Why did I just spend $200 USD on a board game?
As soon as you mention Kingdom Death: Monster to around those who are “in the know” you’ll either get dismissive grunts or a look of longing regret (or the odd person proudly boasting about it). KD:M, with its grotesque yet appealing artwork, horrific yet intriguing theme, and dismally random yet rewarding gameplay is a very polarizing game in the community. And it also recently closed its second print run on Kickstarter at $12.4 million dollars, the 4th highest Kickstarter of all time.
The first time I had heard of KD:M I had given the 2012 Kickstarter campaign a cursory glance and concluded based on some game shots that it was some sort of weird greco-roman fighting game - statuesque figures fighting a single bad guy on what amounted to an uninspiring grid of squares. Also the base pledge came in at $100, which was a no go for me (oh how I wish for the days that $100 was too expensive for a game). It appeared again a few years later at a local public gaming group when someone had busted it out. Again, the plain board and almost abstract? gameplay really didn’t catch my eye and I walked right by it. So what happened in the last few months that made KD:M rocket to the top of my must have list?
First, it didn’t go away. Any time I flipped to boardgamegeek.com it was sitting in a solid position on “The Hotness” list, a list generated based on a few things like page views, submissions, and so forth. The buzz for this game just didn’t go away for whatever reason. Some may attribute it to the late Kickstarter timeline; pledging in 2012 meant you got a game in 2013, which actually ended being somewhere in 2015 (and some of the expansions even later) - when people finally got the game the forums and session reports and submissions skyrocketed, bringing it to the forefront of popularity and helping snowball the momentum.
Second, they know their audience. This is very clearly a “boutique” game, one that will never be mass produced simply because of the content in the box. In that they get two things, maintaining their own artistic license (more on that below), but also creating the image of a “high-end” game. The high end price tag is definitely justified in the amount and quality of miniatures in addition to the volume of content you get in the box, at the same time creating the appearance of a “collector’s edition” game that anyone who considers themselves collectors of the hobby will at least consider. Coincidentally those same collectors are often the ones who wouldn’t hesitate dropping the cash required.
Third, the session reports sounded ludicrous. Here’s a snippet from a BGG session report:
Now a second hand-story of a man with no second, or first, hand after his initial hunt; Tiresias the (H)armless. An antelope cleanly kicked his arm off on his first outing and he lost the other foraging in the same showdown phase. Usually, a survivor with two missing arms isn’t going on another hunt again, they sit at the settlement and are the first to be sacrificed when the game demands you lose population, but for reasons we shan’t go into, Tiresias’s player faced a year when he was happy to lose and not happy to risk anyone of value. Poor, armless Tiresis was sent with other crippled, weak survivors to hunt a level one Phoenix.
On the way he gained +1 Luck from an event. Amazingly, they triumphed and his Accuracy was boosted. A settlement event then gave him a Fighting Art (Monster Claw Style) that, among other things, boosts Accuracy and Strength when fighting unarmed. Unarmed fighting was all Tiresias was capable of at this point, of course, and with this Fighting Art and his earlier stat boosts (which meant he would hit on a 4+, Crit on a 6+ and inflict double wounds on a crit) Tiresias had transformed from dead weight to deadly. He kicked and bit his way into glory, Mastering unarmed combat and teaching his skills to the settlement.
So now the game had implanted itself firmly in the “must have” spot of my perpetual board game wishlist. I start my usual process of researching and come across a few things that, for some, would deter them from pursuing the game further, but they managed to drive my resolve eventually culminating to me hitting F5 repeatedly on the kingdomdeath.com homepage, waiting for the Kickstarter link to go live on Black Friday of 2017.
The artwork is definitely an acquired taste. What starts as near-hentai levels of anime soon deforms to what most have labeled “body horror” - parts (often sexual organs) being in places where they shouldn’t be, extra arms coming out of unnamed orifices and the like. Enough to turn anyone away, and obviously the reason why this won’t ever be a “mainstream” game. This also automatically disqualifies it from public gaming events, gaming with your family, and probably a sizable portion of your friends. But… it’s different. It’s not the same fantasy / sci-fi artwork we’ve seen a dozen times from a dozen well known publishers - there is not another game in your collection that will match this, and there likely never will be. Even the self proclaimed “horror genre” games don’t come close to the horror you see here, and if that genre appeals to you, this is the game you want.
The theme is a different yet similar tone of hopelessness and despair that you find in most modern Arkham Files games, although by all accounts it seems to nail the “resistance is futile” flair that Lovecraft had much better than the pulp fiction adventures of Eldrich and Arkham Horror. This theme is echoed in gameplay almost entirely through not-quite-controllable randomness; attempting to birth a child can end in character death, tracking down a beast to hunt can drive your entire party insane, taking a hit to the head can result in decapitation, all on the result of a die roll.
The campaign, which lasts up to 30 two to three hour sessions beginning to end, can come to a grinding halt with one toss of the die.
Now, veterans of the game will tell you that “one die roll ending your campaign” is hardly the whole story; odds are you were inadequately prepared and/or had a series of bad luck rolls before that to put your campaign in a dire state. But they won’t dispute the fact that it can (and sometimes does) come down to one terrible flick of the wrist.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a game here. In what looks like the “Rated M for Mature” bastard child of Monster Hunter and Dark Souls (two video games of their own infamy), you find yourself in strategic battles, intense monster tracking, and engaging settlement management. You have to know what you’re getting yourself into though - it’s not a simple “oh, we failed, I guess we’ll have to try a bit harder next time”, but more of a “goddamn, we just lost one of our best defenders to an antelope’s chest cavity, our settlement is screwed“ And yet it might not be - it’s just as possible that you survive and thrive despite that setback, as it is the hand of fate wiping you from existence. That’s where the thrill, the challenge, and the incredible stories of the game come from.
The game comes with its own share of criticisms, as any game does, and most of them are valid (and explained extremely well by Shut Up & Sit Down). The gratuitous use of breasts in the art style crosses over to juvenile at times, the loss of control emulated by random events can leave players feeling helpless, and some parts of the game seem almost like red herrings, a useless waste of time and resources that will do little to prepare you for the campaign (which, in a game that is all about being prepared, can be devastating). Perhaps the thing I’m most worried about is the time cost. As Paul (from SU&SD) put it - the real cost of this game isn’t the money, it’s the time. It’s not the fact that you’ll be playing KD:M for a minimum of 60 hours (assuming a perfect campaign with 2 hour sessions), it’s that you won’t be playing anything else for 30 sessions. I’ve heard people say “KD:M killed my board game collection. I play nothing else.” And I’m afraid of that happening to me.
In any case, I’ve committed, and I’ve got til at least August to play some games before my soul is consumed. :)