Kingdom Death is a game where you can be playing spectacularly, and then roll a 1 on a random table and lose your star survivor. Frustrating, certainly, it’s happened to me! But, it can also be memorable and fun. I remember with much amusement Evan losing our best survivor to a bad roll on the Dark Dentist settlement event during our first campaign. Coming at the game with the mindset of an RPG player I find the randomness of the game’s story events enjoyable. When it works well, it brings the setting to life. But, if you are coming at this game with the perspective of a more serious board game player, these events are likely going to frustrate or feel half-baked.
A lot of the meta-game in Kingdom Death seems tied to mitigating and minimizing how the randomness of the game might effect you. The more you play your meta-knowledge about the game increases. You know what weapons to bring on a particular hunt that will work well against a particular monster. You know which survivors you’ll need to bring because they might be effective against some nemesis you’re facing. People learn what settlement events exist and groom survivors to handle them or take the fall as need be. You know what story events are coming up and what you might need to prepare to avoid dire results. Kingdom Death becomes a game of minimizing risk divorced from any ‘story’ that might be emerging through play.
In the past I’d have argued approaching the game with this mindset feels like it’s missing the point. The random death and destruction all feeds into the aesthetics of the game. The game is bleak. Your characters all end up maimed or dead. There is a steady level of attrition and death the game wants you to experience: and it is trying very hard to make sure you experience it!
The thing is, Kingdom Death is really hard. There is a real tension between the RPG side of the game and the tactical board game side. To really succeed in the game you do need to meta-game. You fight each monsters several times, and while the fights will generally be quiet different, you will always learn something useful to help you next time you face them. Beyond that, you need to be so careful with how you spend your resources as you only have so many Lantern Years to build up your settlement and survivors before tougher Nemesis monsters show up to try and take you down a peg. There is no winning this game without a lot of really serious strategizing. You certainly won’t make it far if you aren’t trying to make the optimal choice each step of the way. The game design feels like it encourages this behaviour. Some of the final fights are so tough if you haven’t been on the ball the entire time you’ll likely lose.
I have been playing my recent solo campaigns with a real eye to win. But I will still lose a survivor on the hunt and shake my fists and message my friends to lament their death. It’s still fun! It all shapes the story of my settlement. But, I know not everyone agrees here. When people criticize this game from a game design and mechanics perspective, this feels like the area they hone in on: “The hunt table is too random and stupid.”
But if you don’t mind being eaten by a giant worm once in a while, I think this game is pretty great.
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.
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 ]