I am wondering if I should set up Kingdom Death and play a campaign. I just can’t imagine running all four characters. On the other hand this seems like the ideal time to play. - Me, March 28th, 2020.
Almost exactly a year prior my friends and I met and started a new campaign. I hadn’t opened the box since, having other things to occupy myself and my time. But now it was March and everyone was trapped at home. I was trapped with an expensive-as-all-hell board game designed so it could be played solo. This was my time! Two weeks later I laid out the game on the floor of my office and started playing.
The previous campaign my friends and I played ended in tragedy during Lantern Year 11, the few survivors of Lion’s Fall succumbing (ironically) to a White Lion. We played that campaign over 2 years, give or take, meeting every few weeks and then months. 11 sessions over the course of 2 years is a very leisurely pace. In April I was playing daily, making it to Lantern Year 20 in about two weeks! This was frantic!
My pace slowed down slightly. I beat the previous big boss of the game, the Watcher in May. I beat the final version of The Butcher, one of the tougher nemesis monsters shortly after. And then I paused and went outside. It was the summer. (I mean, I also played a ton of GRIMLITE, honestly.)
But I wasn’t done. In October the weather was getting colder, and the siren song of this game returned. My settlement was quite decimated after facing the Watcher and the Butcher. I had a handful of survivors, old and battered, and a handful of survivors too young and fresh faced to face the monsters I needed to fight. Each fight was now hours of careful strategy, usually ending in death. My settlement was marching to its end. I messaged some friends:
Lantern Year 27: A plague infects the settlement and we need to fight the Level 3 Kingsman. So this is likely the end of the road for this group. What a journey!
I had one survivor left. She was killed on the first turn: 5 hits, 3 to her body. Rough.
I am in the middle of a new campaign now. I added some of the expansions I picked up during the Kickstarter. Some extra variety and new monsters too face seemed like it would be fun. In hindsight I regret not picking up more expansions during the Kickstarter. I had avoided the Gorm, another monster you can fight in your first lantern year, and so a good alternative to the White Lion, because I thought the model looked so goofy. A mistake! That content would have been so useful now, as I find myself playing so much of this game.
Kingdom Death takes up a comical amount of space. Playing on the floor is back breaking, and i’m not sure why I’ve not just moved things down to a table ages ago. (I suppose being able to leave things set up if I like is nice) I started off with paper character sheets and a settlement record, as usual, but quickly found the setup unwieldy. Enter Scribe stage right, an electronic record keeper for the game. I don’t think I’d have been able to play as much as I did without it. I use Scribe plus physical gear grids to play and things work relatively well. Playing the game alone is still a challenge. It’s hard to keep track of everything each survivor can do, for example, but overall things work well.
One thing you lose playing alone is the having no one to commiserate with over terrible dice rolls, or cheer with when you manage to pull of something epic. The game is so swingy and punishing, its fun to experience that with others. Playing alone has felt more like playing a fancy board game than playing my earlier campaign with a group, that felt like a mix of game and RPG. In our first campaign we lost Evan’s character, our best surivour, to the dark dentist due to a bad dice roll. It was really funny, his character’s skull became a helmet we would wear for the rest of the campaign. A good moment, but not sound strategy!
Since I wrote my last review Kingdom Death has only gotten even more difficult to purchase. A shame. Though it sounds like a big re-print is coming in 2021. To quote myself once more:
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 feel this even more acutely now. This board game is very expensive, an honest to god money hole. But, I think it’s worth that money if you are into these sorts of tactical boardgames. It’s such an interesting and compelling game, one that still feels fresh as I ready myself for my 58th game.
Is Luke Gearing too powerful? Perhaps. Luke’s latest book for the Melesonnia Art Council is Acid Death Fantasy, and it’s kind of hot. A setting book for the award winning Troika. Luke asks the question, “can you distill a setting down to a list of backgrounds, a list of monsters, and a really boss cover?” Let’s find out!
This book describes a fantasy world reminiscent of Dune, Dark Sun, Carcosa, or your other favourite fantasy desert pastiche. A short introduction, a little over a page of text, sketches the world for the reader. It’s enough to give you a sense of what’s going on: there is an opulent mega-city, smaller sultanates orbiting it, water is rare, nomads stalk the desert, there is a jungle full of sentient apes, lizard men, rotting giant mecha, basically all the good stuff.
All the Troika backgrounds help shape the world. Some are brief moments of specificity, like the Coated Man, a knight of sorts, doomed to an early death while covered in a sheet of plastic armour. Others hint at the nature of world, like the Refugee of the Past, a person waking up in this post-apocalypse. Many will help shape your particular game or campaign, like the Deposed Sultan, whose possessions included an adversary, and the title of one of The Thousand Sultanates. Almost all the backgrounds ask questions of the player in a way I think is both simple and useful when starting an open ended game.
In the monster’s section we learn of a world where Freshwater Grub’s plot grand schemes and criminal enterprise, giant worms like in Dune travel the desert, Warflock stalk the desert committing banditry with laser guns, and the husks of great ruined mecha mark the land. Once again the world is detailed in broad strokes, sometimes with strange specifics, sometimes with elements that are very open ended.
But then it all ends! A small list of things to do with this setting and a simple sultanate generator and we are done. I would have liked to have seen the map of the setting described more, like the hex map of Carcosa. More random tables to flesh out hte setting, perhaps. But the approach he took is clearly purposeful, mirroring that of Troika itself.
David Hoskins’ art in this book is really great. I wish like Troika proper all the backgrounds were illustrated! I would would have loved to see art for a Coated Man, Dune Rider, or Narrowman Nomad, to name a few. The same can be said of the monsters. This is a terse book, so more art would help flesh out some of the details of the setting, though perhaps that would calcify things that were meant to be up to the GM to think about.
This book was £26 to my door—that’s like a million Canadian dollars. Honestly, for 36 Monsters and 36 Backgrounds it feels like a lot of cash. Right? But, it’s a full colour hardback book. And it’s good—hard to put a price on that. I mean, at this point I would get anything Luke makes. He’s a safe bet. I enjoyed reading this book. Now I have got to play!
Played a game of Song of Blades and Heroes today because the D&D Encounters game I was expecting to play wasn’t starting till next week. It was the first war game I’ve played since high school. (And high school was a very long time ago now.) Skirmish games are fun. Tempted to get some miniatures. - Me, 25th October 2012, on G+ (RIP)
Many years ago I would attend D&D Encounters on the same night the Toronto Historical Wargaming Club would host their meet-ups. I would hang out and chat with the club members before and after my D&D games. On one such occasion I ended up playing A Song of Blades and Heroes, which was such a charming game I went out and grabbed the PDF. I never played again, but liked it so much I also bought the book in print a few years later. Fast forward a million years and I am stuck at home with a pretty healthy collection of painted minis. So, I decided to make war bands out of my Warhammer Underworld miniatures and play games: Ram vs. Ram.
A Song of Blades and Heroes by Andrea Sfiligoi is a dead simple skirmish game. You play battles between war bands comprised of about 5-15 miniatures. The game can be played quickly, something I never managed to accomplish playing Kill Team with Evan.
Units have two attributes: Quality and Combat. They may optionally have a few special traits that impact the rules, like “flying” or “savage”. Everything about a character is abstracted into these two attributes and these traits. Even different weapons are undifferentiated. People who like a lot of customization may find it a bit disappointing. I find it refreshing. Making your own units is easy. There is a simple point calculator online so you can make your own units that are balanced against everything in the book and everything else you might make. It’s remarkably easy to make units that feel the way you want them to feel.
The game has an unusual turn structure. On your turn you need to ‘activate’ a model to use it by rolling up to 3 dice. Each roll equal to or greater than the unit’s quality is a success, otherwise it’s a failure. Each success lets you perform an action with the unit: move, fight, etc. If you roll 2 failures you don’t get to activate any additional models and play flips to your opponent. You can obviously play it safe and only roll 1 dice, but you won’t accomplish much. It’s satisfying rolling 3 dice and getting those 3 successes; surprising when you roll snake eyes with your high quality unit.
This is (basically) all there is to the game: that simplicity!
Andrea has built many games on top of this chasis. There is a slightly more advanced version of a Song of Blades and Heroes, with a name you can likely guess, and then a million variations with names you likely can’t. His catalogue of games is all over the place. He’s an impressive and prolific game designer.
I love this game and I can’t recommend it enough, but I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a small amount of time moaning about the books frumpy layout and information design: it’s frumpy. I feel like a good editor and graphic design person could turn this book into something superlative. As it stands, it gets the job done.
Anyway, I am reviewing the game not the book. The game is fucking great. If you are interested in miniature war games this is the one to grab.
I’m not sure how I stumbled on the OSR scene in Brazil, but it’s there and it feels like it’s having a moment. I think I started following the artist and designer Diogo on Twitter first. He’s made several games and will share his work in progress artwork. He also shares the works of other people in the scene, and slowly I have found more artists and designers working out of Brazil making games, or doing graphic design and art.
I picked up Pacts and Blades first, by Lucas Romlin. A minimalist RPG for you to play Moorcockian inspired fantasy stories. I don’t think I need more RPGs, but this one has stunning graphic design, and makes effective use of public domain art and paintings. Lucas tweeted about his friend Guilherme Gontijo’s game Into the Bronze. Gontijo was the graphic designer for Pacts and Blades, and this game shared its sharp design. I saw he was using Hex Kit to make funky maps and was obviously intrigued. Into the Bronze is a complete reimagining of Into the Odd as a game for playing Sumerian’s during the Bronze Age He has lots of games that look interesting, but I must pace myself!
The next thing I picked up was Escape from Station 52, a solo card game, by Emanoel Melo. I don’t think my printer is nice enough to print the cards, but it looked cool. Again, I’m not sure who shared the game with me, but I shared it joking I could get far just tweeting about Brazilian games. Emanoel tagged their friends in a reply, and I learned of the artist’s Bakto and Alex Damaceno. Alex is redoing Keep on the Bordlands, one page at a time, and the results look amazing.
Alex shared the work their friend Victor Amorim was doing, calling it Hollow Knight crossed with Into the Odd. I love Hollow Knight, and know many other gamers that enjoy that video game, so I let them know this game called Carapace exists. A friend replied, “Carapace has the most direct built in RPG goal I’ve ever seen (without being something like Lady Blackbird): you are getting Marble to build a cannon to shoot a Marble Titan.” It’s true!
Who knows what I am missing. I don’t speak Portuguese. There is likely a whole world of Brazilian gaming I haven’t seen or found yet. Still, it is interesting for me in Toronto to have this small window into what’s happening far from my home. Hopefully for you too.
Normally I start off with some jab at the Ennies, but this year is too garbage to take cheap shots at anyone, least of all the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene. No, we should be positive and celebrate when we can. These are dark times.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming exist to highlight truly standout RPG books. Each year it is a battle to whittle down my long list of books to a short list, and that short list down to the 3 books that will claim the accolades and fame. These choices are never easy. The arguments I have with myself are fierce. Still, this work must be done, because for reasons I can’t remember anymore I decided I’d only call out 3 books each year.
The books in contention arrived at my doorstep, or digitally in my inbox, during 2019. Before the Pandemic. A life time ago! Other than that it’s really the Wild West with these awards. Will the categories be the same as last year? Read on to find out!
Is it appropriate to give an award to someone I play D&D with here in Toronto? Of course it is: this book is great.1 Michael has collected all the one page dungeons he has made over the years—the ones with the cool isometric maps—redone the layout to make them all the more wonderful, and thrown in a bunch of extra tables and setting material and monsters and so much more to round out what would already have been an excellent book. This thing is dense and full of adventure. Great for campaigns or gaming emergencies!
Best Settings and Adventure: Patrick Stuart and Dirk Detweiler Leichty for Silent Titans (with layout by Christian Kessler and editing by Fiona Maeve Geist)
Silent Titans is really quite incredible. Patrick’s writing, Dirk’s art, and Christian jamming the art and writing together have resulted in a really stunning book: pretty enough for a coffee table! The world Patrick describes and Dirk illustrates in his abstract style is so thoroughly weird and unique. I was worried it was perhaps too weird: how do you even run this thing? But no, that was a foolish concern! I’ve been running this adventure straight from the book! It’s worked out great. The world we were promised.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2019: Zombie World by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman
It had to be Zombie World. I love this game! I’ve been obsessed with it for ages now. Zombie World is not really a book, I suppose. Like a game from days of yore, it came in a box with cards and markers and play mats. No matter! Zombie World is such a simple and well executed game. At its core it’s just another Powered by the Apocalypse game, but somehow all the bits and bobs that make the game come together so perfectly. It’s the most OSR Powered by the Apocalypse game. You heard it here first! I’ve ran it a handful of times and it was so effortless and enjoyable. Zombie World is the game you should all be playing. Yes, you!
All my love to Mork Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr; Girl Underground by Lauren McManamon and Jesse Ross; Dirk’s Mystery Zine (that would became Super Blood Harvest) by Dirk Detweiler Leichty; The Demon Collective Volume 1 by David Shugars, Camilla Greer, Comrade Pollux, and Mabel Harper and Fungi of the Far Realms Alex Clements and Shuyi Zhang. Mork Borg has a special place in my heart for being such a wonderful OSR throwback, but with some fucking blinding and beautiful graphic design.
I fought the urge to give all the awards to Warcry. Games Workshop didn’t disappoint. Chef’s Kiss Emoji. Painting miniatures is keeping me sane while the world implodes.
I’m not sure you will ever get impartial judging with these awards. Is that something people even want? I assume not. We already have the Ennies where we decide awards using the power of aggregation. ↩
In 2019 a lot of people were expecting (hoping?) Games Workshop would release a skirmish game in the vein of Mordheim, to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Instead, Games Workshop announced Warcry, and I don’t think people were too upset because it was looking pretty hot. Warcry feels like a throw back to the old Realms of Chaos books: it’s a game about Chaos cultists killing each other. Warcry will look familiar to people who have been paying attention to what Games Workshop has been doing recently, but I think this might be their best game yet. (Maybe that’s a low bar, because a lot of their games aren’t actually very good? Ha!)
Warcry feels like it strips away everything I find aggravating about traditional Warhammer games. So, if you also dislike the things I find annoying about Warhammer 40K or Kill Team this might be the game for you! Let’s dig in.
Warcry is a skirmish game. This means its model count is low. Fantastic. The number of units each faction can field is also quite small. Each unit is described by a card, and that is the end of that story. There are no data sheets with a bunch of options and upgrades and all that nonsense. A unit has some stats and one or two weapons. This makes list building pretty simple. You might have 6-10 different units available, and you would mix and match to units to end up with 3-15 models, with one leader, all costing under 1000 points.
The starter set comes with 4 decks of cards that are meant to help you kick off a game. For those of you who have used the Open War cards for Warhammer 40K, it’s very much in the same vein. A terrain card tells you how to set up the board, a deployment card tells you how to deploy troops, a victory card tells you how you will win the game, and a twist card adds a special rule to the battle. Deployment in Warcry is a bit unusual. Each deployment card has 3 symbols: a Dagger, Shield, and Hammer. You must split your models up into three groups that correspond to these symbols. You might have games where you and your opponent’s Dagger units start the game right next to each other. In other games you might be on the opposite sides of the board. Some deployment cards will indicate you deploy your troops in subsequent rounds. Your Hammer may show up in the 3rd round, turning the tide of the battle. This makes for interesting and unique games.1
The game play itself is also simpler. You move your movement score in inches, any which way you like. If you want to climb a wall go nuts. If you want to jump a gap, just jump. The game feels very dynamic. Attacking is also much more straightforward. You roll a number of d6s depending on your weapon, try to beat a target score based on your weapon’s strength and the target’s toughness (which should be familiar to any warhammer player), and finally if you score hits you do a fixed amount of damage. (If you scored a 6 that’s roll is a critical hit and do more damage.) That’s the end of that story. There is no rolling to wound, no rolling for armour saves, etc, etc. They’ve basically moved all of that dice rolling into the damage and hit point scores of the various units.
Perhaps the last notable thing about Warcry is its abilities system. You start a round by rolling 6 dice for initiative. You set aside doubles, tripples and quads. The number of singles you have is your initiative, the higher number goes first. The other dice you’ve set aside can be used during the round to use special abilities each faction posesses. These are listed on a small card. There aren’t pages and pages of strategems to worry about. Some abilities can only be used by particular units. Maybe that’s the most complicated thing about them. Abilities help differentiate the various armies, and introduce some more twists into the game, without adding a lot of complexity.
I haven’t gotten to play Warcry much: just one game with Patrick while I was in the UK. One day, when this pandemic is over, I hope to play it again. Maybe run its weird-ass campaign strucuture—a topic for another blog post.
For those of you who care about ‘balance’, there are a subset of the cards that are meant to create more symmetrical situations. ↩
One Page Rules makes a set of games seemingly designed to give you a (far) simpler alternative ruleset to play wargames using your fancy Warhammer miniatures.1 They have two main games, Age of Fantasy, which could be used as an alternative to Age of Sigmar, and Grimdark Future, an alternative to Warhammer 40,000. There are two matching skirmish games, and for those of you who miss Warhammer Fantasy Battle they also have one page rules for that style of game. Impressive!
Compared to the other games Games Workshop puts out Warcry is a pretty simple game, but Age of Fantasy Skirmish manages to be even simpler. Units are defined by: two stats (quality and defence), the weapons they may have, and in some cases a few special abilities. Weapon profiles themselves are also quite simple: a weapon tells you how many dice to roll when attacking, and if the has any special attributes—there aren’t that many to worry about. Here’s an example of the leader of one of my warbands:
This character needs to roll 3 or higher to both attack and defend. His Great Weapon rolls 3 dice to attack (A3). You score a hit by beating your quality score on a d6. This is a quality test. You defend hits by rolling a d6 for each hit and trying to beat your defense score. In this case defenders will have a penalty of 2 when rolling for defense because of the weapon’s Armour Peircing score of 2 (AP2). This unit is a hero, so regular units within 12” of this model can use its quality score when rolling for morale. Tough(3) means he can take 3 wounds before he needs to start rolling to see if he’s taken out of action.
The game uses alternating activation: each player alternates activating a single unit. Units can move, shoot, or charge into melee on their turn. When your army is at half size you roll for morale. There honestly isn’t much more to the game than this. The extra abilities help differentiate units and keep things interesting.
The various One Page Rules games all play fairly similarly, so if you learn one you’ll probably have learned them all. The rules fit on a sheet of paper, you can just read them and see if they sound interesting.
The following day I set up the game again and played two games against my daughter. I was helping her with the rules, but for the most part she picked things up quickly and by the end understood the important bits and bobs of the game. I think something like Warcry or honest-to-god Age of Sigmar would be a bridge too far for her.
I plan to give Grimdark Future a go next. Will report back with how that goes.
Or, paper miniatures, stuff you bought in one of those Reaper Bones Kickstarters, stuff from a CMOM boardgame, whatever! ↩
Evan and I finished our initial Kill Team campaign. His Anthrodact Vat Guard came out ahead against the invading Skitarii Dravidian. I would say things weren’t even close! It was a fun experience, and perhaps a good example of where both of us are at when it comes to war games: disorganized, laid back, and narratively focused.
We played 6 games in total. We decided to end on 6 because our pace of gaming was so slow we needed to call it at some point so we could try something else. In hindsight we likely should have settled on a different structure for our campaign, one with a fixed number of games. If we knew we would only play 6 games, we could have thought through what those 6 games should be. We had a grander and more open ended outline for a campaign structure, which worked well when we remembered the rules we added to Kill Team, but was maybe a bit too ambitious for us. Our games were a mix of pulling stuff from the core rule book and tweaking things a little, or coming up with brand new scenarios specific to our campaign. Our original goal was to be completely bespoke with our scenarios, but we were often figuring things out at the last minute before meeting up. We had good intentions.
The enjoyment of a campaign comes from the small moments that slowly give your minis some character. Some characters were prone to early deaths, constantly missing, etc. My leader, Onthu-Prime turned things around in one of our middle games, becoming a real killing machine. He felt more powerful from then on. In contrast to Onthu-Prime we have Nils 02 of House Shen, the man with a Meltagun. Every game he would die before hitting anyone with it. Finally in the very last game he survived long enough to kill Onthu-Prime! Evan and I both had snipers that would inevitbly end up in these sniper vs sniper shootouts. They would regularly take the other out of action each game.
For the curious, the notes and rules for our entire campaign are available online: The War of the Intolerable Question. They are very rough. One day we will clean them up, i’m sure.
Kill Team was fun, but maybe not quite what Evan and I were looking for? At first blush with its lower model count it felt simpler than Warhammer 40K, but I am not sure this is true. With specialisms and stratagems and other army specific rules the game can get a bit complicated. We would almost always forget the rules for morale. I would regularly forget most of the things the units in my army could do. There are so many rounds of dice rolling when it comes to wounding models. (Warcry simplifies this immensely by giving units bigger wounds totals to differentiate who should survive longer or not.) Once a model had a flesh wouund we’d forget what that impacts or doesn’t. The list goes one. On the other hand, it’s far more rational and straightforward than Necromunda. In that way it’s likely a good middle ground between a game that’s too minimalist, and one that’s overly rules heavy and complicated.
There are a few other games I’ve discovered since we started playing Kill Team that I’m interested in playing.
Starbreach is a miniatures agnostic ruleset, available for free, that has an interesting activation scheme. (I believe it’s borrowed from Bolt Action, which might also be the proginator of Troika’s initiative system as well.)
Using Frostgrave to run a game of Inquisitor seems doable.
Evan and I have been talking about getting back to regular Warhammer 40,000 this year, perhaps slowly building up larger armies than we have played with in the past. I’ve started painting some Sisters of Battle, to expand my hodgepodge of Imperial troops. Who knows what the year will bring.
I used to try and get my awards published before the Ennies announced their winners. I was worried a book I liked winning an Ennie would take away from my also giving that book an award. But then I thought, “the Ennies are really stupid: they should be racing to beat me.”
Just when I think the Ennies are getting their shit together they go and nominate Dirk for best cartography, but not for best art? And then both Troika (Best Game of 2018) and Silent Titans (short-listed for 2019) don’t win anything? Come on! I do see more names I know getting the recognition they deserve, but the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG industry will never truly provide what I am looking for.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming continue to be a beacon of shining light in the darkness that is the table-top role playing game scene. The judges have deliberated at length about the merits and artistic achievement of each book, agonizing discussions that run for months on end. No votes or pandering: voting gets you Trump and Brexit.
The books in contention were all bought by myself in 2018, or fulfilled as Kickstarter rewards or pre-orders that year. Basically, if I didn’t have it in 2018 then it’s not on my long list for these awards. That’s basically it. I know what you’re saying: “Ram, 2018 was so fucking long ago.” Look man, I don’t make up the rules. (Actually, what you’re probably wondering is why the 2019 awards are for books I grabbed in 2018. Now that’s a good question.)
David Black’s simple rules for playing D&D, the eponymous Black Hack, felt like a real part of the zeitgeist with its initial release. People have always been hacking up their games of D&D, but now all of a sudden those hacks became This Hack or That Hack. The second edition of the Black Hack takes everything that made the first edition so great and refines it neatly. The game is still clear and concise, but with some refinements that makes the game stand out a bit on its own. The new book is a lovely hardback, with enough tables to keep you gaming for some time. This is the good stuff.
I was, to put it lightly, maximum hyped for the release of Operation Unfathomable. Jason Sholtis would share all his illustrations on G+, presumably as he wrapped them up, and I would +1 those posts so hard. It felt like he was drawing for ages and ages. And then there was a Kickstarter and finally a book. True joy. In many ways this book exists in contrast to the Veins of the Earth (Best Setting of 2018). Both books present the horrors of the Underdark, but Operation Unfathomable has a sort of goofy cartoon charm that I love. There is time travel and laser guns and bug monsters: all the good stuff. That we have two glorious visions of the Mythical Underworld, each bizarre and unique in their execution, is a testament to the creativity within the OSR. Jason’s adventure is a good introduction to what could be a longer jaunt in the underworld. (His players apparently said no thank you to the terrors of the deep, forcing him to develop the next overland adventure he plans to publish.)
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2018: Mothership & Dead Planet by Sean McCoy, Donn Stroud, and Fiona Maeve Geist
Technically, these are two different books. I don’t give no fucks. I got both zines at the same time, I read them at the same time, and I fell in love with them at the same time. With Dead Planet and Mothership we are given a sufficiently creepy scenario to freak your players out with, and the rules you’d need to run a sufficiently creepy science-fiction horror game. They are both short zines: an excellent format for games. Both books really stand out because of their graphic design. Sean has said he took his inspiration from magazines rather than books, and I think the approach works well. Mother Ship and Dead Planet are so visually engaging as you flip through them. Dead Planet in particular is a very colourful affair, but that colour is used to great effect. Mothership reminds me of Alien, while Dead Planet reminds me a bit more of that crossed with Warhammer 40,000. What’s not to love?
My love of Warhammer continues unabated, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give Kill Team a shout out. So much of my last year has been spent playing games of Kill Team or building and painting miniatures in preparation for those games. Warhammer has helped keep me sane. Warcry is out right now, so 2019 RPG authors you are once again on notice.
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 ]