Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lighting the Way - "Kingdom Death: Monster" Monster Review

There'll be quite a few times where you end up feeling kinda' like this. Let's call this Figure 1 for ease of reference.
Any of my regular readers would have probably guessed this review was a long time coming. First, the purely subjective.

Within two sessions, Kingdom Death established itself as one of my group's favorite games. Since we've gotten it, we've played it at least ten times as often as all other games combined. It's spent large periods sitting on the dining room table half-unpacked, because we plan to play it again in a day or two. The box has gotten dust in it, not from disuse, but from the lid never being on.

Normally, we slowly get in to games, playing two or three sessions, feeling it out, and then it either enters the regular loose rotation or is dumped because it's not our taste, etc.

And while I'm obviously heavily involved in the hobby, I've dropped pretty games with lackluster rules before (sometimes quickly), so this isn't just about it being extremely pretty, though it is.

As always, I try to keep things in perspective, but it's hard to hide my love of this game.


Sticker Shock - The price tag
Usually, I don't even talk about the price unless it's particularly cheap. Gaming is a moderately expensive hobby, so it's kind of expected. However, if you weren't one of the Kickstarter backers, this game has an immense barrier to entry. It's the most expensive board game core I've ever seen.

See Figure 1.

The price will throw a lot of people off. It's a huge investment by the standards of most games- you could buy maybe three other high-end games, or a high-end game and a few expansions, or a ton of cheaper games, or even a video game system for what it costs, but, I think it's worth it.

But it's also a matter of what you get out of it. If you're not in it for the hobby, or if you don't have a group who can get together frequently, it might not be for you.

Pretty, but not mechanically different from a multipose
with a sword, or, for that matter, any model.
There's also the matter of not getting some limited edition minis that were only around for the Kickstarter. In the mode I prefer, the limited editions are all variant models rather than something you'll be heavily missing out on, and are slated to be published digitally as well, so you're only missing out on some physical goods, not content. And the extra copies of models are only really necessary if you love the modeling aspect or are extremely hard-line about WYSIWYG: You'll never be fighting duplicate monsters, and we've actually been using the starting four humans most of the time, since they're just pretty pawns and we prefer to play painted over accuracy. Also, your guys die all the time.

There have been a few models with exclusive cards released, but without any tournament scene, etc., this is really about completionism rather than missing content, because so far they're easy to find photos of any rules.

"Kingdom..." - Materials
The model line is what Kingdom Death got known for, long before they had published their game.
The minis have held up extremely well in HIPS (high-impact polystyrene) plastic. There have been a few of the expected flattening details where undercuts aren't allowed, but they're very nice considering the difference in price. I've written on this before and, to summarize, I generally prefer the KD plastic line over their resin at this point, unless it's about really delicate detail.

For board gamers who aren't familiar with miniature games, a note: the HIPS casting process means undercuts are not an option, so Kingdom Death models have a lot of little pieces. If you don't like building models, or if you like the idea but will need to learn, this will be a barrier. You can of course proxy (volume etc. has no impact), which is largely what we've been doing until I've built the minis, but you'll need to face that pile of tiny hands some time. The two tips I'd recommend is using plastic cement instead of superglue, and dry fit everything.

Multipose takes work to make look nice.
The multipose minis are nowhere near the quality of the single pose ones (the core comes with 6 single pose humans, plus the 7 monsters; everything else is multipose). They're a little stiff and don't always fit perfectly. Nice detail, but they take work to look dynamic/natural. I'd have much preferred more monopose or a middle ground of partial batch sets (I've seen sets where some torso, arms, and weapons are sets  while more basic configurations are full multipose, for instance). These seemed to be designed from a thoroughness and flexibility perspective rather than a modeling perspective. You can work at them and get them pretty dynamic, but that takes a fair bit of hobby experience.

They're a little overwhelming at first simply due to volume of options, and I wouldn't suggest starting to build until you have a sense of what styles of play your group prefers, but once you get in to it, it can be pretty fun to pick parts.

The board is nice and heavy, as are the various tiles and counters. The back of the board has seen some scuffing already, but it's also the back. It's got a lot of fun extraneous details to notice.

The box itself has a nice spot-UV treatment, but arrived dinged, which really showed on such a big black surface. It's sturdy and a nice aesthetic, not amazing.

What our box typically looks like, since we rarely
have everything put away.
The cards etc. have a very aesthetically nice satin finish. Not the most functional, as they sometimes
stick together (also due to the finish), but still nice. I'm expecting to sleeve the heavily shuffled decks while leaving the smaller and non-shuffled decks unsleeved. You also get a ton of cards (usually 3-4 of each piece of gear, for instance).

For all those cards, there's an impressively anal storage system like if Dominion were made by a designer-bureaucrat.  There's a lot of extra room, too, maybe for expansions or if you want to set aside piles? The only part I don't like here is that the box is basically just designed to hold the paper materials: the board and minis wouldn't really fit in once everything's unpacked etc.

The character and settlement sheets are pretty typical, and take pencil/erasing fine. There aren't a ton of character sheets compared to how fast you use them, so expect to reuse them if you're not planning to make/print more later.

The rulebook is a cool horizontal format, I'm not in love with the cover quality and sometimes pages stick together, but the flow is pretty intuitive, with a couple exceptions noted later. More importantly, within sections everything's alphabetically organized and there's a very thorough glossary, which is a huge boon to finding things.

The rulebook and cards have a ton of little tidbits and fun language and clever ideas. For instance, every hit location and attack has a specific and usually colorful name, and most event tables include a description and not just a set of results. There's very little story directly revealed, and most of it's world details, plus a little narrative from what randomly happens. There's no narrative arc, or specific objectives, anything like that. I like it, but at the end of the it's narratively and mechanically a sandbox, for better or worse.

"...Death" - Mechanics
The game is a pretty simple "d10 + stats + modifiers vs. target number, per roll" system, with 10's generally auto-success, 1's generally auto-fail (often death if you're not attacking). It makes it fast to get into and pretty quick to resolve any events.

Characters ("Survivors," in parties of 4 usually) and enemies ("Monsters," 1 at a time so far) generally get 1 move action and one general action (utility or more often attacking) per turn, with later abilities increasing that (so far, I think the most we've had for humans is two moves and four attacks, and for monsters is three of each. Movement (and distance for, that matter) is orthogonal, which means that there's no diagonal super-moves but it's also generally not too time-consuming. Facing doesn't generally matter except for a buff attacking a monster's blind spot.

While it's a pretty straightforward system, it's intuitive and therefore fast, which allows a nice flow and a lot more variety of special rules (since the interactions are generally straightforward).

Player stats all start as neutral, with various temporary or permanent modifiers, and a whole slew of tokens as reminders. Also, as characters get injuries or veteran abilities, and as you fight smarter monsters, you get more abilities, but there are a lot of reminders and it's a pretty gradual increase in complexity.

Along with the Showdown (fight), you have Settlement and Hunt phases. We've actually found that the fighting and the not fighting often take about the same amount of time, since there's a lot more discussion and options on how to advance your Settlement.

Speaking of which, you have a Settlement. Player characters die frequently, but the majority of gear and settlement advances are permanent (or at least are rarely lost). You get cultural advances and build new locations, and generally make a home for your sad little Survivors that gives you further options and/or buffs. It's also here where you can turn the loot you got from hunting and fighting into gear.

You also have you Hunt and Settlement Events. These are random, occasionally good, often bad, and sometimes an option to take a risk. There are probably around 200 of these in the core game, distributed amongst tables and cards, each with a bit of flavor.

...But, these are just descriptions of what's there, not how it actually plays out.

Getting Ripped (up) - Gameplay
Anyone paying attention to odds more than a little will probably have taken notice of 1's often killing you. Yes. Characters die. Often, and often unexpectedly. Sometimes a few at a time. This is a defining experience in the game, consulting a table and realizing that the guy you've built and played for 10 hours just ate a poisonous plant or got decapitated or touched a bad object or was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and died. I think we average around 2 deaths a Year (cycle of Hunt, Showdown, Settle).

It can be frustrating and sometimes downright demoralizing (Fig. 1). But it's also a lot of the core of the game: It means what you're working on is always a couple bad rolls from catastrophe, and this keeps things exciting, because everything's such high stakes. Small progress stacks and gets amazing and a it's equally exciting to be able to make those little advances if you can hold on to them.

My group eventually house-ruled a cost to prevent random event death, because we were fine losing stuff, and fine losing fights and dying, but hated our best characters going down without a fight. Building slow progress vs. difficult odds gives a sense of accomplishment. Losing newish characters to chance or losing experienced ones in a badass fight is exciting. Losing a lot of progress (usually due to character death) during non-combat is just not very fun. There are also occasionally things that wreck your entire storage, which are similarly demoralizing when we're saving for something.

How you'll start out. Well, with more monster
butt stabbings.
So. That's something to consider. A lot of people have said the game is just extremely punishing, and this is fun for some, but when you're putting dozens of hours into a game, that's a lot of commitment (from a group) for a single roll to wreck. But it's also fully co-op so if you all agree you're not having fun, it's a lot easier to house rule than a competitive game.

The simplicity of the system and narrowness of the rolls means that things swing. It also means that a spate of good or bad luck (or just exactly the right or wrong roll in an influential moment) has a significant effect on the game. This is not the most finely-tuned strategy game out there. It's a lot closer to a fast, combat-focused RPG where the quest is survival and expansion rather than a story-motivated journey.

I've been talking a lot about the negative bits, but, at the end of the day, the bulk of the gameplay is extremely rewarding. It's fun to build out your settlement. It's fun to level up your heroes (even if they could die at any minute). It's really fun to go in, and chump something weaker than you or struggle through an epic and close fight. The game's fast, and the more you learn, the faster your decisions get, regarding which risks you want to take. The game's got a very fun narrative, and, while the bad things really suck, it serves a very nice function of making rolls exciting: Maybe that last hit mangled your leg as a permanent penalty, or maybe you just fell over, or maybe you're dead. Time to roll...

I also have quite a few documented sessions below, if you want a feel for the flow. I've tried to avoid spoilers, though, of course, the further you get, the more likely you'll find stuff out. One did poorly, one did well, guess which did which?

1st (short) campaign: part 1
2nd campaign: part 123456

Spin to Choose - Randomness and Planning
I described this above a bit, but I think it merits more detail because of how heavily it affects the game.

Specifically, there is a vast amount of planning that goes into each session. You pick gear, you try to level up your guys in specific areas, you make decisions based on their strengths and weaknesses, and you build strong combos based on experience fighting.

Then you get hit scared and tear off your shirt (destroying synergies and combos, those resources, and the armor set bonus) or you catch the plague (causing that near-mastery-level Survivor to die to a cold), or any number of horrible things that throw a big ol' wrench in your plans. (See Fig. 1.)

I like punishing games, I really do. I like randomness in games, too, because it forces you to think on your toes since your plan won't always succeed. But sometimes Kingdom Death is just too random. It's no longer a matter of planning with contingencies built in or thinking on your toes, or avoiding risks (or taking calculated ones), or pushing odds in your favor. Sometimes, it's just, "this crazy thing happened and you lost something that took 20 hours of gameplay to build up, because you drew a card and rolled a 2."

My had a bit of doubts about how your skill factors into the game after a certain point, because there are just so many opportunities for some random thing to set you back, because of one randomization.

However, having made poor decisions and getting some plain bad luck is not the end of the world: you can recover and plan around bad luck pretty well. Well enough that I think the amount of randomness is actually surprisingly balanced. Our third campaign removed the house rule we introduced in our second.

However, balance is not the same as non-random. Bad things still happen extremely frequently, and, balanced or not, random and sometimes large setbacks are still aggravating. You can always house rule or re-roll if you don't like it. But my feeling is, at the end of the day, it's not at all necessary to.

Again and Again! - Replay Value
There are only 7 enemies in the core game, but this offers a surprisingly vast amount of variety.

First, Monsters' AI decks are randomly generated from different pools. This means that the same monster can have dramatically different behaviors. Also, a core mechanic of the game is that monster wounds remove AI cards (blind), so the dynamic of the fight can vastly vary, depending on if you happen to hit off a weaker or stronger action.

Second, before getting to a monster, you need to make it through random events, some of which are unique to a monster. This takes the form of a very small board game linear advance system. Similarly, after fighting a monster, there's a second random event phase of a single other drawn card.

Third, Monsters come in varying power levels (they tend to have three levels, while some have a fourth). These dramatically affect their stats and abilities, and the jump in difficulty between levels is often immense.

We've played three large campaigns, and so far (if I've kept track correctly) we've fought 14 monster levels, and beaten 11, of the 23 found in the core game.

Then there are your characters, who have hundreds of options to choose from (I believe the core game is cited as having 150 options, and you can assign 9 pieces of gear to each character), plus will randomly generate veteran abilities or injuries, many of which vary based on which phase of the game they are acquired in.

And then there's your town, where the locations (which make gear) are pretty straightforward, but the cultural advances you can choose are highly varied, selected from a deck that grows in tech trees a lot of video gamers would easily recognize.

There are also a few suggested alternative play modes (harder, easier, more gamble-y, focusing on specializations, etc.) that would account for at least a few more play throughs.

In short, there's vast variety, which I highly expect with last a very long time: Twenty-plus sessions x hour and a half per session x a half-dozen campaign styles (counting the narrative variants and not difficulty ones) = a very conservative 150 hour game life without repeating a play style or playing any expansion.

We've gotten to the point where some stronger monsters are pretty easy for us to take down (at least with familiar gear), but that tends to translate to a relatively quick kill rather than a long, boring fight. But there are also some where you just won't have much opportunity to fight them, which I expect would be much more difficult to get used to fighting, so I'm thinking some fights will become routine, while some will remain harder.

What our second settlement's record looked like late in the game.

Customer Service
Not part of the game itself, but how they treat their customers. My game had a couple components missing and a miscast. Adam (the designer/owner) handled the customer service and was a very personable guy, esp. considering he's probably dealing with more customer service stuff now than in his company's whole history. (One last time, Fig. 1)

Also, this game was extremely delayed, and at a certain point I got fairly irritated. I felt that it would need to be near-perfect for it to hold up to the excuse of perfectionism. But, y'know what? I felt it did. So, poor estimation is one thing, but I think the wait was worth it. Also good communication and lots of pretty pictures did a lot to fill the wait.

Conclusion
Covering the downsides of the game first, it's expensive, and if you don't like building models, you're paying a lot for content that won't matter much to you. Also, you'll either need a regular group or to play solo. (I haven't covered this since I've never tried solo, but have heard it's still rewarding and some prefer it.) Also, it's certainly not a young aesthetic, and the nudity and body horror, while (wisely) relatively minor in the core game, look like they'll only increase with expansions.

I'd also be remiss to gloss over the pinup line the company is somewhat known for, even if they have no game content and aren't included in the core. I have mixed feelings about these minis. I like several of them, but find others go too far, and have painted mine to downplay the sex. Some people don't like these, and some will reject the game on this basis. That's completely valid, and I too have lines I won't cross, and if that's one of yours, then by all means, stand by it. But, this is a matter of principle, since, again, these aren't about the game proper, and just about promotional pieces.

The game's randomness will throw some people off (especially more competitive players), but having played multiple campaigns, I think it's surprisingly balanced across the greater campaign.

However, I think the game is spectacular. The game's thematically and aesthetically unusual and extremely cohesive. It's also both addictively fun, and (so far) has the longevity to have stood up to a ton of sessions in a pretty short period- 30 or so in a month and a half. The miniatures are the best I've seen in any board game, and are in the upper tiers by miniature gaming standards.

It's got a very intuitive and fast combat system that's a ton of fun given its relative simplicity, which has given the game a nice framework for some pretty creative enemies. The game has a vast amount of replay value, and has a lot more content coming out.

The game is unquestionably my favorite cooperative game and board game, and probably my favorite game, in general. I can't more highly recommend playing the game if you have an opportunity to, and if the above sounds right, I'd say it's completely worth it.