Published by R and D Games
Designed by Richard Breese
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£16.50 from the publisher
2 to 5 players
90-120 minutes

In duly immodest mode, I can report that the catalyst for Richard's new game Keywood was the Design Workshop challenge in Sumo 14/15. So here is 'the one game more than we would have had otherwise'. Indeed, it is the one and only game submitted this year. Oh well. Having played and been more than baffled by Richard's first game, Chamelequin, when I opened the Keywood box I was expecting more of the same. How wrong I was. A true multi-player game rather than a two player abstract, Keywood has proved one of the hits of this year and we have been playing it a lot.

The game is set in the middle ages in an imaginary new realm created by its benevolent owner and ruler, Keywood. Each player's pieces represent the inhabitants of an adjoining land, each of whom wish to flee from their own troubled kingdom to Utopia. Refugees, already. In order to ensure the orderly population of Keywood, and to keep red tape to a minimum, the boss allows only two prospective villagers from each of the neighbouring lands into his land each game turn. And he makes sure they have the correct jabs. Once in the land a new villager will become a farmer and may subsequently become a trader or councillor, who respectively earn income or get a vote at the council. At the end of the game, the player who has accumulated the most gold (if I had a pound for every time.....) inherits the lands of Keywood and wins the game.

The game lasts for up to six rounds and each round has seven different phases. With two players the game lasts for approximately ninety minutes, with the maximum five players this increases to approximately two hours. With five players a game of five rounds is recommended, but you can always play less if you wish (there is a formal variant in the rules). This will make the game shorter but makes the further reaches of the kingdom less likely to enter play. Our games have been panning out at around 90 minutes, but as with all the better systems, the games seem rather shorter and there is always plenty going on.

In the first phase players may introduce up to two new villagers, at no cost, into the farms located in the two villages nearest the edge of the map. Whilst Keywood remains benevolent toward his new villagers, subsequent journeys between the farther villages or to or from the town must be paid for in gold pieces. And boy does he extract his pound of flesh for a cart ride. I compare this to working in London - the salaries are good, but you stump up a largish chunk in fares. Movement is especially important later in the game when the immigration policy has been working too well and the first four villages are somewhat crowded. The temptation to Go West is very real at this point.It is therefore important to retain sufficient gold in order to finance these additional moves.

Each village can accommodate a maximum of six farmers and later, in addition, two traders. Each villager of either type carries a single vote in the election phase which is a double edged sword, as we shall see. While the farmers plod along on steady breadline earnings, the serious (if a little less predictable) money derives from the traders, which come in six different flavours. To become a trader requires a licence and up to three licences are auctioned each turn. These are well worth acquiring as a trader can earn up to twelve gold pieces per round whilst a farmer can only earn a maximum of two.

In phase three each village elects a councillor. Importantly, this provides an opportunity to stop one villager from earning an income as a farmer or as a trader, and if a trader is elected as a councillor his licence is immediately lost. Also, beware not to become the only inhabitant of a village or that villager will automatically be elected. Cleverly, if a sole farmer is elected, leaving just traders, the latter will receive no income as their income is based on the number of farmers - no customers, no profit. The election element is rather like deciding who to throw overboard in Rette Sich Wer Kann, except that villagers are not permanently lost from the game and with the added sting in the tail, that the villager elected councillor is able to get their revenge through the council vote.

In phase four farmers with licences have the opportunity to set up as new traders, however these licences may still be revoked by council vote. This occurs when the councillors decide on how to raise money for Keywood. They may vote to tax each farmer one gold piece, they may vote to tax each trader three gold pieces, or they may vote to revoke one type of trader's licence. A player's own position relative to that of their opponents' will dictate the way that the player is likely to vote and needless to say things can become heated with your livelihood on the line.....

In the penultimate phase each village bids for a market licence. If a market is established in a village, then income will be permanently doubled, so a licence is well worth the money communally stumped up. The effect is to make the village immediately popular as a base, quickly attracting new villagers. It may also be worthwhile for a village which already has a market to outbid one that hasn't and then to choose to set up a market in an empty village to retain its income advantage. Finally, in the last phase, each villager receives an income in gold less any taxes levied by the council. Each farmer earns one gold piece while a trader will generate one gold piece for each farmer in the same village (the more farmers, the more trade will have been generated). Of course all this is doubled with a market.

I am told by the designer that Keywood had originally been developed as an historical game based on events arising in the area of Richard's home town. Hard to believe there were too many benevolent dictators in Twickenham, but there you go. Then Elfenroads came along, provoking the introduction of several villages (indeed the first trial runs were apparently played on a corner of the Elfenroads board) and the traders' licences, which although used for a different function, have a passing resemblance to the transportation counters used in the Moonster's classic. However, unreasonably influenced by the 'No Bleedin' Hobbits' comment in my Elfenroads review, Richard refrained from introducing a fantasy theme into the Keywood game, although if you look hard, one small dragon can be spotted in the woods. Sumo was also indirectly responsible for the title of the game. Our US readers may know the (up until now) one and only Keywood Cheves. Keywood met Richard, although he may not recall the event, across a Waldmeister board on the Hans im Gluck stand at Essen and his unusual name was considered an ideal match for the game. Mr.Cheves will undoubtedly be claiming his royalties.

Keywood is produced to a standard high enough to make it virtually ineligible for gamekit status and, pleasingly, requires hardly any work before you're ready to play. The box is a 'standard' bookcase size, but of the self assembly type, in plain white, with a two colour illustration. (I understand that Richard is happy to sell these boxes in small quantities at 50p each, or together with a packing box at 1 for the two, to anyone who can arrange collection). The board is attractive, double folding, and A2 in size. These are painstakingly made up by hand. It is faced with a detailed black and white line illustration of the Lands of Keywood, combining original drawings by Richard's talented sister and leaf patterned Letratone. Richard is hoping to produce a full colour board in due course, which due to cost considerations will be available separately. As an alternative just buy the kids a set of coloured pencils and keep them quiet for an hour or so. Also inside the box are 60 wooden counters from IPUR (representing the villagers), yellow plastic counters in three different sizes (representing gold pieces), cardboard voting tiles, traders' licences, market tiles, a prompt card, a set of very clear rules and a useful sheet of hints on how to play.

Keywood is an interesting little design. There are a number of distinct phases, which can in other games promote a sense of repetition, but I didn't find this to be a problem here. The interaction is good, as almost every move or bid you make will have both long and short term implications for both you and your rivals. There is a dusting of negotiation, another Siggins bugbear, but it is unobtrusive and, like Rette, essential to the game's flavour. It would be hard to imagine a game with a council and voting not having such a requirement. The game is highly enjoyable, is certainly no lightweight and I feel will require quite a bit of play before the strategies are conquered. And it is such a novel and entertaining theme. My sole reservations are the costs of travel, which I feel if cheaper (or free!) would encourage a more fluid, perhaps more tactical, game, and I am also a favour of 'once around' bidding whenever appropriate to speed things up. I suggested both of these amendments to Richard, in that pompous way I have, but he decided, quite rightly, to stick with the existing (and tested) systems. These variants, and many others, are however included with the game for you to try out.

From a personal point of view, which shouldn't affect your decision too much, I am happy that Keywood even exists. Richard has taken on board, and implemented, virtually all of the concepts I was trying to promote in Design Workshop and a rather good game has resulted. The fact that he is essentially the second gamer to respond is a sobering thought, but that takes nothing away from him, his efforts, or the game whose existence, and no little success already, is proof that it can be done. All I am left wondering is whether game design and publication, and game playing, do in fact go hand in hand. And when I've finished wondering, I realise they probably don't.

Whatever, for you and me, Keywood is an absorbing hour and a half's play and represents far better value than many of the professional offerings which have appeared recently. The theme is original and entertaining, the game has a logic all its own, production is rather good, the game has been well tested, the rules are excellent and the interaction is pitched at just the right level. That seems to be generally positive then, doesn't it? It is a little long to play right through, though. There, balance. As Richard is issuing the game as a limited edition of two hundred copies it would be advisable to order early. Recommended.

Keywood is available for £16.50 including U.K. postage and packing, £17 Europe or £19.50 U.S.A. from:

Richard Breese
19 Norman Avenue
St. Margaret's
East Twickenham

Copyright 1995, Mike Siggins

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell