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Keyper Review

Quick Look: Keyper

Designer: Richard Breese
Artist: Vicki Dalton
Publisher: Starling Games (formerly Game Salute)
Year Published: 2017
No. of Players: 2-4
Ages: 14+
Playing Time: 30 min/player

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com


tl;dr: If you can get past the fact that meeples are now called "keyples," and a torrent of other "key" puns, then you'll experience the true bliss involved here in turning wooden bits into other wooden bits. 

Getting to the Game: Those who follow EBG reviews are well aware of my crusade to get developers to include as many plastic baggies as are physically possible into their boxes. Imagine my delight, then, when I opened Keyper and was immediately greeted with not one, but TWO thick rolls of baggies. Review over. Buy this game.

Setup: I submitted that review, but my editor said it was too short. Ugh. Fine. Setup for Keyper is slightly more involved than your average game, but all Euros have to be graded on a curve. On that scale, I'd place Keyper in the middle-to-low range of complexity of setup. Each player will need a player board, scoring discs, improvement tiles, and a "Keyper" (meeple with its hand raised), all in their player color. To that, set in the middle of the table one farm board for each player, each having the next successive player identifier tile showing. (A three player game will require three boards, one with the one-player tile showing, the second with the two-player tile showing, and the third with the three-player tile showing.) In addition, you'll draw 8 tiles from the spring collection, 4 random boat tiles, assign each player a set collection of starting "keyples," their own keyp tile, and then randomly give each player one fair tile for each season. Whew. Ok. Now we can play.

Explaining Keyper is an exercise in trust. I know that every gamer ever, when they sit down to teach a game on the slightly-more-complicated scale starts out with "Trust me, it's not as hard as it looks." There's even an entire Onion article dedicated to the bit. As you sit down at the table with tiles literally everywhere, tiny wooden bits and animeeples laid out in a dozen stacks, you're going to be either freaking out or absolutely salivating. For the former group, let me assure you: It really is much easier than it looks. To the latter: Yes. You're right.

Playing the Game: Keyper's rulebook is a couple dozen pages, a sizable chunk of which is devoted to outlining exactly what each of the game's few dozen tiles do. A full page is a very handy chart, which is a little tough to read until you understand the game well enough to not really need it. Even more pages are used to break down the minutiae of Keyper's cardinal actions: placing a keyple and joining a keyple. Once you understand these two things, you're ready to play. On your turn, you'll place one of your colored keyples somewhere on a board or tile. When you do, you'll gain the benefit of that space one time. If it grants you a raw material, you get one. If it grants you an animal, you get one. If it gives you an action, you get one. If, however, the keyple you've placed matches the colored border of the space (white keyples are considered to be whatever color you want them to be), you'll gain an additional use of that space - two actions or resources. Once you've done this, starting with the player to your left, everyone gets a chance to "join" you in that effort. They have the option of placing either the same colored keyple as you just did, or a white, and that will add an additional action or resource for both you and them, up to a possible three total uses of the space. Once you're joined by one player, the window closes, and no further joining is possible.

That's literally all you do in this game on your turn. The elegance of the actions on the spaces, how they're selected, and how they're distributed around the table is all for the benefit of the clarity of your turn: put a keyple down, get some number of things. Keyper, then, becomes this metagame of efficiency; how effective can you be with your keyples versus how many opportunities do you present your opponents with to be more effective than you. The joining mechanic is such an elegant solution to a complex problem that the first time your fellow players "get it," there's going to be a giant smile of appreciation. Obviously, there are some subtleties that come into play with different spaces, but once you grasp this basic concept, it's really just variations on this simple, delicious theme.

Those variations are splendidly done, and with some ingenious execution. The country boards that live in the center of the table are the home of two of Keyper's best inventions. First off, some readers may have already noticed that the keyple colors aren't player colors, they're specialization colors. How, then, would you keep track of which keyples are "yours"? The answer is...you don't. I mentioned earlier that each player gets a keyper meeple in their player color at the start of the game. On each of the country boards, there's a keyp space always showing. As an action, you can place your keyper on that space, and at the end of each season, you have claimed that country board and all of the keyples on it for yourself. This is perhaps the single most important decision you'll make every season: when to claim a board. If you claim too early, your opponents won't place keyples on that board, denying you additional workers. If you claim too late, all the good boards will be gone. It has come up a few times that players who don't have enough keyples feel like they're set too far back. There's some baked-in mitigation for this, but it's important enough to stress again: make deciding when to claim a country board a priority.

The country boards themselves have an extraordinary role to play. At the end of each of the game's three seasons (technically Keyper plays over all four seasons, but after winter the game ends and there's just scoring to do), you will pick up the country board you claimed earlier, put the keyples on your player board and Keyp tile, and then literally choose the folded orientation of the country board. The only rule you have to follow is that the Keyp square with the proper upcoming season must be visible, and when you're done folding it, it has to be a 4x4 grid. You get to choose which actions are available to players in the next season by folding the board. It's an incredibly elegant way to customize the gameplay, and it's very satisfying to carry out at the table. 

Artwork and Components: With nearly-perfect animeeples (you'll spend longer than you want trying to determine the difference between cows, horses, and deer), acrylic gem tokens, gorgeous and consistent artwork across player boards, boats, tiles, and country boards that perfectly captures the agrarian theme, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better looking game on the table. The fact that there are even animeeples at all should be a signal that this game is doing things right.

If you can put your hands on the Keyper Character Edition, you should. All of the keyples are silk-screened, and look outstanding.

The Good: Outstanding Euro gameplay, great mechanics, component quality is top notch. Country boards are a brilliantly executed element, worthy of theft by other games. Overall, a nearly-perfect tabletop experience.

The Bad: Losing the country board/keyple battle can lead to a serious setback in time and efficiency. Could be game-breaking if it happens early. Obtuse rulebook that belies simple gameplay. Sheer number of scoring options could trigger AP (analysis paralaysis) players, or those new to the style of choose-your-own route to victory.

Score: It should come as no surprise here at the end that I'm a huge fan of Keyper. It's accessible to a group willing to keep an open mind, and with only a few minor drawbacks on top of absolutely gorgeous artwork and attention to detail across components, picking this one up is a no-brainer. I'm giving Keyper a score of It's a Keeper.


About the Author:

Nicholas Leeman has been a board game evangelist for over 10 years now, converting friends and family alike to the hobby. He's also a trained actor and works summers as one of the PA announcers for the St. Paul Saints, a professional baseball team. He lives in Minneapolis, MN with his board gaming wife and son.
Keyper Review Keyper Review Reviewed by The Madjai on April 11, 2018 Rating: 5

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