Key to the City — London Review from a Keyflower Lover

I love Keyflower — its one of my top 2 games of all time (along with Food Chain Magnate). Keyflower does so many things elegantly. The auction mechanism, where players bid following a color system from a fixed resource pool is amazing. The duality of your keyples as currency and worker placement units is so unique and the combination of auction and worker placement with a limited pool creates so much tension, even in a two player game. Keyflower even has two great expansions: The Farmers which expands the breadth of the game, essentially adding in different actions for the player to do and The Merchants which expands the depth of Keyflower by adding in new levels of upgrade and an additional element of optional recipe fulfillment.

When I first heard that Keyflower was getting a spiritual successor in Key to the City: London, my first reaction was excitement. More of my favorite game, more crunchy Keyflower-y goodness! My second reaction was, “Wait what if they mess it up?” My third reaction was, “I don’t really NEED to get this game.” My fourth reaction was, “wait, yes I do.” But now that KttCL is available, do YOU need to pick it up?

Terminology for Keyflower and Key to the City: London

Language translations between Keyflower and Key to the City: London. Much of the gameplay is the same, but certain words and phrases are changed to fit the new theme

Keyflower has been out long enough at this point that there are plenty of good reviews out there detailing the gameplay. In this review I’m just going to cover and dig into how Keyflower is different from KttCL. Here is a terminology conversion chart for Keyflower and KttCL.

How is Key to the City: London BETTER than Keyflower?

The goal of any re-imagining of a game is to improve it, right? Keyflower had several places for improvement that KttCL addressed.

First, the route building in Keyflower is fiddly. One of the most frustrating things is when you win a tile in an auction and can’t find a good spot convenient to your resources for you to place your piece. Really? Is Keyflower about the tile laying? Is it about route building? No. Sure the resource delivery is an important part of the game and makes some tiles valuable. But your ability to fit your wood delivery tile next to the wood building space you built three turns ago shouldn’t affect your success later in the game.

In KttCL this isn’t a problem (for the most part). All of the tiles with the exception of the river tiles can be placed anywhere and in any configuration. As you generate resources, which are different types of connections between tiles, you can place them anywhere in your borough that you want.

Second, turn order determination and re-filling your keyples was a little too baked into the rest of the gameplay in Keyflower. In the original game, you could take three actions on your turn: bid on a tile, use an action, or pass. Once each player passed in a row, you move on to the next phase of the game. Specificly turn order and re-filling your keyples was a part of the bidding process — you could bid on tiles to get keyples and become the new first player. KttCL does something really great here by adding in a fourth action: hard pass versus soft pass, which removes the bidding on turn order positions.

When you “soft pass” in KttCL you’re still in the round, everyone else takes an action. When you “hard pass”, you then make a selection for the resources you get the next round. If you are the first person to “hard pass” you can either a) choose to go first at a slight disadvantage in keyples, b) get the most keyples, or c) take fewer keyples but get an additional scoring tile at the end of the round. There are also additional space with fewer keyples on them. Each player after the first has their pick of what’s left. This is definitively brilliant and something I hope gets re-introduced into Keyflower through a mini-expansion. The change in the way you pass removes a lot of the tension of, “Is she really out or is she just passing to see what I do?”. It makes getting out of a round early more valuable and the double-reverse psychology you work through in your brain easier. My props to the designers on this one.

Ships start in Era 1 and as players “hard pass” they move their ship to a space in the next era. The space furthest to the right is the first player for the next round and gets 7 keyples randomly, the space to the left of that gets 8 keyples, the space furthest to the left gets 6 keyples and the Era 1 tile, another scoring tile, to add to their borough.

Third, KttCL adds in third level upgrades in the base game and they have gorgeous 3D monuments to identify them. Now I don’t generally care about theme in games. In most cases I can take it or leave it as long as the mechanisms are well-designed, but it just feels so good in KttCL when I build the The London Eye or The Shard. Yes, third level upgrades were added in Keyflower: The Merchants, and yes they are an awesome addition that adds a lot of crunch to the game. This is just different and thematic and fun.

Whats NEUTRAL between the games?

Only three colors of keyples in Key to the City: London

One of the most satisfying parts of Keyflower was being the only player with green keyples available. When you were the player in the position of power, wielding the green keyples you can get away with anything. Does my opponent want to purchase that tile? Well I’m going to bid on it first because it would look great in my collection. Do you want no one else to be able to generate green keyples? I’m going to use my green keyples to generate more green keyples. This is fun, but it can also be game breaking. I’ve seen games where one player and her pool of green keyples ends up with nearly all of the winter tiles, or where she blocks off players from using their own tiles by simply placing out one green keyple. So, not having them is good and bad. In games where there is a limited but spread out supply of green keyples, they are fantastic but in games where one player has all of them you may begin looking at your watch wondering what you got yourself into. The lack of green keyples in KttCL removes a layer of strategic depth and variability from Keyflower, but it also makes the game more approachable.

The next big change in KttCL was that there are six different types of resources and in the first two rounds of the game, there are tiles available to bid on for all six of them. This is good because it creates a balanced set of resources available, no one ever needs a resource but doesn’t have it available to them. On the other hand, it removes some of the complexity of building a strategy around whats available to you. It makes every game feel similar in contrast with the rich variability in tiles available in Keyflower and the different strategies that would force you to consider. KttCL has similar skill resources as Keyflower, but they’re all available every round on tiles which you can bid on. This is a nice addition since the availability and value of these tiles would vary widely in Keyflower.

The two different types of resources in Key to the City: London: skill tokens and connections. Skill tokens are used to upgrade your tiles and for end of game victory points. Connections are placed between hexes and can be involved in point scoring and tile upgrading.

The last neutral point in KttCL is how upgrades work. The points here could be made individually in the pros and cons sections since they are definitively pros and cons of the game. In KttCL, once you fulfill a tile’s requirements you simply activate it as you normally would to perform the upgrade. One of the worst moments in Keyflower would be when you upgrade a tile and one of your opponents would immediately activate it with a color that you don’t have enough of. In KttCL you can control what color your newly upgraded tile is since you’re activating it. The negative is, when you activate it you don’t get to use it for the resources, which is a bummer because you probably still want those resources. Upgrading is definitely easier and removes the “sniping” which is possible in Keyflower, but that is at a cost.

What did Key to the City: London get wrong?

When I play Keyflower, nothing feels better than when I build an engine involving three or four tiles and I can run it to victory. Getting a resource generating space and paring it with a tile that turns skill tokens into resources is awesome. Parking a place that scores those resources next to it and funneling resources to that final space feels so good. There are so many ways to build a big, powerful engine in Keyflower and that is absolutely brilliant. KttCL takes that away from you and limits the engine you can build to either single level or a pretty simple two level engine, but even that takes you such a long time to build that its a challenge to fully utilize it.

The second thing KttCL really didn’t get right is the end game scoring tiles. In KttCL, all of the end game tiles which will be available are presented at the beginning. Since the players know exactly which resource generation tiles will come out during the game, this makes their value effectively fixed (plus or minus which other scoring tiles come out along the way). This really detracts from the strategy since all players can see exactly which tiles will be worthwhile and to what extent. Now you could house rule the Keyflower thing where players get a hand of scoring tiles and either all get put into play or you pick which get put into play similar to Keyflower, but I haven’t tried that.

Is that grey? Really?

Third, the colors on the cards are atrocious, in particular the grey resources. At first glance I thought they were brown. We weren’t in the best lighting, but still. It shouldn’t take a table discussion to determine what colors are in a game.

Final Thoughts

Both are great games. I categorize Keyflower as a medium to heavy game and Key to the City: London as a medium weight game. KttCL does many things right that I wish could be retroactively added into Keyflower.

What makes Keyflower so great is the engine building and the differences in strategy you can pursue. KttCL tones down the engine building and probably makes it more approachable to new players. Overall I think KttCL has less of a runaway leader effect and all players are still in the game, but that is due to the level of strategy available in the game.

So if you have Keyflower do you need KttCL? Well it depends. If you want to play Keyflower with new players KttCL provides gameplay which is close to Keyflower, but much more approachable in terms of strategy and learning the mechanisms. Answer: Maybe?

So if you don’t have either, which do you get? Both! No. Not really. Get whichever best suits your group’s play style. Do you like heavier games which benefit long-term strategy? Get Keyflower. Do you like games which are a little lighter and streamlined? Get Key to the City: London. Do you have an acquisition addiction like the one I’m fighting off? Then maybe you should get both.

Happy gaming!