In KeyForge, a ‘unique deck game’ from Fantasy Flight Games, two players take on the role of Archons, using powerful creatures and artifacts from seven different houses in order to gain enough Aember to build three keys.

There might not have been so much focus on how a game is distributed than there has been with KeyForge. That agenda, however, has been pushed by Fantasy Flight Games themselves, coining and pushing out the term ‘unique deck game’ at every opportunity. The effect of this design choice impacts almost every aspect of the game, and it’s extremely hard to ignore. But from our perspective – that is, collectors of games that are exclusively strong at the two player count – KeyForge is a delightfully fun, elegantly eccentric and easily accessible card game, and we’d find it hard not to recommend at least investing in a pair of decks for your collection.

KeyForge: Call of the Archons - a hand of cards

If you’ve missed the buzz, here’s a quick low down on what KeyForge is. Created by legendary designer Richard Garfield, KeyForge is a card game where each player uses a unique deck of 36 cards, built of a pool of over 300 cards spread across seven factions or ‘houses’. The player’s aim to use creatures, artifacts, upgrades and actions to generate six ‘Aember’, enough to forge a key – the first to forge three keys wins the game. The decks you can buy – at around £7-10 a pop – are created using an algorithm that means each one produced is entirely unique. The cards cannot be swapped in and out, and there’s no customisable deck building as in similar games like Magic the Gathering, Star Wars Destiny or Legend of the Five Rings. You pick up a deck, and you’re the only one in the world with that combination of cards.

On their turn, players check to see if they can forge a key, then name one of the three houses that make up their deck. They can then play, use and discard any number of cards from that house on their turn – this might mean using your creatures to fight opponent creatures, or ‘reaping’ to gain new Aember. You might also have one-time actions you can use, or artifacts which you can put into play to use in future turns Your hand refills up to six each turn, so there’s some tough decision to be made in deciding whether to use the cards you have on the board, or playing cards out from your hand to clear space to draw up something new the next turn.

The seven houses are all fairly distinct and offer something a little different – the mighty Brobnar, with their trolls and giants, use their beefy creatures to control the battle line. The wacky scientists of Logos provide all sorts of effect that focus on improving card draw or hand limit. Shadows characters sneak about stealing and capturing Aember from the opponent; Dis use dark magic to unleash strong and devastating effects. The combination of houses you get in your deck can affect it’s play style greatly, but even decks of the same three houses have an entirely different feel depending on the cards involved.

Due to the way the decks are constructed, there are undoubtedly a wide variety in deck quality and strength. However – while this has been a big focus for many – I don’t see it as a massive problem. At home, we’ve simply followed what KeyForge’s rules recommend for handicapping powerful decks. In the game there is a mechanism called ‘chains’, which reduce the amount of cards you draw up to at the end of each turn. The manual recommends a deck that wins three in a row should be given four chains at the start of the game, giving you a quick and easy way to balance games at home should your partner find themselves owning one or more decks you just can’t beat. Simple, easy to implement and up for any further house rules you might want to add.

The discovery of new decks is a huge part of the game. Opening up a new combination, learning – usually by losing – how a deck works, how it’s best played and what combos are available it is exciting, especially if you’re both playing new decks at once. If you do have a dud you just can’t work out, then you can use the chains to balance the game up. And if not – well, you can always splash another ten pound in the direction of another deck.

KeyForge: Call of the Archons gameplay

So how does the game feel to play? Fresh, fun and exceptionally swingy. Which is great, I think. There might be some gamers that don’t like taking turns to set up a board state in their favour, only for their opponent to play a card that removes all creatures form the board, but that’s part of the magic. There’s absolutely skill and strategy involved here, but there’s in-built balancing mechanics involved that mean you should never be out-and-out tabled in a match-up. One person might have a deck that allows them to play a lot of powerful creatures, but their opponent may have cards that completely wipe the board (of both their and their opponents cards). Someone else might have a whole lot of Aember generation, but might find themselves up against a player with a deck exclusively focused on stealing it.

The only thing for us that doesn’t entirely stick in KeyForge is the theme. Sure, you can read the lore written in the manual and pick up the short fiction on Fantasy Flight Game’s website, but it’s not as immersive as many other games you might come across. Each player is an ‘Archon’, using trolls to kill martians while making keys to unlock magical vaults full of powerful artifacts? It’s not exactly a solid concept. It does, however, remind me of Marvel’s ‘Secret Wars’ from 2016, when all their various universes came together in one patchwork world that put the zombie marvel heroes next to a land full of various Hulks. It might not be for everyone, but I’m a fan of it – it’s fun playing a Mars card allowing you to abduct one of your opponent’s creatures, or throwing down a ‘Niffle Ape’ from the wild, Untamed house. The art and flavour text is well judged, there’s flavour there if you look for it, and the mash-up kind of works given the other elements of the game previously mentioned.

Overall, then, we’d highly recommend picking up at least two decks for your collection. You don’t need the starter set if you have already got a bunch of spare tokens – some damage counters, substitute Aember tokens, power and stun tokens, and two six-sided dice to represent chains are all you really need to get going. The starter set comes with two unique decks and two generic ‘learning’ decks, plus the tokens, so it is a worthwhile investment, but especially as the main rules reference is a living online document, the starter set is not a compulsory purchase to get into the game.

I’ve been longing to get into a collectible card game of sorts, but the amount of money and high barrier to entry of Arkham Horror, Lord of the Rings and even now-defunct Android Netrunner are hugely off putting. KeyForge, though, feels like you’ve invested upwards of £40 in buying expansions or booster packs for only a fraction of that price. And this is only the start – with likely further development to the card pool and perhaps new houses, the setting and potential for the game is really something special. Pick up a couple of decks, enjoy discovering them, and then invest only as much as you wish. It’s a big gamble from Fantasy Flight Games but it’s a definite win for the players. Let’s hope it’s a win for the publisher as well.