Keyforge – After The Hype

The Archons – the universe’s most powerful beings. They’ve found a safe of some kind. They want to open it. They need a key. Maybe they can make it? Maybe they can forge it. Maybe they need your help. Keyforge.

2 Players | 30 mins | Designed by Richard Garfield

Keyforge, announced in mid 2018 and released in November 2018, is Fantasy Flight Games’ latest foray into the Trading/Collectible Card Game realm. The game itself isn’t exactly a TCG because of its unique hook – each deck is sold already constructed, and cannot be modified after purchase. Decks are generated by a mysterious ‘algorithm’ and are purportedly all balanced and fair, and most importantly, entirely unique. No two decks will be the same. The mention of this element of the game generated a massive amount of buzz in both the card gaming and boardgaming communities when it was announced. The idea had never been heard of before and drew a massive amount of interest for several reasons, foremost being that it’s great for the time poor who don’t want to construct decks (or just people who don’t like card game meta), but mostly, it’s very cool.

The other interesting thing about Keyforge that drew a lot of attention is it’s designer, Richard Garfield. You might remember him as the designer of a game called Magic the Gathering. It’s kind of popular. (If you legitimately haven’t heard of it , it’s probably the most popular hobby game that exists). Lots of people saw this and the fixed deck format of Keyforge as an attempt by Richard to casualise trading card games and make them more friendly and accessible to beginners and people who don’t want to spend every waking moment of their lives thinking about cards.

Interestingly named decks are one of the drawcards (pun intended)

In my usual reviews, at this point I give a rundown of the game. I’m not going to this time because I don’t think it’s that important to this particular review, which is going to talk a bit more about my personal ‘adventure’ with the game than what I usually do. Read on to find out how I got sucked in and what I think about the game after some time.

Why Did I Buy Keyforge?

I always liked the idea of playing in a competitive league of some kind, and I think because of that Keyforge looked especially interesting to me initially. When Dice Masters was first released I got into it with a friend and we played it a bit. I found after a little while I didn’t really love it and so I sold up and moved on. Apart from some very casual play of Magic the Gathering (15 years ago), that’s pretty much all my experience with competitive TGC style games. I’m primarily a boardgamer who plays for fun, and I think this foray into Keyforge made me realise a lot of stuff about why I like boardgames.

Keyforge was very well marketed and hyped. It was released early to lots of people who have visibility in the online boardgames community, and had a big presence at Gencon and Essen. There was lots of focus on ‘the algorithm’ that generated the decks and chatter about the entertaining and sometimes questionable names decks were given. I found myself primarily drawn in by one main factor – the decks were pre-constructed. I used to enjoy playing Magic, but I had never built by own deck. That was something I just wasn’t interested in and today, something I absolutely couldn’t be bothered to do. The idea of being able to play a game in a tournament without having to prepare seemed like fun, and I was drawn to the idea of playing a competitive game in a tournament environment.

So – I got the starter box when it was released. I went to weekend tournaments at my local game shop when I could make it. I had some fun, but ultimately, I didn’t really enjoy the experience overall. I’ll talk about why in the next section.

It’s hard to take pictures of the game in play.

What do I think?

I ended up buying a starter set and 4 extra decks, and I played quite a few games of Keyforge, probably around 50 all up. Most of these games were played at ‘Archon Format’ tournaments at my local game shop, which is essentially bring along a deck of your choice and play three games with it. I will admit I lost a lot of games. Some of the decks I got weren’t very good. The last one I got I did end up winning with more often, and I almost exclusively played with it after I got it.

The Good Stuff

  • As a evolution of the TCG, Keyforge is very interesting. The way it streamlines gameplay by removing the need for mana/energy is innovative. The alternative win condition of forging keys which makes it a race rather than a fight is cool.
  • Pre constructed unique decks are a genius idea. The marketing spin of ‘each deck you buy is one of a kind’ combined with the fact that you can play the game without time consuming deck construction is what drew me in.
  • The theming and artwork is something different. I found it hilarious that each faction is so wildly distinct – the game mixes genres such as aliens, fantasy and steampunk in a seamless way and creates silly battles. The game itself highlights this with comedic names and flavour text on cards. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and I like that.
  • Low cost of entry – you can technically get started with just one deck if you BYO materials for tokens or use someone else’s.

The Bad Stuff

  • Keyforge decks are not balanced. This is very clear at this point, you can simply point to the fact that people could sell particular decks online for lots more than they bought them for as proof of this fact.
  • There is a lot of luck involved. Both in buying a deck, and in playing the game. Firstly, this can be quite upsetting when you invest in a deck only to get a dud. What can you do with it? Pretty much nothing. I should be able to enjoy playing this game with whatever interesting deck I open up, but that’s not the case. In terms of playing the game, a lot of the decks rely on card synergies to execute their powerful plays, and the luck of getting what you need at the right time in the game very often makes the difference between winning and losing.
  • After the luck, being a good player is just being the best at solving the puzzle given. What order do I play these cards in to maximise benefit. Most often the choices are fairly obvious, and gameplay feels mechanical/rote. And some people are simply better at doing this than others. I don’t like feeling like the game is playing me rather than me playing it.
  • You don’t feel much ownership over the decks. You just ‘found’ it. If you win, it’s partially because the deck was good. If you loose, you can blame the deck for being bad.
  • I bought the starter set primarily because I thought it would come with a rulebook. (I made this assumption as a boardgamer). It didn’t, which made the purchase largely pointless, and quite overpriced. It is annoying to have to pull out your phone and browse through a PDF that is not optimised for phones to clarify rules while playing.
  • The hype died off pretty quick and this really hurt the game. I don’t think I’ve seen Keyforge talked about in a while now. Tournaments at my local game shop started off having 12+ players and the last few I went to before I decided to stop going had 4 (a couple were cancelled due to lack of players). I think this demonstrates the game didn’t live up to a lot of people’s expectations.
  • The end of a game is always an anticlimactic disappointment. It usually goes like this – ‘I can win on my next turn’ ‘Oh, ok, hmm, lets see … yeah no I can’t do anything about that you win GG’. I’ve never seen a surprise or come from behind victory happen.
Before one of my rare victories (the other player was unluckier than me, their deck was terrible)

Things I Discovered

  • I’m not competitive, I just play for fun and spending time at 1v1 tournaments just isn’t fun for me. There’s no social aspect there, and that’s why I play games.
  • It’s not fun to lose a lot when it’s just 2 players. I wasn’t very good, and while I don’t mind losing, a lot of the time it feels like it’s not my fault (luck and deck).
  • Some people at tournaments are really serious. Like they have bought a $200+ deck from eBay that will beat any deck I have, they don’t enjoy the game for the flavour or experience, they are just there to win.
  • I don’t like 2 player competitive games where players directly compete against one another.
  • I like puzzle solving games, but ones where there is a breadth of options, not ones where I have to optimise from the limited set of things I have available.

So where are we at. I gave the game a good few months, played it quite a lot (for me at least) and I’ve decided I don’t enjoy it. I think after this and my foray into Dice Masters before it, the thing I should take away from this experience is that I don’t enjoy 1v1 games and I will strive to not get sucked into them in the future. I find it interesting that discussion of the game has already slowed to a crawl online, even with the new set announced recently, and the community for the game in my (admittedly smallish) city has died already. While the game seemed to be somewhat more targeted at boardgamers than TCG players I think it will only thrive and grow with a dedicated community. Now that the hype has died down are people still playing? It’s difficult to tell. I guess it’s hard to enter the market that Magic so strongly holds, even if you are the guy who created Magic.

6 thoughts on “Keyforge – After The Hype

  1. I never really bought into the hype on this one, though granted I never really played any TCGs to begin with (I dabbled in Magic about 25 years ago).
    It did strike me as something that wouldn’t be sustainable.
    I wonder if sales figures are bearing that out. The lack of buzz sure seems to be.
    Great article!


  2. Everyone in my playgroup laughed at the idea of Keyforge. We are a clique of Millenials in computer programming, so we’ve also already created some silly not-to-be-taken-seriously procedural game. It was never good and had way too many things going into it to make the bareboned pile of crap that we had, so we all had NO hopes for this game. We never even gave it a second thought.

    Somehow I randomly stumble upon this game again and this article, and I remembered that moment. I came here to hear your experience, from someone who actually played, and boy I’m glad I didn’t waste my money on this. The imbalance between uneditable decks will easily kill a game’s secondary market and thereby killing its popularity as well. I’m glad someone like Garfield tried because his failure will hopefully pave the way for someone else to not make the same mistake. I think there’s potential for procedurally generated and balanced cards, but not yet.


    1. Thanks for reading. I did want to get my experience with the game down after trying it out and I’m glad it helped you out.

      I think all your points are right. The selling point of the game was also what shot it in the foot.


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