Dreamboat – Keyflower review

Keyflower Cover

It’s like one of those movies where the main character and their best friend (who is of the opposite sex and, of course, insanely attractive to everyone bar the protagonist) finally realise that, after all these years, they actually love each other. It sneaked up on them after years of their other friends telling them that they should get together, that they’d be perfect with each other – and so it was with me and Keyflower. Kind of.

Of course, the relationship between me and this box of cardboard and wood isn’t going to involve luxurious spa weekends and dinner parties, ending up with us spawning beautiful children – that would be weird, much like the whole beginning of this piece. It’s more like Richard Breese’s series of Key games have been around in my gaming world for some time, each one making me laugh (externally) and cry (internally) and think about what I’m doing more than many of the games I own. And it’s all built up into the first kiss in the rain moment that is Keyflower.

This may well be the perfect game, guys. I think I want to spend my life with it.

Right, enough of this rather silly extended metaphor. Keyflower, co-designed by Breese alongside the alarmingly talented Sebastian Bleasdale, is a stunningly wonderful game. I’ve honestly loved all of the Key games that I’ve played previously, but I seriously reckon that this one is as near to perfect a Eurogame that you could ever conceive. Alongside Agricola and Acquire, this is now up there in what I refer to as the Martini Class of games. I’ll play them Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere. There’s a reference for the kids to hunt down on Wikipedia. Lorraine Chase will be showing up next (no she won’t, that was Campari – Stealth Edit Michael).

Why is it such a winner? Options. So many of them. I’ve played this countless times now and every game has played out in different fashions, despite being a comparatively simple affair. Your aim is to score as many points as possible but with so many different ways in doing so, each time you play will spin out a new story. Oh, and it’s a glorious, devious, nasty bastard of a story at that – just the way I like my games to be.

Beginning with a single hexagonal Home tile laid out before you and a bunch of randomly drawn red, yellow and blue meeples hidden away from view, you’ll be looking to create an efficient little hamlet that will build up over the course of the game, finally exploding (hopefully) into a huge, many-point-scoring beast of a thing in the final round. However, to do that you’ll need to plan from the very start of play, react intelligently to other peoples’ decisions and generally be an equal parts clever and sneaky swine.

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This is the only Keyflower image I can find on my iPhone. I’d take more photos but I’m far too busy playing the game. DEAL WITH IT.

Once you’re ready to roll, the first of four rounds begins with a decision. The game plays out over the course of four seasons beginning with Spring, but before you get into the meat of things, you must look to the future – or the final round, at least – by checking out some of the tile options that will be made available in the Winter round. The aim of this is to give you something to plan towards as each of them are potentially worth a large amount of points, but remember – the other players will be doing exactly the same too, and if you’ve got a decent knowledge of what the game offers you could well start working out what they’re looking at using in that final round. The interesting twist is that despite the fact you have these tiles in your locker, when that final round comes you don’t actually have to use all of them. In fact, you could choose to put only one into the mix which is totally fine. Just don’t count on getting it…

I’ve kind of jumped the gun a little here, so it’s probably a good idea to wind back and look at the meat of how the game works. At the start of each of the four rounds, a random selection of hexagonal tiles are laid out (dependent on player count). As mentioned previously, players begin with their own sole central tile and a handful of coloured meeples. When your turn comes around, these meeples are used to do one of two things – either get placed ON a tile in order to trigger its action or placed BESIDE a tile to lay claim to it and hopefully add it to your home area at the start of the next round. One thing to consider – once even a single meeple has placed, that tile is locked to that colour for the rest of the round, so intelligent placement of one of your guys can truly mess someone up who’s been hoarding a different colour.

There are also tiles that represent boats, bringing in new meeples and skill tokens that can be claimed at the end of the round, so meeples can be spent laying claim to the picking order. This bidding process, whether for a boat’s contents or a new tile, is one of the lovelier elements of Keyflower; only the highest bidder’s meeples are returned to the bag as payment and the losing bidders have their little dudes returned. However, any meeples that have been placed on a tile in the central area that you’ve won get absorbed into your own clan for use in the next round. Managing to get your hands on a valuable tile might be costly, but you could get paid back in spades!

One thing of note (and again, it’s a rather lovely idea) – if you’re the first person to use a tile, it’ll only cost you one of your meeples. The next person will have to pay two, the third three… but it stops there. Three actions and that tile is spent for the rest of the round, so there’s this glorious element of trying to get your timing perfect – do you jump in on a tile that you know someone else will want to use earlier, forcing them to spend more meeples later down the line or, potentially, screwing them over by locking it down after using it for a third time?

Even better, those tiles that you claim and add to your little town? They’re still open for business. Other players may use them, despite the tiles now being a part of your home set-up. The same rules apply, a maximum of three actions per round, but – and it’s a big, wonderful but – any meeples on your town at the end of the round again become part of your every growing army. They’ll be pulling in resources, moving them around your town, upgrading the tiles to make them better (pay the cost and flip them over to reveal a more lucrative side!).

Eventually Winter will roll around and the boats are now empty – after all, who’d want to move house in the snow? However, they each offer a hefty bonus, so it’s still worth laying claim to them. The players add their selected tiles to the middle and see what everyone else chose, then the final bidding war begins. I’ve found that the last round of a game of Keyflower generally plays out pretty quickly in comparison to earlier ones; there’s less brain burning happening as you’ve generally got a plan in your head. The only thing is you’ve got to fight for it with your opposition and that can get expensive – prepare to sacrifice a lot of meeples if more than one player desires it!

As you’d expect, the game ends with points getting totalled up, bonuses from the boats and Winter tiles are added and hoorah, you’ve got your winner. However, for me it’s often been more about the play than who wins in the end. Sure, it’s always nice to add another point to the victory column, but it feels like just playing the game is a win by itself. Everything works so well in there. It’s like a finely tuned machine where every element functions to the best of its ability – not a single thing is broken and every dial is firmly in the green. Frankly, it’s a bloody wonder, and testament to the combined skill of Richard and Sebastian.

When I first got my copy, I must admit to being a little terrified by it – there’s a fair amount of setup in Keyflower and the rules don’t look like the most inviting game around – but when I bit the bullet and went for it it was just perfect. It’s a cute looking game that contains plenty of oomph, and when that “Why, Miss Jones… You’re Beautiful!” moment strikes, you’ll immediately realise that this glorious game should always be a part of your collection. Now… what’s this I hear about a Farmers expansion?

Keyflower was designed by Richard Breese and Sebastian Bleasdale, and was first released by R&D Games in 2012. Between two and six people can play and – in all honesty – it works perfectly no matter how many people you have sat around your table. When it’s available, you’ll be able to pick up copies from Gameslore (and all other fine stores!) for around £30. And it will be the best £30 you’ve spent in a long time. Guaranteed.

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