Note: This post is going to be a bit of a departure from NEW GAME +‘s normal subject matter, but I’ve been having so much fun with this one, I simply have to mention it!
Kingdom Death: Monster is, in the words of its recently-completed and record-shatteringly successful Kickstarter campaign, a “cooperative nightmare horror game experience” designed for four players.
One-third RPG, one-third strategy miniature game, and one-third civilization-building board game, KD:M’s gorgeously horrific artwork and terrifyingly evocative setting set it apart from pretty much everything else out there. If you can afford the steep initial price ($400!!!) and the hours of commitment that building its many figurines requires, you’ll find a game that is both brutally difficult and incredibly entertaining.
There Was A Place of Carved Stone Faces
KD:M opens in a surreal hellscape where humanity sits at the bottom of a very long and very strange food chain, with a group of four Survivors awakening with little more than a lantern, a loincloth, and a shard of one of the many stone faces that make up the ground. They are immediately set upon by a vicious monster resembling a lion, and if they manage to survive this first encounter (which is no mean feat — I’ve seen several groups wiped out by the tutorial battle!), they proceed to found a tribe of like-minded men and women in order to withstand the horrors that wait outside the light of their lanterns.
The threats within this world are, in a word, nightmarish. From a Screaming Antelope with a devouring maw in its belly, to a relentless Butcher that collects the faces of its victims, to stranger creatures still, the fauna of Kingdom Death seem purpose-built to murder whatever poor schmuck you’re playing as today. Gruesome fates lie in wait for the foolish or incautious, and every victory is tempered with a fear of what might lie in wait around the next corner. But for those survivors brave enough to hunt the creatures of the darkness, glory awaits.
But the Man Did Not Want to Die
Gameplay in KD:M takes place over a series of 25 mini-sessions, known as Lantern Years. Each Lantern Year has three phases, and in my experience, each Year usually takes 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
The Settlement Phase acts as downtime between Hunts, and allows the Survivors to build and develop their tribe through a variety of Innovations. These inventions (which include things such as the discovery of language, fire, and man-made shelter) unlock new abilities for the Survivors to use, or bonuses for the many events that will occur over the course of a campaign. Crafting hubs can also be constructed that allow the survivors to make better and deadlier weapons and armor from the corpses of the beasts they slay.
As the Settlement reaches certain milestones, decisions must be made that shape the philosophy of the settlement as a whole. Should we bury our dead, or scavenge their corpses for more building materials? Do we accept that we are the same as the monsters of the dark wastes, or do we reject the darkness for the light of our lanterns? Each decision carries its own benefits and downsides, and in the end, no two settlements are exactly alike.
At the end of most Settlement Phases, the Survivors must decide on a quarry that they wish to hunt. After selecting their prey of choice, the Hunt phase begins, and the survivors start to track down their monster. Each player gets a chance to reveal Hunt Events — some from a massive selection of random events in the core rulebook, and some from a smaller subset unique to each monster. These random (and often disastrous) events really help to get a picture of what the world of Kingdom Death is like, with highlights ranging from finding the crude sculptures that the White Lion builds with its oddly human hands to discovering the party’s own faces among the many carvings that litter the ground.
The Man With The Lantern Scrambled To His Feet, Weapon Clenched in His Fist
After tracking down their quarry, the Showdown phase begins, and the Survivors confront the monster in a turn-based battle. These battles are where the real meat of the game lie, and will usually take up the most time within each Lantern Year.
The monster almost always gets the first turn. Its actions are dictated by the Monster Controller (a role that gets passed to a new person at the end of each turn) and an AI Deck (a deck of cards that the players create which contains cards detailing different actions the monster may perform.) At the start of its turn, the Monster Controller draws a new AI card and follows its directions. Due to the fact that each AI deck is constructed from random cards, there’s a lot of variance between encounters — one Lion might be more inclined to intimidate its prey with attacks that inflict mental damage, while another might prefer to wait for its prey to draw near before it strikes.
Intriguingly, the AI deck acts as both the monster’s artificial intelligence and its hit points. Each successful strike that the Survivors land removes cards from the AI deck. Healthy monsters are unpredictable and dangerous, but the more wounded the beast becomes, the easier it is to predict what it will do. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword: if a monster only has a particularly powerful move left, it will perform that attack repeatedly!
Nothing But a Need to Survive and A Lantern to Light Their Struggle
KD:M‘s feedback loop of track-hunt-develop is incredibly satisfying, and the massive amount of content within the box means that even after completing a 30+ hour campaign, it’s unlikely that any party will have discovered everything that the game has in store. For those willing to pay the astronomical entry fee, Kingdom Death: Monster offers hours upon hours of entertainment and replayability.