Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kingdom Death: Initial game impressions

Overwhelming Darkness.
Having finished assembling the first four survivor models, and the first adversary, a gigantic white lion, I was pretty excited to start actually playing Kingdom Death.  Curiously, in the long  2.5 years since the Kickstarter, relatively little had been revealed pertaining to the game mechanics, so I started to read through the rules pretty much immediately, while working on the initial models.  As of writing this, I have played two games of Kingdom Death, the first being a slightly “on rails” game they walk you through in the rulebook, while the second was a complete game.  Although I still need to play a lot more games to have a final consensus on Kingdom Death: Monster, I wanted to give some of my initial impressions!

Getting Started: Learn the rules as you play?
The rulebook for Kingdom Death is setup in an interesting way, instead of immediately getting into detailed rules sections, it begins with a short story told primarily through large illustrations and a few lines of text.  It introduces you to the world and its hapless survivors, and directly encourages you to continue the storyline they described by starting to play a game against a white lion.  The rules are presented in a truncated form, designed to teach you the rules as you play.  As such, they walk you through the first fight with the white lion, and if you defeat it, they help you start a settlement and prepare for future games.  With the idea that after getting through this initial game, learning as you go, you have gotten a taste of the two main phases of the game (Showdown, and Settlement), and can then go on and read the rules in their entirety.  In principle, this a good idea, and I feel they did an admirable job of achieving it. Ultimately however, I decided to read the rules in their entirety before attempting the first game and am happy I did.  I feel that the game is a bit too complex, with accessory tables and cards to reference, to easily be learned “as you go” like the book attempts.  Even having read all the rules, I still had to stop frequently to check things.  Starting to play having read nothing would have resulted in a really slow game, where you would be reading a wall of text between rolls of the dice.

The first monster your survivors have to face, a White Lion.  The assembly was not too challenging, but it required a lot of green stuff to fill gaps. 

Showdown Phase: traditional dice-based combat with some twists

Everything is set up, the Showdown is about to begin!

The first phase of the game that is introduced (and the only one that really had been described in any detail during the KS campaign) is the Showdown phase, where you battle horrific monsters, over an attractive mounted board, covered in H.R. Giger inspired stone faces.  The combat system is an interesting one that combines cards and dice (primarily d10s).  While the survivors are controlled by those playing the game, the monster is controlled by a deck of A.I. cards, which dictates what the monster does, and how it selects targets.  In an interesting design choice, this A.I. deck also serves as the monster’s hit point/life total.  So as you wound the monster, you deplete the A.I. deck, limiting its possible actions.  Combat goes back and forth, allowing the monster to act (by drawing and resolving a single A.I. card), followed by letting each survivor act.  This goes back and forth until the monster is dead, due to a depleted A.I. deck, or all the survivors are dead.

A board is provided to assist in properly setting up the many decks of cards to control the horrid beasts that you must fight in Kingdom Death.

The actual combat  is pretty straightforward, involving rolling a lot of d10s.  The monsters are punishing, with most of their attacks hitting on a 2+, and unlike the survivors, do not need to roll to wound after successfully hitting them.  Instead, they simply roll to see where they cause a wound.  This determined by a custom d6 with a particular body part depicted on each face (head, arms, chest, waist, legs).  Each point of damage per location is recorded, with the first point causing a Light wound (no effect), and the second (at that same location) causing a Heavy wound, which causes the survivor to be knocked down.  If a survivor suffers a third wound at this same location, they are forced to roll on a severe damage table, which is filled with many devastating effects, many of which result in the survivors dying in gruesome ways (heads exploding, or bone fragments piercing the heart).  Thankfully, your survivors do have some line of defense against this, the primarily in the form of armor.  Armor is specific to each of the hit locations, with each wound at the respective location reducing the armor at that location by one. When this is depleted, it reverts back to causing Light and Heavy wounds.  Additionally, your survivors have a resource called Survival, which can be spent to negate wounds (primarily via Dodging), but when it is used. it is gone forever (it can be regenerated in various ways).

Immediately after the game began, people started to die.

The survivors have a much harder time damaging the monsters.  What they need to roll "to hit" depends primarily on the weapons that they are equipped with.  Unlike the monsters, the survivors need to roll "to wound," as well; the value required depends on the monster’s Toughness (starting Lion has a Toughness of 6, requiring a roll of a 6 or higher on a d10).  Instead of rolling the 6 sided hit location die to determine where the survivor attempts to wound the monster, they draw a card from a separate Hit Location deck.  This deck introduces a lot of variety to the combat, describing where your hits have struck, from a soft belly to a clawed hand.  Additionally, many of these Hit location cards have Reactions, which might trigger (if you wound or fail to wound, for example), resulting in all manner of horrible things (like a savage mauling from the lion).  There is also a neat critical hit system that allows you to cause Persistent Injuries to the monsters, that can affect future AI cards.  You trigger these by rolling a 10 on a d10 when rolling to wound.  The actual critical result depends on the Hit location card, but it results in some cinematic moments.  In one game, we were able to sever the lion’s hauntingly human hand, as well as destroy the its lower jaw.  Certain A.I. cards have a Persistent injury section that takes precedence over the normal function of the card if the monster is suffering from that injury.  In our first two games, however, this never occurred, despite having caused multiple persistent injuries.  Looking through the A.I. deck after each game, I discovered that only a few of the cards actually had one of these Persistent injury modifiers, so the possibility of causing the injury and then drawing the A.I. card that interacted with it was exceedingly low.  I have high hopes that in subsequent games, where the A.I. deck is larger (different difficulty levels of the monster are prepared by increasing the number of cards in the A.I. deck), Persistent injuries will have a more noticeable effect.

With a lucky roll, one of our Survivors severed the lion’s lower jaw!

Overall, the combat system is a little mundane, with a lot of rolling dice, shifting back and forth between the monster and survivors until one side is dead.  That being said, it is very functional and easy to pick up.  Having only fought the Lion, there does not seem to be a huge amount of depth to the combat, but I think that will expand as you develop more weapons and armor, gain abilities and disorders, and fight new more esoteric foes.  Even the lion has multiple higher level forms you can fight, each with a much expanded A.I. deck that will surely put an interesting spin on the encounters.  It should be mentioned that the combat is very punishing, with your characters often one die roll away from being killed at all times.  And while this might change in later games, when you get more equipment and experience, your survivors die frequently.  Our first game saw all 4 of our survivors dying horribly (curse the Severe injury tables!), forcing us to try again (the second time only losing 1 survivor) such that we could proceed with the game and form a Settlement.  Much of the difficulty is due to how the game is balanced, but a lot of it does come down to random chance, which can be off-putting at times.  This is pronounced because the consequences of poor rolling are dire, often resulting in the permanent death of a survivor.  This does make every roll seem tense and important, keeping you at the edge of your seat at all times.

Our first encounter with the white lion ended in misery (and death).

Our second encounter went much better (but there was still some death)!

Settlement Phase: building a civilization and advancing the narrative

The state of our first settlement after killing the first Lion.  We have a few new settlement locations, and discovered Language!

While the Showdown phase feels a little pedestrian at times, the following Settlement phase is far more engaging, with a focus on narrative and player choice.  It is broken up into 10 subphases, some of which are primarily bookkeeping, updating returning survivor sheets and the death count, while other are a lot more interesting like resolving Settlement Event cards and crafting new gear and settlement locations for your survivors.

Based on my first two games, the Settlement phase is my favorite aspect of the game, primarily due to all the interesting narrative elements the come about and resolve during its 10 phases.  While the Showdown phase relies primarily upon emergent narrative, resulting from the interaction of A.I. cards, Hit locations, and dice rolls, the Settlement phase is more structured, yet diverse, relying primarily on story events that are triggered based on how many games you have played, as well as a host of other things, including when you suffer your first death and when your first new survivor is born.  All of these events are detailed in a sizable portion of the rulebook titled Story Events.  When one of them triggers, you flip to that section of the rulebook and read a narrative passage and usually roll on a table to determine what becomes of the encounter.  There is a huge diversity among what can occur, something I have only just begun to scratch the surface of.  I do not want to go into too much detail here, as it is one of the most interesting elements of the game, and something you want to experience yourself.

Other events are triggered via Settlement Events that are determined by drawing a single card from a Settlement Event deck during each settlement phase.  Your survivors can also trigger personal events as they age (survive multiple Showdowns), allowing them to develop weapon proficiencies, and improved reflexes and senses.  Some of the story events actually force the settlement make a major choice between two options, which will define your developing settlement.  This primarily occurs via Principle events, one of the first being with how your settlement deals with death.  In our current playthrough, we selected to honor our dead and mark their graves with gravestones (something which has lasting effects on the settlement as a whole), but there is a more grisly option available, as well.  All of these little narrative elements are exciting and intriguing, and make the phase something to look forward to.  Myonly reservation about these events is that they primarily involve rolling dice and consulting a table.  Unfortunately, a poor roll either results nothing at all or, more often, the death of survivors.  Rarely is there any way to mitigate or modify these rolls, which is a bit of a misstep in my mind.  It would be one thing for a low roll to give you some benefit at a high cost, but it is quite another for it to simply kill a few of your survivors with only a single sentence to “reward” you.  I get the idea that they are trying to create a grim unforgiving world, but think it could be handled in a slightly different way to encourage fun, rather than frustration.

Your first Settlement location allows you to “Innovate,” advancing the culture of your civilization.

The other major focus of the Settlement phase is the development and building of the settlement itself, as well as crafting new gear for your survivors.  When you first find your settlement, you only have one location (designated with a large card detailing it) in the settlement, the Lantern Hoard.  It is central to your settlement for two reasons, the first of which is it allows you to build other basic settlement locations.  The second and arguably more important reason is that it allows you to “Innovate” once per Settlement phase.  Innovations are permanent cultural or scientific advancements made by your settlement, and act as a pseudo-tech tree (a la Starcraft, Age of Empires).  Your first Innovation, Language, is given to you when you create your settlement.  The advent of language opens up new possible Innovations for your settlement (Paint, Drums, Symposium, Ammonia, etc.).  To represent this, the Language card instructs you to create a small deck of cards (containing the aforementioned innovations, Paint, Drums, etc.), which serves as your Settlement’s Innovation deck.  When you take advantage of the Lantern Hoard Location’s Innovate ability, you draw two cards from this newly created Innovation deck, and get to chose one of them for your Settlement to keep.  In addition to gaining the benefits of this selected Innovation, the card also instructs to add new cards to your remaining Innovation deck, representing new possibilities opened up by the selected Innovation.  Although your Innovation deck starts out quite small (only containing the initial Language Innovations), this mechanic allows it to dynamically evolve with your settlement.  I think the Innovation aspect of your Settlement is one of the cooler aspects of the phase, because it gives you the opportunity to make meaningful decisions about what your civilization values, which have far-reaching implications for all of your future games.

Most of the other locations allow you to craft new weapons and equipment with resources that you obtain from monsters that you kill.

The majority of the other Settlement locations open up new equipment and weapons that your settlement can craft.  Crafting is an extremely important element of the game, as it is the primary way to ensure that your Survivors can deal with the increasingly more challenging monsters.  Every monster you kill gives you an assortment of resource cards, which can be used in various combinations to craft anything depicted on your current Settlement locations.  The Skinnery, for example allows you to create pieces of rawhide armor using monster Hide resource cards.  Some equipment can only be crafted if you have certain Innovations, emphasizing the importance of the aforementioned Innovation deck.  Since you only have very limited resources, you need to think very carefully about how to best utilize the resources to ensure your subsequent Showdowns are successful.

Hunt Phase: where the story begins each session

The Hunt phase involves moving along this board, space by space, resolving Event cards, attempting to reach the Lion (or whatever else you are hunting).

The Hunt phase is usually the shortest, and the first one you will likely complete during each gaming session.  In this phase, you pick what monster you would like to attempt to fight and rather than going directly into the Showdown phase, you play a short game where you try to “hunt” for your chosen quarry.  To do this, you set the monster on a Hunt Track, and fill the spaces before and after the monster with Event cards, some specific to that monster, others general events.  Your survivors are put at the beginning of the track and you move along each space, resolving each event card before moving to the next.  You continue to do this until you reach the monster, at which point you immediately begin the Showdown phase.  The most interesting aspect of the phase (and really the entirety of it) are the Event cards.  The general ones call for you to roll a d100, to randomly generate 1 of 100 possible events, while the Monster-specific ones have more tailored effects.  Some of the cards will move the monster along the track, making it possible to never reach the monster if it moves backwards, or it to move into your space causing it to ambush you (causes your survivors to skip their first turn).  This phase is the one that I have the least experience with, since we only completed it once (it does not occur in the first game), and that time, it was very quick.  I look forward to playing more sessions, to see more of the possible events, and see if it imparts substantial narrative elements to a Kingdom Death session.

Conclusion: it looks to be only the beginning of a dark, yet imaginative journey
After two games of Kingdom Death, I am pleased to say that I have been having a great time.  It occupies a weird place as a game, merging elements of miniature, board, and role-playing games into one cohesive whole.  While each individual element might not be refined and developed as a miniature-focused game (with countless potential for list building and diverse units), or a boardgame (with streamlined mechanics that reward critical thinking over dice rolls), Kingdom Death’s various phases interplay well with one another and are all strengthened immensely by the dark and brooding theme present throughout everything you do (with its excellent models, artwork, and material design).  The mechanics work well and are easy to learn, provided that you are fine with constantly referencing tables, and putting most things up to the roll of dice.  The narrative elements that run through virtually every element of the game give it a lasting appeal and imparts it with a sense of progression.  Because of this, the game works best if you have a small group of people who can meet regularly, allowing you to explore the game’s many diverse monsters and story events.  As such, I still have a huge portion of the game that I have yet to experience, and am excited to play more and explore the world of Kingdom Death.  The death toll can only go up from here...

-Eric Wier


  1. I had a really hard time deciding whether to back this game or not, and in the end I think I made the right decision for my own tastes, to not buy into the game. What you describe here has a lot of elements that I really love - mostly in the Settlement phase - but both the Showdown and Hunt phases feel...borderline dull, or at least as missed opportunities to be more innovative than was done. There is also something about games with multiple organizational boards in play that throws up red flags for me that something hasn't been thought through enough, or is overly complex to be solved by a more streamlined solution. I must say that there are parts of this game that are really intriguing to me, so please post more as your group explores the game further.

    1. Yeah, with such a cost, and amount of time needed to invest to assemble the models, Kingdom Death is not something to be approached lightly. The Settlement phase is certainly the best part because it focuses on the games strength, which is exploring the dark, mysterious world. It is the phase that gives the game an RPG feel, and imparts a sense of progression.

      I was actually pretty impressed with some of the mechanics in the Showdown phase. The A.I. deck functioning as both its available actions and HP is pretty clever, without too many moving parts. The hit location deck is a nice way to add more interest to the fights as well. I think what makes it seem dull at times is how little options you ultimately have to fight the monsters. You move up and attack them with melee weapons. This might change as the game progresses though (there are some ranged weapons at least). Having said this, I feel if Poots collaborated with a veteran boardgame designer, the entire system could have been streamlined more and strengthened.

      I am glad you have been enjoying my impression posts. I will continue to write about the game as I play more, to let you know if my feelings change, and how/if the game evolves with you as you play.

  2. How big is that lion? I've been looking for a non-metal lion to use as a minotaur for a narnia themed blood bowl team. Is that base around 40mm or is it larger?

  3. You have given me an interest in this game. Sounds like my kind of thing.

    1. Glad I could be of help! It has been an enjoyable experience thus far, with still a lot more content to go through, with much of the upcoming stuff looking even more intriguing. They have opened up preorders for the game on their official site (which will likely be somewhat limited). They are selling it for essentially $100 off the retail price ($295 rather then $400), which is pretty good. Which, admittedly is still a huge sum of money...