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Anatomy of a Line: Keyflower, Part Two — The Expansions & Variants

Figure 2-1: Keyflower and expansions (in Meeple Reality’s Keyflower Port)

Keyflower (2012) has found continued success over the last several years thanks to an innovative design that effortlessly merges together worker placement, resource management, and auctions. However, as is often the case with game design, what’s most interesting is what came afterward, as Richard Breese and Sebastian Bleasdale expanded Keyflower into a whole line, including to date two expansions and two variants.

The Expansions

Neither of the expansions notably innovates Keyflower. Instead, they offer new systems that cleanly build on the game’s existing systems, varying and expanding them.

Keyflower: The Farmers (2013)

The Farmers introduces three major new mechanics, all of them connected.

Figure 2-2: The Farmers at play

Fields. Fields are formed by roads and tile edges. This adds some additional weight to the city-building aspect of Keyflower, which was relatively understated in the original game: rather than just being important for moving resources, now the geography of the game is also important for how the fields line up. This is a nice, perhaps needed, expansion, even if it suddenly feels like your hexes are overflowing with livestock.

Animals. This improvement of the game’s geographic basis is supplemented by animals. Like any resource, they are placed on the tile that produced them, or else the player’s home tile, but they must go in a field, and it must be a field without any other type of animal. And, those animals can also be moved: just like other resources, they require transport tiles, but animals move from one field to another instead of from one tile to another. Overall this feels like a very organic addition to the game, because the animals work so much like Keyflower’s normal resources, but within the new geographic paradigm of the fields; it’s a pretty good example of how to simultaneously introduce a totally new mechanic, but make it feel like a part of the game by obeying existing rules. Oh, and animals can breed too, which is a nice bit of evocative color to make them feel like animals, not a variant of the game’s octagonal resources.

Wheat. This is a new resource that, like skill tiles, is kept behind a player’s screen. It can be turned in for extra movement, which is a good addition since existing movement is now being split between resources and animals; to keep things balanced, more was needed.

Figure 2-3: The Farmers game elements

The Famers builds on Keyflower’s geographical resource management by introducing a new geographic sort of resource: the animal. However, it’s not just a duplicate: it works enough unlike standard resources to feel like a new game element. The animals are supported through three different but interrelated mechanics, and the result is something new that has weight and depth of its own and that feels like an integral part of the game while still introducing new strategy and a new path to victory. It’s a pretty great example of how to create a great supplement.

Keyflower: The Merchants (2014)

The Merchants similarly introduces three new mechanics to Keyflower, but they’re a bit more haphazard.

Figure 2-4: The Merchants at play

Contracts. The traditional end-game set collection of Keyflower is based on the power of Winter (and sometimes Autumn) tiles. Players collect resources, skill tiles, animals, wheat, and meeples, sometimes in like sets and sometime in unlike sets, and they earn endgame points. The contracts offer an alternative sort of end-game set collection. Instead of being based on tile powers, it’s derived from contract tokens, and instead of rewarding (un)like sets of the same or different tokens, it gives points for formulaic sets, where players match the precise demands of their contracts. Like the animals in The Farmers, the contracts in The Merchants offer an alternative to an existing game mechanic, but unlike the animals, these contracts feel like a very different mechanic than the original: they have both a different origin and a different core mechanic, where animals at least used the same foundation as previous resources.

Extensions. These wooden tokens can be played on tiles as a second upgrade, with the cost being shown by the tile. The most interesting aspect of the extensions (and the one that melds best with the rest of the game) is that they’re color-coordinated: a red, yellow, blue or (rarely) green extension restricts workers to that color.

Cabins. If you’re going to increase the number of possible upgrades in a game, you need to increase the ability to upgrade. That’s what these big wooden houses do (just like the wheat increased the ability to move resources in The Farmers). They arrive on boats.

Figure 2-5: The Merchants game elements

Generally, I feel like The Merchants is the less successful of the two Keyflower expansions, and that’s largely because it doesn’t cohere either with itself or the original game. The supplement itself feels like a grab bag of mechanics, with the contracts being somewhat evocative, but the extensions (what are those even?) and the (medieval?) cabins being less so. Also, the contracts are sufficiently different in their mechanics from the other end-game set collection that they just don’t feel like the same system.

Obviously, your mileage with vary: the two supplements have very similar ratings on BGG, with the winner depending on whether you use Bayesian ratings or not (which is to say the average rating of The Merchants is higher, but has fewer votes).

Figure 2-6: The Farmers and The Merchants combined

The Variants

The new variants of Keyflower are more far-flung; their most intersting characteristic is probably that each one replaces on of Keyflower’s key game systems!

Key to the City: London (2016)

What if Keyflower simplified its resource-management system? That’s the question asked by Key to the City: London, though it also introduces other minor variations to the game.

Figure 3-1: Key to the City at play

Connectors. Instead of generating resources that must be moved from tile to tile, players now create connectors, which are laid across the edges of tiles, connecting one to another. They represent things like water lines, waste pipes, and telecomm cables, and if they’re not as evocative as the resources of the original, that’s probably because they’re more unusual as a game theme. They’re integrated into the game exactly like the original: they’re required in certain configurations to upgrade tiles. Key to the City definitely loses the interesting and unusual movement of resources in Keyflower, but its use of resources to connect tiles turns out to be another method for better focusing the game on the geography of the city. (Compare it with the animals as a way for making up the one deficiency of the original Keyflower.)

Modified Upgrades. Upgrading is now done by placing a worker on a tile, rather than using a special upgrade. This was sort of a natural extension, since the introduction of the connectors does away with the other half of the purpose of Keyflower’s move/upgrade tiles. It also more tightly integrates upgrading into the standard conflicts of the game, as you might have to fight to upgrade a tile before someone else makes it more expensive to do so by using the tile! There are also now certain tiles that can be double-upgraded, but it feels like a much more organic expansion than the “extensions” of The Merchants, since the new upgrades are thematic 3-D stand-ups that match the landmarks of the tile being upgraded. (And because of the upgrade rules, there’s no need to expand the game further with extra upgrade opportunities, which is yet another way in which this change is really tightly self-contained and self-sufficient.)

Figure 3-2: Key to the City game elements

Key to the City: London feels like it was intended to simplify the Keyflower game. So, it gets rid of the more complex resource-management of the original, but replaces it with something that’s just as innovative in its own way. The result is a little less logistical and a little more puzzle-oriented, and definitely simpler. The upgrade changes similarly took away a complexity of the game while still maintaining tactical depth. My general assessment is that players like moving resources more than laying out connections, but they’re each intriguing in their own ways. Still, this is a relatively minor variation when you add it all up.

Key Flow (2018)

What if Keyflower got rid of its auction system? That’s the question asked by Key Flow, which also goes even further than Key to the City in simplifying many of Keyflower’s original mechanics.

Figure 3-3: Key Flow at play

Drafting. Rather than fighting each other in an auction to get buildings, players instead fight in a draft, taking one card, and passing the rest on. This may actually reduce the chaos in the game, because each player can guarantee that he gets the card that he wants most of those he see. More notably, it definitely decreases the time to play the game, because drafting is a lot faster than auctioning … but it still offers some of the advantages of a contested selection.

Card-based Worker Placement. The worker placement of Key Flow works mostly the same as the worker placement in Keyflower with one notable exception: the workers are now cards. This turns out to be a great way to replicate the superb integration of Keyflower in the new card-based medium. There, players had to choose between using meeples for auctions or for worker placement; here, players have to choose between drafting worker cards or placement cards.

As it turns out, these workers are less nuanced than those in Keyflower, primarily because their colors are no longer restrictive: the color-matching of meeples being placed is no longer relevant. To a certain extent, this is an obvious change; since meeples are drawn out of a draft, there’s no longer a strategic way to use meeples of a specific color. It also simplifies the gameplay. But, it loses one of Keyflower’s interesting nuances.

Simplified City Building. The city is no longer built up from hexes laid out in a freeform way, but instead from cards which are simply laid out in two two-dimensional rows: one for buildings on the road and one for the waterfront. Though this sounds like a big change, it’s not, primarily due to weak use of geography in the original Keyflower game. Oh, it can be harder to relocate resources if you have to move them from one side of your city to another, but that can be accommodated if you carefully build your city to leave gaps as you go.

Modified Upgrades. Finally, the upgrades in Key Flow work slightly different than in Keyflower: as in all the recent games and expansions, there’s an opportunity to double-upgrade buildings. Some of this comes about naturally through buildings that have two upgrade options, while others occur through simple +1 VP tiles that can be revealed if a player has an unused upgrade action. (This suggests the reasoning for this frequent expansion of upgrades in these supplements and variants: it suggests that players in the original game probably often moved resources without being able to upgrade, and so the designers decided to even that out.)

Figure 3-4: Key Flow game elements

Where Key to the City was obviously a variant of Keyflower, Key Flow is a more fully featured reimagination. Even more so than in Key to the City, a lot has been done to simplify the game: with a simpler acquisition method; simpler worker placement; and simpler city building. The new game is easier and faster to play. It also does a great job of figuring out how to play a similar game using a totally different component, in the cards. 

Conclusion

The four revisions of Keyflower neatly fit into two parts. The expansions simply try to add variety to the game by creating parallel systems to existing mechanics: new resources, new end-game scoring, and more upgrade possibilities. They’re great examples of expansions that add interesting elements to a game without poisoning the original with too many new systems. The variants meanwhile move in the opposite direction, simplifying the mechanics. Key to the City took a few steps in that direction while Key Flow was willing to make larger changes and was more successful in its simplification as a result.

All five boxed sets remain in my personal collection, with The Merchants being the only one I find somewhat questionable. Together they do a great job of showing how a core game design can be changed in interesting ways.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples