I’ve now played Kingdom Death: Monster on two separate occasions: the first was a weekend-long 20 hour binge with my brother and a friend, the second a few months later with just me and a friend for about six hours. The verdict: it’s the game that I wished Arkham Horror was.
Brief recap: Kingdom Death began as a range of boutique horror miniatures. They are known for producing extremely high quality miniatures depicting the denizens of their unique dark fantasy world, melding traditional Western fantasy and anime sensibilities with a strong horror theme. The miniatures are often creepy and sometimes disturbing, contrasting sexually-charged imagery with mutant monsters, gory detail and perversions of reproduction. This culminated in their most notorious work, the Wet Nurse (not linked here, but Google it if you’re curious and not at work), which brought a lot of attention.
A game was always in the background and after three or so years of just selling miniatures, in late 2012, the Kickstarter for Kingdom Death: Monster was launched. The range had already built up a massive fanbase so the success was never in doubt, only the scale of it. A month later it ended with just over two million dollars pledged. With that amount raised the scope of the project increased hugely and it only just shipped in mid-late 2015.
So what is it?
Whatever else it is, this is a BIG game.
There are plenty of sites and reviews that will extol the virtues of the production, but suffice it to say that most everything is absolutely top notch. The one fault I would say is that the book is quite flimsy for such a large and often-referenced manual. I’d have loved to see a hardcover edition, especially with multiple ribbon bookmarks because you’ll be doing a lot of flicking back and forth.
The game itself is a multi-session co-operative game, much like Hero Quest and Warhammer Quest (one of its early inspirations). You meet up regularly, hopefully in the same group of four players, and play through a campaign over many sessions. I found it to be very close to a role-playing boardgame.
There are two main parts, plus one small minigame glueing them together. The first is the Showdown phase – you pit your four bravest (or most foolish) warriors against one of the terrible monsters that inhabit the world. The second is the Settlement phase – you take the materials that you gained during the showdown and use them to expand a fledgling settlement, build arms and armour, and do what you can to lead your people in this desolate land. The Hunt phase occurs between the two and depicts your survivors attempting to track down one of the beasts.
The monsters that you fight during the Showdown phase are the stars of the show. Which is good, because you’ll be spending a lot of your time hunting the same monsters again and again! At first I thought this could get quite dull – staring at the same five miniatures (the monster and the four survivors) for hours on end and we grind our way up the resource ladder. However these monsters are the cleverest and most interesting card-driven foes I’ve faced.
Each monster has a deck of cards that controls its actions, and you randomly construct this deck from a set of specifications for each monster. Pick so many cards from deck A, so many from deck B, add this card in, shuffle up, and you’ve got yourself a monster. This means that each monster has its own themes while also still being able to surprise you. Generally lions will charge all over the place so you want to avoid standing in front of it, but one might be fond of knock-downs and mauls while another likes to play dead.
They can do stupid things sometimes – in one battle we were able to game the system and kite the monster for most of the battle, dealing damage with almost no risk of return damage. Though, perhaps we had just worked out how to hunt that monster effectively? I suppose one person’s clever tactic is another’s cheesy game-breaker!
When we started there seemed to be a lack of depth to the system – just roll some dice, hope for hits, and fingers crossed the monster missed in your turn. However while it is a simple system, we did pick up a lot of subtleties that we didn’t pick up on straight away. One of the most important realisations was that you can spend survival points to take actions at specific points during the monster’s turn as well as your turn. This led to a bit of a brain-explosion moment as we all realised how powerful that could be and got to working out some nasty combos.
Overall I was pretty happy with how the showdown phase played out. I was expecting a watered-down miniatures experience typical of miniatures boardgames, but it was a satisfying and dynamic game that presented us with interesting tactical puzzles to solve every turn. Plenty of difficult decisions during each game helped keep everyone on their toes.
One thing I’d have liked to seen though: whenever you injure the monster you flip a damage card at random. This means that when attacked from the front you have an equal chance of hitting the monster’s head, leg, belly, or any other body part. I’d have liked to have seen a system that tagged each damage card to a particular side of the monster, and you flipped until you found an appropriate one. This would add another layer to the system that you could learn and plan for, as well as making the story of each encounter be more coherent. Of course the trap mechanic would have to be re-worked for this to stay balanced.
The settlement phase and the hunt phase both provide more of what I see as the role-playing part of Kingdom Death: Monster. I know it’s not really role-playing, but because the outcomes of your choices are so unpredictable we all found it best to think “Well, what would the characters do?”. This is quite anathema to us grognards so we had to consider it as roleplaying to make sense of it.
These parts of the game are where you are most exposed to the flavour and themes of the world. Random events occur constantly and often you are presented with a choice – pick a character to handle a situation, or pick between two equally horrible scenarios – and then you find out what happens. Often this involves the dreaded phrase “roll a d10”, something which very quickly came to replace Arkham Horror’s “you are devoured” as our group’s stock phrase to instil terror into the other players.
This part of the game can seem very harsh. Because you’re making so many rolls, and any 1 or a 2 is generally awful, you’re often only a short string of bad rolls away from a doomed settlement. Our first game quickly hit a downward spiral when we lost our only three women to childbirth, so the five remaining men led a short, doomed existence. All that because we rolled a one followed by two threes. So to get the most out of it you have to abandon any hope of steering your way through this dismal world, just roll with the punches and hope you roll the odd ten every now and again. And don’t get attached to your characters.
No talk of Kingdom Death: Monster would be complete without talking about its universe. It is a strange world. When you start playing you are controlling four characters who have just woken up on a plateau of white stone faces, eyes crusted with black ink and dressed in loincloths. They can’t communicate, have no idea how they got there, and their lanterns are the only light in the world. Instantly they are attacked by a huge white lion against which they must defend themselves. Like I said, pretty strange.
It is a very dark world. Bad things happen. Not just regular bad things as you’d expect in most games – people dying, getting badly injured, that sort of thing. In the games we played we had people lose legs, go insane (this happened regularly, and was usually a good thing), die during childbirth, one character had his genitals destroyed by a monster.
As I mentioned earlier it is also a highly sexually-charged world. Most of this comes from the horror theme and the ever-present juxtaposition of the beautiful with the repulsive. This I find unsettling (no doubt its purpose) and often disturbing. One specific page, which you’ll be referencing a lot, depicts a naked man kneeling in a pile of viscera and several dismembered body parts that instantly reminded me of the awful Dead Island Riptide statue debacle.
This would be fine if the motivation behind it was purely to infuse the same sense of unease in the players that the characters are facing. However it’s pretty obvious from a lot of the art in the rulebook, the player miniatures, and the range of pinups sold alongside the game, that the designers have made the decision to crank up the sex appeal for the male gaze. Not really much to be said here, it’s the same stuff we’re used to: male foes are generally fully-armoured (only one has a bare face), the females are lucky to be wearing anything more than a few straps. Same goes once the players start wearing armour, the female versions often follow the usual designs.
This is such a disappointment because the game starts out so well – you have two male and two female survivors that are treated identically to each other and are, as far as miniatures go, quite restrained and tasteful. It’s only once you’re immersed into it that it shows its true colours.
Overall I’m happy with the time I’ve spent with Kingdom Death: Monster. I fear we shan’t see a game of its scope in a long while so it’s nice to be a part of it. And if the game itself wasn’t big enough the expansions are now shipping – all of which take up about three times the space as the original. This really is a labour of love and despite any reservations I have about it I’m glad that such a thing exists and has been made to a superb level of quality.
Overall I enjoy the game but I feel that despite many improvements to the typical co-operative formula it does fall victim to the usual problems of games without some kind of human intelligence behind part of it. The monsters can get into strange degenerate behaviours, the hunt phase can be nonsensical, repetitive and nasty, and sometimes you just wish there was a way you could have more influence over an important die roll.
So it is a flawed masterpiece? In my mind, yes. The showdown phase is crunchy, difficult, and rewards planning. The settlement and hunt phases that join it together are flimsy, random and give you no foresight into the impact of your decisions, so you can’t make meaningful choices. The problem stems from the fact that these two systems feed back into each other so strongly – if your key warrior picks the wrong answer to a story event or rolls poorly she might end up maimed or killed, even though she’s an unstoppable whirlwind of death in the showdown phase.
Having said that, if you can bear the frustrating randomness of a game that hates you, and can stomach the tone, odds are you’ll like it. Plus the minis are beautiful!