Game by Richard Breese.
Produced by R&D Games.
Review by Ken Tidwell.

Keywood is a delightful new game reminiscent of Die Siedler von Catan in theme but very different in content. 2 - 5 players attempt to settle and govern a new land of six villages. Each player may only introduce two new villagers per turn across five or six turns total. Villagers start as farmers earning a fixed income. Part of that income may be spent to purchase trade licenses which allow your villagers to set up as traders. Traders earn an income based on the population of their village. Each village must also elect a representative to government each turn. These councilors move to town and have no income for that turn (so much for realism - there is no provision for special interest groups or political action committees!). The government must decide whether to tax the farmers, tax the traders, or revoke one type of trade license. When this session of government breaks up councilors can either pay their own way home or pay a small fee and remain in government for another turn (well, at least that sounds realistic!). Each turn a new marketplace is opened which doubles the income of the host village. The villages bid fiercely for the right to host the new market each turn. Finally, the villagers and traders earn income and pay their taxes. The player that has the most money after the last round of play inherits control of the lands of Keywood and wins the game.

New villagers arrive for free in one of two designated villages. However, each village can only support six villagers and two traders. Moving villagers further down the road costs money so the entry villages quickly become crowded and, with five players, the pushing starts in earnest on the third turn. It is legal to use your entering villager to push one of your existing villagers on to the next village but you must still pay the transport costs for the pushed villagers. Late in the game a double push may be required to bring in new villagers with one villager being pushed from the entry village and a second being pushed from the first town down the road. (Though see my later note about problems with the movement rules.) The profitability of this sort of pushing diminishes rapidly as the game draws to a close. Unfortunately, the players that start the later turns gain a distinct advantage from the economics of the movement and election systems as they enter for free into the spaces freed up by the last election.

Players need to watch the populations of the villages carefully. The elections can be used to remove a player completely from a village, one villager at a time. Eventually your trader may be elected away from their shop, which closes the doors and, eventually, puts the trade license back up for bid. If a player is elected away from one of the start villages they may find themselves starting the long, multi-village pushes too early in the game with disastrous financial effect. Keywood avoids the true nastiness of the elections in Rette Sich Wer Kann (aka The Lifeboat Game) by allowing the elected players an avenue for revenge: taxation.

Taxation seems to heavily favor business (another stroke of realism?). When the farmers are taxed, 50 to 100% of their income is consumed. When traders are taxed, typically they lose 25 - 50% of their income. Revoking a type of trade license seldom affects more than one trade stall, partly because of the politics of the town council and partly because of the distribution of the trade stalls in conjunction with the rear villages being settled near the end of the game.

This effect and the pushing problem mentioned above make me question whether or not we were playing the movement rules correctly. The rules state that it costs two gold pieces to move one villager to another town. The board, however, seems to indicate that villagers must move to the middle villages before reaching the rear villages. Perhaps the intention is that villagers can move from one village to any other village for their two gold pieces. A clarification is in order.

The rules can seem daunting even though they are well presented. If I had it to do over again, I would have played two practice rounds then started over again for a full game. There a lot of mechanisms at work in this game but they really are quite easy to learn. Some of the consequences are less than obvious but the designer is generous with hints and points out most of the key issues to consider when planning your moves.

Keywood is great fun. I recommend it for gamers and non-gamers who can handle a small amount of complexity.

Keywood is the latest (first?) game from Richard Breese, a likable English accountant, and his new company, R & D Games (not to be confused with the American distributor of the same name). The game features wooden playing pieces, premounted black and white board and voting chits (the voting chits may require some judicious application of additional glue), and plastic chips for money (with, unfortunately, denomination determined by size and not color with no other demarcation). The author's sister did a great job on the board and other artwork, though both could benefit from color. I have plans, in my copious spare time, to use a colored pencil to highlight the various village houses, as they can be difficult to spot from across the board. Most everyone can count to six (to check the village for empty houses) so this is not a major problem. The real shame is that the artwork is very nice, modeled after a medieval tapestry, but it is difficult for the eye to pick out the myriad of fine details which illustrate village life with humor and beauty. I eagerly await the inevitable full color, mass produced edition of the game (which should also serve to make this edition quite collectable).

This edition of Keywood is limited to 200 handmade copies. I expect it to sell out quickly; certainly all remaining copies will be sold at Essen in mid-October, 1995. Move now if you want one. Cost is £17 (Europe), £19.50 (USA) postpaid. I don't know what sort of arrangements Richard has made for dealing with checks drawn on banks outside of England so you may want to contact him about that before sending money.

R & D Games
19 Norman Avenue
East Twickenham
Middlesex TW1 2LY

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell