The story of KeyForge is a strange. The trading card game arrived with much fanfare in 2018 (including us), featuring a procedural algorithm capable of generating some 32 billion different decks of cards on its own. The appeal was its surprise factor, as even the game’s developers didn’t know what was inside each box. Publisher Fantasy Flight Games quickly gained a foothold in hobby stores and established a nascent organized gaming circuit; the game felt like it was poised to become the next big CCG. So, in September 2021the publisher announced that it was no longer able to produce any more cards.
Messaging back then was cryptic. Fantasy Flight simply stated that the game’s sophisticated algorithm was “brokenand that it had to be rebuilt “from scratch”. It may be true. But there was a much bigger problem, said company co-founder Christian Petersen in a recent interview with Polygon: All of the software engineers who helped create the algorithm in the first place were now working for another. company.
Petersen founded Fantasy Flight in 1995. The Minnesota-based publisher made a name for itself with Petersen’s own strategy game, Twilight Imperium, widely regarded as one of the greatest and most complex board games ever created. This one super popular game spawned one of the first tabletop publishing houses in the United States, responsible for KeyForge of course, but also for other games based on franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and many other modern classics made by its own creative teams.
In 2014, Asmodee, a large multinational corporation with dozens of popular board games under its umbrella, ripped off Fantasy Flight. Petersen left soon after to start a new company called strange stars. The engineers who could have helped rebuild KeyForge for Asmodeus was now working for him. So he did what any good businessman would do: he made an offer to buy out the rights to KeyForge.
“Asmodee is again about six months behind,” Petersen said. “Maybe they didn’t like the amount of money I was willing to pay. Eventually they came back and we closed the deal in June.
Now Petersen, who has spent the last several years developing software and manufacturing systems for the board game industry, among other things, is back in the publishing business. Its first product is called KeyForge: The Winds of Exchangeand at the time of publication, it has raised over $1 million in crowdfunding on Game found.
Is that enough money to rebuild the algorithm and return the game to the wild? Only Petersen knows for sure. Either way, he told Polygon he firmly believes KeyForge always worth saving. The same goes for the game’s new producer, Michael Hurley. Also a veteran of Fantasy Flight Games, he was among the executives in the room when co-creator Richard Garfield (Magic: The Gathering) first ran a prototype using — what else? — a highly modified Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.
“The [were] lots of macros in it,” Hurley said, tracing the words to emphasize the file size involved. “It contained a list of all the card names that [Garfield] had designed for the game. […] When he wanted to create a deck, he just ran a few scripts, and it basically generated a list of cards that were in the deck. [Then] he would draw the cards the spreadsheet told them to draw, then put them together.
“He would just do this over and over until he had […] about fifteen different prototype decks that he had generated in this way.
But, in the original design, not all bridges worked very well.
“He originally wanted all the bridges to be totally random,” Petersen said, “so you have no idea what you’re getting. But we said, “No, it’s not going to work because there’s going to be such a variation in what you get that it’s going to be a problem for players.”
They ended up with a much more structured system – recipe is probably the best word – for deck building. The KeyForge algorithms, new and old, both work the same way. They first draw 12 existing cards from each of the three houses, which are themed factions that give texture to the game’s lore. The game then gets a unique name and artwork on the back of each card, generated from the same way by the same algorithm. But not all decks are created equally, and more powerful decks are adjusted (much like a handicap score in golf) for competitive play.
But every once in a while, the algorithm does something unusual, creating an ultra-rare card called a Maverick. It’s a card originally designed to be part of one house, but changed to be part of another. Mavericks even have their own symbol printed on the border to call them out. If present in a single deck, Mavericks can become the heart of powerful and unexpected strategies that can be difficult for other decks to counter.
Petersen says the algorithm rebuild project is progressing well, and should be ready in time for the next batch of procedurally generated maps, Mavericks and all, that should come out with KeyForge: The Winds of Exchange in January 2023. Will it be early enough to give the game a second chance at success? He remains optimistic, but pragmatic.
“The big question is, is the audience still there?” said Peterson. “It’s very difficult to restart an injured game. It’s almost impossible. I’ve had many times in my career where we [have said], ‘This game has been hurt. He limps. It’s mostly dead. And we love the game, we think it’s really great. But what can we do?’ In most situations, it’s just not worth it. […] Why try to revive it [when it] just doesn’t make economic sense? »
The crowdfunding campaign ends September 26. Expect pre-orders to open soon after it wraps, though, and continue for several months until release.