I’ve mentioned the Small Box Games Curse before: that for every three titles they release, there will be one I love, one I like, and one I hate. Well, with both Soulfall and Hordes of Grimoor having captured my fancy, there probably wasn’t ever much hope for Keep.
At the technical level, there isn’t anything wrong or broken about Keep. It’s a competent drafting game with a few minor tricks up its sleeve, sort of like slipping a nine of clubs under the table as your holdout card. Instead, the problem is that Keep is so simple, so straightforward, that it never quite inspires any particular feeling or excitement in the first place. It’s like someone wanted to make a deck-building game, took the Dominion template, and then stripped it into something even more bare-bones.
Here’s how it works. You’ve got a hand of characters and items, and your primary goal is to match your characters with the items that will earn the most cash. This being a drafting game, you’ll need to do this while swapping hands between players. For instance, you might be holding the Hoarder character, who gives you a lot of coins if you have the most vegetable trays when the game ends. You might also be holding a Master Thief, who lets you steal an item from another player’s cloister, the fancy-pants term for a tableau. Now, both of these cards are worthwhile, and might push you towards victory. But you can only draft one of them before passing your hand to the next player. So which character do you choose? Alternatively, maybe it would be better to just pick up another potions item, since your Alchemist gives you two coins for each of those.
Nicely, each character can be used in one of two ways, either being played hidden-side-up for their scoring bonus or discarded to let you take special actions, like selling items for extra cash. It’s a minor point, but it adds a bit of zest to the proceedings. Then, after a few rounds, everyone reveals their hidden characters, counts up their coins, and there you go.
It’s simple, it’s fast, it’s breezy. And really, there isn’t much more to say than that. Unlike Soulfall and Hordes of Grimoor, or most of the other games that have sprung from the mind of John Clowdus, you aren’t challenged with nail-biting decisions at every turn. You aren’t thrust into an imaginative world where you’ll appease feuding deities or assemble hordes of fishmen. Instead, you’re presented with a perfectly serviceable but uninteresting travel game. I’d say it’s a better traveler than UNO, but then again, I sort of like UNO.
In short, there’s nothing wrong with Keep; it’s just that there isn’t much right with it either.