ll get unlucky – but that’s cards.
  • The dabbler: I love the spirit behind this – the fact you all have an individual character is brilliant, even if the art for them is understandably abstract. But as with most ‘cards with words’ games, there’s just too much reading while playing to get me interested. The rules are actually quite simple, but not only are you looking at every one of your cards – you have to be doing the same for your opponent. And if you can’t be bothered to do that (hello! lol) you’re just going to go down every time – and that simply isn’t fun for anyone. Not for me.

Key observations

I’m going to address some key concerns here that I see popping up online – and there are a lot of them. But these need to be couched in the fact that, at time of writing, 3,500-ish of 4,000-ish rating on Board Game Geek were 7 or above (out of 10). The base game is sitting just outside the top 200 already, with a very high average of 7.8. Regardless of how you view the concerns below, a lot of people really like this game.

Replayability is a concern for some: you’re paying £10 for a deck of cards you may think is rubbish. But to truly know a deck, you’re going to have to play it multiple times: it may seem rubbish at first, but there may be combos in there you don’t yet understand – or it may just have come out in a crappy order (which can happen to even the best decks in this kind of game). If its rubbish after five or six plays against multiple opponents, it’s probably rubbish – but how many times do you play a £10 game…? Millage will vary, and whether you want to take a risk like this is your call.

Also, if you play with a set group of like-minded players, there’s nothing to stop you mixing and matching decks – doing a big draft of 10 decks together, making your best deck from five etc. Nothing stopping you at all. No one is going to come and tell you off. It’s your game – make your own rules.

A claim I have more of an issue with is, there are no choices in the game. People argue that, as there are three suits and a hand of only six, you’re simply going to always play your largest suit to cycle your deck. Wow. No wonder you don’t like the game – you’re going to lose, a lot. This may be a valid point in the first few turns (and you can mulligan on the first one), but once you – and your opponent – have cards on the table, it’s a thin argument at best. I’ve seen a single card, played right, decimate my troops.

The randomness of your deck’s quality not being ‘fair’ is going to be down to personal taste. If you can’t handle the fact you may pay £10 and get a deck you never win with, its a fair point – the game probably isn’t for you. But I don’t think anyone goes into this kind of game expecting a level playing field. A great Magic deck will be defeated if drawn poorly, or if you happen to end up playing that one person whose deck seems built to dick yours over – and you can guarantee that Magic deck cost you way more than £10 to put together. I like the type of levelling the playing field these unique decks offer, and I don’t think it’s possible to do that without randomness being an issue.

As for concerns the artwork is ugly – yup, I’m right there with you. It’s bright and horrible and teenage (which I guess is the key target audience – so good call FFG). But on the plus side the iconography is clear and, like with any card game such as this, I simply stop seeing the art after a while. Would I have made roughly 100% different decisions in terms of images used, colour palette etc? Absolutely. Do I care? Not in the slightest.

And finally, there are the accusations of this being a cynical cash grab/pay to win game. Pay to win is simply ludicrous – you get a random deck, so in a tournament you can’t say “I want 50 decks”, then go any study them for a week before you play. And if you buy a ton of decks to play versus our friends, you’ll never learn them all – and certain decks will beat certain other ones. I just don’t see the argument.

As for cynical cash grab, how anyone could hold this up against a CCG and claim this is worse is frankly bonkers. The CCG is the ultimate gaming cash grab – this far, far less so. A tournament has a ‘buy a deck’ entry fee – so £10; for which you’ll get an evening’s entertainment. It costs that for a cinema ticket, twice that to go to an average gig, five times that to stand in the rain and watch your team lose. Sure, some vulnerable people may splash loads of money on loads of decks – but this is not at the top of the pile for that kind of issue. Again, sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Conclusion

I haven’t played KeyForge enough to delve deep into the levels of replayability you can hope to expect. But I’ve enjoyed all the games I’ve played to date (which have been with three different decks) and will certainly keep on exploring their potential. Having given up on Magic more than a decade ago and never looked back, I had no interest in CCGs anymore – but this game has rekindled my enjoyment of card combat. Thankfully though, it does it with a very low-cost barrier to entry – and more importantly, from where you can be immediately competitive (with a bit of luck, of course).

* I would like to thank Fantasy Flight Games (via Asmodee UK)  for providing a copy of the game for review.

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