Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser
KEY TO THE CITY: LONDON (R&D Games/Huch & Co./Game Salute, 2 to 6 players, ages 14 and up, 90-120 minutes; about $60)
While he has designed many other games—quite of few of them outstanding—Richard Breese is best known for his “Key” series. These games are all set in his “Key” world, and have included such titles as Keydom, Keythedral, Keytown and others. The most recent in the series was Keyflower, which had the Key citizens building their villages and welcoming new citizens as they arrived via boat; thus the name “Keyflower”.
Breese’s latest creation, once again co-designed with Sebastian Bleasdale, is Key to the City: London. While it bears the “key” word in its title, it is actually a departure from the world he created in his previous designs. This time, the game has a historical setting, with players constructing the grand city of London. The game is actually a modified and simplified version of Keyflower, one which plays faster, smoother and, in my opinion, better.
The goal of the game is to acquire buildings (tiles)—each representing a historical or famous part of London—and add them to one’s city. Most tiles have a special power (acquiring skill tiles, connectors, etc.), while others provide end-game victory points based on the conditions listed. Some simply grant the indicated amount of victory points. All tiles can be upgraded, which either improves their abilities and/or earns more victory points. The challenge is to acquire the desired tiles and optimize their abilities to maximize the victory points. Of course, one’s opponents will be attempting to accomplish the same, so there is often fierce competition for the tiles.
Each player receives a home hexagonal tile that depicts a famous landmark in London, including the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, etc. Over the course of the game, newly acquired tiles will be joined to this tile to form a section of London. Players also receive a handful of “keyples”, drawn randomly from a bag. These keyples are in three colors, and serve as both the bidding currency and workers to activate tile powers.
In each of the four eras (rounds), tiles are placed to the table and are available for use and/or acquisition. In turn order—which is random on the first turn, but determined in later rounds when players set sail—players place one or more keyples to either bid on tiles or generate resources (execute a tile’s power). If a player wishes to bid on a tile, he places keyples of one color to the side of the tile corresponding to his position at the table. If he wishes to use the power of a tile, he places keyples of one color onto the tile and takes the corresponding action.
There are several very important rules regarding the placement of the keyples:
- At a particular tile—whether beside it or on it—all keyples must be of the same color. Thus, the first player to place keyples at a tile dictates the color that must be placed at that tile by her opponents. This can be a huge consideration and may well have the effect of preventing an opponent from placing to a tile if he does not possess the needed color and number of keyples.
- When placing keyples the player must place more than the current high bidder. Likewise, he must place more than what is present on the tile if she desires to use the tile’s power. For example, if Kevin has placed a bid of two yellow keyples by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the next player desiring to compete for that tile must place at least three yellow keyples.
3) If a player is outbid at a tile, he may move those keyples to another tile, either as a bid or to activate the tile’s power. He may supplement those keyples with others from either behind his screen or from other tiles where he has been outbid.
Note that a player may place keyples on tiles in his own or an opponent’s section of the city in order to use its ability. The same placement rules described above still apply.
Instead of placing keyples, a player may opt to upgrade one of her tiles, flipping it to its reverse side. A handful of tiles represent the major landmarks of London. These can be upgraded twice, with the final upgrade resulting in the placing of cardboard representations of the landmarks upon the tile. A nice touch, but it makes me pine for nifty 3D miniatures. Each tile depicts the requirements to upgrade it, as well as the improved ability that will result. These usually include connectors and/or skill tiles. Connectors, of which there are six colors, are placed between tiles, thereby connecting them. When acquired, skill tiles are placed behind the player’s screen and spent to upgrade tiles or kept for end game victory point purposes.
Instead of performing any of the above actions, a player may either pass or set sail. Passing is often a stalling tactic, allowing the player to see what actions her opponents take before reacting. The danger is that if all players pass, the round ends. Alternatively, a player may end his participation in the round by setting sail. This allows the player to move his boat along the Thames and select the slot on the next river tile that she desires. One slot allows the player to assume the start player position for the next round, while another awards the player the just vacated river tile. These river tiles are added to a player’s city and provide end-game incentives and/or victory points. All slots on the new river tile allow the player to draw the indicated number of keyples from the bag to begin the new round. Choosing when to set sail can be a tough decision.
Once all players have set sail, players take the tiles they have won and add them to their city. There are often incentives to add them at certain locations due to victory point conditions. Any keyples that were placed during the round on these newly acquired tiles, as well as keyples placed onto tiles in the player’s city and those that did not win a bid, are kept by the player and may be used in the subsequent rounds. Thus, a player activating tiles in her own city knows she will regain those keyples at the end of the round.
New tiles are set out for the following round, and the process is repeated. In the third round tiles are placed already upgraded, and the fourth round consists solely of tiles (the “Routemaster” tiles) that provide bonus victory points for meeting the conditions depicted. These end game tiles are visible throughout the entire game, allowing players to plan their strategies accordingly.
The game concludes after four rounds and players tally their victory points. Many tiles provide a specific number of points (which increases as the tile is upgraded), while others provide points based on the conditions listed thereon. For example, the Marble Arch tile provides 1 or 2 victory points for each tile connected to the tile by a black connector, while the Gherkin tile provides 1 or 2 victory points for each yellow connector beside the tile. Most tiles acquired provide victory points with some variation of these conditions.
As mentioned, the Routemaster tiles provide victory points based on meeting their indicated conditions. There are tiles that provide points for keyples, connectors and skill tiles. For example, the London Zoo provides 2 points per blue keyple the player possesses, while the Tate Modern provides 2 points per brick skill tile the player possesses. Properly planned, these tiles can reward the player with an enormous amount of points.
Earlier I stated that I felt Key to the City: London was a better game than Keyflower, its direct ancestor. There are several reasons why I feel this way, but the major reason is that this new game is more streamlined and easier to play. Several aspects of Keyflower have been removed. Gone is the requirement to transport resources to specific locations in order to use them. Gone is the mystery involving the end-game bonus tiles. Gone is the limit to the number of keyples that can be placed on a tile. Gone is the additional bidding required for the boats containing new keyples. Gone are the green “wild” meeples. With these items stripped out, the game is more condensed, more pure. I like that.
In spite of these deletions, the game is filled with tough choices and requires precise timing with elements of bluff and “chicken.” Sort of like walking into a chocolate store, all offerings (tiles) are attractive, but one cannot have them all. One must choose which ones enhance one’s strategy, and then compete for those. A popular tactic is to delay in hopes that opponents will commit their supply of keyples elsewhere, allowing you to swoop in and claim a tile or two. Of course, your opponents are likely attempting this same tactic, so that game of “chicken” or delaying can be quite tense and often backfire. Plus, one doesn’t want to wait too long, as an opponent may well place keyples of color in which you are deficient.
When constructing one’s city, the goal is to build a mini-engine that will help you acquire the components needed to satisfy and maximize the victory point conditions of tiles you collect. Thus, one should seek tiles that compliment this engine. Keeping an eye on the end game Routemaster tiles is also wise, as one can plan accordingly and try to acquire the tiles that will yield the most points. In a recent game one player built an engine to produce skill tiles and managed to acquire three Routemaster tiles that awarded bonuses for those tiles. He earned an insurmountable 92 points just from those tiles! Shame on the rest of us for not keeping a closer eye on him and attempting to prevent him from acquiring them.
Key to the City: London plays fairly quickly, with most of our games playing to completion in 1 1/2 hours or so. The shorter time frame, coupled with the streamlined game play and less fiddly mechanisms, has made this more popular than Keyflower, not for only me, but with most of the folks with whom I’ve played. Perhaps there will be more releases in the series featuring other cities. – – – Greg J. Schloesser
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