Farmers, Traders and ... Keywood

Review of board game Keywood by Pevans

Keywood is unusual in being limited in almost every facet of the game. To start with, there are exactly six turns - and the player with the most money at the end of the sixth turn wins the game (thank you, oh beneficent Keywood). Each player has twelve playing pieces, representing villagers, and can bring up to two of them on to the board each turn - the first tip is never to forgo bringing on a piece: the more pieces you've got the greater your potential income and influence. Bringing new villagers on to the board is free, but moving people from village to village costs gold. As the six villages form a chain, the number of houses in each is limited and newcomers can only enter the first two, moving people around is necessary. Bringing someone on into a full village allows you to move one of your pieces already resident there on to the next village - though you still have to pay for these moves. Tip two: make the most of this mechanism to move several villagers in one go.

Once all the players have finished moving their villagers, trading licences are auctioned. There are six different types of trader, with two different trades in each village. The licences for populated villages are most valuable, but as only the licence currently being auctioned is visible you have to gamble on this. Tip three: if you can pick up a licence cheap, it is worth doing so even if you can't use it. You can trade it with other players later on.

Councillor

It is then time for each village to elect one of its members to the Council (oh, power-sharing Keywood). This is a double-edged sword as a council member generates no income (the piece is moved to the town in the centre of the board), but gets a vote on the turn's taxation. It is not unusual for a player with only one piece in a village to end up representing it on the Council. Depending on what's important to you in the current game position, it may be more or less valuable for you to be on the Council - and your fellow players will help you decide! This brings in one of the most important elements of the game: negotiation. Virtually everything in the game can, and should, be negotiated between players. Trying to play a solo strategy is not a recipe for success.

With the make up of the Council determined, players now decide whether to play any of their trading licences. This can be a tough decision as the Council then votes on whether to tax the farmers (non-trader villagers) or the traders or to revoke one type of trading licence. This is where you suddenly discover that you needed to have people on the Council after all! Revoking a trading licence is usually aimed at one or two players - usually the leaders - while the taxation options are more general in their effects.

Almost the last thing in the turn is for each village to bid for a market - though the players put the money up. There are six markets and one must be placed each turn, so each village will end up with a market. However, the village which gets one first will have the benefits - double income - for the whole game. There are two devious twists here. Once a village has won the bid, the market can be placed in any populated village. And it is the inhabitants of the winning village who vote on where the market goes, not necessarily the players who paid for it. More negotiation is called for.

Money

Finally, each player gets their income and pays taxes. Income for farmers is straightforward: it's one gold for each - but if they have to pay tax, that's one each as well. Income for traders is one for each farmer in the same village - and they can be taxed at three. With the markets doubling income, a trader can bring in 12 gold in a turn (though this is unlikely). You can immediately see that traders are a major source of income in the game, and hence revoking trading licences is a powerful sanction.

That's it. The sequence of what happens in a turn is a bit complicated, but there is a crib sheet to guide the first player through each turn, and what happens within each segment is simple enough. Overall the segments interlock, with actions in one having repercussions in others and thus giving the players lots of decisions to make. This is a superb design, which has been carefully thought out. It provides a clever, balanced game with a minuscule element of luck. The play of the game depends almost entirely on the strategies and tactics of the players, which means it will be different each time it is played.

The number of players also affects play. With three players, the game is very open and people can establish controlling positions in specific villages. With five, resources are tight and it is likely that several players will not be able to bring all their pieces on to the board. It also leads to some fiendish negotiations. With four players, the game is somewhere in between, but has a tendency to develop into two two-player alliances. I haven't tried playing the game with only two players, but I suspect this is far more a game of out-thinking and out-manoeuvring your opponent, as there is so little scope for negotiation.

High and Mighty

Production is adequate, with some fine black and white illustrations. Given that the game is produced by the designer, this is highly creditable. My only problem with Keywood is the introduction to the game: "The wise and mighty Keywood has established a land of peace and plenty into which the chosen few are allowed to migrate. After six years Keywood will gift the land to the most successful villagers..." However, it does provide a rationale for the game that follows.

All in all, this is a very good package and only those who don't like negotiating with other players will dislike it. The bad news is that Richard only produced 200 copies of the game and sold most of these at Spiel '95. Since then the game has become a definite collectors' item.

Keywood was designed by Richard Breese and published (in the UK) by R+D Games. It is for 2-5 players and takes about 90 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 10/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 97, December 1995/January 1996.

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