#867 – The Key: Theft in Cliffrock Villa [Mini]

Base price: $30.
1 – 4 players.
Play time: 15 – 20 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 3 

Full disclosure: A review copy of The Key: Theft in Cliffrock Villa was provided by HABA.

The last of The Key series! I’m hoping it continues, since, spoiler alert, I’ve really enjoyed all three games in the series, so far, but that’s largely never been up to me. I’m a lot of things, but able to singlehandedly fund an entire game series isn’t one of them. Reviewing doesn’t pay that well. Anyways, I digress; let’s dive into this iteration of The Key and see what unlocks for us!

In The Key: Theft in Cliffrock Villa, the titular house has just been pretty aggressively robbed! Three thieves, three priceless items burgled, and three daring getaways, right before you arrived. It would be suspicious if you weren’t Paddybones McKitten (and others), very real detectives here to crack the case. You’re so confident that you all make a game of it: whoever can solve the case with the least clues is the best detective. Is that how justice works? Hopefully not, but we’ll do what we can with what we have. Can you figure out who stole what from Cliffrock Villa, and when?

Contents

Player Count Differences

I’ve played a few different iterations of The Key, now, and I can say with certainty that player count matters sometimes. Yes, you’ve heard it here, first: the effect that additional players can have on a game is vague. Finally, you whisper to yourself while reading this review, an insight. But in all seriousness, it’s hard to pinpoint, as players are effectively pulling cards at random. So, while there are decent odds that having more players may mean that duplicate cards are pulled before you can grab them, there’s also a decent chance that multiple players may mean that you’re only left with duplicate cards. No real way to tell, since it essentially boils down to card luck. I kind of love The Key, for that, but it also means that you’re not going to see a predictable result with more or fewer players. That’s fine with me, personally. I still prefer the 1:1 mystery-solving action of two players, but I think the game is plenty fun at any player count. Solo isn’t bad, either, since it’s just you against the game.

Strategy

  • The plane and the hang glider are red. The pilot suit (in the plane) and the diving suit are blue. The game will intentionally try to mix these up for you, on purpose. They’re going to tell you that someone in blue fled or a red vehicle fled, and there are two of each. Make sure you’re keeping track of that, because it will absolutely trip you up as you progress through the game. It’s an on-purpose shell game, and you can’t fall for it or you’ll get clowned.
  • Several of the clues will tell you something happened four hours apart from something else or it didn’t. That’s a pretty big hint. Your key hour points are 1PM, 2PM, and 5PM. So if two things happened four hours apart, they must have happened at 1PM and 5PM, thanks to … math. The three time periods are two, three, and four hours apart, so keep track of those times.
  • Use your process of elimination! Sometimes clues are helpful for what they’re saying didn’t happen just as much as what they’re saying did happen. One thing that I tend to enjoy is that The Key likes to tell me that event A happened before event B. While this is somewhat useful, it also gives you a helpful timeline. If you know A happened before B, you know that B cannot be first, and A cannot be last. There are a few other things you can lift from the cards, so, keep an eye out for when you can either gain useful positive information or useful negative information.
  • It’s often better to double-check your information; you only benefit so much from being the first person to solve the case. Your reward for being first and most correct is that you get to drop your lowest-value Investigation Card from your total, so you reduce your overall score (which is good!). That, while helpful, is not necessarily worth hustling and potentially making a mistake.
  • Take notes however you can; you’re going to get partially-complete information long before you get stuff you can mark off on your sheet (depending on how you move through the clues). You’ll occasionally get pieces of information like “Person X stole Item 1”, but without a timestamp, you can’t actually match those pieces of information up to the board. So take some simple notes or do what I do and keep two stacks of cards: unconfirmed information and confirmed information. I do that so that I can go back and recheck without having to relegislate the entire set of cards that I’ve drawn.
  • Look at the icons on the card to find cards that hopefully answer questions you need answered (and don’t provide duplicate information). There are icons that tell you the type of information available on the card and what kinds of clues you should expect to see on the card. Naturally, if you’re worried about getting duplicate information, don’t … pick up cards with icons for information you’ve already solved.
  • I usually start with a 4-cost card to ground one thing and then build off of that. I find that 4-cost cards tend to give you pretty explicit starting information, and then I try to use that fundamental core to coalesce shakier information around. Ideally, you can get a specific item, person, or escape tied to a particular time, and then build off of that.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • The name “Paddybones McKitten” makes me chuckle every time we play. It’s very specific? Just … ridiculous enough to flirt with plausibility while being on the whole outlandish. Either way, I’m a fan of it. I try to pick that notebook when I play.
  • I felt like there were more 3-value Investigation cards this time around? Not sure. It’s nice to see some, mostly because it felt like there were fewer in previous sets. Is this a scientific measurement? Absolutely not, but, hey, you come to read fairly subjective reviews, and this is very subjective opinion. I like some variety between the Investigation card values.
  • Thematically, this is a pretty goofy case, which I enjoy. Slightly less goofy than Lucky Llama Land, though. While my favorite The Key, game-wise, is still the murder one, that’s largely from a difficulty and challenge standpoint, rather than a theme standpoint. Sabotage at Lucky Llama Land is my favorite, thematically, because it’s just deeply silly. Cliffrock Villa is a nice midpoint between both. It’s still goofy (who flees via a hang glider?), but not so goofy that players turned off by goofy games will be put off of it.
  • I still think this is a pretty great introductory deduction game series. The speed element helps a bit, as well, but I really like using this as an avenue to help players new to the genre think about logic, handle informational implications, and sort through complex problems with inferences that they can back up. I think this is a great way to introduce the idea and then follow it up with later, more challenging logical deduction games. Plus, Cliffrock Villa is still entertaining and engaging for me, even as an experienced deduction game player.
  • It plays quickly, too! The nice and handy thing about real-time games is that they’re generally pretty fast, especially if there’s a racing element to them. Players can move at their own pace, to a degree, but it does pay to be the quickest (even if only mildly). I’m a bit less enamored with how the game scores, based on that speed element, but I’ll talk more about that later. Overall, I think experienced players can play the game, start to finish, in 20 minutes or less, easily.
  • While I will certainly complain about it later, I think it’s a bit funny that the escape methods are intentionally confusing to throw players off. It amuses me when a game is trying to intentionally be tricky. It means I need to stay on my toes, for sure, but it’s also a very good thing to teach players. They can’t necessarily trust the game not to throw curveballs at them, so they need to learn to be watching for them (and to prepare accordingly).

Mehs

  • After playing a few of these, I think I’m gradually seeing the appeal of the more complex versions of The Key over the simpler versions. I know, I know, I know; no need to alert the authorities. I’m alive and alright, I’m just asking for a more complex version of a simple game. It’s rare, but it’s been happening with an alarmingly-increasing frequency. This Meh is more with me than with the game, I suppose; I actually really like the simplicity of the core games in The Key’s initial three. They’re elegant, and I think they’re an excellent way to teach logic puzzles and deduction games to a diverse audience without having to play through a long, stressful game. It’s just that the more that I play, the more I want to see what the highest-difficulty version of The Key looks like. I’m intrigued. And that really speaks to what I think The Key (and Theft in Cliffrock Villa) does well; it makes me want to play again and get better at understanding its tricks.
  • I’m still a bit less enchanted with the “wait until the end and see if you were right” model of checking for correctness in The Key series. Honestly, when we play, we usually just … let players check in the moment to see if they were right, and if they weren’t, they just erase their boards and start over. I’d love if there were some way to actually have that be a thing, like to take a penalty or something and get to go back to the fun part of the game, but that’s house rules, for you. These can be abused (thankfully, hasn’t happened), so instead we have the by-the-book method, where you don’t check if you’re right until all players are done. I’d still like another option, though.

Cons

  • I already saw it happen once, but you’re going to see a player or two get thrown off by the various escape methods, given that they rely on red, blue, or red and blue elements. It’s a bit of a mean trick, even though it’s funny. It’s specifically designed to trick players into choosing the wrong one. Red escape method means hang glider or plane, and blue outfit means plane or diving suit. They’re just hoping you see one and don’t notice the other, and then you mess up. The game is tough enough for some players without throwing in an intentional red (or blue!) herring, so, I’ll note it as a Con, but I’m amused while I’m typing this, if that makes sense.
  • My common complaint of wanting a scratchpad that I can take notes on remains. I’ll be brief about this one because I bring it up every time, but I’d really like a place where I can take notes that aren’t totally complete. For instance, imagine I find out that Person B stole Item X; without a time to ground myself in, I can’t write that down on my notebook because all the crimes are organized by time. Having a scratch pad to write that down as soon as I figure it out would save me a bunch of time.
  • There’s some element of luck to improving your score that can be frustrating for players. It’s kind of the worst part of the game, in my opinion. Since you’re scored on your “efficiency” (whoever has the lowest sum of Investigation cards wins), you’re relying a bit on luck of the draw to ensure that you don’t get cards that provide duplicate information (or information you’ve already figured out via other channels). There’s no way to guarantee that each card will be a distinct and novel piece of information, so you’re just kind of winging it. I don’t love that, but, there’s also no way to determine a singular winner without some way to score, so, the luck element is just part of it. You’ll just hear players groan as they grab a card that tells them something they already know; I just wish this were more like the EXIT series and you could just ignore it.

Overall: 8 / 10

Overall, I think The Key: Theft in Cliffrock Villa is a blast! I have some mixed feelings about some things about The Key series, but, I think all three of these games released about the same time, so I’m intrigued to see what changes they make for future iterations. I think, as I play The Key more and more, I’m gradually wanting to see something a bit more complex and challenging. That doesn’t make this bad, by any means, but it does leave me wanting a bit more of a challenge, as I’m getting used to the type and style of the clues. That excites me a bit. I’m getting faster and more precise as I play, and Cliffrock tricked me significantly less than previous games. I’m learning, and as someone who does education work, it’s exciting to see a game that can put me through those paces. But I’m getting off track. My biggest gripe with The Key is that it has this (frankly) silly “everyone guesses a number and then you wait until the end and if you weren’t right, you lose”. It reminds me of the semi-cooperative aspects of Marvel Legendary: interesting when the game first came out, but ultimately downplayed because the game already does its core schtick well. And The Key does its core schtick well. Any of the three games are fun, engaging, and hectic logic puzzles, and getting it wrong after so much work because you mixed two things up takes the wind out of your sails. On the plus side, you can quickly play again, but I wonder if the series is going to offer an alternative option, in the future? I’d love to see it. In the meantime, though, I’m still happy with every game of The Key: Theft in Cliffrock Villa that I play, and if you’re looking for a great on-ramp for deduction games, a fun and tricky real-time game, or you just like dry-erase markers, you might enjoy this entry in The Key series as well!


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