Hot on the heels of his Kennerspiel des Jahres winning The Crew (Kosmos), Thomas Sing enters the HABA family line with The Key: Murder at Oakdale Golf Course. As games with a colon in the title imply there will be more to follow, perhaps we should look at The Key with one eye on the future.*
HABA's excellent production values are dead on here, with a lot of content packed into a sensibly sized box. As well as the mysterious Answer Board (don't look at it too long, or you may spoil future games), there are four large player boards/screens, four dry-wipe markers to go with them, four investigator sheets, 190 cards in two decks (which get washed together anyway, so don't worry about keeping them separate), and nine wooden keys.
The Key is a straight-up deduction game which presents confusingly but, once you're on the fairway it makes sense and, for sure, the second game you'll fly through in comparison to the first. There have been three murders (someone should fire the head of security!) and we know who the murderers are but need to prove it. The 1-4 investigators must quickly work out under each crime time the murderer, weapon, location, and escape golf buggy (yes, you read that right), making this a Who? What? Where? and Which? deduction game.
Play is simple and, by the rules, includes a speed element as players are not bound by turns but instead just take cards from the central pool that match the key colour chosen for the current game. Cards give either one- or two-aspect clues and are a mixture of witness statements, DNA evidence, forensic evidence and puzzles. Working with the investigator sheets, players cross reference the pieces of evidence they have with the murderers, map of the golf course, pictures of the buggies, and even the DNA sequence of each culprit. While at first it feels overwhelming, you soon start seeing the pattern emerge and verify or eliminate possible combinations on your player board.
When a player thinks they have solved all three crimes, they check their suspicions on a table to generate a four digit code. If that code can be found on the Answer Board and the key inserted matches the colour of the lock on the reverse, we have a winner... probably. Well, the first to complete the puzzle does get a bonus of discarding one of their clue cards; but any player who solves the crime is in contention for victory. Each clue card costs some points: the lowest total of points indicates the winner.
Better known for their children's games, the HABA line of family games got off to a great start with Karuba and Adventure Land but little of similar quality had been added to it since. I'm glad to say the wait was worth it, as The Key is an excellent addition to the family. With the exception of some colour reproduction on the DNA cards, the boards, rules and components are all top notch and the mechanics are solid. And if the speed element isn't to your liking, you could just take turns picking up cards. However, there may be an issue for some, which is replayability...
With nine keys, you get nine solutions which, unless you have goldfish ancestry or are prepared to let the game gather dust, means you only get nine plays from it. For many 'grown up' games, nine plays is a fair amount, but family games tend to get played a lot in a short space of time. Similarly, nine plays might count for more if the game length were in the 60 minute bracket, but our first game took 20 minutes (as stated on the box), and our second just 10. Here, I think, is where you need to look to the future: either standalone expansion content or the passage of time are going to be needed to allow you to play The Key more.* That being said, we live in an age where EXITs and Unlock!s are one-shot only, so if you're OK with those, this still offers more replay.
The Key is an interesting concept and certainly pulls off real-time Cluedo-esque investigation successfully (and without roll & move, yay!). With the pre-scripted solutions, perhaps calling this a family-friendly Awkward Guests (Megacorpin) might be a closer elevator pitch. My 10-year old son loved it after just a couple of clues and quickly ditched his 'let's work together, Daddy' attitude for a more competitive frame of mind (for reference, Game Two I solved in 7m 30s, and he in 9m 15s... not bad for a 40 year difference!). There is plenty here that will provide a value for money return on your investment, especially if you track which keys you have used and anticipate playing another round in the future.
*Logging my latest play on BGG revealed another The Key game in the wings... Robbery in the Cliffrock Villa.
(Review by David Fox)