Friday, November 25, 2016

Tough Love - A Follow-up Kingdom Death Review & Analysis

With the upcoming Kingdom Death: Monster Kickstarter and some sort of edition update, I've decided it's time to reflect.

So... after quite a lot more Kingdom Death, let's see...

-at least three completed regular campaigns
-two dead or abandoned regular campaigns
-one variant campaign (abandoned)
-one dragon campaign (ongoing, played the first half twice)
-three regular campaigns (ongoing)
-an ongoing Sunstalker campaign
-the beginning thirds of two custom/house rule campaign tests (redesigned)
-at least 4 expansion monsters incorporated in campaigns

...I think that sums it up? All in all, I think somewhere shy of 170 sessions (or around 190 if I forgot a campaign) conservatively averaging 1.5 hours, for the equivalent of well over a month of work days' worth of evening gaming.

After... that context, some more thoughts on Kingdom Death.

This is largely largely a criticism from the perspective of a fan and aspiring game designer. My enthusiasm in my first review still exists (and if you're not familiar with the game, I'd suggest reading that before this), and KD is still unquestionably what I've played most since, well, actually since it came out, but that enthusiasm has been tempered a bit by experience.

The intent of this review is to go in to more depth, now with a more intimate understanding the mechanics etc. To make my perspective clear, the depth here has nothing to do with some sort of wish to attack your favorite game, and everything to do with my belief that articulating and analyzing my perspective is one of the best ways of achieving understanding, which can only improve my own intellectual/ creative processes. I also have no qualms with criticizing something I enjoy.

I've intentionally kept some of the names and specifics vague, because I consider this as much a continued review as I do an analysis, though it'll probably make more sense to readers who have played the game.

This also mostly deals with the core game, not the expansions.

So, this is a weird bit. At some point, I realized the game doesn't make any sense.

What you have the most control over is the monster. You can control both of its decks to optimize your choices. Not see what's coming and be ready to do something about it, but reorganize it to make the monster do what you want it to.

I think the ability to control the monster is extremely powerful, and too reliable. You can thoroughly stall the nastiest abilities in most cases, where it's actually more reliable to not attack and instead keep stalling than it is to beat the tar out of the monster, while you confuse it with... yeah, your headband you made out of a scrap of monster skin you found somewhere and tied together.

To a lesser extent, this is also true of the ability to manipulate where you hit it.

There's a reason people swear by these items- they're extremely cheap and extremely useful. They're some of the first things you have access to, and are still good at the end, to the point where, if you're not taking them, it's not because they've run out of use.

Where you have the least control is over what your characters do outside of combat. They might feel compelled to eat some sludge, or they might invariably have a raucous party, or they might want to fight and kill each other. You sometimes get a choice, but more often than not, it's just "here's a thing, roll on a table."

Your characters are compelled outside of combat to do all sorts of things the players don't want them to, while in combat, they're typically fighting as a well-oiled machine and will usually do what you want them to, short of getting scared or not knowing how to roll above a 3.

Limits of Control
So, sure, everything at a certain point is a roll on a table and good or bad things will happen- roll high with your attack and you hit, roll low to damage and you fail (and maybe something bad happens).

During a fight, though, you're dealing with a granular system. A hypothetical botched attack could look something like:
Roll three dice to hit, two pass the threshold (after modifiers); roll one die to damage for each of the two (controllable) hit locations, both fail (after modifiers); roll one retaliatory strike of two dice; both hit (after modifiers); roll location- your head twice; roll on the injury table (after armor); you roll low and probably die.
That hypothetical attack has more than a dozen randomized elements (individual rolls, etc.), most of which are modifiable by stats/gear and two of which are absolutely controllable with enough effort, leaving few instances of uncontrollable randomizers.

Monster attacks have more variety, but as mentioned above, particularly dangerous damage sources can be stalled or otherwise circumvented if playing intelligently, i.e. conservatively (more on this later).

Moving on to the out-of-combat randomizers--

A hunt roll is:
Roll an unmodified d100 to pick the event, something possibly deadly happens; roll a d10 (possibly after modifiers), you die.
The hunt event has two rolls, one of which might be modifiable.

The first roll results in
8 unavoidable event (under some or all circumstances) or mandatory roll can kill
5 optional roll can kill (remember, you're not supposed to look before deciding to roll)
27 roll (or unavoidable event) can permanently injury (incl. stat penalty or disorders) or gear loss

Turned into a simplified set of probabilities, that's somewhere around 2/5 of the time something can set you back in a lasting way or kill you (I believe there were a couple overlaps there) where you're specifically barred foreknowledge of which is which, followed by a range from 1/10 to automatic, of at least one survivor dying from it.

So a mostly uncontrollable roll buffer against a permanent penalty or death, vs. a series of modifiable rolls with options to prevent.

Settlement events are:
Draw one card of 20, then usually roll a die.
These 20 cards consist of:
6 mandatory roll or event that kills one or more survivors
5 mandatory roll or event that injures one or more survivors, or gear loss

A randomizer with worse odds- more than half, never modifiable, can kill or set back, and then a roll that's probably unmodifiable for the outcome.

(While some events in both groups can be quite beneficial, bonuses are less relevant than penalties when considering control.)

Methods to the Madness
There's a pretty obvious reason, in my opinion, that these odds are so dramatic- if they were just as granular as a regular attack, you'd be looking at a fraction of the rolls, so a nearly negligibly impact from the Hunt.

Similarly, there's even more risk in the Settlement Event, which is just a single card (though part of a larger phase which ends up often having more decision making than the actual fight).

I think this is fine. It makes sense, and is a way to use shorthand for the parts that don't need detail, and make them meaningful. I also haven't touched on this, but a lot of events in all groups can give bonuses, and there's often a better chance of a random event generating something positive than a (modifiable) attack doing so.

Where I'm not okay with it is the lack of control, or rather the imbalance in control.

Order and Chaos
I think Kingdom Death's control over randomization is inelegant.

I think it's inelegant, in that it has two extremes, approaching absolute control, and absolute lack thereof.

During a fight, you're able to do some pretty dramatic things without any sort of check:
-move faster
-decide where to hit the monster
-prevent multiple incoming blows
-negate a blow that's made contact
-choose attack order
-stall the monster
-hide from attacks
-choose damage order
-do automatic damage

A lot of these things use some form of resource (some of which are finite) to achieve, including actions; spent items; survival from your pool; position (i.e. an advantageous defensive position might prevent being able to attack).

But, there's still a lot of stuff there which you can control very precisely.

This makes the combat engaging- you have a lot of choices.

This also makes the combat easier- you're guaranteed that your choices will be a success. In the majority of cases, about all that's random are your actual attacks.

Beyond this, it's simply much easier to get better odds for showdowns- all of your stats, and most of your flexible bonuses (like armor) are both more impacting during a showdown, and have more opportunities to be spent: unlike the occasional "spend a survival to..." or more likely "lose one survival (automatically, or to avoid...)," you have active choices on how to push yourself further, and all survival actions are used in the showdown only.

The only frequent time you're not in control is during a Trap event, which you can still often prepare for if you're thorough.

In comparison, other than choosing to take a risk (including taking elements with occasionally penalizing keywords), you have virtually no control over handling threats in the other two phases.

Note: as of writing this, a previewed edition change looks like it may address and mitigate some of this lack of control, but, with the rule neither set in stone, nor in a greater context of other changes, I'm hesitant to speculate further.

When KD was released and when new players approach it, there's been a bit of griping about random bad things. There have been a lot of house rules in reaction to this (my group made some, too). As with most house rules, though, as players get used to the game, there develops a sort of desensitization toward your characters dying. It still sucks sometimes, but is basically something you can deal with.

But, I believe that initial reaction is correct. The game isn't fair. What's gained by this unfairness, other than a sense of higher stakes, is quite simply a limiting factor: Even great campaigns can be derailed with a single particularly horrible time to roll the wrong unavoidable event/table during a hunt regardless of being effectively invulnerable during a showdown, so there's always a way to prevent a campaign from steamrolling through everything.

I'm a strong believer in games being difficult by virtue of difficult tactics or choices, so this "the game's against you" mechanic, not of dangerous risks, but of bad odds or unavoidable penalties isn't something I believe in.

In the larger scope of things, the setback of a dead character might represent this same setback to create an interesting challenge as you needed to deal with the unknown. But, unlike making a fight more challenging because you have some disadvantage (which is something I think mixes things up nicely), this is likely much broader-reaching, in that instead of being a generic pawn, you're very often talking about a character you'd been working on for 6+ hours. While it's not as rough as, say, losing an RPG character, it has a similarly much greater impact than a one-shot pawn dying, and the highly random death might be practically new, or a veteran who got unlucky, and the swing here is frankly frustrating.

This is where I'm somewhat torn, though- I'm not sure how, in a context with no reflexes involved (for instance, as opposed to a real time video game), it's possible to make a non-competitive game where it isn't just a matter of creating punishing odds or other limiting/derailing elements as the difficulty of the system.

So, avoiding the "solution" of do something I've never seen done before and trying to come up with a radical new system (which isn't just "someone else effectively GM's the sessions"), I'd argue that the problem is not necessarily the difficulty created by randomness, but how it's concentrated:

The fighting in the game has generally very low-stakes and incremental damage, with access to a lot of control over both pushing probabilities and preventing certain blows, while the random events outside of this are often very high-stakes and not modifiable. Put another way, the exciting part of the game is controllable and incremental while the rest is swingy and uncontrolled.

Mini-spoiler, the Flower Knight and Spidicules have an alternative threshold to cross in their hunt, a giant forest gate you need to sacrifice things to. You roll a die, and if you roll low, you don't even get to hunt, and if you roll high, you get a bonus. But, unlike most hunt or settlement rolls, you get an option, and a granular one at that. Instead of the all-or-nothing "unmodified roll" or "roll you get a bonus to when you have the prerequisite for said bonus," this one allows you to add +1 to the roll before making it, at a rate of one penalty per. I find the controlled risk a much more interesting mechanic than the uncontrolled one, and wish there'd been more like this in the core/hope to see more in the future.

Too Much of a Good Thing
But, this isn't just about the lack of control during the non-combat parts of the game. I believe there's also too much control during the Showdown. Returning to my original argument about the disparity, I think that showdowns, while exciting, often get simply too controlled. If you've thoroughly prepared, by the middle-late game, you're often spectacularly good at killing monsters. You can often take down even relatively strong monsters in less than two full rounds.

Just as problematic as getting wrecked by randomly falling in a pit and losing a character, I think that the control during a fight is far too great. (I'll get back to this below.)

Gearing up
Okay, all that stuff I just wrote about choice as too much control and the various difficulties there?

Well, there's one area where I think the value of choice is pretty much perfect. Kingdom Death's gear system is pretty amazingly varied, and the sheer number of combinations you can create that will fill some interesting role is staggering. Some of the earliest gear still holds its niche through the end of the game, weak gear may still be valuable for combos even with poor abilities, new gear can organically mesh with old, even seemingly-redundant things have their uses.

I'd say somewhere under 10% of gear is a weak return or not my taste, and, comparing this to strategy games and other systems of composition or construction, I think that KD's system of building and equipping is a phenomenal success.

Not only that, but the entire premise, of needing specific resources from defeating the right creatures, with a bit of luck, to build what you're shooting for, adds a great, organic planning system where you'll use it to set the next few years of your campaign at any given time, which creates an arc to follow and is largely the impetus for your next choices. While the AI system gets most of the attention, and people naturally get attached to the heroics of their characters, I think that the gear system is the unsung hero of KD.

As an idea of how important this system is, I realized, in writing this section, that the majority of my strategy guide for Kingdom Death is actually just about learning how the gear system works.

I could gush more, but, suffice to say, Kingdom Death is the standard to which I hold any game's composition mechanics.

Errors and Choice
Given the breadth of the game, it's still pretty impressive.

However, having played the game enough to try just about everything in the core, even without expansion materials, there are definitely a number of fairly problematic errors that haven't been addressed in any errata, any number of which, I believe, are caused by late changes or being clever where a few keywords don't line up or where an option involves an assumption. There's only one instance in the game that I've found where you can actually "freeze" the game where it can't proceed, and it couldn't accidentally occur, though, so that's still very robust given the sheer volume of interactions.

The breadth of the game is amazing, but some of the options really don't feel like very relevant choices. This is most notable in the settlement development options. There are simply some options that feel like wasted space, where the amount of effort you need to get anything useful out of them, especially in comparison with roughly analogous (or mutually exclusive) other options, seems like they dramatically overestimated the choice's value, or in some cases they're obviously "gotcha!" moments, which makes me ponder whether it's worse if the space is intentionally wasted for a once-per-group surprise or if it's worse if the space was wasted due to error. The same goes for a number of odds, where it's fun and all that you might die or might get a minor buff, but most of the time, there's no reason to make the risk to achieve the reward.

Along with the false choices in the negative, this one's a requirement you can't always hit. I'm not positive you need Paint (one of the settlement upgrades) to win, but you certainly do in order to do many, many things.

The other question here is one ability, Fist and Tooth Mastery, which is difficult to achieve but makes the game so much easier that my group's starting to suspect that it may simply be too dramatically good, and this seeming long-shot goal may be an automatic choice.

Another major area where I'm unsure whether it is (usually) a real or false choice is that of monster level, which leads naturally to...

Smart Play vs. Fun Play
I've mentioned playing conservatively a few times now. So, this is a problem I've often seen with "hard" games. Playing them at their most difficult is challenging, but it also rewards extremely conservative, nit-picky, slow, thought-out, and often boring play. This is playing for the best advantage. But, it's still boring. The same goes for monster types- in a lot of circumstances, the best option is to fight yet another predictable early monster, instead of a flashier one and there's no mechanical advantage to fighting a higher one.

On the other hand, you can play with a ton of risk, which is more enjoyable, probably going to end worse, but is exciting.

I think KD does a better job than most addressing this, because rewards are varied here but, as above, I'm not sure if it's actually proportional. As with my doubts about control, I'm not positive there is a perfect answer to this, though.

I've addressed it elsewhere, but, one thing to be aware of is that the game's easy variant does really allow you to treat it as a crazy sandbox, which is refreshing, since it doesn't punish you for less-conservative play, so even as an experienced player, I find it very enjoyable.

I haven't played the game's hard variant yet, but I'm curious how it might enliven conservative play, since low-powered monsters may still be threatening enough for the fights to be interesting.

Boss-man (opinion-based spoilers ahoy!)
The core boss, the giant scary ghost that appears on the box and rulebook's cover, and one of the more iconic models in the game is, unfortunately, basically a pushover. Possibly the most anticlimactic part of the game (in large part because of the hype, but also the position as the final boss), if you've done well in the campaign, it's a pretty easy fight to wreck him in. My group's never gotten to the boss without being completely over-prepared for him, where it just becomes a walk in the park.

You fight for maybe 5 sessions, struggling through an exciting, dangerous world, then you hit your stride, and you have 10-ish sessions of higher-level fights (or if you struggled in that first one, you probably lose here), then you're probably basically ready to fight the boss but get another 10 sessions to get better, and the end game leaves you over-prepared, where I'd argue that the first hurdle is the hardest, and once you've passed it, it's not that hard to do so again.

This is another issue I've found with other games, though. I think the Fallout series is the first where I really noticed this- I love the earlier struggle for carving out your niche, but you're just too much of a badass by the end, and it loses its character. Maybe this is a personal preference, but I think the scrappy survivor is a more enjoyable character than the action hero.

I think this is part of the problem of the previous section: there's a certain point you can hit in the game, after which you have neither incentive nor pressure to go any further: without a goal of getting what you need to cross the next hurdle, the game becomes strangely unfocused, where (at least in my group's case) if you're doing well enough, you spend sessions shrugging about what might be fun to try without risking much, instead of planning how to win because of a challenge.

Similarly, another issue with this is that a number of the best pieces of gear don't feel all that exciting: since they're not actually necessary, putting in the extra effort to get them often feels more like more of an end than getting something that will allow you to murder the boss even faster, i.e., it feels like there's no measurable reward for putting in extra effort.

You thought this would only be about the rules?

On the miniature front, I'm still extremely impressed by the game's detail and options. However, the models are very static. The Rage-fueled head-hunting berserk beast? Standing there at rest. The soldier with supernatural agility? Standing there at rest. The monstrous hit & run lion? The weird insect that runs circles around you? The phase shifter? All standing there at rest.

There are a few minis where it's perfectly fine, like the pompous swordsman or the ancient wizard dude, but basically all the baddies are... just standing. And the Survivors who're regularly frenzied or going crazy or losing limbs are all standing around with looks of placid determination or stoic boredom with their sculpted muscles showing.

There are a few models with interesting poses, but basically, it's taken a ton of work to get interesting and dynamic forms out of these minis- I've shown a few here to give an idea of what's possible, but not everyone has the experience or interest in doing that. I think the Survivor minis sacrifice too much pose for modularity, and I frankly have no idea why the monsters and faces are so neutral.

Just like the rules, I still really appreciate the work, but the more I've experienced it, the more I've found flaws. What originally seemed imposing or perhaps stoic, experienced enough, often comes off as bland, especially considering the lively, even comic, tone of the characters across all the different illustrators in the rulebook, etc.

Expansion Material
I haven't played enough of these to comment on everything here, but some notes anyway.

I find the value of expansions highly variable. Some provide a ton of new material and options, while others provide a lot less content for the same (or a similar) price. Some have a lot of minis, some are basically just slightly large single guy. Some make the game easier, some make it harder. Some are best as new/independent campaigns, some fit better as part of an existing one.

I have most of them, but got most when they were discounted but would highly recommend that you thoroughly do your research before making the purchase if you're on any sort of budget, and that any exploration/surprise lost is made up for in knowing what you're getting.

Of the expansions I've played, the ones I'd most recommend, in order:
Gorm: despite being ugly, this guy radically changes the first third or so of your campaign in an
interesting way, with a large penalty but some nice rewards. It adds gear for several under-used weapon types in the core.
Flower Knight: you probably won't fight this one a ton, but it's an interesting different type of fight, and some nice gear. It's fun variety, especially when you're first getting in to broader content.
Dragon King: I really, really like the variant campaign this provides. It's more complex, and far more cohesive/narrative than the core, in my opinion.

At the other end, by far the worst values regarding gaming material are the promo models, which, for nearly 1/2 the price of the smaller main expansions, typically provide a single game card (sometimes without any means of incorporating them) instead of new module. I wouldn't recommend these unless you really like the models too- save it for whatever the next expansion is, if you really want to devote that cash to the game.

In Review
I still hugely enjoy Kingdom Death. However, I believe the forms of randomness and lack thereof means that the game is broader than it is deep. While it's a fantastic first edition- the best I think I've ever played- the style of randomness is one that disappointingly treads into the realm of Ameritrash's (what a loaded term) emphasis on chance and style.

It doesn't ever tread into my hated category of games where luck is as important or more important than skill, as I've certainly seen how skill, planning, and understanding of the game makes some players or groups hugely better than others, but the nature of the randomness is still one I find problematic, because it's far more often that the single bad chance kills you than the bad run.

Because of my problems with the system, I've been thinking very long and in quite a bit of depth (and with a bit of testing so far) about making a mod of the game to try to address my complaints with the elements of choice and control in the game. The most regular of my readers will know I don't believe in fixing a game with house rules, but instead making it more enjoyable through said rules, and this holds true- I think the game is pretty well balanced as a whole. My issue is with the internal balance, so, it's a matter of attempting to adjust some difficulties to be greater while other areas are easier.

As with any house rule (as opposed to a homebrew, i.e. addition), it indicates a pair of things: one- the game is able to be improved in my opinion, and two- I'm passionate enough about the game that I want to creatively engage with its content.

The Human Element
Much of this review has focused on the idea of mechanical perfection.

Something I'm still unresolved on is, where does "fun" factor in? This game is not the most sophisticated or elegant game I've ever played, but it's also a hell of a lot of fun. Beating the game has no longer presented a real challenge to my group, but, does this matter? I mean, at some point, I expect the hard mode would also become relatively easy. So, where, in experiencing a game does challenge come in? Like a digital RPG, you play different strategies, different styles, setting your own objectives. Despite its reputation as a challenge and initial confirmation that the game's really hard, the enjoyment of the game may just not be this. Despite the goal-oriented battle-focused campaign system, the experience may ultimately be measured by the exciting sandbox than making the most efficient, smartest choices to beat this cardboard computer.

On the other hand, I do miss some of that adrenaline rush of being forced to engage something new and overwhelming.

The Wild Blue Yonder: KD's Next Kickstarter
I'm very curious about this month's upcoming Kickstarter. While I'm sure there will be some interesting new expansions and surprises, what I'm most interested in is what has been revised. The previews and minor errata that have been seen are a decent step in the right direction, some minor or even inconsequential, but a few that have provided some balance to make non-choices into reasonable ones, but I've got my fingers crossed that a few surgically precise changes might address some of the holes in one of my favorite games, bringing it a little closer to perfection.

Post Script: Down Memory Lane
A short history of the first KS, for those who're interested in accountability and what one might expect for the next:

The KS did extremely well, and, in the process, saw substantial upgrades in material and a lot more content.

After the KS ended, there were a few times when it was available to pre-order again between then and when it arrived, with increasing prices and limits of options, plus some opportunity for existing backers to change their options. Quite a few kits saw dramatically increased scope of miniatures content.

The KS shipped slightly over 2 years late, in 3 waves (promos, core game, expansions), with extra shipping charges. A beta copy of promo rules was released between the second and third waves (IIRC). There were no instructions released with any kits, and eventually a fan site was referred to as a stop-gap

Most kickstarter material became available (basically only) online over the next few months, mostly at around 3-4x the KS prices (though one can expect this jump won't be seen this time), except some of the promo models- some of this appeared bundled at a discount compared to the KS prices, and some appeared with content not provided to KS backers and more expensive than the KS prices. The promo materials were a lower print quality than the main game content. Several of the expansions saw different mechanics than their originally stated design- most notably, interactions between decks/monsters were almost entirely eliminated. The material and editing quality for the expansions was, on the whole, slightly lower than the core game's.

It was announced that the promo material that was supposed to come with several of the models would eventually be made available (in a revised capacity) in digital format and at cost in print form, and this was stated (when the 2nd KS was announced) that it would be handled before that one began. Also, the KS would have a slightly revised rules set that would be made available.

3 years after estimated delivery (this month), the Lantern Festival- one of the two most expensive expansions, one of the four largest, and the last substantial undelivered content- was cancelled, with the money refunded to backers. Most of the remaining/supplementary digital content was released at least approximating the promised versions. The promo content was delayed again (to early 2017), but promised that the print quality would be improved. The instructions were not published or mentioned.

The KS promos were kind of a bust regarding content (getting extra rules was the tipping point for me buying a few of them, and they were discounted later). Regarding the rest, there were quite a few changes, both good and bad, though far more good than bad. Ultimately, how I feel is that the team did a lot of things to improve the game to go above and beyond and things generally came out really well, but that doesn't mean they should be held unaccountable for their shortcomings.

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