The Daily Worker Placement

Tuesday, April 23, 2024


by | published Monday, November 26, 2018

Shark Eyed “Bull” Pierce 

Drone Epoee, the Bug-Eyed Incubator 

Ms. I. Omnirat 

Vostok, the Adjutant of Highroost 

Boss “Meatball” Nilsson 

Characters from the latest William Gibson novel? NPC’s from the new Dune RPG? Rejected Firefly crewmember names? 

Nope. They’re the names of my Keyforge: Call of the Archons decks. Each one has been procedurally (fancytalk for “randomly”) generated, each one comes with a unique combination of 36 cards drawn from a pool of roughly three hundred and fifty 

“Siri? What is 350 choose 36?” 


= 1.608151177084015178494201265569137187862656793505 × 10^49 

= 16 quindecillion 

= a little less than a third the number of legal chess positions. 

I think collectors and completionists–((cough)) Dmitri ((cough))–are going to have a problem.  

* * * 

I’ll get back to the deck-name thing later. First let’s talk about the designer thing. 

Richard Garfield has already revolutionized the tabletop world once–arguably twice. Magic: the Gathering was a side project he pulled out of his pocket when he was trying to sell RoboRally. His 1996 followup CCG Netrunner was so popular that despite its early and untimely death it was rebooted very successfully in 2012 as Android: Netrunner. And although it was recently killed off in its current incarnation by none other than Keyforge’s own publisher (Fantasy Flight)–conspiracy much?–it probably has enough momentum to keep going with fan support. 

Yet Garfield, to his credit, refuses to rest on his laurels. On the last page of the full Keyforge rulebook–not included in the base set box incidentally, interesting decision–Garfield says that he missed Sealed play–playing a deck right out of the box with no substitutions or swaps. He also talks about the appeal of procedurally-generated content (there’s that phrase again): 

Game worlds generated in this way really feel as if they belong to me, the player – I am discovering them as I play; the designer didn’t even know they existed…When trading card games first came out the feeling was like exploring a jungle – and as the cards became more like commodities, it became more and more like an amusement park. In the amusement park there are experts telling you how to play the game, the safest strategies, what net decks to use. In the jungle you have the tools you have. There is every chance that you are going to be the best in the world at playing your decks – you can’t just look up what the synergies are or the weaknesses; you will only find out by playing.  

Garfield has just opened a machete shop and welcomed everyone to the jungle. 

* * * 

I have heard people say that all Garfield has done with Keyforge is make players want to buy decks instead of booster packs–more money for him. And sure, some people have been doing just that; I read one guy on BGG who bought up seventy-five decks just to make sure he had a wide selection. Buying more decks definitely makes it more likely that you’ll be getting a better deck–but how will you know it’s good unless you play it against a wide variety of others? With regular CCG’s it’s possible to build powerful decks around a few key cards, and the more you spend the more powerful a deck you can construct. 

But each Keyforge deck is an organic whole and must be played as a whole. On top of that, although there are many mechanisms that will be instantly familiar to CCG players, you can’t play Keyforge like you play Magic. If you could, then Keyforge’s unique deck thing would be a stunt. 

You can’t play Keyforge like Magic because the goal of Keyforge is not destruction but creation: the forging of three keys, each of which requires six Æmber at the beginning of your turn. There are many ways to get that Æmber–steal it, playing certain cards, fighting, and about half a dozen other ways. Heck, every Creature in the game can Reap at least one Æmber per turn as its action. 

But while filling your battleline with deadly creatures may feel great and may wipe your opponent’s board clean, that means precisely nothing if doing so gets you no Æmber. Each Æmber-generating strategy has a counter–your job is to find it in your deck. I’ve read complaints on BGG from experienced and frustrated Magic players who can’t understand why they can’t win at Keyforge because they haven’t figured that out yet. 

So sure, buy lots of decks. But until you play them–a lot–you won’t know what they’re worth. And people have already started selling “powerful” decks (currently, decks containing Horsemen are up on eBay for up to $660. But you won’t necessarily be able to win with them yourself unless you adapt your playing style. “The wand chooses the wizard.” 

* * * 

Back to those deck names. I don’t know if Garfield anticipated that the random names would generate almost as much interest as the gameplay itself. If he did, it was yet another stroke of genius. My deck names are nothing to write home about; go here or here on BGG to see some of the truly hilarious names people have been sharing. But $15 is a lot to spend on a funny name. 

On top of that, Fantasy Flight has “discovered” that some of the deck names generated have… “unfortunate” overtones and have responded by banning them from tournament play. They’ve gone so far as offering two new decks to anyone who is willing to send back one of the banned ones. Somehow I don’t think they’re going to get many takers. If I pulled one of these “dicey” decks I would prefer to keep it for larfs (or maybe sell it). 

* * * 

Time will tell how well Keyforge does. I doubt very much it will replace Magic; I imagine nothing will. The question is whether, in this crowded marketplace, there is room for it. That will in turn depend on how the meta evolves and how well-balanced the great majority of the decks turn out to be. And that will depend on how much patience people will have to look for their machetes.  


  • David W.

    David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement. All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game design.

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