Review: Kingdom Death
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 23, 2019
I have a giant farmhouse-style dining table. It came from a café my brother-in-law’s ex-girlfirend ran. It was too big for that space, so they replaced it with a bunch of smaller tables. It’s a really big table … but not big enough for Kingdom Death!
Kingdom Death is a boutique horror board game, most notable for being really expensive. Or for its overly grotesque and elaborate miniatures.
To play the game you need to build four starting survivors, the characters the players will play, and the White Lion, a terrible monster that is trying to kill the players. The game asks a lot from you to get going, but compared to playing Warhammer the ask is quite modest. I built the initial set of minis over the course of a few days after the game arrived. Games Workshop minis look to be engineered and sculpted with an understanding someone is eventually going to have to glue all this plastic together: seams are usually well hidden, there aren’t a billion fiddly bits to fit, most parts fit cleanly and don’t require you to take a knife to them, etc. The same can’t be said of the Kingdom Death minis I’ve built so far. Each has been a bit of a slog. That’s not to say the challenge of building them hasn’t been fun, or that the final products aren’t great. I love the Screaming Antelope, even if I’m going to have to learn how modelling putty works to finish it up. Kingdom Death has a stellar style and artistic vision.
The game is complicated, but not overly complex. The bulk of the game is the showdown, where your characters fight a monster. On your turn you can move your survivor and attack. You roll to hit, draw hit location cards for the monster you’re fighting, roll to wound each location, and repeat the process till the monster is dead or all the characters are. Hit Location cards might have extra rules about what happens if you score a critical hit at that location, or if you fail to wound the monster, etc. Monsters are controlled by an AI deck, cards that explain what they will attempt to do. This deck is also the monster’s hit points. As you wound the monster they lose cards from their AI deck: their tactics will dwindle as the fight progresses. This is really quite ingenious, and probably one of the most compelling parts of the game. A lot of the complexity in Kingdom Death has been moved to the various cards that come with the game. You don’t need to learn a lot of rules, because for the most part everything you need to know is written on a card. The game can have lots of interesting edge cases and rule tweaks throughout because you generally don’t need to flip through a rule book (that much). Using random decks also makes each fight a little unique. The lions you fight will all be a little bit different. (And as they are injured, the way they fight will change in uniquely as well.)
The rule book opens with an excellent tutorial that walks you through the important details of the game and runs you through a typical showdown. They’ve done a great job distilling a reasonably complicated game down to something quite digestible. I met up with Evan and we played through this tutorial game. It was a lot of fun, and we managed to kill the White Lion on our first try, though it cost us one of the survivors. I don’t think it took particularly long for us to get comfortable with the game and its rules.
My cousin Jana joined us just as the fight was wrapping up, and we all played through another aspect of the game, managing your settlement. After the tutorial fight your characters will find a lantern horde and a group of survivors living around it. The foundation for the whole game is this settlement phase. You need to manage your settlement, creating a society that can survive in this dark world. During the settlement phase you’ll learn new skills and craft gear to help you fight more monsters (to earn more resources to build more gear to fight more monsters, etc). This phase doesn’t take particularly long to move through.1 We discussed what gear we should build with the resources we earned in our first fight. Once that was settled we decided we’d hunt another lion.
The last aspect of the game I haven’t discussed is the hunt. Your characters march down a small board towards the monster you are hunting. There are hunt cards on each square that you need to deal with as you move forward. Some cards will push the creature up towards you or away from you, shortening or lengthening the hunt. Each monster has their own hunt cards, and there is a big table of general events you will likely roll on as well. In our game one generic event featured a giant worm bursting from the ground and almost eating us all. We had to each spend a survival point (a resource each survivor has) or our character would die. That’s what the game is like: you can more or less randomly instantly die.
Our second fight with a White Lion actually felt smoother than our first. We had some lucky critical wounds that helped weaken the lion early in the fight. We made it out more or less unscathed. It feels like we’re in a good place to continue our adventure.
The game is played over a series of “lantern years”. In this way the game is more like D&D than a traditional board game. You have characters that can grow and die. Your settlement improves or dwindles over time. There are story events in the game that flesh out the world and add some substance to all the fighting and dying. There is a loose narrative structure to the game and its campaign. There is also all the implied story that comes from all the random elements of the game: the details from your fights, the hunts, and the events that happen in your settlement.
The game is expensive as fuck. I don’t think you can really sugar coat that. It’s the most expensive board game I own, by far. That said, it’s well worth the money if you are into miniatures. The amount of plastic you get is crazy. After seeing how much Games Workshop charges for stuff Kingdom Death starts to feel like a steal. (I am guessing the Phoenix that comes with Kingdom Death would likely be a $100+ miniature if sold by Games Workshop.) Of course, none of that changes the fact the game is expensive as fuck.
Is this a review? It seems obnoxious to recommend people go buy a game famous for both being very expensive and also always out of stock. That said, you should find this game. I suspect if you like the junk I like—D&D, Dark Souls, fun, etc—then you’ll like this game.
I wrote most of this review in 2017, and then sat on it because that’s something I do. We finished our campaign at the end of 2018. Of course, we lost. We made it to Lantern Year 11 before the last of our surivors died. Our town was full of murderers, so when the monsters didn’t get us, our fellow survivors would. It was a fun campaign and we learned a lot. I decided to post this review because we just started playing again this past weekend.
The last survivors of Lion’s Fall, Murderess, Hope, and Lucky, set off on a hunt hoping to stumble upon a man … so they can hopefully make some babies. Sadly, that’s not how things worked out. They kill a White Lion cub while out and are set upon by its enraged mother. Murderess is the first to die, dying of shock when when her arms are torn off while simultaneously being decapitated. Lucky suffered an intestinal prolapse and was hamstrung before bleeding. The final survivor, Hope, was disembowelled (3 times!) and suffered a collapsed lung from vicious attacks to her body. With her last breath she speaks some words of bravery for no one to hear.
And that’s Kingdom Death!
— A summary of the last game of our first campaign of Kingdom Death, from a post on Google+ (RIP)
[ed. I fucked up and accidently deleted this post. This is it mostly recovered. One day maybe i’ll fix all the links. God damn it. — Me, July 18th 2019 ]