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Saturday, January 15, 2011

HOT BOX - Key Market (Review)

If you haven't already read it, you can see my box opening here (on the Kindle, hit the 5-way about 5 times to the right get to it, then press BACK 5 times to get back) 

Key Market is a game I was excited about when I first read about it coming out in Essen 2010 (the huge board game fair in Essen, Germany that occurs annually in October) when a large portion of the latest and greatest board games are released. Nearly all of the games designed by Richard Breese that I've played so far are among my favorites: Reef Encounter, Keythedral, Key Harvest, Aladdin's Dragons both for the production values as well as for the game play. He really takes pride in the games he produces and it shows.

To repeat the game summary from my previous post:
Key Market was originally designed by David Brain. It is an economic game that fits into the R&D Games 'Key' series. Similar to at least 2 of the other games in the series (Key Harvest and Keythedral), you have a farm and workers who must work the fields, but in this game you must bring your goods to market to turn a profit. Some workers can be promoted to the Guilds from Apprentice up through Master which gives your farm better capabilities in producing and selling goods.


R&D produces games typically run in limited quantity - for Richard, he states that gaming is a 'hobby', so his desire seems to be to strictly to produce a certain number of copies of his games then move on to the next game. As soon as I heard about the pre-order I made sure to get mine in. 

Usually you buy new games (pre-orders or otherwise) from a friendly local game store (FLGS) or an online game store (OLGS). In this case, it required sending a personal email to Richard himself! Richard records your request into a spreadsheet, gives you an order number (mine was #298), then keeps you up-to-date via personal emails and periodic posts on BGG. 

There were some copies that were also sold through game stores and many gamers purchased theirs in that manner. However, I think it's great that Richard sent many of the games out personally -- I feel like I'm not just buying a great game but also supporting someone who strives for excellence and really enjoys what they are doing.

Just getting into the first turn after initial setup.

I won't go over all the rules, but I will cover the basic turn flow and a some details as necessary. The full rules are available on BGG if you desire to read them.

The Basics:
Setup involves giving everyone 1 of each type of resource (except a luxury), a small amount of money (3-5) which varies by turn order, a player screen, a game summary card, a farm board and a fields board. Then, everyone in turn order sets out a fields board, places a worker on it, and takes 1 of that resource. The boards have 3x3 fields and are placed such that they are all connected evenly along the 3 fields on at least one side.

Field boards have been placed and workers added.
The interesting thing here is even during setup you are starting to play the game. After the fields are set and everyone gets their extra initial resource you must pay for your farmhouse! Each has a different required resource to be paid + another resource of your choice (of those indicated on the farmhouse). Everyone chooses secretly then reveals simultaneously (this mechanic is used when going to the market to sell as well). All resources are placed on the market board which then changes the value of each commodity.

Market and Season boards after initial payments. Favor board is to the right.

What you have left behind your screen is what you have available to bring to market later! Hopefully you didn't just hurt yourself in what you thought was a clever choice to pay with or what you bring to market.

You will notice this game as a lot of indirect interaction - meaning that what you do doesn't specifically affect another player but could potentially affect 1 or all other players (maybe even yourself) or at least get in their way. There is some more direct interaction as in the guilds and in the fields that you'll see later.

Speaking of guilds, each game also has a set of guilds that are available to send your workers to. There are a total of 12 guilds and 7 are chosen for the 4 player game (5 for 2 players, 6 for 3 players). As you can guess, there is a lot of potential for variability from game to game depending on what shows up (792 different combinations of guilds for 2 and 4 player games, 924 for 3 player games). Plus, each Guild has the potential of up to 3 affects at a time in the game for any particular worker in it.

The recommended 7 guilds for a first game (numbered 1 to 7)

Although the guilds are very important to the game, I won't go into the specifics of every guild (when playing, it's best just to read them all and then decide which ones you want to go for due to certain combinations, etc) but some examples might be that the 'Key' worker (special worker which you have one of) produces 2 more in the fields, or production produces 1 or 2 more goods for a particular type of field, or when you take your goods you can exchange one good for a luxury instead.

One other important aspect to note about field production: there is a base production for each of the 2 shapes of fields - circle shaped fields normally produce 1 good and square shaped fields produce 2 goods. This base production changes such that circle fields produce 3 instead and square produces 0 instead for ONE type of good each season which means one type of good that was just ok is suddenly plentiful and one type that was producing well doesn't produce at all.

This is randomized each game and is revealed for the 2nd year as the game progresses. This ensures some variability to production and forces players to move around on the field boards to get the best production they can. It is important to keep this in mind as it will have an affect on what might or might not be a valuable resource.

GAME FLOW
In the game, you go through 2 years and the year is divided up into - you guessed it - seasons! Thus, there are 8 rounds for play regardless of the number of players. You start in winter, then go through to winter of the 2nd year and finally end the game at the end of fall in the 2nd year.

Each season has 3 phases: Farming (actions), Market Day (buy and sell goods) and End of Season.

Farming
In Farming you can do the following but you MUST do them in the specified order - this is critical because some actions you want to be able to do BEFORE other actions, but you can't so you have to do them in time for your NEXT turn. Your actions allow you to move your workers, recruit a new worker (sometimes you can do more if you are in the right guild), harvest your goods, promote a guild member, and retire workers. Once per game you can also upgrade your farm house to a manor. This is required to be done before you can retire workers.

Timing of all of these actions is crucial - this is a game about timing and I think that's what really makes this game fit the theme well. When farming you must get your workers in place to reap the benefits in time, then fire (or retire) them to get them out of the way in the off season, then re-hire them again to get production going in the good seasons. You can't retire your workers until you get the farm upgraded (not overly difficult but has to be planned for) and once they are retired you can't re-activate them again (presumably because they're old and feeble now). The seasonal aspects work terrifically and you must plan ahead carefully to be successful.

In addition to this, you have to consider what fields you want to put your workers in for production. It costs money to move them around (1 gold per space) And there are restrictions to where they can be on the board (not orthogonally adjacent to your own or in the same 'area' i.e. orchard or field of the same type) and, if you settle in the village to produce luxuries, you must pay 5 extra gold to go there (at least one guild reduces the cost to 2) but you get a nice luxury commodity that is worth 2 other goods when paying for stuff.

A note on payments: putting your workers in guilds or promoting them, retiring workers, etc, requires payments of goods. When paying you must pay 2-4 unique goods (luxuries are worth 1 each of 2 different types of goods) so you must have either diversity in goods OR less diversity but also luxuries to make up for it.

Something I haven't mentioned yet is that turn order matters in this game as well. In the Farming phase, each player does ALL of their actions before the next player gets to do something. This can be controlled somewhat but is discussed a bit later during End of Season.

Market Day
Once everyone has performed all their actions during farming (easily seen as each player's marker on the season board will have moved forward to the next phase) the game moves into the Market phase.

In this phase you MUST bring at least one commodity to market (or you must reveal what's behind your screen to show you don't have any). You choose what commodities you are bringing secretly then all are revealed simultaneously.

This choice should not be made casually. You have to have an idea of what goods everyone else has and whether they are likely to bring the same goods to market or not. Should you bring a variety of goods or just 1? You have to consider how much money you will need to generate to help pay for your workers at the end of the season and if you are going to hire another worker next season. You might even need to consider being able to purchase goods you don't have so that you can use those to upgrade your farmhouse or promote a guild member later. There is a LOT to think about here.

After deciding on and revealing the market goods, in turn order, you go around the table and may take 1 action then play passes to the next player. Note this is different than the farming phase and it can throw some players off with the switch. You keep going around in turn order until everyone is done. Generally you will sell some goods (in fact, you MUST sell all your goods by the end of the phase), or you may take 1 guild action where you can promote a guild worker, retire a worker, BUY some goods from the market, or take some money from the bank.

Now, here's where things get really interesting. You have all of these choices for your guild action, but you only get to do one of them. If you want to get some cheap goods from the market, you can't do any of the other actions (except selling, of course, which is a required action if you have goods on subsequent turns). If you take some money then you don't get to do any of the other guild actions; however, taking money also lets you reset yourself to the top of the favor board (which helps to break ties for player order during the End of Season phase).

So, you must balance carefully what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. Should you take your guild action first to promote a worker before someone else beats you to it, or should you sell your commodity at a premium before the price drops after other players sell their sheep?

Other considerations that come into play when making these choices is how many points will you earn for the end of the game as there are many ways to score points: you get points for retiring workers, you get points for the guild members depending on what level they are on, you get points for gold coins, you get points for pairs of resources and, you might get bonus points depending on where some of your guild members are in the guilds.

It is juggling all of these moving parts that is really what makes this game so intriguing. There are so many possible paths to victory with any given setup. I love open game play like this and, really, this is a very open game. There are many things you can do to exert control over everyone else, and yet, they can take similar actions to do the same to you.

End of Season
Finally, after all market actions are done (all goods brought to market MUST be sold) we reach the final phase of the season. The market board is adjusted (prices generally increase), season markers revealed (if relevant) and you must pay 2 gold per worker you have on the farm boards. You can decide to lay off some (or even all) of the workers so that you don't have to pay for them. Two considerations here are 1) that you will only be able to hire 1 worker in the next Farming phase (unless you have a special action from one of the guilds that lets you do two), and 2) the player with the least number of workers on the Farm boards will go first next season.

After paying the workers, turn order is adjusted. Whomever has the least number of workers on the Farm boards goes first, next least goes 2nd, etc. If there are ties, use the Favor board to determine who is next (highest on the Favor board) and re-adjust that person's marker to the bottom of the Favor board.

Obviously turn order is very important as it lets you sell at the market at a higher price, move into and up in the guilds before others, move to the prime farming areas first, etc.

Game End
The game end is always the same - after the end of the 2nd year the game ends automatically. There is no mystery as to when this occurs so, as mentioned before, this is a timing game and you want to hit the end of the game with the right resources and goods to earn as many points as possible. You also have to time your actions so that you can accomplish everything you want by the end (such as retiring workers, moving up in the guillds, etc)

Then, you flip over the Market and Season boards and use that to do final scoring:



The person with the most points (i.e. Gold) wins!

So what do I REALLY think of this game?
I covered the components quite a bit in my post of the box opening. But I will say that, overall, the components are excellent. The artwork is fantastic. The cardboard bits are nicely designed and well produced. The player aids are useful and give you all the information you need once you get the basics down.

The wood resources are a great design although they did appear to have some minor manufacturing defects, but nothing in mine that would cause me to have much concern. Some people apparently had more issues than I did, mostly with the similar issue of the bits coming apart in layers. I found this easy to fix, but broken bits in a new game is certainly an issue for some people.

The manual is well written, nice to look at, but also easy to reference and find what you are looking for. The rules have been well thought out and it flowed really well when playing it.

Now, mind you, I have only played this game once, so my impression could certainly change over time, but I'm pretty good about judging up-front what I like and what I don't like (i.e what is going to have staying power for me).

My initial reaction is that I really enjoyed playing this game and I'm excited about playing it a whole bunch more. In fact, I knew it was living up to expectations before we even got half-way through the game. I heard similar comments around the table as we were playing. It's obvious it is a terrific game with solid design.

I will note here that some people may not be excited by the theme - farming in a time before ours in the land of Keydom. To me, theme is somewhat important but not critical for me liking a game - if there's good game play, everything else is nearly inconsequential. In this case, the theme definitely makes sense and is not 'pasted on', but I agree that farming in the middle ages is not necessarily 'exciting' and I don't think it ever claimed to be, but the game play is tense and challenging, so who cares!?

Here are the Key things I like about it:
(NOTE: There may be some implicit strategy in this section. If you care, skip to the FINAL QUESTIONS section)
  • Open game play. When I say this I mean there are lots of options and opportunities and you can change things up at any time, potentially even making some surprising moves.
  • Variety in game setup. This is so important to keeping a game interesting and fresh. It's not required because sometimes just having the right people to play is enough, but I really like variety in setup in a game in general.
  • Potential for Market manipulation. I tried out a couple of things with the market and there is some intriguing potential there. We were still feeling the game out when we played but I can see this coming into play more with more experience.
  • Guild combinations. The guilds offer the ability to build up abilities and then benefit from the resulting combos. It is important for other players to recognize and try to limit other players from hitting strong combos.
  • Multiple paths to victory. With so many ways to score points, you have many options for strategy to win.

Things that I'm not sure about yet:

  • Market prices and Limited Resources not a huge factor: I didn't see the market prices swing wildly. The rules mention the ability to hoard certain goods (as a feature of the game) to the point of resources running out. This didn't happen at all and the market didn't fluctuate a lot. I'm not yet sure how much this actually happens. I would LIKE to see the market fluctuate more but didn't see that.
  • Extra money for moving into the village: Luxuries seemed like they were worth getting, but I'm not sure the high price of getting into the village actually paid off enough (except with the reduced price from one of the guilds) because you must pay for the worker to settle in the village, then pay wages each season to keep them there. This adds up to a lot of gold for just a few luxuries. Otherwise, if you don't pay for that worker, then you have to re-hire and re-settle into the village and it gets even more expensive. This may have to do with my mis-understanding the rules, but I'm pretty sure I got it right.
  • Maintaining workers vs. not paying and then re-hiring later: I'm not yet sure if the benefit of maintaining workers outweighs the benefit of NOT paying for them, getting a better turn order, then re-hiring them again.

The thing is, with these potential 'issues' I think what will bear it out is playing the game more. 


FINAL QUESTIONS

So, is the game worth playing more to explore all the different strategies? YES.
Do I like it enough to be happy with my purchase of it? YES!

Do I want to play it again? YES! Many more times!

If YOU have the opportunity to play this game, I highly recommend that you do.

Ok, I think I've said enough at this point (too much probably) so I'll stop here.

Now go play a game!

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