The extremely dull-looking board game Keyflower is actually an interesting and dynamic worker placement/auction hybrid that’s worth overlooking its conservative aesthetic. Here’s how to play:

(click to view transcript)

Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Keyflower, a worker placement, village-building auction game for 2-6 players. Let me show you how to play!

You and your friends play settlers in the new world, who bid for tiles each season of the year to build out their growing little villages.

You start the game with 8 random “keyples” drawn from a bag in three different colours: red, yellow, and blue. Sidenote: my + people = meeple. Keyflower + meeple = keyple. Keyple + herpetologist = kerpetologeeplist, but let’s not go crazy. Anyway, these keyples are kept secret behind a privacy screen that looks like an adorable little house!

The game is played in 4 seasons, from Spring to Winter. Each season, a fresh selection of hexagonal tiles goes up for auction. By outbidding your opponents using your keyples, you add the tiles you win to your own village. The tiles themselves give you tools, and resources, and sometimes more keyples when you activate them by placing your keyples on them. You can upgrade your tiles to make them more valuable. At the end of each season, the top bidders win their choice of ships coming over from the old world with fresh settlers and tools on them. When the winter auction ends, players tally up their points to see who’s won.

Now, that overview makes Keyflower look super-boring and average in a sea of board games about dull European settlers. But what makes Keyflower really interesting is in the fine print. Let’s dive in a little deeper, and i’ll show you what i mean.

The first interesting thing about Keyflower is how auctions work. On your turn, you can take any number of keyples of the same colour from behind your screen, and use them to bid on a tile. Your keyples go on the tile edge closest to you. So the player sitting here bids along this edge, and this player sitting here bids on this edge or this edge, and so on.

When you bid on a tile, you lock the tile to that colour. Any future bid has to have more keyples in it, and they have to be that same colour. So you can bid one yellow keyple. Your friend Rakesh has to bid two or more yellow keyples if he wants that tile. If you really want the tile, maybe you start out by bidding 2 or 3 yellow keyples? Maybe Rakesh is insane, and throws down 5 yellow keyples? I dunno. Rakesh makes bad life decisions. It’s a problem.

On your turn, you can bolster your bid by adding keyples. (But, i mean… come on.) If you’re outbid anywhere, you can pick up those outbid keyples from one or more auction tiles and assign them somewhere else. You can’t split them up: if you pick up a group of 3, they have to stay in a group of 3. You can grow the group using keyples from behind your screen, but you can’t put outbid keyples back behind your screen. They have to go out in the big wide world somewhere.

Ah – here comes the Rules Gremlin to warn us about something tricky. The rulebook says that outbid keyples can be used in a “bag exchange.” You might think this means you can take your outbid keyples, and put them in the bag, and draw new ones to replace them. I mean, that’s how I played a few games of Keyflower, and a quick internet search shows I’m not alone. We’ll find out what the rules mean by “bag exchange” a little later, but for now, just know that it doesn’t mean you can swap out your outbid keyples in the bag for fresh ones.

At the end of the season, any keyples used in a winning bid get tossed back in the bag! So if you burn a bunch of keyples winning tiles, you might find yourself key-mpoverished come next season.

Tiles can also be activated if you put one or more keyples on them. Check out the big rectangle at the top of the tile to see what it does. Most tiles give you some kind of resource: wood, stone, iron, or gold, or one of three different skill tiles: anvils, pickaxes, and saws. Just like bidding, if you activate a naked tile with a keyple, you lock the tile to that colour. This tile can be activated again, but someone would have to place at least two red keyples on it, since it’s now locked red. The tile gets colour-locked regardless of whether keyples were used to bid on it or activate it – you can’t use blue keyples to activate a tile that was locked yellow in a bid, and likewise, you can’t use blue keyples to bid on a tile that was activated with red ones.

There’s no limit to the number of keyples that can be bid on a tile, but the most keyples the inside of a tile can hold is six. So after three activations, this tile is done. If you start off by placing two keyples on this tile, it can only be activated one more time with 3 keyples. Since 4 more keyples would take it past the limit of 6, this tile can no longer be activated this season.

If you want to block a tile so that no one else can activate it, throw 3 keyples on it. 4 keyples would tip the scale past 6, so this tile is now off-limits. Keyples that are outbid on auction tiles can be scooped up and used to activate other tiles, obeying the colour and number rules… and that even includes the tiles they were outbid on.

At the end of each season, the winning bidders return their successfully-bid keyples to the bag, and take their hard-won tiles, including any keyples that may be on those tiles. And then, they get to build out their villages. The tiles fit together like a jigsaw puzzle – just match up the roads and grass and water along their edges. You can rotate a tile any way you like to make it fit properly. Later, if you get a boat, you can align it by water or by grass. Once you decide on a location for your tiles, you can’t move them around for the rest of the game.

On your turn, you either take 1 or more keyples of a single colour and place them on a tile to activate it, around a tile to bid on it, or you pass. If you pass, and the round comes back to you, you can still jump back in and play if you want to. But it’s a bit risky to pass, hoping you’ll get to play again later… because if every player passes in succession, the season is over.

Now check this out! Here’s one of the most intriguing aspects of Keyflower: Come summer, interesting new tiles are dealt out to the auction. You can place your keyples around them to bid on them, like we’ve seen earlier. You can place your keyples on top of them to get stuff. You can place your keyples on the tiles in your own village to get stuff. You can place your keyples on OTHER people’s tiles in THEIR villages to get stuff. And that means that OTHER players can place their keyples on the tiles in YOUR village to get stuff.

Here’s why it all matters: When a season ends, tiles that nobody bid on leave the game… forevah! If those tiles have any keyples on them, the keyples go back in the bag. Keyples that were outbid come back to the losing players. The keyples that win tiles at auction go back in the bag at the end of the season. Any keyples sitting on the tiles that you win at auction go to you, and you get to use those keyples next season. Any keyples in your village, whether they were placed there by you or by the other players, also go behind your screen for the next season. And by that token, any keyples you’ve placed in your opponents’ villages are theirs to keep!

So that’s where a lot of the meaty strategy of Keyflower comes in: do you place your keyples on auction tiles to get stuff, knowing full well that you might lose those keyples to whoever wins the tile in a bid? Do you use your keyples to win tiles, knowing full well that you’ll lose them to the bag, but… that’s the only tile that provides wood in the game, so if you win the tile and add it to your village, that means other players will play their keyples on it to get wood, meaning that they’ll be feeding you keyples for the rest of the game! So maybe it’s worth impoverishing your keyple supply in Spring as an investment for later?

There’s also the consideration that colour is power. If you have the biggest wad of blue keyples out of anyone at the table, you know you can successfully win any bid, or hog a tile’s benefit with a three-keyple power play. That’s why it’s so important that which keyples you have, and in which quantities, is kept secret behind your screen. Part of the challenge is remembering which coloured keyples in which quantities your opponents have.

In any worker placement game, going first is really important. Here’s how you pull that off in Keyflower.

These special turn order tiles can be bid on. When the season is over, whoever successfully bid on turn order tile #1 gets first pick of the boats, and takes all of the keyples and skill tiles on one of them. Then, whoever successfully bid on turn order tile #2 gets second pick of a boat, and so on. If you win bids on two turn order tiles, you still only get the resources on one boat. Every player gets reinforcements from a boat at the end of the season – these turn order tiles just decide who gets preference.

Whoever wins the bid on this tile gets the purple first player token, and goes first next round.

Here are some curb cases: let’s say that in a bizarre twist, the only turn order tile to be won was #2. That winning player gets to pick a boat first. Then the existing starting player gets next pick, then everyone else clockwise from the start player gets to pick. Since nobody won the starting player token, it then gets passed on clockwise for the next season.

Let’s say turn order tiles 1 and 3 are successfully bid on. The winner of this tile gets first pick, and then the newly crowned starting player gets to pick, and then everyone else going clockwise from the new starting player gets to pick.

The turn order tiles and the boat tiles stay on the table – neither of them come home with you. Flip the boats as needed to show the icon for the next season. The boats get refilled with keyples and skill tiles for the end of the next round.

We know that tiles provide resources, but we haven’t seen what those resources do. Check it out!

When you activate a tile in your village, the resources you get end up on that tile. When you activate a tile from outside your village, the resources end up on your home tile. This matters.

Here’s why: most tiles in your village can be upgraded to their flip side. Wen you flip a tile, it needs to be the same orientation as it was before. The opposite side of a tile supplies better stuff, or in some cases, points towards winning the game. It costs resources to upgrade a tile. The upgrade cost is inside this arrow. This one costs one iron, one stone, and one wood, while this one costs one saw. The smaller rectangle at the bottom of a tile gives you a preview of what the tile does when you upgrade it.

In order to upgrade a tile, you have to activate another tile with this upgrade icon on it. Notice that it looks like an upside down version of the upgrade arrow! The tile you activate to receive upgrade powers can be anywhere: in your village, in someone else’s village, or in the auction area. Tiles with upgrade powers follow the same activation rules as any other tile: maximum 6 keyples per tile, locked to a certain colour.

So you activate one of these tiles, and then declare the tile you want to flip over. The resources you spend to upgrade a tile have to be sitting on that tile when you upgrade it. That’s not the case for the square skill tokens – they go behind your screen whenever you collect them, and they don’t need to be sitting on tiles in order to pay for an upgrade. But the resource barrels do. So how do you move resources around? Well, that’s where carriages come in.

In addition to letting you upgrade a tile, this tile lets you move any one of your resource barrels along a road, 1 tile away. This one gives you two movement points, which you can split up: move 1 of your resources by road 2 tiles away, or move 2 resources by road 1 tile away. These are not 4×4 all-wheel-drive off-road carriages, so you can’t transport goods across fields or rivers.

If you manage to get all the resources you need onto the tile you want to upgrade, you play a keyple to on a tile with an upgrade action, cash in those resources, and flip the tile. Any keyples or unused resources that may have been sitting on the tile, stay on the tile. You can activate one of these tiles and use only the move powers, or only the upgrade powers, if you want to, and you don’t necessarily have to upgrade the tile that you just moved resources to. Some beefier tiles that may show up later in the game have better carriages with more movement points, or more upgrade powers that allow you to flip multiple tiles in a single turn.

One strategically interesting thing to keep in mind is this: when play 1 or more keyples to upgrade a tile, your turn is now over. That newly upgraded tile, with its sweeter stuff, is now available for any of your opponents to activate! Unless, of course, you upgraded it when it was already crammed full of keyples for this season, which is your best plan of attack, but you can’t always rely on it.

Here are a few other Keyflower rules worth mentioning:

Some tiles help you get special green keyples. Activate the tile, discard a keyple of the colour depicted, and take a green keyple from the supply. Green keyples are amazing to have! Why? Well, because if you’re the only player in the game with a green keyple, the moment you use that keyple to bid on or activate a tile, you’ve locked it green. It’s all yours, guaranteed, because nobody else has green keyples to top you. There are no green keyples in the bag – they come from their own special supply. But know this: any green keyples that you use to win an auction, or any green keyples that you use to activate tiles in the auction that nobody wins, go into the bag. They could be pulled randomly by other players, or they could show up on the boats in a future season! And of course, any green keyples that you use to activate tiles in your opponents’ villages get kept by those opponents for the next season!And here’s another really important thing about green keyples: they’re not wild. They’re green.

Gold, on the other hand, IS wild. It can be substituted for any other resource – not any square skill tile, but any wooden resource barrel. At the end of the game, each barrel of gold is worth 1 point.

Symbologically speaking, question mark means “draw randomly,” a white symbol means you choose, and an equals sign means something of the same colour or type.

In summer, you can bid on special boats. They get dealt to the table random-side-up. They can’t be upgraded or activated with keyples, but once they’re in your village, they give you powers that last the rest of the game. The rulebook tells you what all these boats do in detail. I’m not gonna go over every one… (what am i, some sort of board game teacher?)

Now back to this whole “bag exchange” thing: here’s what the rulebook means. You activate a tile like this with 1, 2, or 3 keyples of a certain colour, and then you can discard a separate keyple of any colour and draw two new ones at random from the bag. The colour you discard doesn’t have to be the colour you used to activate the tile. If the bag doesn’t have enough keyples in it for you to draw, tough nuts! Then you toss your discarded keyple into the bag. So! The keyples you use to activate the tile can come from behind your screen, or they can be one or more outbid keyples. If you activate the tile with keyples from behind your screen, you can discard an outbid keyple for the exchange. If two of your keyples are outbid and you want to discard them, you have to discard them both, even though the tile only requires one you to discard one, because you can’t split up outbid keyples. That means you can’t take two outbid keyples and use one to activate the tile, and the other to discard, because that would still mean you’re splitting up outbid keyples on your turn. Wherever outbid keyples go, they go together.

Winter works slightly differently than the other seasons.

Off the top of the game, you’re dealt three random winter tiles. When winter arrives, you have to choose one or more of those tiles to appear at auction for everyone to bid on. The winter tiles can’t be activated by playing a keyple on them, but they have certain endgame scoring conditions or the end of the game, like earn points for collecting tools, or earn double the points for collecting gold. The idea is that you see these at the beginning of the game, and then you strategize throughout the game so that when these tiles come available, you’ll be in a perfect position to make good on these scoring conditions. But you have to pick at least one of these tiles to put into the general auction, where your opponents can bid on them! Chuck out the ones you don’t pick. Reveal your chosen winter tiles from a closed fist, and shuffle them into a stack with everyone else’s winter tiles before dealing them out, to maintain a little strategic mystery.

In winter, no new keyples or tools end up on the boats, but at the end of the season, the turn order tiles and boats actually DO come home with you. You can claim as many turn order tiles as you successfully bid on. They also give you preference to pick one of the boats, which have special scoring bonuses on them. You only get to take one of the boats, mind, even if you win more than one turn order tile. At the end of the game, each player gets a boat. The turn order tiles just decide preference, as they did in previous seasons.

When you place them in your village, the turn order tiles score you 1 point for every tile that borders them. So this one is touching 3 tiles… that’s 3 points. This clever planner will score 5 points from this one!

The resources, keyples, and tools you spend on points at the end of the game can be used only once. So if you use these buckets of wood to get points from this tile, they’re done – you can’t use them again to get points from this tile. Remember that gold is wild and can stand in for any resource, and if you don’t use it for tile points, each barrel of gold is worth 1 point on its own. The player who wins the purple starting keyple can use it just once as anything – any single good, skill tile, or keyple of any colour – for scoring purposes. Tiles that have this hex symbol only score if the resources are physically on the tile. If you have the purple keyple, you can place it on one of these tiles. Any place you see a yellow circle is just straight-up points.

The Keythedral, and other tiles that kind of look like it from earlier in the game, are straight-up worth the points depicted on the tile once only, but all the other winter tile can be juiced multiple times for their points. So this one gives you 3 points for every 5 workers. If you’ve got 10 workers, you can use them to get 6 points. The keyples played on your own village are available to use in scoring at the end of the game. The kerpetologeeplist can research five kurtles to win one kovernment krant!

To set up the game, sort the tiles into their four seasons according to the little icons. Then deal out some winter tiles to each player. This is a bit of a bummer for new players, because they have to devise a strategy right off the top of the game using iconography they don’t understand in a game they’ve never played. In a 2, 3, or 4 player game, deal out 3 winter tiles each. In a 5- or 6-player game, deal out 2 winter tiles.

The number of tiles that go out for auction in each season is also player dependent: it’s player count plus four. The unused tiles go back in the box.

The number of boats should equal the number of players, and there’s alway one less turn order tile than the player count, except in a six player game. Just look for the helpful symbols on the tiles to help you figure out which ones to use.

Each player gets a screen and 8 keyples pulled randomly from the bag. Deal out one home tile to each player at random. The player with the lowest-numbered home tile gets the purple starting player token.

Resource barrels and green keyples form a supply, and skill tiles all go face-down.

Load up the boats up with their tools and keyples, and then deal the spring tiles out to the middle of the table for your first auction.

What seems at first like another boring game about settlers is actually a really interesting multiplayer puzzle, full of fascinating decisions and desperate bids to squeeze just one more point out of your tiles. In my opinion, Keyflower is a game worth shelling out for… but i’m no kerpetologeeplist.

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