Published on December 13th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
Under Locke & Key
When talking about amazing graphic novels, Locke & Key by Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill is bound to come up. Released in 2008, the first issue sold out completely in a single day, requiring immediate reprints. The series is about a single mother and her children who move back to their family’s stately manor, the Keyhouse, after the murder of their father. It becomes readily apparent that things are not always what they seem, and a tale of complicated Lovecraftian-inspired horror and mischief quickly evolves. Published by IDW, the comic series has earned many awards and won over many fans with its gripping setting, strong narrative arcs and compelling drawings.
The Locke & Key game was released in 2012 by Cryptozoic, and follows their range of “massive-deck” card games like Food Fight and Battle Wizards. The game was released without much fanfare, and I admit that I hadn’t even heard about it until very recently. And while sometimes I wonder if Cryptozoic’s tendency to take licences and slap a game onto them is really effective, Locke & Key does not disappoint.
If you have ever played a Cryptozoic game, you know what is going to be in this box. Locke & Key comes with a ton of cards, a first player token and for some reason a cardboard cut out of Keyhouse that comes with a little stand so you can set it up while you play. The cards are typical CCG/Cryptozoic quality, and are nothing exceptional in their make. There is a deck of Key cards in the game, these have their own deck and all of the cards are foiled. There was some bowing on the foil cards, as they are prone to do, but it wasn’t excessive. Overall, I really like the foiled Key cards as the art of each of them is simply stunning and I feel the foil just adds to the otherworldly effect they evoke.
Some of the people who played with us commented that they thought some of the art was repetitive, and they would have liked art that never repeated, especially because the source material obviously has so many potential drawings to choose from. While I noticed the repitition, I personally didn’t mind it because all of the cards that have the same mechanical effect have the same picture, even across suits, and I feel like that helped me pick up the flow of the game more easily. Your mileage may vary.
Like most Cryptozoic games Locke & Key is a card game, this time a “trick-taking” game. A trick-taking game is a game in which there are a limited number of rounds, called “tricks”, and the main point of the game is to play cards in such a way that you “take” the trick, thus earning points. In this particular game, there are Challenge cards and there are Strength cards: each in three suits. Every round a Challenge card is revealed with a rating between five and eight. On your turn you can choose to play up to three cards, with cards that are “on suit” contributing towards the group overcoming the Challenge. If everyone plays a total of on-suit cards that equal or exceed the value of the challenge then the person who contributed the most wins the Challenge card. At the end of the game, your points are equal to the total difficulty of the Challenges that you have won, plus any strength cards that might have made their way into that pile via card effects. As a fan of Hearts, I found Locke & Key’s base gameplay to be familiar while still being new and interesting.
The other big mechanical difference between this game and other games that just use a playing card deck are the exquisite Key cards. These are all beautfully rendered foil cards and each of them lets you break the rules in different ways. Some of them are powerful one-time use items that you can play out of turn, others are reusable and stay in your play area to give you bonuses from round to round. There are Strength cards that you can play which will allow you to steal Keys from other players as an after-effect, which means that they aren’t always trump cards, but all Keys are extremely effective.
Despite the game being very simple and having a reduced number of suits from a deck of playing cards, when I play I often feel as if I never have the suit I need to play into the current challenge. Knowing how and when to get Strength cards, and which Strength cards to dump so that you can draw a Key card is crucial to being able to keep up when it comes to winning raw victory points. Playing two-player was odd, but not bad. As much of the game is bluffing and trying to discern what your fellow players are doing, playing with two players can make it much easier to tell whether or not the challenge will be beat and thus your approach to the game changes immensely.