Sometimes in the world of board game reviewing you get Déjà vu, where you get the distinct feeling that you’ve gone through similar mechanics or similar moves very recently as you start to learn and play a new game. Sometimes it comes at the detriment of the newer game as you can end up subconsciously comparing if the new game does certain things better or worse. Other times it makes learning the newer game a much simpler prospect, as the base mechanics are already there even if the components and art bears no similarity. You know neither game influenced the other and the shared mechanics are pure coincidence but it’s interesting to see how theme can play such an important role in helping to shape your end opinion of a game. I had this recently after playing Keystone North America over the last couple of weeks having recently reviewed Village Rails. Two completely different looking games that shared some common mechanical similarities.
First things first, Keystone is stunning in how it looks. There’s so much vibrancy and colour on offer here shining out from the box, it’s not just like the Skittles Taste the Rainbow Advert. It’s as though the child went through the entire mountain of Skittles and then with multicoloured tiny hands, proceeded to touch literally every surface in your wonderfully sterile white walled house. You’re internally screaming here, but at the same time, you’re trying to not to smile with the sheer volume of colour that is in front of you.
Keystone North America is a set collection game, but like both Akropolis and Village Rails, relies on the positioning of your cards to help you maximise the point scoring. You’re playing in a four by four grid, trying to play cards into numerically ascending order while maintaining synergy through similar ecosystems. When it comes to scoring at the end, you’ll only take into account one of the sequences in a row or column to score from, so it’s vital to make sure you are playing cards that continue the run while matching the environment.
You either buy a card and place it, or play one of the skills which will sit in the middle of the table. Now the skills are interesting to me, as they open up multipliers in terms of adding research tokens to your played cards in order to increase the number of times they score for you. Some of the other skills will allow you to move cards to different slots within your player board or pick up additional resource tokens. You’ve got a real chance here to boost what you have on your player mat and while it’s tempting to continually buy cards, the smart player will be using the skills to boost the cards they have played. On the back of the skill cards there are smaller rewards and if you decide to collect those smaller rewards, you collect the rewards from all the flipped skills and then you move the round tracker forward. So in upgrading the value of your cards, you bring on the chance of them bringing the game end closer, and it’s a mechanic that sits over the group and I like the ingenuity behind that design decision. Get stuck and you can purchase a wild card that allows you to play but ignore the numerical order and keep your run going and scoring.
Rose Gauntlet have invested a huge amount of time in the single player variant which not only has it’s own completely different way to play, but in some ways offer more depth and puzzle type elements to the game. The Journal includes some more background and information on why key species and protection are so important and as you play through the series of twenty missions, you’ll unlock additional cards for the game. For those looking for a solo player mode that isn’t merely an after thought then Keystone has definitely gone beyond the normal method of having a point salad bot to play against.
You can tell that Keystone: North America comes from an experienced design team that have invested some effort on making sure their game was not only fun to play, but delivered on helping you to understand a little bit more about the importance of conservation. There’s a lot more crunch than what you expect form the extremely vibrant and wonderfully illustrated visuals. While the base mechanics are extremely easy to learn, the game evolves over time to really get you thinking about your card purchases and placement. With the inclusion of a solo mode that has some real care and attention smothered over it, I must say I’m rather excited to see what Rose Gauntlet has in store for us with their future designs. They clearly woke up and chose Violet..