Full disclosure: A review copy of The Key: Sabotage at Lucky Llama Land was provided by HABA.
It’s always kind of exciting to see the start of a new board game series. Sometimes they’re successful (Unmatched, the whole Card Crafting thing) and sometimes … less! Either way, it’s cool on the reviewer end because it gives me the opportunity to see how something grows and develops over time, and that’s a fun thing to be able to do. This particular series is new from HABA, and it’s called The Key. These seem to be real-time deduction games where you can repeat the game multiple times, using different key colors to get different clues and a different outcome. Y’all know how much I love real-time, deduction, and mystery solving, so let’s get to it and see what’s up.
In The Key: Sabotage at Lucky Llama Land, you are hot on the case of the worst kind of crime: theme park sabotage! Three rides were attacked and you’ve got three perps in lockup. Problem is, you haven’t fully solved the case! That’s … some shoddy police work, honestly. You arrest people after you have evidence, geez. Now you’re on the clock! You’ll have to move fast to comb through all the evidence and make an ironclad case against these troublemakers. Will you be able to throw the book at them in time?
This isn’t too much, in terms of setup, with one key exception. You’re gonna want to first give each player a Briefcase and a dry-erase marker:
Next, give each player a booklet:
The tough part is next. You’re gonna want to spread out all the cards so they’re somewhat accessible, and there are a lot of them. Place the mirror card nearby, as well.
You’re gonna want to pick up one of the keys (you can choose randomly); that will be the case color:
Once you’ve done all that, you should be ready to start! Place the chosen key in the center (only one key per game) and go when you’re ready!
So first thing’s first: The Key is real-time. No turns, no fuss, just trying to solve the case as quick as you can.
You can take cards from the center to provide clues. The cards have symbols on the back that will usually help tell you about certain things:
- Which case is this about?
- What weapon was used?
- What location was sabotaged?
- What day did this take place?
- Who sabotaged?
Usually, there’s some overlap between a couple of these. Every card has a value in Investigation Points, and the player with the fewest points wins at the end of the game. So you’re not just racing; you’re also trying to be efficient. There are two major types of cards: Eyewitness Statements and Lab Results. The former is less expensive, and the latter is more accurate, so you’ll have to balance those if you want to be successful.
As players play, they can use their Briefcases to mark off information that they know to be inaccurate so that they can keep progressing. As you figure things out, cross off other things on your briefcase so that you don’t get confused, either. Eventually, you’ll end up with one person per crime, one weapon per crime, and one location per crime. These can be used with the key on the left of the briefcase board to generate a three-digit combination!
The first player to generate that combination takes the key! Once everyone else has a combination, it’s time to check if you’re right. For that, you’ll need the Solution Board. Put your key in the combination indicated on your board, and then flip it over. if the color of the lock matches the color of your key, you’ve solved it! Don’t show other people your combination or the lock, though — let them try with the key, too. If you didn’t solve it, well, then, oops. You helped, maybe?
Assuming one player has gotten the correct answer, all players who solved the case now compare their Investigation Points total. The player with the fewest Investigation Points wins!
Player Count Differences
Ironically, while I’m usually critical of mystery-solving games at higher player counts because there’s not always much for other players to do, The Key (as a series) might actually benefit from additional players, since they’d be pulling clues from the same pile as you are. This means that you might experience fewer cases of grabbing a card that tells you something you already know, since there are more players grabbing at them. I’m not extremely convinced this will lead to like, a major paradigm shift or something, but it is an interesting note. By the same virtue, I wouldn’t particularly expect the game to run longer with more players unless you have one player who is struggling to get to the solution, and that can happen at any player count. I think the competitive aspects do a lot to keep the game running at any player count, since players aren’t sharing information and are each independently solving the puzzle. That particular thing, players independently solving the puzzle, effectively makes this a solo game with a shared pool of information, and that does a lot to keep it running at any player count. As a result, I don’t have a strong preference when it comes to Sabotage at Lucky Llama Land.
I’m gonna start this by noting that I made a ton of mistakes during my first few games, so hopefully these tips will help you avoid the pitfalls that I pitched myself headlong into.
- Keep in mind that the game has been playtested, and therefore doesn’t have contradictions or mistakes that would make certain combinations of characters impossible, as far as I can tell. This is pretty much the most important thing to keep in mind as you play, and the thing that I spent most of the first game kind of ignoring? I definitely thought that I had a bad version of the game that had been designed to imprison me in a trap that I could not resist: logic puzzles. Instead, I just couldn’t read very carefully. Don’t make the same mistakes as me.
- The Lab Results can be particularly tricky, so be careful with them. They’re extremely helpful, assuming that you can read them properly on your first try. I … did not do a very good job with these. They require a fairly close eye to make sure you get everything from them, so make sure you do your due diligence.
- That said, they can also be pretty conclusive, so leading with a couple to get your bearings can help a lot. Generally, this allows you to conclusively link two pieces of information (person + date, person + ride, weapon + ride). If you’re not getting that information, you haven’t read the card thoroughly enough.
- Have a way to keep track of information that you have but can’t write down, yet. Anything that’s not linked to date isn’t usable until you have something linked to the date (since you can’t record it anywhere). Either keep those cards nearby or take notes on your briefcase.
- Also keep an eye on how many points you’re taking on. If you’re not paying attention to that, even if you solve the mystery, you’re going to lose! The player who wins is the player with the fewest points, not the first player to solve the mystery! You gotta make sure you’re not overdoing it on high-value cards; that’s a mistake that ends up dragging many players to a speedy loss.
- As you come to confirm things, be careful! Certain cards will give you information you already have, so try to avoid those if you can. There are kind of explicit signals, yeah? There are some cards that explicitly will tell you that they will give you information about Crime 1. If they do that, then you shouldn’t take that card if you’ve already solved Crime 1. Similarly, if you know all the weapons, don’t take cards that give you more information about weapons unless they tie into the criminals or some other piece of information you need.
- Watch for both explicit and implicit information. There’s a lot of the latter. This is probably my favorite part of the game. There’s a lot of explicit information, like “The Log Flume was sabotaged before The Roller Coaster”. And that’s usefulish, especially if you’re confirming your suspicions. However, this also gives you a handy amount of implicit information which is very useful. Particularly, this tells you that the Roller Coaster could not have been sabotaged first (since the Log Flume must have been sabotaged beforehand), and the Log Flume could not have been sabotaged last. Those are both pretty key insights, and that gives you information that you can start crossing off. With this game, you’re going to have to explore beyond the explicit text of the clue. Just make sure you don’t assume too much!
- Double-check your assumptions before you lock them in. This is usually where I trip myself up. Instead of going through and figuring out which things the clue explicitly forbids, I find one thing that I think the clue implicitly allows and roll with it, leading me to lock in a bunch of incorrect and contradictory information that it becomes difficult to change down the line.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I have to assume Thomas Sing is just a contrarian of some kind, and I love it. He’s really been working on developing games that run counter to genre expectations. He’s the designer of one of my favorite games (The Crew), which is a fully-cooperative trick-taking game (where most trick-taking games are competitive or team-based). Similarly, his work on The Key takes a well-traversed genre (logic puzzles / mystery-solving games) and flips that on its head, too! Now it’s a competitive game. Naturally, this isn’t entirely unprecedented (one of the classic competitive mystery-solving games is Clue, after all), but it’s interesting to see him upending some genre conventions for modern gaming. Can’t wait to see what he does next (especially since the next game of his that I’m interested in is another entry in The Crew).
- It also plays very quickly. Once everyone knows how to play, you can bust this out in 20 – 30 minutes. Maybe a bit more if you have more players.
- The theme is delightful, in a bit of a sad way. Lucky Llama Land is a very sad name for a theme park, and to have it sabotaged is even sadder. it’s just … kind of funny, in its own way, I suppose.
- I’m actually really intrigued by this system! It’s surprisingly robust and pretty cool. I like that it has that neat overlap where some of the clues are applicable to multiple games, so you have to sift for cards you want without getting caught up in cards you can’t use or already have. It’s an interesting approach, especially because after you play a few times your memory of previous games starts to get jumbled together. Even now I’ve played three games, and I only remember the correct combination of one of them, and that’s because I played it today. I expect that to fade away by the time this is published. Plus, that makes the game replayable in a way that many of these mystery-solving games aren’t. It’s not just that I can loan it to a friend once I’m done; I can actually play the same box multiple times in a row, once I’ve had a chance to let my brain slowly forget the answer. That’s very cool!
- The game is also very colorful, and I like that a lot. Not that I’m surprised coming from HABA, but they’re really working on developing out their “Game Night Approved” line and it’s working. I’ve played a lot of solid games from that line.
- I like that these puzzles are more logic puzzles than say, trivia or dexterity or something. I generally like logic puzzles a lot (it’s why The Shipwreck Arcana is one of my favorite games), and I’m glad to see them represented here. It also, I assume, makes the game easier to print.
- I’m a huge fan of the requirement that all players hit at least some form of a solution prior to anyone checking. This is kind of my favorite thing about the game. So far I’ve lost every time I’ve played against another player (I won the solo mode, with some difficulty!), but I never felt like I lost. I still solved the mystery! Just, you know, less efficiently than my opponent. That part doesn’t get me down as much, since I still got to solve it.
- The competitive element isn’t too bad, and the solo mode offers a nice alternative if you’d just like to solve some logic puzzles. You’re essentially independently working on a puzzle and occasionally hearing one of your opponents swear because they drew an unhelpful card. And that’s most of the game.
- I’m pretty excited for this as a series? I really can’t wait for the next game. I think this is a great spin on the mystery-solving genre, and frankly I’m kind of, even now, thinking about maybe dropping another game of this. It’s quite entertaining.
- I know this is likely done to be consistent with future The Key entries, but referring to the tools as “murder weapons” made me laugh. I assume at least one of them is a murder mystery, but this is just a theme park sabotage so, I get that some people have played Heavy Rain, but there’s only so much you can do with a pair of pliers. Anyways, just a funny rulebook vignette that made me laugh. I wouldn’t particularly call it a Meh as in a problem; it’s more of a “Meh” in that I wanted to note it somewhere and it wasn’t really a Pro, so it ends up here.
- It can occasionally be hard to splay all the cards out in a useful way, so you’re going to have to just … go for it. It’s a very slight problem but it will potentially cause you issues on a small table. Just kind of … spread all the cards out and hope for the best, I guess?
- I wish there were a place to take notes for information you have but can’t use yet. There are things I end up figuring out (Log Flume was sabotaged with the Stun Gun or something similar), but since I can’t associate that with a date I don’t really have anywhere to indicate that information. It would be nice to have a “notepad” space on the briefcase or something that would help.
- This game is really going to torpedo folks who, like me, are a bit sloppy when it comes to their puzzle-solving. I apparently am just ridiculous about making mistakes while I play this. Completely sloppy, almost embarrassingly so. Whoops. I think what tends to happen is that I jump to a conclusion and then look for evidence that confirms my suspicions. Would make me a terrible detective, and also makes me bad at this game since information tends to rarely contradict you when you’re wrong. It can happen sometimes, but you can also get just enough information that you think you’re right without necessarily being right. Don’t be afraid to double-check, especially if you think you’re finished.
- At times, the subtleties of certain clues can be frustrating. I keep getting tripped up on the Lab Results and, while I am not exactly given to precision and focus, I likely won’t be the only one that that happens to. It would definitely make the game a smidge easier if the footprint cards weren’t … as subtle as they tend to be. That and the occasional perspective mistakes I make with the Snapshots means that the Lab Results cards are almost more likely to do harm than good.
- A larger gripe for me is that while the overlapping nature of clues is helpful and allows the game to scale with player count, the “winner” of the game can often come down to who drew the fewest duplicate cards, which can feel a bit bad. There’s likely some skill component to this, as knowing which cards you need to draw to provide you the best chance of getting information is a useful technique for this game, but it’s kind of a learned ability, and not something I would expect from new players, necessarily. This might lead to situations in which some players just take too many unhelpful cards and feel as though they were cursed with bad luck. At some level, it’s a bit of luck, but it also comes down to that ability to pick the right card types. Either way, it’s not the best feeling, but it’s also not that terrible because I think the satisfaction of solving the mystery outweighs the irritation of losing.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I quite like The Key: Sabotage at Lucky Llama Land! I think there are some clunky things about it, but while they occasionally vex me they by and large don’t get in the way of my love for real-time games, deduction games, and solving mysteries. Largely, this is because the mistakes that are made during the game purely boil down to me being sloppy and not double-checking my work before I “confirm” things, and that issue essentially persists throughout my plays of this. That’s okay, though; I get there eventually. I think it might be a bit more logic-intensive than some of HABA’s yellow-box games, so I’m not 100% going to say that this is a family-weight game, but it definitely is up my alley. I particularly like the work done to make it replayable; the clues break apart and can be sequenced together to predict different outcomes, meaning that there’s some intense Venn diagram somewhere of how the various clues correspond to their various key colors. And I think that’s ingenious. It lets you build a foundation for a solid series of games, even if there are a few things that make that somewhat frustrating. For one, players, by the very nature of the game, are going to see duplicate cards, and penalizing them for it is unfortunate (but necessary, given how the game is scored). I do kind of wish the real-time element mattered more, but with games like this, making it speed-dependent is only going to lead to more bad outcomes (since that incentivizes players who play fast and loose and will likely lead to more mistakes). Given how subtle some of the clues are, that can be a real challenge. All in all, this ends up being a game that has a lot that I love, some things I don’t like, but still ends up balancing out to a pretty great experience, and one that I enthusiastically want to try again. So if you’re looking to solve a mystery (or even a set of mysteries) and you want to value efficiency, not speed, give The Key: Sabotage in Lucky Llama Land a whirl! I had a great time with it and I can’t wait to see how the series develops.