#775 – The Key: Murder at the Oakdale Club [Mini]

Base price: $30.
1 – 4 players.
Play time: 25 – 40 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 4 

Full disclosure: A review copy of The Key: Murder at the Oakdale Club was provided by HABA.

Another mini review! I think this is a perfect application of it, given that The Key plays basically the same no matter which game you have; it’s just the puzzles that are different. I already reviewed Lucky Llama Land, previously, so I figure why rehash all the setup and gameplay details a second time? Either way, I’ve been enjoying this series quite a bit, so I was very excited to have another entry in the series to check out! Let’s get into it and see how this one plays.

In The Key: Murder at the Oakdale Club, you’ve just been informed that a horrible murder has occurred! You hate it when that happens, but it’s also your job to arrest people who commit murder, so, job’s a job. You arrive to find a bunch of rich people have killed each other, and it’s your job to figure out which of the three suspects killed your three victims. And the golf cart they used to drive to the crime. You’re not particularly sure how that’s relevant, but the other folks handle the law; you’re in charge of the order. As with the previous entry in The Key series, this is a real-time title where players draw cards that provide information about the suspect, the weapon, the location, or the golf cart (the four “whats” of crime). As you draw cards, you need to draw conclusions about who could (and could not) have done this crime in order to get all the facts straight. Doing so will allow you to generate a four-digit code, which you can use to figure out if your hunches are correct. The challenge is that even though the game is real-time, finishing first isn’t necessarily enough to win. See, all the cards have point values on them, and only the most efficient investigator can win. Will you be able to truly figure out whodunnit, as well as wheredunnit? Or will this only end up being the key to your defeat?

Contents

Player Count Differences

Essentially none. The game is largely played independently, as players race to grab cards and draw their own conclusions. There’s an equal chance that playing with more players leads to them taking all the cards that would have given you duplicate information (which is great) or that playing with more players leads to them taking all the cards that would have given you useful information, leaving you with only duplicates of things you already know. Well, the latter camp is a slightly smaller chance, but you know what I’m trying to say. The cards are randomized and it’s not always clear what precise information you’ll get. To that end, you’re essentially playing a logic puzzle of one, just with variable numbers of cards available if other players are playing. This one’s interesting because that means that I don’t really have a player count preference, practically. My one caveat is that I do prefer playing games like this with players who all have similar experience levels or who complete the game at similar paces, otherwise it’s a lot of players finishing up first and then waiting for another player, and that typically doesn’t feel great for anyone. Beyond that, though, I really like The Key as a series, and I’m always stoked to play it, pretty much regardless of player count.

Strategy

  • I generally grab a few Lab cards first so that I can lock down a couple facts. I just like being somewhat grounded! Also, I think it’s somewhat helpful to have at least one Confirmed Thing I Know, rather than a bunch of things that I know relative to other things. If I have too many of those, then I risk getting twisted around and accidentally drawing the wrong conclusion (and having that conclusion cascade). Having some known facts can help you gather mass around them. Or, better yet, you might actually end up pulling cards that are related to those facts in a useful or helpful way!
  • Keep in mind that the cards may be providing you information upside-down, like DNA samples or the watches. This one threw me off for a little bit, so I figured I’d mention it here. There’s no “correct” orientation to some of the cards; you might need to flip or rotate it to get the information that you need. It’s a bit rude, but hey, this is a tougher game.
  • I will usually only set a card down once I have confirmed its information. I tend to keep a hand of “working to confirm” and a pile of “confirmed” cards. I usually sort them into 4s and 2s so I have a sense of my running tally, as well. It’s just nice to know your score so that you kind of force yourself to work with what you have, rather than just routinely grabbing cards even if you don’t think you need them.
  • Double-check before you commit! Make sure none of your cards contradict each other. I usually just do a quick pass before I lock my number code in to make sure that none of my cards explicitly say something that’s incompatible with the grid of answers I’ve come up with. This tends to help you avoid long-term heartache (and an incorrect number, which is a huge bummer). I’ve also made this mistake a number of times, so I’m speaking from experience; it’s worth double-checking your cards. At best, getting the key first lets you drop two points from your score, but at worst, you’re at least giving yourself a shot at winning by making sure you’re not submitting a wrong answer.
  • With the watch cards, keep an eye out for the hour and minute hands you can’t see and the hour and minute hands you should be able to see. If the watch was stopped at certain times, you should be able to see some hands relative to the band or the visible numbers. If those hands aren’t visible, either the watch is too damaged (which doesn’t happen in this game) or they’re not at that time, which should give you a clue for what time they are supposedly pointing to.
  • If a suspect can’t have gotten to a location by a certain time, then either that suspect didn’t do that murder or the murder didn’t happen at that location. This was the one that threw me once. I had two suspects that both couldn’t have made it to a location by 8PM, but one of them had to be at that location. I forgot that they could have gone there later, say, 8:15? This really messed me up for a bit. Try not to fixate on certain pieces of information; use them to either confirm things that must be true or things that can’t be true. Anything between those two is uncertainty, and should be held until you can better confirm it with another clue. Haste makes waste is basically the motto of this game.
  • Watch out for tricky clues about which golf carts have certain numbers of clubs or what license plates. The license plate ones are super tricky. They’re cool, just tricky. And don’t forget that the golf carts have license plates, golf clubs, and colors. Any of those could be useful information to your investigation, so, make sure you’re looking out for all of them (unless you already solved for the cart, in which case, ignore those cards and focus on more useful ones).

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • This set is trickier than Lucky Llama Land! I like that. The game itself argues that it’s a step up in complexity, and I’m inclined to agree! But definitely a positive step. Adding a fourth degree of variability gives a few more fun ways to open up the clues and play. I like it!
  • That said, I think that “tricky” clue (the golf cart times / license plates) isn’t as confusing as the photo one in Lucky Llama Land. It’s definitely still tricky and interesting, but it doesn’t rely on quite as many visual / spatial clues as Lucky Llama Land does. It’s more of a timing and a math thing, which is my specialty! The license plate clues are closer to being visual / spatial, but you can draw out the license plates if you’re not sure, which is good. I think it doesn’t reduce the fun of the game but it does help ward off me making really stupid mistakes, which is kind of the dream.
  • The fact that you can just re-spread the cards and play again is pretty great. I think that’s the real selling point for this game, for me; it’s short enough that you can get through the game quickly, and it’s easy to just shuffle out the cards again, choose another key color, and get another game started.
  • Some of the clues are similar to Lucky Llama Land, but there are a few that are different enough that both are distinct experiences. I think the changes around the golf carts and some of the watch / lab result clues are very different from Lucky Llama Land, but I also think there’s some changes to the more standard clues, as well. Hard to say for sure, since I’m positive I didn’t see every possible card in Lucky Llama Land, but I think there’s a nice range of differences between the two games, which is good! I think they’re more similar to each other than, say, the EXIT series, but there’s unique enough stuff that I might prefer one over the other depending on the group. Lucky Llama Land is definitely an easier title to ramp up on, at least.
  • “Which golf cart did they use?” seems like an alarmingly specific question to be asking when you’re trying to solve a crime, but what do I know? I mean, it’s funny, os that helps a lot, from my perspective. Just seems like you’re fixating on a specific detail that might be irrelevant. Or probably is irrelevant. I’m amused by it, though, because it really sounds like that’s just the lynchpin of your prosecutorial strategy. And that’s funny, to me.
  • I appreciate how bright and colorful this murder game is, also. It’s just a very upbeat and pleasant game about murder, I guess. You don’t see the bodies or the horrible crime scene; you just see a pleasant golf club and a cast of characters. It’s an odd mashup, but it works pretty well. I think that probably gels well with HABA as a brand, but it’s something I appreciate as well as a mostly-squeamish person.

Mehs

  • On the plus side, drawing a card that gives you information you already have still sucks. I find it more amusing than I did in the first game, now that I’m used to it. It just kind of earns a “dangit”. It’s frustrating and funny at the same time. Not really sure what the word I’m looking for is, but essentially, that.
  • There are somehow even more cards? The challenge here becomes finding an ideal table setup. There are 190 cards; it’s wild. A wise friend recommended making some small stacks and just having players leaf through at their own convenience. I may just make a mess of cards on the table; I haven’t decided yet for my photography run for this one.
  • It is gently frustrating if players get through the whole game, only to not come up with a valid combination. The “easy mode” variant I like is letting players at least check to make sure their code appears on the board before they lock it in, but that may be too kind to other players. It also might be a “+X points every time you check if your combination is valid” or something sort-of-situation. I don’t really come up wit variants; I just try to make the game a bit easier for newer players.
  • It looks like they forgot to update the text on the casebooks, which is a bit funny in a “this has no material impact on gameplay” way. It’s not really anything worth criticizing, it just made me gently chuckle and move on to the next thing. These sorts of things happen. I’d probably be more concerned if there were mistakes in say, the actual clues or puzzles.
  • I would still love to have a dry-erase space of some kind to take notes. Just a blank empty space. I’m inclined to not list this as an additional “Con”, since this game was really already made when Lucky Llama Land was made, and it’s not like they’ve really had a chance to make any updates, so, don’t want to like double-ding or something.

Cons

  • Structurally, if there’s a difference in player experience levels, players who finish early may be waiting for a while as other players finish up. This is really my biggest gripe about the series as a whole, I think, after multiple plays. If you’re teaching the game to a new player, odds are, they will likely take longer to solve the puzzle. They may still be more efficient (and that’s good!), but you may also be sitting for a while without really … anything to do. I think that’s just kind of a design flaw in this kind of game, but generally having players sit around without anything to do isn’t awesome.

Overall: 8.5 / 10

Overall, I think The Key: Murder at the Oakdale Club is a lot of fun. I really like this series, actually. I think the major advantage it has is that it actually occupies a nice (and currently empty) spot in my collection. Currently, my logic / deduction games have some light cooperative titles (The Shipwreck Arcana), some casual to strategic competitive titles (Cryptid and The Search for Planet X), but nothing particularly light and competitive. So the dream, here, is having a light, competitive deduction game that plays in less than 30 minutes. And The Key, as a series, is precisely that. This particular entry is about what I’m looking for in terms of complexity, as well! Lucky Llama Land is definitely easier, and while I’m kind of interested to see what the most complex version of The Key looks like, any more intense and it’ll start competing with Cryptid for my attention, and we’ll have to see how that plays out. Maybe it’ll go well! There are still some gripes I have with the series as a whole, mostly around there being no good place on the dry-erase board to take notes, and I kind of need notes. Dry-erase cards would help, here, but those are more trouble than they’re worth, really. My one complaint around the increased complexity is that there are about 40 more cards to match the uptick, which means that there’s suddenly even more space required to play the game. We’re getting to the point that if the coverage is only one-layer deep, it takes up a lot of space. But oh well. This is still an excellent title for folks who love real-time games, logic games, or any combination of them. If that’s you, or you’re already a fan of Lucky Llama Land but want a bit more challenge, or you just like golf clubs (and golf clubs), you might enjoy The Key: Murder at the Oakdale Club! I certainly have.


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