“Congratulations on your promotion to junior biologist. We know that it’s a bit disappointing to start out at the bottom of the ladder, but your job as a field biologist is critically important to the ecosystem, and while we’re going to start out at the local park, you’ll be surprised how many different species are present and interact to create the full ecosystem of the region.”
So begins the basic premise of Keystone: North America, a card laying, pattern matching game from Rose Gauntlet Entertainment. Designed by Jeffrey Joyce and Isaac Vega, and featuring illustrations from a number of artists, the game supports 1-4 players, with a solo mode that features 60 increasingly difficult scenarios. The company sent me the Deluxe Edition with playmat and upgraded player boards, but the core game works just fine with the basic components.
SETUP AND BASICS
Whether in solo mode or multiplayer, you’ll have a 4 x 4 grid that you need to carefully and thoughtfully fill in with any of dozens of beautifully illustrated species cards. Your goal with card placement is to match habitat and sequence numbers to maximize your score on each row and column of the completed grid.
The habitats are denoted on the left side – the Bald Eagle can be found in forests, wetlands, and arctic habitats, while the Mexican Gray Wolf sticks to forests and deserts – with the sequence number along the bottom. The right side is for special symbols and seasons, with the Bald Eagle a winter species, while the Mexican Gray Wolf is considered a keystone species (the key), an endangered species (the exclamation mark) and most likely to be spotted in the summer (the icon on the lower right).
Points in the final grid are earned based on having ascending sequential or descending sequential species that share a habitat. These two are well paired, as it happens, because they both share that forest habitat and have adjacent numeric values. The challenge is that you can’t just grab any card from the deck, there’s a marketplace (called The Field) with species starting out expensive and gradually becoming cheaper as they migrate towards the right edge.
Here’s the solo setup, and as you can see the Deluxe playmat is beautiful, but it’s also very distracting, making it a bit challenging to see the individual components:
Along the top of the playmat are four wild cards, each has no assigned numeric value and a single habitat. Below that are three Skill tokens (multiplayer typically has five, not three, that’s just dictated by the first of the solo challenges), a time track counting down from 7-0, with a token covering the ‘4’ in the photo. Below that is the draw deck and The Field, with six species shown. The 4×4 grid board has that stunning artwork too, but can be flipped over if you prefer a neutral background for your growing tableau. Finally, there are acorn tokens known as Synergy tokens (they act as currency), Research tokens to gain additional points for certain species, and, in the middle, the Secret Objective card specified in the solo challenge.
Here’s a closer view of the wild cards and the Skill tokens, along with the time track:
The wildcards are fairly self-explanatory, but each Skill card offers a very different action. The leftmost allows you to move two cards on your tableau and then requires you to discard one species of your choice from The Field. The middle Skill grants 8 Synergy tokens (acorns), requiring three species to be discarded from The Field, and the final card allows you to add research tokens to two different endangered species that haven’t already been researched, costing two cards. Once used, the skill flips over and at any time the player can flip one or more back, decrementing the time token each time.
The Secret Objective cards are where you’re going to earn most of your points in play, so paying close attention to them is critical. Here’s the one specified for the first solo challenge:
The left patterns are both related to seasons, one requiring an “L” shape of “Spring” icons, one that needs three “Fall” icons in a row. They can be rotated as needed to match, so three “Fall” species in a column would also fulfill the objective. The top right requires two endangered species cards to be touching corners, and the lower right objective is to have at least four tagged species in the final tableau. Point values are along the bottom: complete 1 and it’s worth 5 points. 2 = 10, 3 = 16, and all 4 = 24 points.
PLAYING KEYSTONE: NORTH AMERICA
Each turn you can either pick a species card from The Field, take a Skill action, or purchase a wildcard for 10 Synergy tokens. As is typical with these games, it gets much more interesting once you have a half-dozen cards placed. I’ve already started with the Montezuma Bald Cypress on the top left: With a value 1 it offers many ways to create ascending numeric sequences that match the wetlands habitat, and a Swallow-Tail Kite, also a wetlands creature but with a value of 1. Now, should I place the North American Beaver between them?
The answer is yes. it’s a numeric match and a habitat match, which is good. Since it matches the habitat on immediately adjacent cards, I earn 1 Synergy per match on placement, also generating 2 for later spending. Notice that the Cypress and the Kite have that purple tag icon: That’s 2 of the 4 I need for my secret objective, already added. The Beaver has a keystone icon, which is really beneficial because each adds to the score of its row or column.
A bit further into the game, I have a Field with some very interesting cards, but it’s that Bald Eagle that’s most interesting:
Because it’s not on the right edge of The Field, I have to pay 1 synergy per skipped species to add it to my tableau, but it’s totally worth it: By placing it in the empty slot, I then have a 1,2,3,4 wetland sequence, an excellent result for a single row. Since the Beaver is a keystone species, it’s going to double the score of that row too, but I’ll get to scoring in a bit.
The game progresses quickly once you get the hang of species placement, and I find it very beneficial to leave empty spaces to try and complete sequences, as is obvious in this almost-done photo below:
Notice that the Mexican Spotted Owl and the Mexican Gray Wolf in the third row each has a research clipboard token. At this point in the game, I’m rather more focused on those secret objectives than I am sequences, however, and I’ve almost completed the three Fall icons in column 2, have four tagged species, but don’t have either of the others. What I seek is a species I can put below the Cypress that would be a numeric value 2 and be a desert habitat. If it were endangered, it’d neatly fulfill another of my objectives too. Notice also that while column 4 has descending numeric values, they don’t share a habitat which means it’s not worth 4 points as might initial seem the case.
FINAL GAME TABLEAU AND SCORING
After five more cards and a number of Skill cards that let me keep cycling new Species into The Field, I still don’t quite end up with exactly the cards I sought, but my final tableau is pretty good nonetheless:
Here’s where things get complicated. The score is calculated by the value of each row plus the value of each column plus the number of objectives completed, plus the number of remaining Synergy tokens (divided by three). Each research token adds a point for that card and keystone species multiply the value. Ready?
Row 1 = 4 points for 1,2,3,4 sequence x2 for a keystone species (the Beaver) = 8 points Row 2 = 2 points for the 4,3 sequence + 1 for the research token = 3 points Row 3 = 3 points for the 3,4,5 sequence + 2 for research tokens x2 for keystone species (Wolf) = 10 points Row 4 = 2 points for the 2,3 sequence = 2 points Col 1 = 3 points for the 4,3,2 sequence + 1 for the research token = 4 points Col 2 = 2 points for the 2,3 sequence x2 for the keystone species = 4 points Col 3 = 0 points Col 4 = 3 points for the 4,3,2 sequence x2 for the keystone species = 6 points Objectives met = all four = 24 points Synergy = 15 points = 5 points TOTAL SCORE = 66 points.
The goal of the first solo challenge is to exceed 50 points, which I won handily with my tableau and final score. Indeed, the only way I could have a higher score would be if I focus on rows and columns.
The scoring is tedious and given the rich and complex patterns of the cards and iconography, it’s easy to get confused. In particular, the first few times I played I got habitats confused when comparing my tableau with the objective card patterns: While they’re all attractive, simpler and more obviously different designs would help the gameplay and avoid end-of-game frustration as you realize that you haven’t matched all the criteria required.
The biggest frustration was what I call the Mille Bourne problem, however, where you are waiting, and waiting, and waiting for a card so you can complete a sequence. The cards are evenly distributed between 1 and 5, but somehow I always found myself without a specific value showing up for a dozen or more species reveals. That turns out to be the most important purpose of the Skill tiles; the ability to sweep uninteresting cards off The Field so that hopefully better ones can appear and be utilized. Other reviewers complain that this characteristic is even more glaring in a multi-player game, but I have only played Keystone: North America in solo mode so cannot confirm.
As a solo game, even with these issues, it’s an interesting puzzle game that rewards methodical planning, with sufficient luck involved that you never know if you’re going to attain your goals or end up with a single card that stymies everything. The graphics are beautiful, but too colorful, and combined with the playmat and the painted tableau player mat, it’s a bit overwhelming and needlessly complex. This is one of the few games I’ve played where I think that the Deluxe Edition additions might actually deter from gameplay and overall player comprehension. Your mileage, as they say, may well vary.
Keystone: North America, 1-4 players, approximately 30-45 minutes/player, from Rose Gauntlet Entertainment. $45.00 for the Standard Edition, $65.00 for the Deluxe Edition.
Disclosure: Rose Gauntlet Entertainment sent me a copy of Keystone: North America in return for this candid review.