In 1996 the Coen Brothers released a film about a small town in Minnesota called Fargo. Were this not the Coen Brothers, people might have expected something innocuous as rural Minnesota just sounds more idyllic rather than sinister, but this was a dark masterpiece featuring such fun activities as attempted kidnapping of your own wife, murder, insurance fraud, theft, and last but not least, Steve Buscemi. Flashforward to the 21st century and we have a boardgame called Keyflower, which is a game about building your own village. And you have a nice house, and people live there. There's also a sawmill, and a smithy! There's a beautiful river and boats come down it. But once again, things are much darker than they seem.
Now, Keyflower could have just been any old worker placement game, where you place meeples/workers on hexagonal tiles and get things. But the genius of this game shines through right at the get-go. Clearly worker placement just wasn't enough so the designers added more mechanics than you could count on your toes (if you count things on toes that is). At the heart of it, we have the bidding mechanic. Every season (round) you get some new tiles, which you can have if you bid meeples for them. You start the game with three different colors of meeples and through hard work you can acquire a fourth color. The colors matter because once someone bids, say, a red meeple, only other red meeples can be used for bidding on that tile. If you win the bid, you get the tile, but you loose the workers. If you lose, you get to place your bid somewhere else.
Right there you begin to establish your valuation of meeples. How many workers is it worth to have a tile? But a worker is not really a singular currency because they can be used for so many things. They can be used to activate tiles, and might return back to you or your opponent if they own that tile. They can be used to bid on initiative which might produce a bigger supply of workers next season. They can be used to acquire meeples of a different color. And I'm just scratching at the surface here.
And then at the end of every season, the boats come and bring more workers. Much like the Haradrim of the south, no one really knows where those boats come from, but the fact is that they do, and all of a sudden you have more men and women to send and claim your land and build your village. Or maybe they will infiltrate the enemy village and get their supply of wood. The truth is you never know because there are so many different mechanics intervowen in the game, it sometimes feels like there's too much choice and not enough certainty. The bidding mechanic guarantees that nothing is guaranteed because your bid might not be the winning one, and your plans will be all messed up.
The game becomes really gritty because you soon realise that your best bet is to figure out what your opponents are trying to do and stop them, all the while profiteering from whatever action you just performed. On my first play-through of the game only one thing was certain to me, and it was that I had no idea what I was doing, but I had to keep doing it. My opponent echoed my sentiment by stating that it was his fifth play-through, and he felt exactly the same. And whilst that sounds like a criticism, it's not necessarily a bad thing. If you want a game that has a lot of replay value, you could do much worse than Keyflower. It's a game that requires a lot of dedication and is best played with a group that are willing to devote themselves to it. And even after you do crack it - there's an expasion to add even more depth, more intricacy and more... animeeples.
And the game is surprisingly forgiving. Even though I was plodding my way through, at the end of it all I wasn't that far behind from my opponent. Eventually everything clicks together in a moment of clarity as the big picture reveals itself on the last season. And whilst I feel confident to play again, I'm sure that I'll be just as confused when I do. I would recommend Keyflower, but only to a very narrow crowd of people, and I'm not even sure what that crowd is myself.