Since our last batch of Design Analysis articles, we’ve started two ambitious, multi-month article series. Our Game Structures articles are meant to explore the design decisions that matter most at the beginning, middle, and end of games and to answer questions like “who goes first, and does it matter?” and “what time horizons do players plan their actions across?” Our Mechanic Archetypes series takes deep dives into some of the most popular and prevalent game mechanics, beginning with worker placement and pool builders. Both of these series are ongoing; look for late-game structures soon and more mechanic archetypes for as long as we keep having interesting things to say about them.
Once we’ve covered a wide range of game design topics, we really like to take what we’ve written and apply our own analytical frameworks to recent successful games with the goal of trying to determine what a game does well, how it implements these concepts in a creative and novel way, and ultimately what makes it great. Keeping in the theme of our Mechanic Archetypes, I’ll be taking a closer look at Keyflower, a worker placement game (and then some), and Alex will follow up with a pool builder.
Keyflower is a few years old now, and it isn’t particularly difficult to get ahold of, so it might be familiar to many of our readers. For a quick introduction in case it’s not: Keyflower is a tile game that takes players through a year of growing and managing a fledgling village, with the game playing out over four seasons and having the in-universe goal of building up enough resources to survive through the winter. Its most notable feature is its clever approach to worker placement, where workers can be used either to perform actions or as currency to bid on improvements to the village. It won or was nominated for a handful of awards from 2012-2014 and maintains a strong presence as a top-20 strategy game at BoardGameGeek since its release in 2012.
We spent a lot of time thinking through how to define “worker placement,” and after a little assist from the BoardGameGeek forums, we came up with the following definition: “Worker placement is a mechanic where each player has a limited number of workers that are used to draft actions according to a turn order. Actions are drafted by committing a worker to an action, and every action has some limited number of times that it can be selected. Workers are retrieved once all of the actions have been completed so that a new draft can occur.”
Keyflower checks off all of these boxes. The workers in Keyflower are about as straightforward Euro-game workers as possible: they’re in the shape of standard meeples and can be committed to performing an action by claiming a particular tile. Each player has a limited quantity of them, though this quantity changes throughout the course of the game; sometimes workers are retrieved, and sometimes they are lost once they are used.
Each action does have a limit to the number of times that it can be selected, though importantly this limit is 3, not 1. Instead, the cost scales linearly with the number of times that the action has been selected that round: one worker for the first use, two for the second, and three for the third.
As an extra strategic wrinkle, workers in Keyflower have colors, and the colors used to interact with a given tile must be consistent in a given round: if a tile action is claimed with a single blue worker, the next player who wants to use it must use two blue workers. The mechanic is reminiscent of “leading a suit” in trick-taking games like Spades or Hearts; the first player to interact with a tile has the privilege of deciding the terms, and if another player wishes to interact with that tile, they must follow suit.
The outcome is a very elegant blend of open auctioning within the genre of worker placement and the idea goes beyond the concept found in card games in that you’re effectively playing multiple tricks at once. Additionally, some tiles provide actions that allow players access to green meeples which can be an effective “trump suit” when used as an opening bid on a tile since green meeples can be especially rare.
This mechanic of leading and following suit with meeple colors is a form of what we call “soft” action blocking and one of Keyflower’s more creative innovations and one that makes the game more enjoyable.
We’ve talked about “hard” action blocking as a major source of dissatisfaction in worker placement games; in Keyflower, it’s rare for a necessary action for your strategy to be completely unavailable, but it may be expensive. On the other hand, if you like your worker placement games full of cutthroat hard action blocking, you can effectively block entire tiles with a single worker if you know your opponents lack workers of that color.
The other “action” that a worker can take is not to claim a tile an activate a mechanic, but to bid on a neutral tile to add it to your village. The tile auction is not a separate phase of the game as the tile activation, so players can freely use their workers to claim actions or as auction currency within the same season. Like with activating tiles, workers in the same auction must have consistent colors, which might make Keyflower the only game out there with action blocking in the context of a bidding game.
Alex noted that worker placement games to a great job of making a player’s turns intuitive and easy to track. However, they can be thematically shallow unless the designer has put in some extra work, and they can be prone to issues with turn order and player scaling.
Keyflower comes out ahead of an average worker placement game on these criteria. The idea of workers as currency isn’t one that players will have come across in many other games but is easy enough to grasp once the players accept that “bid on a tile” is one of many actions that a worker can claim. And having neat pyramids of workers stacked at the edges of each tile is intuitive necessity for tracking who made a particular bid.
The interesting byproduct of merging the ideas of worker placement and auctions in Keyflower is that turn order plays an unusual role for each mechanic in the game. As we’ve previously written, turn order is deeply embedded into the mechanic of worker placement and that remains partially true in Keyflower; having the ability to set the color of meeples that can be used as currency on a tile is a valuable benefit of acting early each season.
By comparison, auction systems in games frequently bypass the constraints of a structured turn order; the process of auctioning concludes when the collective group of players set a “market price” that no one wishes to challenge. This characteristic is also true in Keyflower; if you desire a particular tile, your bid limit is the lower of your estimated value of the tile (how much is it worth to you?) and your meeple count in the color established for the tile (do you have enough?).
Turn order in Keyflower falls into an interesting middle ground where it matters sometimes and other times it doesn’t matter much at all. Players have the ability to drop in and out of a round; once their immediate goals are complete, they can pass on their turn and watch what their opponents do, then possibly jumping back into action to outbid them or take advantage of the changed state of the game. This characteristic is also present in open auction systems, as players want to pay the minimum increase over the second place bidder. This option is a very well-thought out design decision where the freedom of dropping in and out of turn order works for both the worker placement and (more importantly) the auction aspects of the game.
Since the worker placement element of Keyflower is not tied to exclusive action spaces, there are interesting auction-like cost/benefit decisions as to how many workers a player really wants to commit to taking an action. Placing one worker for three resources makes sense much of the time, but it could also commit a meeple in a color that may be needed to win the auction on a tile later in the season.
Keyflower supports 2-6 players, which is an admirably large range for worker placement games. The scaling does require a bit of extra work during the setup phase of deciphering a rather dense numerical table, but once that’s accomplished, the game plays reasonably well across the entire range. The game’s modular nature of being able to incorporate additional tiles and bigger boats filled with more resources lets it circumvent a typical weakness of worker placement games.
Finally, in terms of theme, Keyflower does not make its players ponder the age-old worker placement question of “why can I only send one person to the rock quarry?”–instead imposing a semi-realistic notion that the per-worker productivity of the quarry decreases as more workers are added–but it nevertheless enforces an arbitrary upper limit of 6 workers per action. The game itself has a somewhat persuasive theme, as you’re “sowing” in spring to begin building your engine and finally making it pay off later in the year–though the big payoff happens in the winter season in the game, not in a possibly more-thematic autumn season.
Together with friend of the blog Dave Satterfield, we picked out a number of games that offer unique or unusual spins on the typical worker placement theme. They already identified Keyflower as having different “classes” of workers through its color system, making certain action claiming asymmetrical. And I’ve discussed at length how Keyflower deftly combines auction mechanics with traditional worker placement mechanics to vary its worker allocation. How else does Keyflower fit among these variations?
One additional variation that we identified was that of worker space availability. When a tile initially appears, workers can be assigned to bid on it by placing the workers at its edge. Once the auction is over, of course, the ability to bid on it is eliminated. However, one player can still use a tile owned by another player–with the cost that the player who owns the tile keeps the workers at the end of the season. In this way, the space remains “available,” but the player must make another cost/benefit analysis.
Finally, “get more workers” is not necessarily a dominant strategy in Keyflower. Because workers are also currency, the players start the game with many more workers than is typical for a worker placement game, and tying into the notion of paying your opponents with workers for using their tiles, the notion of which player a certain worker belongs to is more fluid than usual for worker placement. This “easy come, easy go” conception of workers means that you’re not always worker-limited for the actions you want to take, and even if you are, acquiring more workers is not necessarily the universally most-desirable course of action that it is in many worker placement games.
Keyflower features a fairly typical “low resource” starting state, where workers are the only resources that each player starts with. Each player has enough workers to get their engine rolling and to be able to place bids on interesting tiles but will obviously need to acquire more workers, along with actual resources like wood and gold, throughout the game.
There’s an interesting take on “private objectives” in Keyflower, where each player has some Winter season tiles that only they can see. The Winter tiles, much like the Guild cards in 7 Wonders or the 6-cost Development cards in Race for the Galaxy or San Juan, aren’t scoring objectives per se but cornerstones that players are encouraged to build scoring strategies around.
The twist in Keyflower is that each player can see his own Winter tiles from the very beginning of the game (and can therefore start to craft a scoring strategy) but all of the other Winter tiles remain hidden until the Winter season. Then, each player can choose which of his Winter tiles he wants to enter the game–with the understanding that he still must bid on them and risks sending a particularly lucrative tile to another player whose strategy it also fits.
Given that the Winter tiles are some of the most lucrative ways to score points in Keyflower, players naturally tend to diverge toward more specialized strategies in the game as the seasons change and they begin acquiring tiles, but these strategies are not so divergent that the auction stops being interesting. There are several tiles that could be useful in a variety of different strategies and are not necessarily constrained by which Winter tiles might be in play.
Each player’s village starts with a randomly dealt “home tile,” which vary slightly in how powerful they are. Keyflower’s starting-player system most resembles the “compensating for asymmetry” system that I described in my article on Turn Order: to compensate for a slightly weaker starting position, the player who has the lowest-numbered home tile goes first in Spring. Going first is generally an advantage in Keyflower as it allows a player to set a color precedent or an opening bid on a particularly desirable tile.
Subsequently, the “starting player” tile for the next three seasons is bid on along with a host of other village improvement tiles. Similarly to how Agricola works, the desire to go first in the next round is something that the players have to evaluate on each turn and decide how important it is to their particular strategy. Going first seems to offer some limited benefits in Keyflower except for during the Winter season, when acting first (or not acting first) can make (or break) your strategy by claiming (or failing to claim) a critical Winter tile.
The primary strategic involvement to going first in Keyflower, as it is in many other worker placement games, is that you get to be the very first person to place a worker in the next turn. While this may not be as critical as it is in games with harder action blocking, a very aggressive “first past the post” strategy may work for highly confrontational players who like to set the terms for which options and strategies are available to the rest of the players. Because the number of seasons or rounds in Keyflower is so small, basing an entire strategy around going first every time is not as feasible as it may be in a game like Castles of Burgundy, but it might be an important component of a larger strategy, especially in a game where several players have converging strategies and mutual goals.
We identified four key factors surrounding decision-making in strategy games: Transparency, Energy, Metamorphosis, and Perspective. Both Transparency and Perspective speak to the idea of players understanding how and why their decisions matter, calling back to our earlier idea of the Navigation axiom of Approachability.
Keyflower strikes me as a game with room for players to grow with respect to Perspective. Like many games with high-scoring end-game tiles that should form cornerstones of a particular strategy, it can be difficult for new players in Keyflower to connect how to best plan their games around their Winter tiles. Furthermore, the progression of which tiles to select in each season is not always obvious to achieve short-term (how do I maximize the productivity of my Woodcutter in this turn?) or long-term (what’s the optimal sequence to score as many points as possible from my Watermill at the end of the game?) goals.
However, after playing the game many times and better understanding viable combinations of tiles for the end-game, Keyflower’s Transparency improves considerably, as players can trace a clearer link from their Spring tiles to their Winter scoring. And because Keyflower is played over only four seasons and lacks complicated technology trees, it’s relatively easy to understand how a tile in one season might support a different tile the next season.
Our Energy factor corresponds to player participation and engagement, and Metamorphosis holds that strategic decisions should mirror mechanical transitions. Keyflower grades relatively well on these factors.
Like many games in which you’re actively building a settlement (see also La Citta or Civilization), the process of adding tiles feels like an accomplishment and reinforces the point of your decisions meaning something. Even if it’s a minor building that may not further your ultimate Winter goals, you’re always better off adding something to your village than doing nothing at all.
Finally, because all of the tiles are associated with some activity (producing or transporting resources, gaining workers, and so on), expanding your settlement grants you access to new mechanics. The integration of theme with design here is excellent; having a more advanced village should intuitively mean that you can do more and different things.
Our study of mid-game structures started with player ecology, which explores how a player interacts with the game environment (in contrast to how a player interacts with other players; see the next section).
Keyflower doesn’t have any particular reward or punishment structures–you don’t have to worry about keeping all of your workers fed, for instance. And scarcity is only seldom a concern: while you don’t necessarily have all of the workers or resources you need at all times, there is usually a way to get more if you need them. The rules even call the prospect of running out of workers or resources “unlikely,” diminishing the possibility of using the finite number of them as a strategy.
Keyflower’s ecology is much more interesting when looking at its changing strategic scope. The seasons provide a convenient framework to have the players do interesting things at various stages in the game and are most similar to the ages from 7 Wonders that Alex described in the Player Ecology article. The Spring is all about getting some basic structure built up, Summer sees the introduction of a new mechanic and in influx of new resources with boats, Autumn is when the engine should be firing and resources should be gathered in anticipation of Winter, and Winter is when you cash in your strategy using the Winter tiles.
The various tiles that are revealed in each of these seasons guide you toward doing these different things because the mechanics encoded on the tiles vary according to the season. The “changed formula” is more subtle than it is in a game like Twilight Struggle, with each phase explicitly tied to historical events, landmark technological achievements, and powerful personalities, but it is a clear example of the game telling you to do different things at different points in the game.
In a typical worker placement game, the most important interaction comes in action blocking, but ultimately worker placement games tend to be about sending your own workers to advance your own strategy as much as possible and hoping that the other players don’t muck it up too badly. We called this kind of interaction “implicit interaction,” and we consider worker placement games to be one of the prototypical examples of implicit interaction.
Keyflower’s addition of the auction mechanic is a nice extra dimension to its interactiveness beyond the typical implicit interaction of worker placement games. Therefore, Keyflower sits mostly in the “implicit interaction” category of player interaction but a little closer to the “direct interaction” side of the spectrum than many of its worker placement brethren.
We called the other dimension of interaction that we identified the “friendliness” axis. Worker placement games are classic examples of what we called “outmaneuvering,” an attempt to further your own goals at the expense of your opponents but without outright hostility, largely because worker placement games almost always lack mechanics for outright hostility. Keyflower is no exception, but again, the auction component adds something extra–in this case, the possibility of a marriage of convenience in a 3+ player game.
Let’s say Aaron desperately needs the Scribes tile in Winter to tie his strategy together (and more than likely win by a large margin). Barry goes first in the round and can’t possibly put down a big enough bid on the Scribes to keep it out of Aaron’s hands–but he knows that Charlie has a ton of blue workers and Aaron has only a few. Barry throws down a single blue worker on the Scribes, after which Charlie puts a massive bid that Aaron cannot beat. Here, neither Barry nor Charlie actually wants the Scribes, but they’re able to coordinate in a way that’s often not possible in worker placement games to give them both a fighting chance.
Our discussion of strategy added a “time horizon” axis to our investigation of player interaction. Keyflower makes players make decisions on both the short, single-season time scale (which tiles do I need, and how many workers should I bid?) and the longer, game-spanning time scale (how do I best position myself to make the most of my Winter tile?).
Combining the moderately high level of player interaction (at least, moderately high compared with many worker placement games) and the long-term planning that is possible in Keyflower, the game ends up as what we described as an “initially reactive” strategy game.
We characterized games in that quadrant as the sort of game that gives players “different sets of initial conditions which can provide strong direction as to which paths players should or should not pursue,” where players are “initially rewarded for doing what the game tells them to do based on their unique situation and by incorporating a game-endorsed strategy.” Finally, we noted that “There is rarely a single ‘correct’ strategy applicable to all players, but there may be an optimal way to begin the game from your position.”
“Doing what the game tells you to do” in Keyflower is of course building toward scoring a ton of points with your Winter tiles, which can be easier said than done, especially for new players (as I discussed in the “Decisions” section above). But I think that this categorization is the correct one for Keyflower. There’s not a single optimal strategy or even a few branches of optimal strategy; instead, it comes down to paving your own way and capitalizing on the engine that you’re trying to run, with the kink that you can influence your opponents’ approaches in a more direct and creative way than you can in many other worker placement games.
Conclusion – Rating Keyflower
I’ve moved away from a strict categorical points system when rating games but use five themes that I find equally important to help inform my decision.
Aesthetics: Keyflower’s art and components are pleasant but won’t blow anyone away. I’m a big fan of games where you’re actually creating the thing that the game tells you you’re creating, even on a miniaturized scale, so I particularly enjoy building up my village. The idea of every player claiming a direction of the hexagonal grid and lining up meeples on your edge of a tile during the auction gives a nice “at a glance” idea of who’s invested in what and opens the possibility to use the workers’ colors for something more interesting than assignment to a player.
Flexibility: One marker of proper scaling is that if a game claims to support 2 players, it should actually support two players without a lot of nonsense variant rules. I had a great time with 2-player Keyflower even though I suspect it would play more optimally with 3-4, and the only thing necessary to scale it is to use a table to determine how many of each component to include in the game. That notion of “use some subset of the components this time” means that every game will be subtly different because you never have exactly the same options available to you. It’s a gamer-y enough game that sits at the solid 3.5/5 weight that may well be optimal for Euro games and will appeal to connoisseurs, but more casual players may also find some appeal in the auction and tile assembly mechanics.
Fun per time: Alex described worker placement as “the perfectly average middle ground mechanic,” and even though the auction adds some excitement, I’m not sure if Keyflower or any worker placement game will ever have the suspense or action that other mechanical genres (like hidden role games or intense trading games) can achieve. To its credit, Keyflower does not overstay its welcome; ending the game after Winter season feel like it’s about one round too early–which, as we’ve discussed before, probably means that it’s ending at exactly the right time.
Depth per complexity: Much of Keyflower’s strategy boils down to building correctly toward a particular Winter tile, so while there are not necessarily dominant overarching strategies, I am confident that experienced Keyflower players know precisely which other tiles best complement each Winter tile. I suspect that the game’s actual strategic appeal evolves into a few skilled players observing which tiles everyone else is acquiring, inferring based on those observations which Winter tiles each other player must have, and bidding in the auction to derail the accompanying strategy. While Keyflower’s rules are not particularly hard to grasp, and Keyflower accordingly deserves credit for achieving a lot of depth relative to its complexity, I’m also not sure that most of its players will ever see more than the tip of the strategic iceberg.
Mechanics: This is a surprisingly confrontational game given that its primary mechanic is worker placement without hard action blocking; being outbid for a tile almost feels harsher than having an action claimed before you can reach it. As I’ve mentioned throughout the analysis, integrating a bidding system with worker placement is unusual and may be unique to Keyflower. I haven’t emphasized this as much, but allowing players to consider whether a worker is best used to acquire a tile for the future or claim an action now is another decision-making axis that I would not be surprised to see borrowed in many worker placement games down the road.
Overall: Keyflower represents a refreshing take on worker placement that is worker-placement-y enough for purists, accessible enough for players unfamiliar with the genre, and interesting enough for players who find worker placement just a bit played out. This is a game I could certainly see myself coming back to before some of the worker placement stalwarts and appeals to a broader range of player motivations than most of its contemporaries.
Matt’s Verdict: 4.25/5.0.
I use an unnecessarily complex set of seven categories which reflect my personal preferences. Three categories carry additional weight (Originality, Pure Fun & Replay Value) and four more represent my preference for a number of other aspects in games (Theme, Strategy/Luck Ratio, Scalability & Parity).
Originality: It is becoming increasingly difficult to stand out in a bustling tabletop industry and in particular among the most popular modern mechanics like Deck-Building and Worker Placement. I think it would be easy to argue that any attention Keyflower has received as part of Richard Breese’s Key-series is vastly outweighed by it simply being a very novel approach to Worker Placement.
Keyflower doesn’t play like any other games that use Worker Placement, it doesn’t share their appearances and it doesn’t confine itself to a label or genre; it’s a game worth visiting simply because it is like nothing else on your shelf.
Theme: I’ll admit the artwork doesn’t always sell me on the idea of what we’re doing in the game, but this is a voyage where I’m okay leaving a lot behind while seeking function upon arrival in my new world.
Pure Fun: As elegant and charming as I always find Keyflower to be, I can’t get over the recurring feeling that it just won’t ever be a game I enjoy more than I do right now. I definitely like Keyflower, I just don’t know if I like like it. Keyflower and I would be good friends away from the gaming table, but we’re probably not a match for a long-term commitment that would require an expensive purchase.
(I know, I know, Keyflower isn’t an expensive game, it’s just a metaphor.)
Replay Value: The most pleasant surprise I’ve had is that no two games of Keyflower have felt the same. I can watch the same tiles come up but rarely do they fall as I expect them to. Each game is similar enough to the previous games that I can apply what I’ve learned but I still have refine my strategy, react to others and plan my settlement better than the regretful layout I finished with last time. It’s a game that requires adapting to your opponents and the tiles available, and it will always be worth another try.
Strategy to Luck Ratio: Keyflower has no issues here (nor would any game we feature), but some games that feature ideas like pulling components randomly from a bag or hidden-but-mostly-trackable information could give a new player an impression that the game relies on more luck or memory elements than it actually does.
Player Scaling: Admittedly I haven’t played it with 6 players, but Ithe idea that Keyflower can scale well between a range as wide as 2-6 is very impressive among Worker Placement games.
Parity: I’ve played quite a few close games of Keyflower, but even then the games don’t always feel particularly close. The player who establishes their strategy first has a noticeable edge and occasionally the tile distribution can leave one player with a scattering of tiles that don’t have a particularly strong synergy with one another. It’s obviously up to the players to heavily pursue the tiles they need, but by Autumn its not unusual for one or more players to be left behind entirely.
Alex’s Verdict: 3.5/5.0.