I like worker placement. I wouldn’t call myself an expert in it, but I’ve probably played Caylus more than any other board game, and while I do lose a lot, I like to think that I “get” worker placement. I also like auctions, being a computer scientist who’s studied them a little, and I like pretty things, being a person, so when Max and Wayne from Oxford On Board started piling hexagons and meeples onto the table and explaining the rules of Keyflower, I knew I was onto something.
Let’s start with that first impression: the Keyflower box looks gorgeous, and when you open it up you get literally hundreds of wooden bits including 141 meeples (sorry, I mean keyples). The hexagonal tiles are beautiful, well-themed and even organised by season. It’s hard not to just start putting them together to make little villages as soon as they hit the table. As it happens, you do get to make little villages, but that bit comes later.
The game kicks off with a random draw of tiles which go up for auction. Each tile is a building of some sort that you can add to your village and put workers on to gain some sort of benefit, be it resources, skills, or victory points. If you want those lovely little tiles in your village however, you have to bid meeples for them. At the same time, it doesn’t kick off with an auction at all - all of the tiles on the table are possible targets for worker placement, so you can get right on them and grab their resources without bidding at all. The catch is, whoever wins the auction wins the meeples you use to activate the tile. That’s not all, though - you can also activate any tile that someone else has already won and placed in their town. Again, they get your meeples, but you get the resources, and sometimes that’s what is important.
Instantly, you have two strong mechanics in play, and every tile being in available all the time means that you’re not stuck waiting around for them to happen - you can easily spend all of your workers every turn. They don’t always return to you, however, so sitting on your workers and waiting for something better to play on is a valid part of the game. When all the tiles are bought, the season changes and a whole new set of tiles come out, making you wish that you’d played the last season completely differently and making you think that actually, your plan for world domination (or rather, quaint village domination) is never going to work after all.
There’s a downside though: I wouldn’t want to have explain this game to anyone who’s never played a worker placement game before. There are a lot of pieces, and a lot of tiles, and the victory points (and thus how you have to play to win) only show up halfway through, and the symbols don’t make much sense until you get your head around them (at which point they’re all you need). This is not a fun game to learn, and your first game will take a while. That said, if you’ve got a bit of patience, your eyes will light up and your brain will explode into action when the Summer tiles are laid down and you realise how the seasons are all going to tie together.
After one game, I have no idea how to win Keyflower. It feels like after 10 games I won’t have any idea how to win, either. This feels, at least to me, like the right kind of confusion, where every single time you play, the “right” thing to do will be utterly different. Fortunately, the theme and look of the game is so pretty that I don’t think I’ll be minding whether or not I win any time soon.