The Enigmatic Architect
Designer Richard Garfield on KeyForge: Call of the Archons
If they come, they will build it.
In the center of the universe hangs the Crucible, an artificial planet built from pieces of the countless worlds scattered throughout the stars. Here, in KeyForge, the ethereal Archons clash in fierce battles, leading teams assembled from the Crucible’s diverse inhabitants as they race to gather the mysterious substance known as Æmber. By collecting enough of this precious material, Archons can forge the three keys necessary to unlock the Crucible’s hidden Vaults, absorbing their ultimate knowledge and power!
Along with this new world comes a new form of game, unlike anything the world has ever seen. The Unique Deck Game ensures that every Archon Deck is distinct from every other in existence. With no deckbuilding or boosters, you are challenged to use every tool at your disposal, discovering the synergies and power within your own deck and forging your own destiny in this world.
But what about the mind behind the Crucible? Who constructed this world, any why? Today, we're proud to speak with the renowned Richard Garfield about the challenges and triumphs of designing KeyForge: Call of the Archons—now available for pre-order at your local retailer or online through our website!
Richard Garfield on KeyForge
Fantasy Flight Games: When did you first become interested in the concept of a Unique Game? What about the idea made it resonate with you?
Richard Garfield: I first began thinking about a Unique Deck Game (UDG) in the '90s. The best we could do back then was put a unique number on the back of each deck, and the randomization would have been akin to TCGs of the day—which had a lot less flexibility than today. I was interested in the idea because I was fascinated with each player getting something unique. I thought, exploring and participating in that world would bring back some of the excitement and wonder that was present in TCGs before the internet civilized them.
FFG: Can you tell us a bit more about the technology that makes KeyForge possible? How do you make sure that every Archon Deck is unique?
RG: I am not sure about the specifics of the technology; I confirmed with a printer that it could be done, then contacted FFG—who was one of the very few publishers that I trusted could surmount the inevitable technical challenges. The uniqueness is, from my perspective, probabilistic. The algorithm for deck construction generates so many deck possibilities and so many possible names that the chances of a duplicate are infinitesimal. The main challenge with that, from a game design perspective, was ensuring that the game was flexible enough to be varied and playable with a wide range of decks.
FFG goes one step beyond my "infinitesimal" chances of a duplicate and actually checks each new deck against previously generated decks to make that chance zero.
FFG: What did you have in mind when you were creating the world of the Crucible?
RG: I wanted a world with a wide variety of battling factions that could be mixed and matched. That was basically required by the game design. Beyond that, I wanted a game with a sense of humor, because I felt that would resonate with the crazy, combo-oriented mechanics I was aiming for. Andrew Navaro (Fantasy Flight Games Head of Studio) was the first person to see this as the Crucible and to establish the big picture of the world. He and his team really created the world, though I helped populate it with the first Houses.
FFG: In KeyForge, there is no deckbuilding or boosters, so the tools in your deck are all that you have. Is there any way to balance strength between decks?
RG: Some decks in KeyForge will be better and others worse, though a player has a lot of power to play the decks differently to improve matchups. However, experienced players who know that one deck is favored may choose to put “chains” on the favored deck—which is a flexible handicap designed to balance out these cases. You can think of the chains like a handicap in golf, though instead of being applied to a player, it's applied to the decks. Basically, each chain costs a deck one (or sometimes more) cards over the course of the game. There are simple algorithms for applying chains, but very experienced players can bid chains for the right to play their favored deck.
FFG: Are there any “best” cards to have?
RG: Most of the quality of a card will come from the game situation and how it works with the other cards in the deck. As with all of my designs that involve unequal distribution of game components, the common cards are often quite powerful, and in fact can define your deck. For example, the massive effect Gateway to Dis (Call of the Archons, 59), which destroys all creatures in play, is a common card.
Some of the most interesting cards will be mavericks, which are extremely rare. These are cards which typically belong in one House but, in their maverick incarnation, are placed in another House. These won’t necessarily be the best cards—but they will seldom be expected, and they will sometimes cover a weakness that a House doesn’t have another answer to.
FFG: How do you approach designing a game without deckbuilding? What new possibilities does this explore?
RG: The most important thing is that the deck must be playable right out of the box—and you only need one deck to play. This is a good idea in a TCG, but not really required—many are barely playable out of the box.
After that, there are many things I have learned, and I feel like I am often still getting insights into how to improve a UDG. For example, one insight that came pretty early was that the Houses in KeyForge didn’t have to follow the same rules as, for example, colors in Magic: The Gathering. If you're going to have factions in games where a player can choose the cards they want to play with, you must be very careful not to bleed the powers from one faction to another. If you put a few cards in the wrong place—even if those cards are technically rare—players might choose to play with them a lot. Therefore, the faction simply acquires that new capability, though potentially at a high cost. On the other hand, with a UDG you can have a House with, for example, a few big creatures but predominantly small creatures. The House will have the character you would expect—mostly small creatures with some exceptions. This makes designing Houses feel much more like designing characters rather than simply dividing up powers between factions.
FFG: Can you speak to the rarities of different cards? What role does this play? How many rare cards can players expect in a given deck?
RG: Broadly there are three rarities: common, uncommon, and rare. Technically, there is a fourth very rare category, the maverick. The maverick is an out-of-House card, with the most common mavericks being maverick commons, followed by maverick uncommons, and last of all maverick rares. There are also cards that come with other cards, making those cards' rarity dependent in part on the first card’s rarity. I think there are also a couple cards that have different variations, making each sub-variation rarer.
Players can expect about three rare cards in a deck, but this is not guaranteed, and a deck may have fewer rares or many more. Because the power level of a card is not dependent on rarity, you won't be able to judge a deck’s power by the number of rares in it.
FFG: KeyForge features a wide variety of incredible art. How did the Crucible get its look?
RG: FFG was extremely supportive of my desire for a colorful game with a fair amount of humor. I felt that a bit of humor would allow a lot of crazy mechanics that would amuse rather than irritate. The exact story of how it came to be can really only be told by Andrew and the art department— my involvement beyond setting a general direction was small, and I was always happily surprised by what came my way after that.
FFG: What do you think players will enjoy the most about KeyForge?
RG: I think there will be something magical knowing that your experience is unique—it isn’t a path that every other player (or any other player) has walked before you. There will be experts weighing the various cards and synergies available—but everyone will have their own unique access to those things, with both strengths and weaknesses. I think players will also find they have a lot more agency in how to play a deck than most customizable card games. By focusing on the different Houses in their decks in different ways, it can almost be like playing a different deck.
FFG: What was the most difficult part of the design process for KeyForge?
RG: Playtesting was more challenging than with most games. A "Unique Deck" only has value if there is a community of players, and in playtesting that is hard to really build.
Balancing the game was also uniquely challenging, because players have different game components in a way that has never been done before. We weren’t even sure what the right questions were. For example, how often should a bottom 5% deck be able to beat a median deck—based on luck and based on skill? How about median versus top 5%? What is the best and most flexible handicap? How should people apply that handicap? These questions were really new to us—and answering them posed a unique challenge because the game had a lot of depth and we didn’t have a pool of experts yet.
FFG: What were some of your greatest influences when designing the Houses of the Crucible?
RG: I wanted to get both fantasy and science fiction into the game. Brobnar was Norse mythos, and in fact was originally labeled House Berserker. Dis was sort of techno-demons. Logos was the mad scientist House—I was drawing from Rick and Morty and Futurama. Shadows was a "world of thieves." Sanctum was techno-knights. Untamed was a faerie and beast House. Mars drew from War of the Worlds and Mars Attacks!
FFG: Which House do you identify with the most?
RG: Probably Logos. I like mad scientists and wacky game effects. However, I have a real soft spot for Mars—not because I identify with it, but because I think it has a fun and distinct character, doing weird things like archiving an opponent’s creatures or causing them to steal from themselves. And I love the Untamed card The Common Cold (Call of the Archons, 336), which can destroy all Martians in play!
FFG: Do you have any plans to celebrate when KeyForge is released?
RG: I would like to host a big tournament… but given that I have baby twins in the house it will likely have to be a small quiet tournament.
The Crucible Is Calling You
Soon, your chance will come to travel to a world beyond imagination and begin your clashes in pursuit of power. Do you have the strength, the wisdom, and the tactical prowess to earn victory for your Archons and unlock the secrets of the Crucible? You only need one deck to start playing, so recruit your teams, discover their strengths, and win the day!
KeyForge will hit shelves in fourth quarter of 2018, but you can pre-order your copy of KeyForge: Call of the Archons (KF01) and your own collection of Archon Decks (KF02a) at your local retailer today or on the Fantasy Flight Games website here!