Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Three tons of him. - Kingdom Death Sunstalker review

As I sometimes do, this is a hybrid hobby article and review. 

In short, I have a love/...meh relationship with this expansion.

Despite playing the Sunstalker quite a bit, the design never quite sat right with me, and it took me ages to figure out how exactly I wanted to modify it. At one point, I'd even dramatically modified shape to make it much more squidlike, but eventually decided against it when I found out the infant Sunstalker would be included, and I'd need to modify it in the same way for consistency. Instead, I went part-way towards a more squidlike aesthetic (most notable in the eyes, I think), and made its armor fit the survivors a little better. As a result, this has been about the slowest progress I've ever made experimenting with a model, as I messed around, let it sit for months, then returned to do a little more, quite a few times. (Unlike the monster, I love all of the survivor models, and I can barely wait to paint more when the rest arrive.)

In addition, I've added a couple Malifaux models, slightly modified and with Lion Knight masks added because they always struck me as vaguely Japanese stylized eyes and mouths.

I could go on about my design choices, but this is going to be plenty long with the review, so I'll leave it at saying that I tried to do something pretty unconventional with this model, and hope it came across while retaining some of the original Sunstalker sensibility.


The Sunstalker is of the minority style of expansion, that provides both a high-level quarry and a campaign. The expansion has some of my favorite and some of my least-favorite parts of the game.

It adds up to a lot of content, and a lot of gameplay hours, with some particularly unique new paths and interesting finesse choices, but the results aren't always the most fulfilling.

The People of the Sun minis are pretty cool. A theme that will become familiar is my general regard that the People of the Stars campaign is better, though.

The Sunstalker is some sort of puke vegetable with a giant penis and rubbery leg tentacles and regular tentacles and eye stalks and people teeth, that's supposed to resemble a "sunshark" (i.e. a sun fish, a type of shark). I think that it's got some cool aspects, except it doesn't look like it can move as fast as it does, doesn't really look or act like a shark, and the three silly tentacles are definitely not my thing (I've now converted both my own and one I did for a client, and it prompted me to write an article on the nature of censorship in hobby media). Despite not liking the Dragon King model as much initially, I think it looks way more dramatic than the Sunstalker that, as I gripe about many Kingdom Death pieces, feels like it's just kinda standing there in a neutral pose. I don't think it's especially transparent to include my modified sculpts here, so I'm reiterating in case you skimmed my hobby notes that these are modified (there's one that's the standard sculpt noted below). It's also currently and, from the 1.5 Kickstarter, probably going to remain, the smallest 4x4 monster. In short, I feel like of the biggest monsters (even the ones I don't really like),  the Sunstalker model has the least table presence.

The Sunstalker survivors are very nice (they were actually the reason I was interested in the expansion, in the before-times during the initial kickstarter, when the line was going to be cheap PVC). They are less compatible with other armor kits than most, but most people seem to stick to single armor kits for models, anyways, so this probably isn't an issue. I think they're pretty awesome.

Two are vaguely Japanese single-pose survivors and these represent the unique gear options for the campaign (with at least one of each accessory and weapon to incorporate into armor kits, and hand sockets to add armor kit gear to the above two). The standard armor set of four are covered in tiny Sunstalker details, which aren't the easiest models to build, but they come with plenty of extra bits and at least they aren't as finnicky as some kits. They're a little complex, but honestly most of the details can be left off and they still look nice (and you can use those details on other kits). They come with extra legs for no reason I understand, but it's nice for someone like me who constantly mods models. Also, changing the colors to match regular leather/hide etc. looks pretty nice, and the spare arms and bits mix with the Antelope, Rawhide, etc. armor decently well.

There is a class of minion (i.e. mini-baddie) that the Sunstalker has rules for, where you're instructed to use some otherwise unused survivors or to just use the core's Hand lantern tokens, which I think is a bit of a cop-out, but I took it as an opportunity to make a couple custom pieces, and I'm happy enough with the results. Again, the accompanying monsters are custom, not part of the kit.

Printed Matter
Like all of the first wave of Kingdom Death expansions, the booklet paper quality isn't impressive/is easily marked by any oils on your hand, and the cards are the same stock as the core's.

This one suffered from some awkward writing. There are lots of errors that make me, as someone who appreciates precise language, wince, and there are quite a few errors that make rules confusing. Again, good editing would have helped this.

This expansion additionally comes with a large board that needs to be fit together with puzzle-style interlocking things, which make me very nervous, since those seem extremely easily broken (I've handled my set very carefully because of that, and one prong was already weak after fewer than a half-dozen games... I'm trying to figure out something to reinforce the piece by permanently connecting the parts). There's also another terrain tile variant. These boards are on the same heavy stock as the terrain pieces.

People of the Sun Campaign
So... I love the (Dragon King's) People of the Stars campaign. I don't really like this one, though.

It succeeds in its creation of a different sensibility of setting than the core game campaign, for the most part. The Survivors' motivations in this one are... kinda lacking, from beginning to end. Also, the story was really confusing at one point because I think there were things that either were never mentioned, or the creative team assumed we'd make some logical leap that we didn't. It felt like lots of things just kind of showed up, which I think works well in the core for the Butcher since he's kind of a random force, but in most other cases feels like an incomplete story.

As with the People of the Stars, one of the bigger changes is a paired different Survivor sheet, and different Intimacy table to go with it, resulting in replaced Saviors as well. The non-spoilery version is, they get a lot stronger, but are a lot less flexible.

My group didn't particularly like that trade, because the lack of flexibility meant, in one fashion or another, quite a few monsters became less interesting. The campaign structure and your gear restrictions mean that certain Monsters are either less rewarding or actively punishing to fight. The following (which may be an incomplete list) have some or lots of problems (getting into mild spoiler territory):

Limited gear (though still worth it to a degree, since what's lost isn't either of the best elements you get from them)
-White Lion

Mechanical impediments (that make fights a bad idea in one way or another)
-Spidicules (depending on how you interpret rules interactions)
-any special showdown/added nemeses
-Dung Beetle (I don't know if I'd strictly call this an impediment, but it certainly highlighted issues with the new survivor structure in a way my group didn't especially like)

Add to this boring timeline that strays from the better core formula, and several errors, and you've got a campaign my group didn't really enjoy. Its timeline gives you more freedom than the standard one, but without that punctuation of things you're forced to deal with, it exacerbates the blandness of some of the middle of the core campaign.

(Unlike the other two, this one is unconverted)
You get kick-ass survivors, but, well, I guess I'm beating a dead anthropomorphized sea(?) thing with these issues. You also do get a few cool/unique gear options and rules that encourage you to fight harder monsters. And, unlike the Dragon campaign where there are narrative and mechanical reasons preventing you from including Dragons as quarries, there's nothing strictly stopping you from fighting Sunstalkers in your Sunstalker campaign (I'm not sure if this was the intent, though). Again, in the theme of gaining some things and losing others, while you get unique building options, there are limitations that prevent many core gear elements, though none that I consider essential.

In short, though, if what you're after is a different, advanced, and engaging campaign, buy the Dragon instead. The campaign has merits, probably the greatest of which is actively forcing you to use a different tool set, and it's a campaign I might play every now and then, but I don't actively look forward to playing it again.

FWIW, this is also the expansion from which you get Katana proficiency, which is mechanically similar to Twilight Sword proficiency, except that instead of being rather than difficult to train, it's difficult to actually benefit from it, and that difference is just as disappointing as it sounds. These mechanical and narrative complaints extend to IMHO a fairly poorly timed and poorly established introduction of said proficiency in the regular campaign, too.

Sunstalker as a Quarry
This is, in my experience, a rough Hunt. Maybe it's bad luck, but I find it just nasty. Like some of my other experiences with high-level expansion quarries, it punishes you for taking some of the better common gear.

However, I really enjoy the Showdown. It's very maneuvering-heavy, and will have you running all over the place, both to avoid things and for advantages. It's pretty much in line with the Phoenix, and nowhere close to as brutal or rules-breaking as the Dung Beetle Knight. It has an interesting mechanic that provides variable damage, meaning the threat ebbs and flows a bit. This works through an interesting timer mechanic that encourages you to play aggressively and quickly, which I like, since it's often easy to play conservatively and game other quarries.

Once you understand the mechanics, the Sunstalker adds up to a pretty conventional higher level monster, closer to the core game than some of the weirder expansions. Since I like the core mechanics and think that rules that break (rather than modify) rules should be used sparingly, I like this. I find KDM's best (most personally enjoyable) fights to be the movement-heavy and moderate to high pressure ones, and this is no exception.

I also really like that, more than any other monster IMHO, what you get from a level 1 Sunstalker helps you fight higher level versions. I expect (from the previews) and look forward to the next wave of KD expansions continuing this system of gear being partially determined by the level you fight (each level has a unique resource that's used in crafting two gear pieces).

The level differentiation is quite nice, and, as usual, it adds nice complexity and difficulty with each level.

Well, first, it's around Phoenix-tier regarding difficulty and requirements.

It has two weapons that require (as mentioned above) taking on a level 2 at least once; 2 more weapons that require taking on a level 3 at least once. Three of its weapons require one resource there's only one of in the deck, which makes it both unlikely and makes those gears compete for the same resource. Eliminating those, you have a couple weapons that are a bit more reliable to get, one of which competes with a piece of gear that improves fighting Sunstalkers. So, it's pretty unreliable to get weapons from it without some extra effort and/or luck. So, while it has some very strong weapons, you're unlikely top get something very quickly.

The armor set is pretty cool, about as specific in its requirements as the Phoenix armor. It has subtler offense and defense than "run at it to hit it harder" and "this has the second-highest raw armor in the core game," but that isn't saying a lot. It's pretty light but gives you an absolute ton of flexibility and generally emphasizes evasion. Spoiling things slightly, it gives you far more affinities than is at all reasonable, meaning that it allows you to make types of gear combos that are unavailable outside of this expansion, which I feel are unlikely to be topped in the next set of expansions, short of being able to buy affinities for survivors. It's probably borderline overpowered, but the choices around it add so many fun ways of constructing builds that I really don't care. It does exactly what it should, which is encourage you to repeatedly fight hard monsters.

Really, my only complaint here is that I think a couple of the resources should have had another copy in the deck to improve some odds, but that's all. Because of that rarity, I'm not sure if the limitation is a matter of balance, because more could make things too easy?

At this point, it should be fairly clear what I like and dislike about the Sunstalker, but, in case you skimmed:

I think its campaign isn't very exciting despite changing things up a lot, since I don't like a lot of the changes. Also, the katana thing was neither mechanically nor narratively incorporated to my taste.

I think the quarry is very rewarding, and wouldn't hesitate to include it in a campaign. Except for that minor gripe about gear acquisition, I don't think I'd change a thing.

Basically, it has two halves that divide my opinion.

The trickier question is, how much would I recommend it? I'm a little less sure, here. If it were 2/3 the price for just the quarry, I'd say it's one of the first you should add. However, it isn't, so it's now competing with the Dragon King or probably two other expansions.

Because of the Sunstalker's price, and what I believe are its strengths as an expansion, I'd suggest you get it as your first high-level expansion quarry, but that if you already have another, I'd recommend filling another niche (nemesis; special showdown; low-level monster; (IMHO better) campaign) first.

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