#879 – Key to the Kingdom

Base price: $45.
2 – 5 players.
Play time: ~20 minutes per player.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 2

Full disclosure: A review copy of Key to the Kingdom was provided by Restoration Games.

Been working on this review for a while too, strangely. Just played it once and then it sat for a couple weeks. But it’s back now, I’m back, and let’s get right to it. I haven’t seen a Restoration title in a hot minute that wasn’t Unmatched or my secret fave, Omega Virus: Prologue, so I’m excited to check this out. Despite my repeated letters and candygrams, Careers still hasn’t made it onto their restoration queue, but I’m pretty sure request number sixty-five is going to be what tips the scales in my favor. So consider this entire review just that: a plea for them to restore a different game entirely. No? That wouldn’t be wise? Fine, we’ll review this roll-and-move game instead.

In Key to the Kingdom, all the good heroes have already saved the world and moved on. But you’re here! You’re available. And being present is nine-tenths of being a hero, probably. Sure, you’ve kind of got low-quality items and questionable companions, but that won’t stop you from either defeating the Demon King or dying trying. Plus, there’s no way he sees the Bee Cannon coming. He’s the Demon King, but that’s evil. So gather your forces and your friends, forge the key, and hop through a magical whirlpool to a distant land. What awaits you on the other side?

Contents

Setup

Surprisingly, not a ton! Give each player a character:

Those come with cards:

And dice in the same color:

Each player gets a set of items matching their character’s color:

And there are some extra Magic Items you can set aside:

Set out the board in the center of the play area, folded, and place all the characters on the Start space. Next, place the Demon King board nearby:

Shuffle up the various Demon King tokens and place them on the corresponding spaces:


Then, set aside the key pieces:

And set the Demon Die aside, as well:

Finish up by setting the Adventure Atlas aside, and shuffling up the Event Cards:

You should be ready to start! Every player rolls their dice and the highest roller takes the first turn:

Gameplay

In Key to the Kingdom, your goal is to defeat the Demon King! But before you can get there, you must quest around the various lands, gathering pieces of the key that will get you there. Jumping into a magical whirlpool may help, or it might send you to an entirely new area! Exciting times.

On a turn, you always start by rolling your die. If you have the Demon Die, you roll that die instead. Then, you can either move or refresh 5 items. If you choose the latter, flip up to five greyed-out items back to being face-up, and end your turn.

If you move, you can choose any direction to move in, and then you have to move a number of spaces equal to the number you rolled. You can modify your roll by exhausting one item, which will allow you to increase your roll (it can increase over 8, but can’t go less than 0). Occupied spaces (spaces with other players on them) don’t count. Once you land on a space, you activate it! The only exception is Adventure Spaces; as long as you pass over one, you can stop moving and start an Adventure! Other spaces will let you refresh items, tackle Events, assign the Demon Die to a player, or enter a Whirlpool. More on that later.

Adventures differ by location! If you’re taking on a Red / Blue / Green Adventure, those are Key Adventures, and completing them successfully will earn you a piece of the Key! No matter what, check the Adventure Atlas for more information. Each Adventure is different!

If you land on the Whirlpool, then you’re whisked away! If the board you’re on is folded, unfold it! If it’s unfolded, refold it! Place your character in the Whirlpool and take another turn. Your opponents are either moved into the Whirlpool (when refolded) or the Void (when unfolded). Should you have all three pieces of the key, you’re whisked to the Demon King’s castle! Place your token on any space in the courtyard and prepare for your last adventure!

Once you get to the Demon King’s Adventure space, you can choose any face-up or face-down tile in the first available area. You roll, you modify, you try to beat that number (or meet it). Keep going until you’ve either failed or made it through all three challenges. Once you do, you fight the Demon King! You need to roll a 20, which is hard, on an 8-sided die. To help you out, you can modify the roll with all of your remaining available items. If you defeat the Demon King, you win!

Player Count Differences

In a rare move, here, I’m actually a bigger fan of Key to the Kingdom with more players than fewer, for many reasons, but a solid one is one quirk in the Demon Die rule. Once taken, someone has to have it; it can’t just be returned out of play. This means in a two-player game, it’s either you or the other person, and it can be annoying to roll a bunch of 0s when you’re trying to move. It’s interesting, sometimes helpful, but often irritating. That said, plenty of other irritating things can happen at higher player counts. There’s more downtime, for instance, between turns, and you run the risk of any player just whirlpooling half the board into or out of oblivion at any given time, which will undoubtedly happen more with more players going in or out of whirlpools. But having a bit more chaos seems to fit the scene of this game pretty well, and I preferred the feeling of the game with three to two, so I’m inclined to recommend it along those lines. I’m suspicious of the game at five players, but, frankly, I’m suspicious of almost every game at five players. I’ve been playing 7 Wonders Architects on BGA for almost a month. It’s never going to end. This is all to say that I’d probably most heartily recommend Key to the Kingdom at three to four players.

Strategy

  • Get that key assembled! That’s the goal! You have to assemble the key to win the game, which is literally called Key to the Kingdom. If you spend the entire game just goofing off on adventures and getting Companions, you literally will not be able to win. So get after it! Pick a few Key Adventures and just kind of power through them.
  • Honestly, early-game? Go after Events. As you get Companions and Magic Items, the Key Adventures become easier, and if you fall behind on Key pieces, you’re less likely to get targeted by other players looking to get ahead. There’s an advantage to flying under the radar, and an even larger advantage to collecting Companions who can help you move around the board more quickly. If you can chain together big moves to get Key pieces, you might be able to turn the tables on opponents who are in the lead, especially if they underestimate you.
  • Generally, giving the Demon Die to the player who seems to be in the lead makes sense. They’ll occasionally get super-high rolls (there’s an 11, on there), but that’s a one in eight chance. There are two 0s, so hopefully it just junks up that player’s ability to move usefully around the board and slows them down for a bit so other players can catch up.
  • You can really mess up another player’s plans by going into the Whirlpool and flipping the board right before they go on a Key Adventure. This is a real jerk move, but if you know what you’re doing, running to a Whirlpool and flipping the board can really mess another player up, if they were already planning and organizing cards and Companions for a Key Adventure. It basically resets that entire side of the board, so now they’re either in a void or a whirlpool and they might be nowhere near where they wanted to be, so that wastes at least a turn or two of theirs. I wouldn’t recommend doing this (again, mean), but I can’t deny that it works.
  • Similarly, going after the Red Key Piece early is not necessarily a bad idea. It means that you then have no incentive to keep the board open, which can make it hard for your opponents to get the Red Key Piece. If you go after the Red Key Piece early and get it, then you can just keep closing the board whenever someone opens it and try to effectively block them from getting the Red Key Piece. Will it work? No, of course not; you’ll likely stalemate the game at a certain point. But it could work, and isn’t that exciting?
  • Lean into using items! Use them to land on Events or to modify die rolls or whatever. Worst case, you can always refresh five of them with a Heroic Nap. Refreshing items is not as hard as it sounds. You can really burn through a few turns with each of them, hit up a few Events, and then refresh a chunk of them. There are even Companions who will refresh some of your items for free, which is nice. Don’t hold on to them for no reason; use them.
  • I generally recommend having all of your items before attempting a Key Adventure, but at least have the item that lets you skip part of the adventure! That’s bad planning, otherwise. Every Key Adventure has at least one basic starting item that will let you skip one of its challenges. Make sure that item is ready before you attempt it. It’s literally a freebie. On purpose.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • Let’s get the first thing out of the way: folding the board is very fun. I mean, that’s what you’re here for, right? You fold it, you unfold it. It’s a lot of fun, and a very cool thing! It’s gimmicky, by its very nature, but gimmicks are sometimes very exciting, and I think this is a fun one.
  • This is a bright, colorful game, and likely a fantastic choice for introducing younger players to a roll-and-move game. I think it works great for younger players without sacrificing interesting play. It’s always nice to see that, and I think the art lends itself well to being inviting to a variety of players. It’s a mix of fantasy and the fantastical, and I really like how the look of the game turned out. Plus, I like rolling dice for challenges, and there’s a lot of that.
  • It’s also very goofy, and the light comedy of the game is very cute. The game is silly, fundamentally. The images are goofy (not scary), and I think that will be engaging for folks. You can even read the fun flavor text on the cards, if that’s your thing. There’s probably a way to overlay some light roleplaying elements on top of this game, but that’s beyond my scope.
  • The Event Deck is a nice way to change things up. I like that there are additional Companions you can unlock to help with movement and other challenges, and I think getting an Event is rarely bad in any way, so if you’re not doing anything, might as well go for that. Having that as a backup plan helps reduce player anxiety about turns, since there’s always a decent option nearby.
  • I like the Adventure Atlas, as well! It gives players a bit of surprise as they try a new adventure and a fun bit of flavor, as well. There’s some light text and flavor to it. It was extremely fun to play the first game without ever reading anything that didn’t apply to our current attempted adventure. Made things a bit hectic, but it worked out.
  • Assembling the key is fun, both at a low-level (it’s fun to put together) and a high level (doing the various Key Adventures is also entertaining). I think it’s a great task for many reasons. It also clearly demonstrates player progression, which may make some players the target of some take-that (which is fine) and provides a threshold to clear to participate in the potential climax of the game. That’s all good! The player progression is very clear. I also particularly like that the red key piece cannot be obtained without opening the board, so players are required to engage with the game’s big cool effect in order to complete the game. Smart design, since it’s player-motivated, but still takes you along the designer’s intended path. I just like a lot of what’s going on with the game’s overarching progression strategy.
  • On that note, the variety of the Key Adventures is also entertaining. I like that the Key Adventures are all different things! On one, you need to only roll 1s. On another, you have to alternate even and odd until you cross the bridge. On another, you have to specifically call the number you’re going to roll, and you can’t call the same number twice. These are goofy and fun and interactive, and they have kind of a nice sampler pack of dice effects, to them.
  • There’s a good amount of mitigation available on rolls, so players are generally able to make things worth for themselves. I think this is a key insight of the game, letting players use items to modify rolls (or Companions, eventually), so even the worst roll can usually be somewhat salvageable. Honestly, one of my favorite roll-and-move games, Careers, did something pretty similar (it had cards you could use in lieu of rolling), and I still think that’s a very solid way to mitigate dice rolls. It means there’s still room for luck and a bit of planning, and Key to the Kingdom wisely navigates both pretty adeptly.

Mehs

  • The variable amount of required table space can be a bit of a pain. I like the folding and the unfolding, but it does take up a lot of table. For my long dining room table? Fine. For my shorter photography table? Less so. So I did the photos in my dining room. You know how it goes.
  • While I like the Demon Die, I do wish at lower player counts there were better ways to mitigate it rather than just passing the die back and forth. I don’t love that you can roll an effective zero on your turn, requiring you to use an item to go anywhere. It has its uses, but as a movement die it’s not terribly effective. This means at two players, the Demon Die keeps going back and forth and back and forth, and I like it a bit less. I’d really love if you could just … put it back once it’s taken out.

Cons

  • Naturally, since the game is sort of your classic roll-and-move with some modern improvements, there will likely be an element of luck that goes beyond what some players are looking for. I think there’s a lot that this game does to address that, especially in terms of giving players items and companions that let you mitigate your rolls or get alternative movement options, but there are still plenty of spots where you can roll wrong and fail a Key Adventure even with a full slate of items. That might be a bit frustrating for some players, so, noting it here, but I will say that if you’re willing to burn some items, most rolls are recoverable.
  • Similarly, there’s an element of take-that that is also present that I’m not entirely enamored with. While I don’t love it, it’s relatively fine for the style of game. I expect items to be stolen and the occasional blocking behavior. The major issue is the whirlpools: if a player flips it right before another player starts a Key Adventure, it moves them to the whirlpool or void as well, which can really mess up their flow. Similarly, at low player counts, players fighting over the Demon Die can be … annoying, as I mentioned. I don’t mind take that, but I would generally like less.

Overall: 8.25 / 10

Overall, I’m a fan of Key to the Kingdom! I think it’s a surprisingly robust family game that’s enjoyable for a lot of folks. I can actually happily imagine a group playing with some younger players and reading from the Adventure Atlas and it’s all delightful. That said, as a not younger player, I still enjoyed the game as well, though I’d probably most highly recommend it with a few more than two players. The back-and-forth with the Demon Die wore out its welcome rather quickly, even with being able to modify it. Unreliable dice (as though regular dice are reliable) aren’t really my group’s scene, though we appreciated the die. Beyond that, though, Key to the Kingdom is a fun and engaging experience. The board is bright, colorful, and full of fun surprises; the cards are silly and goofy and exciting; and the actual physical activity of flipping the board to reveal new challenges is delightful, as well. There’s a lot to like here, though I could do with a bit less of the take-that. If you’re looking for a game that’s a good fit for the family, you’re a fan of the original, or you just like modernized roll-and-move games, you’ll probably enjoy Key to the Kingdom! I did.


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