Unique Games: Fool’s Gold?
Unique Games: Fool’s Gold?
By: Brad Kurle
Edited by: Andrew Davidson
“Yes! A doppelganger!”
For a gamer, there is nothing like opening a fresh booster pack of Magic: The Gathering cards, finding that rare card which I had purchased pack after endless pack to find. Likewise to every other player, I found myself hooked on hunting for Magic: The Gathering cards when it first began way back in 1994—a much simpler time. Back then, my friends were as excited to explore the game as I was. We spent hours constructing decks and battling each other with our latest iterations. Watching a friend react to a new surprise in an old deck was almost as enjoyable as trouncing them in a match.
A few years went by, things changed, something shifted, and a poison entered our Magic group. Some started using a new website, eBay, to deliberately purchase incredibly-sought-after powerful cards to fine-tune their decks. Soon, it became apparent, the winner of each game seemed determined by which player had blown more Benjamins on their deck. I grew tired of the arms race (the financial burden one must shoulder in order to be competitive and possibly win a match) and eventually sold my collection to one of my friends.
Collectible card games disappeared from my life for the next decade. After being introduced to the world of designer board games, I began focusing on building my board game collection—one or two boxes at a time. Sure, I was happy to casually play Magic with my friends when they asked, but my preference shifted towards playing a board game where players were able to compete on equal terms—tabula rasa.
In 2018, an announcement blew my mind. Fantasy Flight Games—a large game publisher out of Minnesota—collaborated with Richard Garfield, the designer of Magic: The Gathering, to create a new unique collectible card game called KeyForge.
Each deck of cards has a unique image printed on the back of the cards which prevented swapping cards between decks.
To be honest, the idea of unique games intrigued me. I love discovering new innovations in tabletop games. Most innovations typically involve new game mechanics or even using apps with games, but this was different. This technology allows every single copy of a game to be one-of-a-kind. Another identical copy of each game will never be created. Super cool, right?
Garfield and Fantasy Flight created computer algorithms to make sure KeyForge decks were closely balanced to others. No longer would spend more money on cards equate to always having the stronger deck. Players couldn’t just buy a few cards on the secondary market that makes their deck extra powerful. My issues with collectible card games had been remedied!
I purchased some KeyForge decks, and, since I leveled up in influence and charisma, a couple of my friends were willing to purchase a few decks as well. Unfortunately, we quickly discovered a problem: some decks were clearly stronger than others! The balancing algorithms obviously weren’t creating balanced decks. This concerned me, but I wasn’t too concerned…yet. I could always just shelve my few weaker decks and play with the others. Some enterprising players even created apps to determine the strength of a deck just by scanning the deck’s QR code.
Within just a couple of months, I became disheartened with KeyForge. I realized that while it’s not possible to buy specific cards on the secondary market to augment a deck, it’s certainly feasible to sell entire decks at inflated prices. Decks that were determined to be “powerful” were soon selling for ten times the cost of a new sealed deck. The same malady that ruined Magic for me now afflicted KeyForge.
The idea of unique games still intrigues me, though. I believe the system can be utilized in ways that will provide great innovations in tabletop gaming. Fantasy Flight has used the system again to create a unique board game, Discover: Lands Unknown. A game that utilizes different maps and cards in each box to provide a unique game in every copy. If nothing else, Fantasy Flight learned from their KeyForge debacle, right?
Discover: Lands Unknown hasn’t received a lot of praise from game reviewers and currently sits with a low rating of 6.0 on boardgamegeek.com. As I browse through Amazon right now, Discover: Lands Unknown is, at the time of writing this, selling for over 75% off retail price. To be fair, there are some good reviews on Amazon to go along with the bad reviews. You take the good. You take the bad. You take them both. And then you have….
Well…It couldn’t hurt to spend a few bucks to give it a try... right?