Saturday, September 18, 2004

Review: Keythedral

In our last newsletter (which incidentally you should sign up for) I promised that I would soon be reviewing Keythedral, the new release by Richard Breese. Well I'm happy to say that the time has come.

Richard Breese is a bit of a maverick in the gaming world. He has been releasing his self-produced games through his own R&D Games label since the mid 90s. These games have originally been released in limited print runs and they've all been very well received. In 1995 he released Keywood. In 1998 he released Keydom, which Hans im Glük picked up and re-released as Aladdin's Dragons. Next was Keytown in 2000. And finally the initial limited run of Keythedral was released in 2002. Since then, Pro Ludo has picked up the game, refined it a little and just now republished it with a much larger print run.

Keythedral is a game that combines some familiar gaming mechanics into a unique package. It has elements of tile laying (think Carcassonne), resource gathering and management (think Settlers of Catan), and a little bit of area control and bidding (think any number of games). When I first played it, the game mechanics seemed comfortably familiar and yet they were all combined in a way that still felt fresh.

In Keythedral, players are cooperating to build a "keythedral" in the middle of Keydom. Building the cathedral requires various resources. Resources are gathered by workers who work the fields. Players are competing to supply the most resources to the construction effort and thereby earn the most prestige (victory points).

The game is played in two distinct phases. During the setup phase, players take turns constructing the game board. Every player has five cottage tiles numbered one through five. In turn, each player draws a hexagonal field tile and adds it to the board along with one of his or her cottage tiles. This is repeated until each player has placed all five of their cottage tiles and added five field tiles to the board. The initial placement of these tiles is crucial because once the board has been constructed, the real game begins and the overall makeup of the board remains fixed throughout the remainder of the game. This initial setup phase may be short but you had better pay attention or you could lose the game before it's even started! But I should add that on more than one occasion I've felt that I really screwed up in the setup phase only to be surprised that I was still very much in contention for the rest of the game. So do pay attention and play carefully during the setup phase; but don't panic.

Once the board has been constructed, players take turns deciding which cottage numbers will send workers into the fields. As each number is chosen, each player takes his turn adding one worker to a field near his cottage with that number. Only one worker can be in any field so if you aren't careful you might very well find that all of the fields surrounding one of your cottages may already be taken. If that happens then your worker must stay home. Each field with a worker in it generates a resource cube of a specific type. Since resource cubes enable you to earn victory points, you want to do your best to maximize your workers' resource production each turn.

After resource cubes have been gathered, players take turns spending their resource cubes. Cubes can be spent on things such as upgrading cottages (doubling the number of workers they produce), building or tearing down fences (which prevent your opponents from putting workers in selected fields), trading for commodities such as gold and iron (which are used to construct the cathedral toward the end of game), buying law cards (which offer random benefits), or buying seats in the cathedral. Buying a cathedral seat (tile) is the chief way in which you increase your victory points since each tile is worth twice as many points as they cost. It is also what determines the game length, when all the seats are bought, the cathedral is complete and the game ends.

After all players have had a chance to spend their resource cubes then the turn order marker passes to the player to the left. But unlike most games, that doesn't necessarily mean that this player is going first on the next turn! Instead, that player gets to auction off the turn order marker to the highest bidder for resource cubes. Whoever wins the turn order marker then gets to decide who the starting player will be for the subsequent turn. This adds an interesting little twist to the game. Is it worth spending a cube (victory point) or two to decide who will go first next turn? And if you win the turn marker do you go first yourself or do you give the marker to the player to your right so that you'll get to auction it off at the end of the turn?

Keythedral comes in a sturdy, well illustrated box. The components are solid, sturdy and attractive. One nice touch is that every single piece of artwork in the game is unique. They could have easily just drawn one worker and replicated it across every worker token. Instead, someone took the time to draw an individual piece of art for each and every one.

If I must find one fault with the components it would be that the cottage tiles are just a few millimeters too large to fit neatly between the field tiles. The result is that the field tiles can't be placed so that they fit together without leaving a slight gap between them. This is an extremely minor nit to pick. It doesn't detract from the game experience at all. Still it is a little strange considering the loving care and attention to detail that obviously went into all other aspects of the game.

The rulebook is short, clear and well written. There are plenty of examples and there's even a table at the back that lists the function of every law card in detail. The only rules issue I found was that occasionally there can be some question about when a given card can be played and exactly what the card does. Reading the table at the back of the rules does help but if you're the type of person who absolutely must have everything clearly spelled out for you, you might have a few minor quibbles with the cards. I think that most players won't have a problem though.

In conclusion, Keythedral was, for me, a very pleasant surprise. After reading the terse game description on the back of the box, I didn't really expect much from this title. But after several playings, I find that this game is fast becoming one of my favorites. If you love light strategy games, then I would highly recommend this one.