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.
Keystone North America comes from the minds of Lindsey Rode and Isaac Vega, who formed Rose Gauntlet Entertainment in 2020 and brought this set collection ecologically minded game to a successful funding conclusion midway through 2021. I've had Isaac guest on the podcast a number of years ago now, as he is responsible for one of my favourite games of all time, Ashes Rise of the Phoenixborn and so I must admit I was very interested to see what they did next.
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.
You can actually sit with with the lights off in your house as you play it, because the amount of brightness on here is pretty loud. Whether you be gazing in awe at the player mats with their ecosystem grids that you'll be playing cards onto, or the huge neoprene mat where you will gather resources and research tokens and buy cards from the field to play on your grid, everything has been set to eating a box of crayons and then projectile vomit onto the various components and player boards. The card art representing each of the animals and plant life has clearly taken a long time to produce and the standards on show here is simply stunning. Once you are reaching the end game, you'll have a menagerie in front of you brimming with illustrations that really push the theme extremely well. Each of the cards has the name of the artist in the bottom corner and it's good to see them credited on every card.
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.
Just like in Village Rails the aim is to fill the entire board with point scoring opportunities and the card purchasing mechanic is pretty similar too, with you paying for cards you purchase based on where they are in the row of cards, putting down resources on cards you are skipping to reach the once you want. As the cards are purchased, then the resources can gather on other cards, often producing a 'payday' on certain cards if they sit there for several turns. At the beginning, you'll be picking cards to start sequences, but by the end you might find you are shelling out in order to get cards furthest down the row. Placing a card also rewards you with additional resource tokens depending on how your neighbouring cards match based on similar ecosystems. It's almost impossible to run out of resources as you play as there is always a way to add to your resources. Even though the resources come printed in one and three token versions, we found it easier to use them as singles by the time resources were paid in and out.
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.
There's secret objectives here based on how you play out some of the cards in your play area, there's the Key species that you want to snap up as they appear in the field as this will allow you to rescore runs that you've already scored on. All of a sudden, Keystone becomes a little bit more crunchier than the vibrancy first led you to believe, and while you might spend time poring over the order of the cards in your own play area, it becomes vital to spend just as much attention to what your opponents are looking for, and on some occasions using the skills to clear out their darlings for the field. Be wary towards the end of the game when turns might ramp up in terms of time as players are more likely to battle with a bit of analysis paralysis as space becomes small and every single card purchase or use of skill can make a huge difference in the points. There's a slight feeling the game can overstay its welcome when the player count is at it's highest and those end rounds drag out a bit. At the same time, don't feel you can't get a decent game going with just two players, as the reduction in cards and measured skill rounds brings it to a satisfactory conclusion in just under an hour.
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..
You can find out more about Keystone: North America by visiting https://www.rosegauntlet.com/pages/keystone
This review is based on the deluxe version of the game provided to us by the designer and publisher. We were not paid for this review. We give a general overview of the gameplay and so not all of the mechanical aspects of the game may be mentioned.