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Keyforge: Interview with Richard Garfield

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WELCOME TO THE CRUCIBLE…

In the center of the universe hangs the Crucible, an artificial planet built from the pieces of countless worlds. Here, the ethereal Archons clash in fierce battles, leading teams assembled from the Crucible as they race to gather Æmber. By collecting enough of this precious material, you can forge the keys you need to win a game of KeyForge: Call of the Archons!

Along with this new world comes an utterly new game model. As a Unique Deck Game, every Archon Deck in KeyForge is distinct from every other deck in existence. With no deckbuilding or boosters, players are challenged to use every tool at their disposal, discovering the synergies within their deck to unlock its true power.

But what about the mind behind the Crucible? Who constructed this world, and why? Today, renowned game designer Richard Garfield speaks about the challenges and triumphs of designing KeyForge: Call of the Archons!

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 putting 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.

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGY THAT MAKES KEYFORGE POSSIBLE? HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE THAT EVERY ARCHON DECK IS UNIQUE?

RG: I’m 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 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.

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’ve 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.

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.

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.

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!

THE CRUCIBLE IS CALLING YOU

KeyForge: Call of the Archons has already hit the shelves in the fourth quarter of 2018. 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: Call of the Archons is available from MaltaComics

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