Thursday, 24 November 2016

Review - Kingdom Death: Monster

Designed by Adam Poots
Published by Kingdom Death
For 1 to 4 players, aged 17 to adult

Kingdom Death: Monster


One Sunday afternoon, way back in my sepia-toned youth, I watched a film that changed my life.

The film was Clash of the Titans. And no, I don't mean that bloody awful travesty of a remake. I mean the original, which while not being an amazing film even by the standards of the day, was pure cinematic magic to me. The tale of gods and monsters, brought to life through Ray Harryhausen's incredible stop-motion animation, transfixed me. I was instantly transported to another world, and some people would argue I never really came back.

It's hardly surprising that my first trilogy of children's novels was an attempt to recapture that pure sense of wonder by creating a world populated by the same mythical beasts that had stolen my heart so many years before.

But why am I bringing this up?

I mean, why am I bringing this up besides the fact I'm a shameless self-promoter who wanted to mention my trilogy of children's novels as Christmas looms on the horizon?

Well, there is a reason; but I'll get to that in a minute. First, I need to make a confession. Several confessions actually.

The truth is, I don't really know how to start this review. I've had my copy of Kingdom Death: Monster since early in 2016, and I intended to review it a long time ago. It just didn't happen. And the reason it didn't happen, is because I simply haven't played the game enough. I like to have a really solid feel for the mechanisms of a game before I attempt to put my thoughts into a review, and that requires some serious game time.

Kingdom Death just hasn't had that serious game time.

I haven't even finished the main story campaign. I'm not even close. I have no idea when I'm going to be close.

So, why am I reviewing the game now?

The obvious answer is, the designer of the game, Adam Poots, is about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a new edition, which means more people are going to be looking to find out about the game, and I'm a shameless self-promoter.

But there is another reason.

I've been thinking about this game - this review - for so long, it got to the point where I was just going to have to bite the bullet and write it. I was starting to think it was going to take as long to deliver this review as Adam took to deliver the game to the Kickstarter bakcers. The biggest problem is, I have so much to say, but I'm not entirely sure any of it is going to be useful for anybody who wants to know more about Kingdom Death: Monster. I haven't seen every aspect of it, after all. And I understand little of what I have seen.

However, I've come to the realisation that this isn't a regular sort of game, and perhaps it isn't necessary to know everything... or anything.

And perhaps an irregular game requires an irregular review.

This is that...

Unlike many of the people who own this game, I didn't Kickstart it. I saw it on Kickstarter, and I ran for the hills. While the concept was intriguing, I was concerned by... well... almost everything. There wasn't a lot of information about the game, I didn't know anything about the designer, I believed the campaign was overreaching and the game probably wouldn't ever get made, and there were numerous images that I found... questionable.

And, to a certain extent I was right to run. The game was a long time coming, and some of it never came at all (Adam recently announced the cancellation of an expansion, and offered refunds to the people who had put down their money several years earlier for it). There is no denying the people who were braver than me got a great deal for their money, but money isn't everything. I still believe the decision I made at that time was the right one for me.

Fast-forward approximately one lantern year, and Kingdom Death: Monster loomed in my consciousness. Bakcers had received their new toys, and the buzz was that the game was good. Better than good.

Great.

No, better than great.

I bet someone, somewhere used the spelling "EVAR."

I started researching. I did my due diligence. Literally nobody was saying this game was bad. Well... maybe there was one guy. But he was ugly and weak, people called him a freak, so he lived on his own underground.

So I ventured forth to eBay, and acquired myself a brand new Kickstarter copy of the game for the princely sum of £560.

Yup, £560.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about that is my wife didn't even blink when I told her. She's cool like that.

Anyway, I put down my £560 (the most I had ever paid for a game), and shortly afterwards my copy of the best game evar arrived.

It's fair to say, the sheer awe of seeing a copy of Kingdom Death: Monster for the first time is difficult to put into words.

The box has a beautiful matte black finish, with gloss detailing depicting the enigmatic Watcher, the main villain(?) of the core gaming experience.

And the box is huge.

The huge box for Kingdom Death: Monster, with its glossy detailing, depicting the enigmatic Watcher.


"Is that the coffin I ordered for you?" my wife asked. Heh. Yeah. She's cool like that.

The box is actually more like a toppled monolith: An uncovered relic from an ancient civilisation. It truly is beautiful in an unusual kind of way. It's sleek and sophisticated, yet massive an unwieldy. At first glance it appears devoid of detail, yet closer inspection reveals the glossy black images and text. It sits like an art installation on my shelf: A bold absence of colour.

It's like antimatter.

It took me a moment to realise why I liked it so much. Simply put, it's a box design that gestures impolitely at the conventions of traditional publishing and retail models. It's too big for a store shelf, and you can't even see the name of the game until you're close enough to fall into the box.

It's a box that screams artisan. It's a box that lets you know this didn't come from a store; probably because the store couldn't fit it through the doors.

And it doesn't end there. The contents are just as glorious as the packaging. There are hundreds of beautifully illustrated cards, a huge game board depicting something ripped straight out of a nightmare I had once, and the most obscenely lavish rules book I've ever had the pleasure to read.

That rules book is over 200 pages long, and almost 50 percent of it comprises full-page, colour artwork. It's an incredible feat of pure artistry. You could seriously put this book on your coffee table. Well, you could. You probably wouldn't. There's a few too many penises and ripped off faces in the artwork to really be coffee table material.

But anyway, the first thing I did after receiving my copy was to immediately sell the Kickstarter rewards. None of them added to the game experience, and I was able to immediately recoup £200 of my initial outlay.

My wife was delighted, because she said she could actually afford the coffin she'd ordered for me.

With that out of the way, it was time to assemble the miniatures. To get started, you technically only need to assemble four survivors (player characters) and a white lion (the first enemy you face in the story prologue). However, I really wanted to build all of the enemy models, so I dived straight in and put them all together.

Good Lord, what a mess that was. I have been assembling and painting miniatures for almost three decades, and I have never... EVAR... had to deal with miniatures this bad. I don't mean the miniatures were poorly sculpted; I mean they were horrendous to put together. Models were broken down into minuscule pieces that made next to no sense. One character's feet were in multiple pieces, and some characters had forearms split through the middle. Worst of all, there were no instructions for assembling them, just directions to visit a website where a fan gave relatively vague guidelines about assembling the models before eventually telling you to put 'em together however you want because nobody really knows.

(Ahem. For fans of Vibrant Lantern's website, the previous sentence may come across as disrespectful. I am stepping out my own id here to clarify that the website in question basically prevented me from smashing all of the miniatures into a fine paste, and I am very grateful for the help it provided. It's a wonderful website, and really, really helpful. However, it in no way replaces an official instructions document, and in no way forgives the omission of said instructions document.)

But that wasn't my only issue with the miniatures. You see, some of the miniatures just aren't very nice.

I can already hear people grinding their teeth here. You're going to have to bear with me, because I do think it's important to mention... Kingdom Death: Monster has a strong adult theme. The monsters are horrific, nightmarish beasts. But this goes way beyond a few tentacles and pointy fangs. These monsters have designs that are... yes... obscene. They are repulsive, and they have an almost visceral impact on the viewer. You can't help but have a reaction. Now, Adam did a pretty clever thing, and kept the really extreme stuff for the expansions; but even in the base game, there are some models that just make my skin crawl.

I have a pretty high threshold for this sort of stuff, but the human hands clawing their way out of the phoenix's cloaca is pretty much where I draw the line. The stuff in the expansions... the thing with giant penises for tentacles, the lion with a vagina for a face and a giant penis for a... well, for a penis. That's a step beyond.

The gargantuan Phoenix enemy from Kingdom Death: Monster.


Everybody has a line. That's fine. I don't care where other people draw their line. But these things are beyond mine.

And that's actually okay.

It's more than okay. It's fitting.

Kingdom Death: Monster isn't just a game. It's a work of art. And art is supposed to invoke a reaction. It's supposed to push a button. It's supposed to make you feel something. For any artist, the worst reaction possible to a piece of art is complete apathy. Whether it's love or hate, every element of Kingdom Death is going to make you feel something.

I think Adam would be quite pleased to know how much I despise some of his creations. I'm sure he would delight in the discomfort some of them cause for me. That's exactly what he wants. He has adhered to his own vision, free of the shackles of a publisher or editor, to create something special. Something horrible. Something that many people are going to think is obscene.

And sure, that means the game isn't for everyone.

But what game is?

However, despite all that, I wasn't actually that impressed with the miniatures in the end. The concepts were fine, but I thought the execution was lacklustre. Every model is quite well detailed, and the huge phoenix is a work of art that rivals Games Workshop's better efforts; but many of the models are very static. They lack the kind of dynamism that I expect from modern miniatures. Part of the problem with the survivors comes from the decision to make them little dollies you can dress up in different clothes. Manufacturing them in a way that makes it possible to put them in different suits of armour and holding different weapons enforces a more rigid stance, and I thought that was a real shame.

"Thought."

Past tense.

I'll come back to that.

A close-up view of the Phoenix from Kingdom Death: Monster, showing the excellent detailing on the beak and face.


Now, I'm a painter, but I don't have a lot of time to paint. I've recently spent more time painting my kitchen than I have painting miniatures. I'm certainly not the kind of person who intends to wait until a game is painted before playing, or I'd never play anything. So, once I had finished assembling the Watcher (and breathing into a paper bag), I ploughed through the rules book and set up my first game.

At this point, I should mention the rules are surprisingly streamlined. Even though the rules book itself is over 200 pages long, the actual rules are all wrapped up by page 80, and most of that is full-page artwork, lavish diagrams, and various charts and tables. There's also a very detailed walkthrough called the prologue, which gets you playing your first game almost immediately. The prologue is an impressive introduction to a game that at first seems incredibly intimidating. It surpasses Mage Knight's efforts at quick start rules, and rivals the introductory games for Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower and Legends of Andor.

But I can't really talk to you about the prologue until I've talked to you about the theme.

So that's what I'm going to do.

Now...

The theme is superb; and what makes it superb is that it reveals so little of itself in the first instance. The basic premise is that four people wake up in a world of darkness, with no idea who they are or how they got there. They each have a lantern to combat the impenetrable gloom, and that's their only defence in a nightmarish landscape. Before they even have a chance to interact with each other, they are attacked by a white lion with human hands (which probably escaped from the front cover of Felinia), forcing the survivors to band together. The ensuing fight is the prologue, and the first brutal introduction to the violent, brilliant world of Kingdom Death.


The White Lion from Kingdom Death: Monster, painted to look like it's carved in bone.


If anybody survives the encounter (and yes, there is a chance they won't, in which case the game restarts), they travel to a settlement, where other confused survivors huddle around a mountain of lanterns, desperately struggling to stay alive.

But what does it all mean?

I dunno.

As you play through the game, your group of survivors go through various hardships. Random events gradually shape your environment. You learn more about your surroundings. But each discovery just creates another question. There is something ethereal and dreamlike about everything. And something cyclical too.

Basically, the game involves hunting and fighting monsters, and then attempting to advance your settlement by creating new buildings, evolving your people, developing new weapons and fighting styles, and finding new ways to survive.

This cycle of events is known as a "lantern year." How long is a lantern year?

I dunno.

That's part of the mystery.

A lantern year is enough time to hunt and kill a single monster, but it's also enough time to raise a child to adulthood. A lantern year is enough time to construct a building, but it's also enough time to learn a language.

It is all the time in the world, and none at all.

As already mentioned, the first thing you do in a new campaign (comprising 25 lantern years) is fight a lion. This is the showdown phase, a very clever tactical miniatures game in which four human survivors fight a single, massive enemy. This part of the game is intricate and beautiful. The survivors have limited weapons (just sharp rocks to begin with), and must work together to bring down a much more powerful foe. This involves moving into position, rolling at least one 10-sided dice (D10) in an attempt to inflict hits, and then rolling again for each successful hit to inflict wounds.

So far, so every other miniatures game ever.

The White Lion from Kingdom Death: Monster is surrounded by desperate survivors.


What makes the conflicts interesting is how the monsters react. As this is a co-operative game (up to four players control the survivors), the monsters use decks of artificial intelligence (AI) cards to control their actions, and decks of hit location cards to track where the survivors manage to strike and inflict wounds. In simple terms, whenever the monster activates, the players draw an AI card and follow the instructions. When the survivors attack, they draw a hit location card for each successful attack roll they make, and then try to wound those locations.

A sample of the AI cards for the White Lion from Kingdom Death: Monster.


It all sounds simple enough, but the card system creates some wonderful moments of story within each conflict. For example, when fighting the lion, if a survivor hits its "strange hand" the result of the wound roll has a significant impact on what happens next. Fail to wound, and the lion instinctively retaliates, getting a free attack against the attacker. Successfully wound the lion, and you get to take the top AI card from the AI deck (or discard pile, if the AI deck is empty) and remove it from the game completely. If the monster ever has no AI cards in its draw pile, it gets to reshuffle its discard pile to form a new draw deck. If it has no cards in its discard pile either, it dies and the survivors win.

That's pretty damned clever for all kinds of reasons. First of all, it means you don't have to track the monster's wounds separately. You know how many wounds you have inflicted by checking how many AI cards are removed from the game. More importantly, each would you inflict reduces the monster's combat effectiveness. As the AI deck gets smaller, you get to know which attacks the monster has left. It falls into predictable patterns, lurching to attack in the same way over and over again out of desperation. You learn it's moves, you learn how to counter them.

And then you kill the beast.

However, what makes the system even cleverer is the concept of critical damage. Certain hit locations have a critical effect, resulting in something amazing happening if you manage to roll a natural 10 to wound that location. Going back to the example of the lion's "strange hand," if you successfully wound the hand by rolling a natural 10, you cut the hand off. For the rest of the battle, this persistent injury affects some of the monster's AI cards.

A sample of the hit location cards for the White Lion from Kingdom Death: Monster.


Such persistent injury results are victorious achievements in a world of perpetual shit, but they are also little moments of horror all their own. When you are cutting off a monster's penis, or ripping off its jaw so it vomits blood everywhere, you really are walking a very fine line between triumph and trauma.

But that's the showdown: A bloody, gritty, grind to victory as you laboriously hack a gigantic monster to pieces.

And at the end of it all, you get to harvest the monster for ingredients, cutting off claws and fur, and removing organs. These treasures you take back to your settlement, where you begin the second part of the game.

In contrast to the precision and control of the showdown, the settlement phase is a bit more of a crap shoot. As the survivors return, you draw a settlement event card, which usually involves rolling on some charts to see how badly the world screws with you, After that, you may have to read a story event, one of the dozens of wonderful (and disturbing) events that fill a hefty chunk of the rules book's page count. These events also tend to involve rolling on charts to see how badly the world screws with you.

A sample of the settlement events for Kingdom Death: Monster. Bad things are going to happen!


And this is also the point where the game is going to break down for some people. If rolling on a chart that has a 20 percent chance of killing you outright with no chance to do anything about it is the kind of thing that makes you want to flip the table, walk away now.

In fact, let me talk a minute about death in Kingdom Death. Let me explain a few things.

First off, death is going to happen. A lot. The clues right there in the name of the game, folks. But it's not quite as bad as it might seem. Sure, a survivor may get his head ripped off by a lion. Sure, he may miraculously survive an encounter with a screaming antelope only to return home and get killed by the dentist as she tries to heal his broken jaw. Sure, he may wander out into an acid storm and burn to death while trying to learn a new fighting style. But...

That's kind of the point.

This is a game where you don't take on the role of a single character. You control the characters during the showdown, but that's really just a kind of micromanagement; your main concern is the survival of the settlement. Survivors will die, but as long as you have managed to breed new warriors, you get to fight on. Your civilisation clambers over a growing pile of corpses as it desperately struggles to claw its way out of darkness.

It's a truly horrible thing to be a part of. A truly wonderful, empowering, thought-provoking, horrible thing.

This is a piece of art... I will keep calling it a piece of art... and like any piece of art, it has something it wants to say.

Anyway, after various random events and encounters, the settlement phase gives you an opportunity to develop your civilisation. You can make new structures, learn a language, develop fighting skills, use harvested monster parts to make gruesome new weapons. It's all rather interesting, and one of my favourite aspects of the game. However, it's also the point where you are supposed to cut some extra miniatures off the included "armour sprues" in order to make little models that accurately reflect how your survivors are armed and clothed. Which is a bit of a chore, really.

A sample of the gear cards from Kingdom Death: Monster.


If you look at the elements of the settlement phase, it really isn't anything special. Rolling on charts, managing your resources, and developing your character between missions is something that dates all the way back to games like Advanced HeroQuest and Warhammer Quest, so this really isn't anything new. And developing a thriving civilisation isn't anything new either.

What is new, is the story these activities weave in Kingdom Death. It's difficult to explain until you see the pieces moving together in an actual gaming experience, and it isn't apparent immediately. As you play, your decisions begin to matter, and the random events begin to matter. Rather than distinct moments, events begin to link together, connecting in unique and unusual ways. Something you did right at the start of the game may suddenly come back to haunt you. A roll of the dice in your second lantern year creates a perfect storm years later, wrecking your civilisation.

One of the story events from the Kingdom Death: Monster rules book, showing the lovely full-page colour artwork.


After the settlement phase you get a hunt phase, which honestly feels a bit tacked on. It boils down to selecting a monster, and then generating a series of random events that have the potential to help or hinder you as you hunt the monster down. If you successfully traverse the events you get to fight the monster you selected, otherwise you fail, and your civilisation goes hungry and slips further into the darkness it so desperately wants to escape.

And all the while you are getting additional glimpses into how this alien world works. What it means. How to survive.

But as I've already mentioned, each new answer generates a new question. Each new event brings into question everything you thought you understood. The fact is, this world is like a dream... a nightmare... and all of the rules of dreams apply. Characters pop in and out of existence. They age in seconds. You get snippets of events, but not the whole picture. Time speeds up or slows down. A lantern year could be a few moments, or a lifetime. Characters meld together. And there's Freudian imagery pretty much everywhere. It makes sense in the way a dream makes sense. There are moments of clarity, enshrouded in darkness. The monsters are beyond comprehension, and yet they have human faces and human appendages. It's like they are a part of the survivors, something that isn't born out of another creature, but borne out of a subconscious fear.

One of the enemies from Kingdom Death: Monster.


There also seems to be a suggestion that characters slip in and out of this reality. Sometimes when they sleep, sometimes when they are born, sometimes when they step into the darkness. When they are away from the reality, time seems to work differently again. Perhaps this world really is a dream, and when characters vanish they have simply awoken.

Time isn't even linear, and should your civilisation fail, a new group of survivors... or perhaps the same group of survivors... awakens in the gloom, with the white lion prowling in the dark, and in the distance the smouldering ruins of a settlement that feels similar, and yet has the potential to become so much more, or so much less, than it was before.

It's wonderful, rich world-building. And it's also largely out of your control.

For my first game, I decided to play alone as a solo experience, and I was immediately entranced by the showdown scene, which has the potential to create wonderful, cinematic moments. And throughout it all I felt in control. My four desperate heroes were mine to command, and I threw them into battle and watched them triumph in the face of adversity.

The custom dice from Kingdom Death: Monster, attractively displayed on the game board.


However, that then led on to the settlement phase, and the subsequent hunt phase, and I could feel the control slipping away. Precise tactical thinking and clever planning gave way to dice-chucking, and random events that all seemed designed to kick my settlement into the dirt and keep it there. I sent survivors out to hunt, only to see them die in despair before they even found their quarry.

It hurt.

It genuinely hurt.

And there was nothing I could do about it.

It started to feel futile. Like nothing I did mattered. I was having an existential crisis while playing a damned board game.

I realised, with no small amount of horror, that I wasn't really having any fun.

And who was I, anyway? The survivors are so fragile and prone to death, and I was controlling all of them, so I couldn't relate to any one. And then in the settlement phase, I was making decisions for the whole settlement and all the people within it. But then I was also drawing random events to smite my settlement, and reading out story events I had no control over. And then I was picking the monster that was available for my settlement to hunt.

One moment I was micromanaging the equipment a single survivor was carrying; the next moment I was generating a global weather event.

And then it hit me.

I thought back to Clash of the Titans (I bet you thought I'd forgotten about that), and I remembered how Zeus looks down at all the mortals, and he doesn't see people. He just sees playing pieces.

Suddenly it made sense.

In Kingdom Death: Monster, you aren't a single character. You aren't the leader of a civilisation.

You're a deity.

You literally create your civilisation, cutting them off the sprues and gluing them together. You place them in a world where nothing is known beyond the confines of the playing board. You encourage them to survive.

And then you smite them.

Not because you want to destroy them, but because you want them to succeed; and nobody triumphs without adversity.

You release monsters for them to fight, you make them struggle, you build them up and you knock them down. And your survivors... survive. They face the challenges, and they overcome them. You create a strong, proud civilisation. You strip away their hope, and then watch them carry on without hope. You snuff out lanterns, and watch as they light new ones.

You tear things down so they can build them up again.

And you know how fragile your people are. You know they cannot last forever in this harsh world. But you make every moment of life they get precious. You encourage them to endure, because you want them to thrive. You want them to leave behind something great: Something more than a smouldering pile of lanterns.

A blank settlement sheet for Kingdom Death: Monster, waiting for a new civilisation to appear.


Looking at the game from this mindset, everything changed.

I mean everything.

I looked again at those static miniatures, and I thought about Clash of the Titans. The survivors look almost godlike. One of them looks like Zeus throwing a thunderbolt, and one of them looks like Aphrodite. But they don't look real; they look like statues.

Like playing pieces.

I cracked open my paints, and I painted up all the survivors like stone sculptures. The only concession I made was to paint coloured rings for the bases that matched the colour of the character cards in the box, for easy identification. I painted up the monsters to look like they were carved from bone. The result is something that feels classical, like an old Chess set, and something that I feel truly captures the way the game makes me feel.

The four survivors that start the game in Kingdom Death: Monster. How long will they last?


As a little bonus, I realised that I didn't need (didn't even want) all of the other survivor miniatures that come with the game. I only wanted the ones that looked like statues, so I sold off all the "armour sprues" and recouped over £200 of my initial investment.

My wife even cancelled that coffin she ordered.

With my new-found appreciation for (my interpretation of) the theme, I was able to enjoy the game a lot more. Not as a game, but as something deeper than a game. The more I played, the more the game offered up for me to contemplate and appreciate. I started to see a lot of religious allegory in the subtext. The survivors are created, naked and afraid, in the dark. Saviours are born that have the potential to lead your civilisation to greatness, but they are martyrs that are doomed to short lives, and do not live to see the greatness their people achieve.

In the end, I learned to embrace the chaos, and revel in the small successes my civilisation eked out in the face of unspeakable horror.

A selection of settlement location cards for Kingdom Death: Monster.


Unfortunately, what I didn't learn was how to have fun with the game. I love the story, love the imagination, love the campaign, love the artistry. I just don't enjoy it all that much.

Actually, I'll clarify: I quite enjoy it on an intellectual level, I just don't enjoy it all that much in the "I want to have some fun now" kind of way.

And that's a personal thing, and in no way reflects on the quality of the game.

For a start, it's so persistently dark, and that makes it something that you have to really be in the right mood for. It also means it's something I can't put on the table around my six-year-old daughter. Furthermore, I personally feel it's a solo experience. Sure, up to four people can play, controlling a survivor each, but when those survivors may randomly die during the hunt phase, or get ripped to pieces in the first round of the showdown, it feels like player elimination is always just one dice roll away.

Perhaps the biggest issue is a single campaign is 25 lantern years, and each lantern year can take two to three hours to play through. That is a huge amount of gaming time, especially if you take into account that your pathetic little civilisation might get wiped out, forcing you to start again from scratch. The sheer amount of stuff in the box makes this one of the most generous gaming experiences in the world today; but it also means it's not so much a game as a lifestyle choice. Personally, I don't want to commit that many hours to a single game, especially a game that is so perpetually bleak and revels in destroying you arbitrarily due to a few bad dice rolls at the wrong time. It's exhausting.

Ultimately, you have to invest in the story, and not in the game. You have to appreciate the ride... a very long ride... without committing to ever seeing the destination.

I have seen people asking questions like:

"Why hunt stronger monsters?"

"Why risk my heroes in a fight with the Butcher?"

"Why would I ever choose Survival of the Fittest?"

If people are asking those questions, they're playing the game wrong.

You take on each challenge much like a mountaineer takes on K2: Because it's there. Because it is an achievement. Because it is the nature of humankind to strive for greatness against all odds, to leave a legacy of bravery and defiance or else wither in darkness.

I admit, after my first few lantern years, I was sold on the concept. I was figuring out which expansions I was going to buy, and had earmarked some funds to put in an order. But then something happened: Games Workshop announced Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower.

Now, I know it's close to blasphemy to mention Games Workshop in the hallowed halls of the bakcers, but the reality is, I love Games Workshop board games. They suit my lifestyle. They are streamlined, quick to setup, quick to play. They have small rules books, yet still have plenty of scope for tactical thinking and clever gameplay. They have, for my money, the finest miniatures in gaming; and I like painting them. And I love Games Workshop's gaming universes. They are often bleak, but they are not without humour; and that's important to me. I grew up with them, and I know them well. I have often spoken on my blog about my childhood, which was not entirely unlike a lantern year in Kingdom Death: Monster. Games Workshop was my lantern at that time, and while it has sputtered over the years, it never went out completely.

Silver Tower took the funds I had set aside for Kingdom Death expansions.

Turns out that's just as well, because not long after that, Kingdom Death went back on the shelf. I started finding it increasingly difficult to make time to play it. When I did have time, I invariably lacked the desire to go through the effort of setting it all up. It didn't help that in June of this year I experienced a family tragedy, and even the thought of slogging through a brutal game of Kingdom Death was too much to bear. I couldn't even face the idea of plunging into that dark, unforgiving world, because what I was really looking for was a temporary escape from our own dark, unforgiving world.

So the game has remained on my shelf ever since. A wonderful art installation. A modern masterpiece. A piece of gaming history.

I'll never get rid of it. I'm just not sure how often I'll play it.

Some people say this is the best game ever... EVAR. I don't agree. But it's possibly one of the most important. It's a testament... no, a monument... to one man's vision. It's a statement about what's possible when you're free to dream, unshackled from the constraints of modern conformity. It's a proclamation that it's possible to fight, and it's possible to win, no matter how hard the journey is.

This is a warrior poet's cry to stand up and stand fast. To refuse to go quietly into the night.

And perhaps, somewhere in the darkness, your lantern will get snuffed out. Perhaps by something evil. Perhaps by bad luck. Or perhaps by something that simply fails to comprehend the beauty in your fragile existence.

The Watcher from Kingdom Death: Monster. What does he want?


That's okay too. Everybody's lantern goes out eventually.

But what did you achieve while it burned so briefly, and so brilliantly?


Kingdom Death: Monster is a boutique game that isn't available in stores. If you didn't get involved with the Kickstarter and would like a copy, you need to purchase direct from the publisher or resort to eBay.

14 comments:

  1. You almost convinced me! This is an excellent review and it's made me interested in the game. Not interested enough to buy it, mind you, but the way you explain it, there is something to this game that's quite compelling and maybe if someone develops that further I may be convinced to buy whatever that is.

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    Replies
    1. My review of a £560 game I'm not likely to play very often because I don't find it that much fun almost convinced you? I should be in politics!

      Honestly, I think the game is a milestone, and it deserves its place in gaming history. But it's not something I can just recommend to people. There are too many things in it that trigger negative responses - violence, sexual imagery, instant death, massive randomness, player elimination - so it really is one of those games you need to see and judge for yourself.

      The new Kickstarter begins in a few hours. It might be worth you swinging by and checking it out if you want to see more. Be warned though, the campaign will probably include a lot of the "pinup" models. It's an element of the Kingdom Death world that goes well beyond that line I mentioned in my review; but as they have no bearing on gameplay (they are just collectors' pieces), I didn't want to open that particularly can or worms while talking about the game experience.

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    2. Yeah, I think I'm more interested in the mechanics and the way they seem to evoke the setting, and less in the game itself. I'll keep an eye on the second edition but I'm sort of hoping this is a milestone in the sense that others will build on what it's done, but do something more in line with my personal tastes.

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    3. I would certainly be more interested in a different setting. You have to invest in this game for so long, the theme has the potential to become suffocating.

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  2. This was a wonderful review, and your experience with the game was very similar to mine. I love the art, the styling, the enigmatic setting... basically I like everything about the game... except the part where I have to actually play it, which unfortunately, feels like a chore.

    After struggling through many sessions of it with my partner, I asked her why she didn't like it, or rather why she hated it. "It's just SO depressing!" she replied. I continued to play solo, but eventually I had to admit I was only having rare moments of fun with it. I ended up selling it for double what I paid and bought a few new games with the profits, including Warhammer Quest Silver Tower. With some trepidation, I started playing it with my partner. After our first session, I was about to ask her what she thought of it, but I didn't have to, because without any prompting, she blurted out:

    "That was much, MUCH better than Kingdom Death."

    I'm not entirely sure I agreed, but I had to admit we did seem to be having more fun.

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    1. Thanks for reading. Silver Tower is pure fun, and a favourite in my collection.

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  3. You confirmed all my expectations. This sounds like a piece of art every gaming misanthropist needs in their collection.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. You really do want your little people to pull through. It's much more a testament to the human spirit than a chance to stamp it out, I think.

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  4. I actually found myself convinced, too. I have heard so much that I would like to see it for myself and the more I dug in, the more I decided to see for myself... there is an expansion, you know, that lets you skip around the timeline!

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    1. I think you mean the "First Hero" expansion which allows you to jump into the middle of a campaign.

      That's something for expert players who have already experienced several campaigns, and want to skip the early "grinding" levels. It's not an expansion I would recommend for people entirely new to the game.

      You would probably want to play through at least two or three vanilla campaigns, then several campaigns with early-level expansions, before even thinking about accelerating through the lantern years. It's certainly well beyond the level of investment (in time) I am prepared to give the game.

      Thanks for reading.

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  5. Yep. It won't arrive for three years, so I figure I will be pretty good by then. Or I will sell it on. Cheers!

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  6. Very interesting review. Still on the fence on buying this or not, but if I don't like it maybe I can make a profit?

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    1. There's a chance of making a profit, but it's certainly a risk, and it depends on how heavily you invest. After the first Kickstarter, demand was high and supply was low. This time around there are a lot of backers, and many of them are chucking large sums at the campaign, even if they've never played before. I suspect there will be a lot more stuff floating around on the secondary market, and that will bring down the prices. Also, the Kickstarter discounts are not as good this time, and once you have covered shipping, insurances, listing fees, and the like, how much are you really making?

      Furthermore, the Kickstarter is a staggered release. The game should arrive this year, but it will take up to three more years before all content arrives. Do you want to invest heavily now for something you may not be able to sell for another three years? Who knows what the market will look like then? It's a long-ball game, and I personally wouldn't want to risk it.

      For anyone new to Kingdom Death, I think just getting the base game is a good call. It has loads of content (easily enough for several complete campaigns running to 50+ hours each). If you like the game you should be able to pick up some of the existing expansions in a Black Friday sale from the Kingdom Death webstore. Then you have years to save up for the new expansions, which you can buy safe in the knowledge you like the game (and safe in the knowledge of what they actually contain, as Adam Poots has previous for changing or even cancelling planned expansions prior to release).

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    2. Yes, it is a gamble and I've noticed the lower discount on this campaign. I might go "core gamer"-style: Core + Gamblers chest and Gorm expansion based on others recommending this. But I must admit I am also considering the Dragon King based on The Ameritrashers review on youtube. Luxury dilemma :)

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