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Four years ago Mike Siggins decided to try and stimulate the readership of Sumo into designing and producing some games of their own by initiating an award for "gamekit of the year". Unfortunately, and not for the first time in history, when the call came to "put up or shut up", the world fell silent. There is a big gulf between having a half-developed idea for a game at the back of your mind and actually getting it into the shape where you are willing to show it to the world and it was a gulf that proved too wide for all bar one. The exception was Richard Breese and now the story takes a turn for the better, because his entry was the one that would almost certainly have been the winner even had the entry been as large as Mike hoped. The game was Keywood, it got a very favourable mention in Mike's column in the Summer 1995 edition of Sumo where he described it as a "true gamer's game" and forecast that it would sell out its 200 print run very quickly. The full review came in the Autumn issue where Mike's summary ran "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." Again the advice was to order early, but by then it came almost too late, for Richard had taken the game to Essen, sold all the copies he had taken and had very few left at home. Soon they were gone too. The new game is the follow up.
In Keywood, the story line was that a powerful magician called Keywood, tired of the chaos and lawlessness in the area where he lived, had decided to create his own model county. This county was to have a town and half a dozen villages. Selected villagers would gradually be invited in and once there, they could set up farms and trading operations. Keywood would take the big Prime Ministerial decisions requiring vision and village councils would do the unpopular stuff on how to raise taxes. In the new game the old boy's annuities have matured and he is about to take early retirement, which means that the hunt is on for a successor. The aim of the game is to secure the post.
The board (which has been produced to professional standards and has been beautifully illustrated by Richard's sister, Juliet) shows the three layers of Keydom society. At the bottom are the villages, where the wealth is generated, and above them you have the town where it is spent. The town itself has an outer area in which reside priests, traders, soldiers and the like and an inner keep where the craftsmen, and Keywood himself, live and work. The craftsmen comprise a blacksmith, a locksmith and a goldsmith and part of the requirements for the top job are that you own objects produced by each of them. The other is that you have acquired Keywood's book on how to govern. Once you have all four, you can step into the throne room and claim the prize.
The driving mechanism of the game is a collection of numbered counters, one set for each player, and in the first phase the players place these, number side down, in the various areas of the board. There is one area for each of the five types of resource (coloured wooden cubes) produced by the villages, one for each of the relevant town residents (soldiers, trader, priest, midwife, wizard, outlaws) and one for each section of the castle. Each of these areas only has a limited number of places and when the counters are turned face up in phase two, it will be a question of high numbers having precedence. So this is the first set of decisions: how to place your counters so as to get the resources you need and to secure the services you want. There is some interesting play involved here, with bluffing, second guessing and intimidation all coming in to play.
Each of the five production areas has eight spaces for workers and one for a supervisor. The workers work and get paid as a pair; isolated workers are non-productive. The supervisor doesn't get paid but does get to decide how the payment for each pair of workers is split between the two. A further twist is introduced by the fact that each player is considered to be a member of a family that specialises in one particular type of production--fishing, farming etc. If two workers from the same family work together in their area of speciality, they are paid double (four cubes the pair, instead of the usual two). For me, this section is the strongest of the interlocking sub-systems that make up the game, offering lots of scope for tactics, both when you are placing the counters and afterwards when they are revealed and players have to decide what to place in which circle. Do you take the supervisor's job, sacrificing the payment for one worker, but ensuring that any others you have there scoop the pool? If you don't take it, might one of the others do so and arrange things so that you go away poor? How can you make make sure that each of your workers is part of a pair? Good and subtle stuff: it is not just a matter of banging down the big numbers.
Then comes the town. The trader enables you to exchange cubes of one colour for cubes of another and the midwife gives you access, after three turns of patient pregnancy which takes one of your counters temporarily out of play, to an extra counter. Everybody else offers services for which they have to be paid, using the wooden resource cubes in various combinations. The soldiers will arrest somebody, thereby preventing a particular counter being activated; the priest hits players' treasuries by demanding donations to the church; the wizard sells spells; the outlaws will steal one of the four items you are seeking (either from the bank or from another player); and the people in the castle will sell you them.
After about seven or eight turns, some players will hold all the four required items and will be in a position to go for the win and you then have a rather fraught turn involving high numbered counters being placed with the soldiers, the outlaws and in the throne room.
Overall verdict? It is good, I enjoyed it and will happily play it any time. The story line makes sense, so do the mechanics and they fit together in a satisfyingly logical way. This is definitely a "theme first; mechanics devised to fit" game, rather than one of the more usual "mechanics first, coat of paint applied afterwards" jobs. It is also, in my view, a better game than Keywood, good though that was. My slight reservation centres on the fact it is a "king of the castle" game and in the past many such games have either hit the "kingmaker problem" or have led to drawn-out, see-saw finishes. It hasn't happened in the games I have played so far, these having gone exactly according to Richard's forecast of a winner on turn seven or eight, but there is still the worry at the back of my mind that as we get more skilled it might. I have noticed already that when the crunch comes, turn order is likely to prove critical and the only way that players can influence that is with the bidding for who goes first on turn one. Perhaps something should still be done there. My other suggestion, which I offer for the professional edition that is surely on its way, concerns the outlaws and theft of the book.
Given that the book represents learning acquired by sitting at the feet of Keywood himself, it is not entirely logical that you should be able to steal it. Stealing the other items makes sense; stealing this one doesn't and the possibility of theft means that it is not really wise to take a counter out of play for three rounds acquiring the book honestly, when it is almost certain that someone will then come along and take it from you. But these are minor matters and can be changed. Overall, this is an excellent achievement which deserves the success it has already had and which I am sure is in line for a lot more.