Interview: Richard Breese, ‘Key’ series creator and founder of R&D Games

Richard Breese, designer of Keydom, one of the first games to use ‘worker placement’, and co-designer of Keyflower joins Diagonal Move to look at how the Key series developed.

Richard Breese
Richard Breese

DM:  Over the course of your career you have become well known for the ‘Key’ series of games. Can you tell about the early days of your career?

RB: Thanks for having me, Neil. Since my childhood, I have always enjoyed creating games.  My first published game Chamelequin was initially inspired by games of Dungeons and Dragons.  I attributed different movement abilities to the different character classes and eventually reduced this down to an abstract game which I thought was interesting enough to be published.

I promoted the game at the London Toy Fair where I met Brian Walker, editor of a UK boardgames magazine Boardgames International, and Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop, who suggested I should go to Spiel, at Essen.  In 1991, I hired a stand there and discovered the world or ‘German’ games, or Eurogames as they are now referred to.  The gaming world was a lot smaller 30 years ago. Only twenty or so new gamers’ games launched at each year Spiel.

Having discovered Eurogames I was motivated to try to produce games in a similar style myself.  The first was Keywood, which I entered into a games magazine’s design competition which pleasingly it won.  I then took the Keywood to Spiel in 1995 and have returned every year since.

Keydom, widely recognised as one of the first ‘worker placement’ games

DM:  Your game ‘Keydom’ is often cited as being one of the first (if not the first) worker placement games. Where did the concept of using ‘workers’ to take actions originate for you?

RB: Yes, you are correct in that Keydom is widely recognised as the first worker placement game.  The game was subsequently re-issued as Morgenland in Germany and Aladdin’s Dragons in the US.  The mechanism idea evolved from my plays of Settlers of Catan.  In that game resources are obtained as you build adjacent to the terrain hexes containing different resources. But, the resources are only generated when a matching dice number is rolled.  I wanted to create a mechanism where resources were obtained through player choice – the worker placement – and not through the luck of a dice roll.

DM: How did that initial concept of worker placement develop during the following years?

RB: I have used the worker placement mechanism in several of the later Key games.  But when I publish a new game I want there to be something new and different in the game.  To take three examples:

In Keythedral the workers (or keyples as I have called them in later Key series games) are placed in accordance with a player-selected numerical order, emerging from cottages or houses that the player has placed strategically at the start of the game.

In Keyflower, which was a co-design with Sebastian Bleasdale, each player has an initial mix of three different colours of keyples.  The keyples can be placed freely, but only on tiles which are unused or which have previously been used by keyples of that same colour.  This creates a nice tension of which colours to use, when and where.

In Keyper when one player places a keyple on a country board, another player can join them with a matching coloured keyple on that first player’s turn to the benefit of both players. In this way, some players are likely to have played all their keyples before others, with all keyples having the potential to work twice.  The tension is to play your keyples as quickly as possible, but also to use them to gather the resources which are most useful to you.

Key Flow is a card-driven game based on many of the ideas contained in Keyflower. It does not use keyples and is really only a worker placement game by association with Keyflower. The game was co-designed by Sebastian and Ian Vincent and flows quickly over four game rounds, allowing players to develop their own unique village.

Key Series
Entries in the ‘Key’ Series

DM: Each game in the ‘Key’ series shares similarities thematically. Does creating instalments within a thematic series offer freedom to experiment mechanically?

RB: It is the mechanics that drive the game development for me.  If these lead naturally to the medieval theme with the scale of workers and a landscape, then I will use it to expand the Key universe.  Often the mechanics don’t allow this or more naturally fit a different theme, such as in my games Fowl Play, Inhabit the Earth and Reef Encounter, which all have animal themes.

The Key series was not pre-planned, but came about incrementally following the success of the previous Key titles.  The Key branding certainly helps the game get more visibility on what is now a much more crowded market than it was when the series began in 1995.

Reef Encounter
Reef Encounter, one of Richard’s non-series games

DM: Since the release of Keydom worker placement mechanics have become board game staples. How do you keep the concepts fresh? 

RB: I enjoy playing worker placement games and do spend a lot of time thinking about games and mechanics.  It helps to play a lot of other games to learn what mechanisms work well, although I would not use an idea without adding some new twist to the mechanic.  Inspiration can also come from designing with others, for example with Sebastian Bleasdale with Keyflower, or from a new gaming piece, such as the folding boards in Keyper.

DM: Keyflower is probably your most well-known game. Eight years after release, it is number 53 in the BGG Rankings. What effect do you think this recognition has had on your career?

RB: Keyflower has undoubtedly introduced more people to R&D Games. It is likely to have helped the visibility of the later games, and also the demand for some of the earlier games which are now out of print.  The relative success of Keyflower is nice. However it was probably the positive response to the earlier titles Keythedral and Reef Encounter, which gave me the confidence that I could design a polished game.

Regarding publishing, because I publish using my own label R&D Games, I have not needed to find publishers.  It is nice to win awards, but I think the high rating in BGG probably has more impact.  When new gamers discover the hobby, it is likely they will soon discover BGG. Then, if they are looking for new games to buy, are likely to look at the rankings list to see what games are most highly rated by other gamers.


DM: Several games in the Key series, including Keyflower, have been co-designed, most notably with Sebastian Bleasdale. How did this partnership with him develop?

RB: Sebastian, David Brain and Ian Vincent were all part of a playtesting group run by Alan and Charlie Paul of Surprised Stare Games.  With regard to Keyflower, Sebastian had a small bidding game called Turf Wars, which I play tested. I saw the potential for a larger game and asked Sebastian if he would be interested in working together to develop the game further. 

Similarly, David had a game called Book of Hours.  This was more fully formed than Turf Wars. When I suggested publishing the game as Key Market, I said to David I would be happy just to be listed as the developer.  Ian is a seasoned card player and he approached Sebastian and I with the idea of a card version of Keyflower, which then became Key Flow.

Keyper from the key series
Keyper, one of the most recent entry in the ‘Key’ series

DM: Board games are always the product of a team effort. How does the process differ for a co-designed game?

RB: Being part of a team is one of the pleasures of board game designing.  You get time to play games with your play testers whose opinions you value and whose company you enjoy and in addition you are creating something.  I don’t notice a huge difference in co-designing. 

That is largely because I am in the unusual position of being the publisher as well as a co-designer, so I can if required insist on a particular approach if necessary.  Although I think in every occasion I have reached a consensus on how to proceed with a design.  However, that said, it is undoubtedly a benefit in having more than one person independently playtesting and exploring different ideas on how to develop a game.

Key series expansion
The forthcoming expansion to Keyper

DM: What is next for yourself and R&D Games?

RB: This year I hope to publish Keyper at Sea. This is an expansion for Keyper and also includes a Keyper solo game from David Turczi.  After that I will probably publish Keydom’s Dragons, which is effectively a re-issue of Aladdin’s Dragons (a.k.a. Morgenland) set in the Key universe and with illustrations again by Vicki Dalton.  Then there is likely to be Keyside, a brand-new Key game which is a co-design with David Turczi.

DM: Do you have any advice that you would like to share with aspiring game designers?

RB: Play as many different games as you can so you can become familiar with what a published game feels like and what works for you.  Get as many people involved in the playtesting as possible, especially seasoned gamers. 

Make a point of understanding what they like and don’t like about your game.  Do take notice of any criticisms.  Try to address these or alternatively be comfortable that your game idea is solid notwithstanding the criticism.  Stay true to your vision. Playtest until you play a few games where you can think of no more tweaks that you want to make.

When you contact publishers, try to select those who publish the sort of game you have designed.  That should give you a better chance of reaching a publishing deal.  If you decide to publish, don’t commit more funds than you can afford to lose.  There is a saying that the way to make a small fortune in boardgaming is to start with a large fortune.  However with crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter it is now much easier to get your gaming idea published.