[Keyflower] Skill, open information, and getting deflowered

Keyflower is great. I played it over a year ago, and have never touched it since. But I wrote about it, so it must be great! This is that unpublished session report, and it may not be up to the usual quality. (“What usual quality?” I hear you cry.)

Names have been changed, because they were ‘Player 2’ etc. Since all has been forgotten, the players are now named after British Prime Ministers.

Past Thomas: Quick game summary: In Keyflower you build a tableau village by bidding on tiles in the middle with meeples. Meeples can also be used to activate tiles, which is stuff like gaining resources, getting special tokens, switching out meeples, and more. Meeples are spent in winning bids, while if they get used for an action they return to the player who’s village that tile ends up in. All meeples involved with a tile must match in colour. The game is divided into four seasons where you’ll be using your meeples, and at the start of the game you are dealt two tiles from which you can choose one or both to be available in Winter. These can help you develop strategies of what you want to collect or achieve, since you’ll know what might appear. New meeple immigrants arrive on boats at the end of each round, along with a token or two.

We played with 6 and it was a good group, everyone was engaged the whole way. And the game is fascinating – it provides a constant puzzle that we were trying to figure out. 5 of us were new, so we were all trying to understand the puzzle at the same time as solving it.

My winter tiles were terrible. 3 points per 5 meeples, and 3 points per identical token.

Keyflower(Photo credit: shimmydave via Boardgamegeek)

I began the game and collected 2 stone, assuming that resources would always be fairly useful and this would help me upgrade my village. Thatcher collected 2 wood. Blair made a bid on a tile and the bids began!

My first round, Spring, ended well, as two separate players hadn’t realised that I outbid them, (no funny business, I swear!) meaning that I ended the round with the tiles I wanted at reasonable prices as well as all the workers on top of them. I also had 2nd choice of boat out of the 6 of us, which worked out nicely with the tiles I had bought.

Summer came, and I lost the first bidding war of the game – for the “all resources are equivalent” river piece, and Cameron paid 5 meeples. Never mind. My strategy at this point was to build and upgrade as many things to get points as possible, which seemed like a straightforward plan especially given my current meeple majority. I was starting to upgrade which made parts of my village particularly useful, so I began receiving a net gain of meeples from other players.

By Autumn, Thatcher and Churchill had small but suspiciously active villages – Thatcher collecting and multiplying special tokens while Churchill hoarded a ridiculous amount of resources. Blair and Cameron had medium sized villages with special powers – “use meeples of any colour” and the aforementioned “all resources are equivalent” bonuses. Attlee and myself were growing larger villages, and the first signs of gold were appearing on Attlee’s home. (A not insignificant amount produced in my village!) For me, the game began getting very complex here as I had a clear meeple majority in yellow, and therefore could start a yellow bid anywhere and know I would be able to win it – but there were slightly too many things I wanted, and I knew I would not be able to guarantee myself everything. Ultimately, it was fine if not spectacular – I got one of the 10-point mines, but missed out on the other to my chagrin.

Winter, and the tiles we were given at the start were revealed. I played the “5 meeples = 3 points” and discarded my other. I was right in not planning around them – just about everything out there was worth more, and some players clearly targeted …

Present Thomas: Here, the session report breaks mid-sentence. Then there is some gibberish, or possibly Welsh, and I still have marks on my keyboard from the frustrated gnawing.

See, I actually still remember the game, and that’s not something that can be said for many of the things I played while in the middle of my dissertation/4-month caffeine induced haze.

What transpired, was that I had worked so hard, and was so visibly winning, and then I lost. During the rules explanation, it was mentioned that one of the winter tiles was slightly overpowered, as it gave points for sets of 3 tokens – a very good point/token ratio. Meanwhile, my winter tiles had been so vague and inefficient that they really hadn’t been worth focusing on.

Thatcher had that tile, and had spent the game preparing for it.

I lost by one point.

I’m not bitter about that – or I might be, pretend I’m not – but the thing that really made me want to write about this is how Keyflower uses secret information and chance. It is an absolutely incredible Euro game that will paralyse you as you try to figure out how to maximise your points. It’s even self-balancing, as players bid more for tiles they think are valuable (or try to screw you out of tiles that are mostly valuable to you). And it’s just so clever with how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

All of my progress was visible; I went for simple, direct points. And Keyflower proved that this was a viable strategy! The design worked as intended. But what surprised me is that even though all information is basically public (I saw all of Thatcher’s special tokens getting hidden behind her screen), I had no real picture of her performance compared to my own until it was too late – while she saw all of mine. Beyond hidden information, it was uneven hidden information – yet I can’t hold that against the design, as it was all available over the course of the game.

There’s also the notion of chance and control in what Winter tiles you get to remove from the game; as well as the randomised tiles generally. It’s a design choice to add variety; but personally, I’m left with even more respect for games like Food Chain Magnate that are almost perfectly symmetrical and rely on player choice as the key variation between plays.

I dearly want to play Keyflower again. I suspect I’ll buy it at some point if no-one brings it to the club soon.

With that mature discussion out of the way, bloody hell. One point. Are you kidding me?!