Reviewed by Pevans

KEYPER (R&D Games/HUCH!, for 2-4 players, ages 14+, 90-120 minutes; $82.50)


Keyper, as the name suggests, this is the latest in the Key… series of games from Richard Breese, published by his imprint, R&D Games (and Huch! in Germany). It’s a typically complex game, so I will skim over some of the detail of game play to keep this review to a manageable size. It’s played over four rounds (the seasons of the year) with the bulk of points scored only at the end though players will have been collecting things that score points all the way through the game.

The playing area is made up of square boards (as many as there are players), each with a 4 x 4 grid of action spaces. The main thing players do during the game is place one of their meeples (or “keyples” as the rules have it) on a square and take the corresponding action. Before taking the action, however, one of the other players may join in. The next in playing order gets the chance first and then round the table until someone takes it or everyone passes. The advantage of joining in, for both players, is that they get the results of the action twice. Hence, this is not something players pass up lightly.

In order to join in, the second player must add a keyple of the same colour (or a wild, white one). This is one reason someone might not join an action; they don’t have the appropriate colour available. This also explains why each player starts with a bunch of keyples not in their own colour, but in a selection of colours: two white and six others. There’s one final wrinkle: most of the action spaces have a coloured border (there’s also a small icon that goes with each colour, which is helpful). Players get the action again, if they play keyples of the same colour as the border (or white, of course). So that’s a total of three somethings for placing one piece. Of course, such efficiency doesn’t last, as we’ll see.

As well as a multi-coloured set of keyples, each player starts with their own board. This has spaces for buildings (divided into “farm” and “village” sections), a small scoring track and some storage spaces. They also get a standard starting set of building tiles. These show the cost to build them and what they do. Some buildings are worth victory points, some get points for other things (such as the number of buildings in your “village”) and some have actions. These last can only be used by the owner – no joining here. Finally, each player has a differently-shaped meeple (a ‘keyper’) in their player colour. These have a specific use, which I’ll keep until later.

So, players take a keyple, place it on an action space and do something (1-3 times). The most obvious action lets them take one type of raw material (wooden cubes), as shown on the space. Another is to take a sheaf of wheat (yellow wooden models) which can be used as a wild material in the right circumstances. Or to take animals (there are actually eight different types of animal, each with its own wooden model in a specific colour). And then, later in the game, there are gems (oddly-shaped clear plastic pieces) to collect, too.

Other actions let players convert raw materials (cubes) to finished goods (octagonal “barrels”) in the same colour and to construct buildings – using some combination of cubes and/or barrels (as shown on the tile). Players can also draft new – and more powerful – building tiles from the current selection (this is one of the few actions that does not have a coloured border so, at best, you can get two new tiles in an action).

The problem, especially when you sit down to play the game for the first times, is why you’d want to do any of this. Well, as I’ve mentioned, some buildings score points for various things. To get the points, first you need the building tiles, then the materials to construct them and finally whatever it is the building scores for (horses, say, if you’ve built a stable). Even then, there are so many options at the start of the game.

This is where the “Fair” tiles come in handy. Each player starts with a random Fair for Spring, Summer and Autumn. These are worth points if the owner holds specific items (materials, animals) at the end of the end of the appropriate round. These immediately give you some focus when starting the game. If you score for having a horse and a stone at the end of Spring (the first round), then you know you’d like to collect these during the round. And build a stable to put your horse in.

The effects go on, too. Having built a stable, it’s worth collecting more horses to maximise what you’ll score with it. You’ve got a piece of stone, too, so what can you usefully build with it? Ideally, something that will help you towards achieving your Summer fair. Winter fairs are slightly different. They start in the bag with the building tiles and are drafted the same way. They also have the option of being scored in Summer, Autumn or Winter and are worth more or less points, depending on which side you score (the more valuable side generally means you need gems as well as the items shown on the other side).

I mentioned earlier that each player has a “keyper” piece in their own colour. At some point in the round, players will place this to claim ownership of one of the central boards. What this means is that, at the end of the round, that player will get the keyples from that board. These, plus any from their personal board, form the set of keyples they have available for the next round. Oh that’s clever. For a start, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll have one of each colour – because of the joining mechanism, pairs are frequent. Second, it means some players may start the next round with more than eight keyples. And that means that someone will have fewer. (Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as we’ll see.)

The round doesn’t finish until all players have played all their keyples and keyper. However, anyone who’s run out of keyples before the others is not left twiddling their thumbs. When it’s their turn, they can lay down the keyples on one action space on their board and take the action again. Okay, you’re limited to the actions that have already been used (another thing to consider when deciding which board to claim), but there should be some useful ones there.

You should also note that any player with more than eight keyples does not get to use them all to take actions; they’re still limited to eight. Each extra keyple will produce a cube or animal, depending on its colour, so it’s useful to have extras (especially as it gives you some choice over which keyples you use in a round) but doesn’t unbalance the game.

The other thing that happens at the end of each round is that the central boards are re-set for the next season. They may look like simple squares of cardboard but each can be folded and refolded to provide several different configurations. The key item is the season symbol on the large keyper space which shows which season/s each configuration can be used for. Each player gets to set the board they took at the end of the round so there is some (limited) scope to decide what actions you want to have available next round.

Okay, what have I missed out? Well, I’d probably better mention the ships (the Keyflower and so on). These are double-size tiles that can be placed on a board (one per). They are used either to turn items (horses and/or stone, say) into points – the only time points are scored during the game – or to pick up extra items (horses and/or stone only in this example). A different selection of the ships is available each round so you can’t count on the one you want being around when you want it.

The game ends after the fourth round, Winter. Players finally score up for their buildings and fairs. Note that nothing else is worth points. Unless you have a building that scores points for it. Thus, holding four horses is worth nothing unless you have a stable, which scores points for them (and more points if it’s been upgraded). Oh yes, the Upgrade action: taken to upgrade buildings at a standard cost (a raw material for farm buildings, a finished good for village ones). And the player with most points wins.

Yes, there is a lot to think about all the way through this game (which is why the game is listed as taking 90-120 minutes to play but more like 3-4 hours in my experience). Which is why the fairs are useful to give you a direction. And a way of scoring points – collecting Winter fairs, especially if you can get some synergy from them, is one strategy. Another is getting buildings that score for gems and then collecting the right gems. There are plenty of options but they do revolve around the buildings you have.

The first time I played Keyper, I was blown away by it. I appreciated the clever mechanisms, enjoyed the challenge and had great fun playing. But… my subsequent games have not reprised that experience. I still appreciate the clever way it’s all been put together and how it’s cunningly balanced. However, I’ve spent much of the game feeling frustrated. I think it’s the engine-builder in me: I can’t get the game to come out “right”. And this is true even when I win. I often feel I’m doing well when playing a game and only find out how badly I’ve done at the end. With Keyper, I feel that I’m struggling all the way through… and then win! Anyway, I would certainly recommend that you try the game, if only to see how everything works together. It gets 7/10 on my highly subjective scale and I anticipate I will be playing it, occasionally, for a while yet. – – – – – – -Pevans

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