Tabletop Review – Kingdom Death: Monster
Kingdom Death: Monster, also known as just Kingdom Death or KDM by those of us who want to minimize keystrokes, is one of the largest board games on the market. The box and all of its contents weighs in at nineteen pounds and will need its own shelf just to store the core box. It’s loaded with not-so-miniature miniatures of some of the most unique sculpts I’ve seen, most of them large enough so that they’ll never fit back in the original box. It’s a game of epic proportions and a steep entry cost of $400.
KDM has been around for a good chunk of time now. So why are we just talking about it now?
Well for starters, we didn’t have access to a copy and now we do. We’re obsessed. Most importantly, GenCon 2019 just wrapped up and Adam Poots provided a big update for fans regarding the designs of the next wave of content, so our excitement is maxed out.
Kingdom Death: Monster is a cooperative survival game where you and three others play as humans known as “Survivors” trying to build a life in a strange wasteland plagued by twisted beasts. Our readers will be familiar with our love affair with From Software games like Dark Souls and Sekiro. KDM’s story follows a similar pattern of vague lore scattered throughout the world that the players themselves must piece together. Much of KDM‘s narrative and lore unfolds through scripted and random events, forming as players experience the world and progress through the core game’s campaign, People of the Lantern.
Not a Fairy Tale
When beginning a new People of the Lantern campaign, players are expected to begin by playing through the game’s prologue which acts as a tutorial and is considered Lantern Year Zero. The included hardcover rule book not only provides players with the game’s rules, but also an index of all Kingdom Death’s story events, Monster information, and a very useful glossary of game keywords. It’s here that the game provides a rare amount of story text to set the scene:
Once upon a time, there was a place of carved stone faces. A man with a lantern lay sleeping a dreamless sleep. The man knew nothing.
One day, the man woke up. He rubbed the dried ink caked over his eyes and opened them. Around him, he saw other people stirring, and beyond, a horizon of unbroken darkness.
A woman approached the man with the lantern. Her soft hand reached out to him. They had no words. They were a mystery to one another.
Suddenly, a monster emerged from the darkness, its eyes wild with hunger. It attacked.
The people were no match for the monster. It tore their flesh and crushed their bones between its teeth. Some, it devoured whole.
Overcome with terror and grief, the man with the lantern collapsed to the ground. Cold stone noses pushed into his side. There was no escape.
But the man did not want to die. Desperately grasping at the cold stone faces, he felt a crack, and tore at it with all his might. A piece of stone came free. It was sharp and deadly.
The man with the lantern scrambled to his feet, his weapon clenched in his fist. He took a deep breath and roared into the darkness.
Somewhere in the place of stone faces, nameless men and women stand together. They have nothing but a need to survivor and a lantern to light their struggle.
The lanterns are a mysterious resource that the Survivors stumble across and in this dark world, the Survivors observe the passing of time by how long it takes for a lantern to extinguish. As such, each session is referred to as a Lantern Year and each Lantern Year is divided up into three phases: Hunt, Showdown, and Settlement. Immediately after the prologue introduction, players are guided through their first showdown.
The scene is set and the horrid White Lion remains standing after already slaughtering fellow Survivors. If the four remaining survivors aren’t able to fight back, all will be lost. But this is no typical lion. The White Lion of Kingdom Death has human hands in the place of paws. It’s more dexterous than the lions we’re familiar with and has a tendency to grab its target and drag it alone the stone ground, isolating players from their allies.
Showdown Phase and Basic Game Mechanics
KDM’s showdown board is gigantic and divided up into a 16×22 grid of square spaces. Off to the side sits the White Lion’s HL (Hit Location) and AI decks. Survivors stand six spaces away from the lion beast equipped with only a piece of cloth for protection and a jagged fragment of a stone face. To defeat the beast, Survivors will move around the board and hope that their ill-equipped party will be lucky enough to defeat the lion.
One each turn Survivors can move up to five spaces and spend an activation. Depending on where the Survivor is positioned on the board, they can use that spent activation to interact with terrain, use an item, and most importantly, attack.
Any time a player attacks, they first choose a weapon that they are going to attack with. Each weapon has three different stats. First, the speed stat which indicates how many dice are rolled. The second stat is accuracy. Speed determines how many die are rolled when you’re attacking a target and accuracy is the minimum number that you have to roll in order to connect with target. For each die roll that totals above the weapon’s accuracy, it’s considered a hit.
For each roll that’s considered a hit, players will draw a card off the top of the monster’s Hit Location (HL) deck. If the die roll is higher than the monster’s Toughness (defense), it’s considered a wound and the player has successfully damaged the beast.
Each monster has their own AI, Hit Location, and Resource decks designed to be used specifically for the showdown. Any time players roll to test accuracy like in the above example, players will draw one card off the top of the Hit Location deck for each roll that was equal to or higher than the attacking weapon’s accuracy stat.
The AI deck is a deck of cards unique to each monster type. It contains a set of basic, advanced, legendary, and special cards that are assembled into a deck at the start of each Showdown. The type and number of cards assembled in the AI deck is determined by the difficulty of the Showdown.
The number of AI cards in the deck determines the monster’s health. Each time a monster is injured, the top AI card is removed and placed into a separate stack for wounds. The monster can no longer use that card to attack. The next hit the monster takes after the AI deck is depleted kills the monster.
Each HL card will describe a particular location on the monster. In the case of the White Lion, these will be locations such as Strange Hand, Beast’s Maw, Soft Belly, or even Fuzzy Groin. Survivors will then test to see if they’ve Wounded any of those locations by rolling one die for each HL card with the goal of rolling higher than the beast’s Toughness stat. If the Wound roll is equal or higher than the White Lion’s Toughness, it’s been successfully injured and players should remove the top card from the AI deck and place it into the Wound Stack, effectively limiting the range of the monster’s attacks and coming one step closer to Showdown victory.
Many of the HL cards have additional effects for when players roll a critical hit while attempting a Wound roll. Should the player roll a 10, indicated by a lantern on the die, then it counts as a critical wound. In some cases, critical wounds will sever a part of the monster’s body, like the White Lion’s Beast Maw. If the jaw is removed, the lion will no longer be able to perform the Chomp attack when that AI card is drawn. Instead, it vomits blood all over itself. In some other cases, a critical hit would decrease the monster’s accuracy, movement, or in other cases provide Survivors with a special White Lion resource.
The Resource deck is the heart of Kingdom Death: Monster. Upon defeating a monster Survivors gain a number of basic resources, as well as resources that are unique that that type of monster. Each of these resource cards can be used to craft new armor, items, and weapons. Survivors can equip these pieces of gear to improve their offensive and defensive capabilities over the course of the campaign. If players plan their hunts appropriately, it’s possible to obtain a full set of matching armor that grants additional, lifesaving bonuses that will be crucial in the later stages of the game.
As if that wasn’t enough to digest already, there’s more. Survivors take damage in a very different way and tend to be much more vulnerable. Where monsters are either wounded or not, there are more factors to take into account for survivors.
Survivors have five different locations they can receive damage to. Every time that a survivor is hit by a monster, players will roll a d6 die to determine where they were hit. The possible locations are: head, body, waist, arms, and legs; each one with its own armor value. The damage of the attack will determine how hard that location is hit and the armor stat will decrease by the damage value. Any damage taken after armor is depleted is considered a wound. Each survivor is only allowed two wounds per location before death starts knocking.
The first injury is called a light wound and it has little impact other than acting as a mark against you. The only exception to this rule is the head location, which will never receive a light wound and go straight to receiving a heavy wound as its first injury. The second injury, a heavy wound, puts characters dangerously close to death, and knocks the survivor down, making them a far more vulnerable target. Any and all subsequent injuries to a location that already has two wounds will receive a severe injury and will have to roll against a severe injury table.
The player will roll a d10 die to determine what type of severe injury they will receive. The lower the roll result, the more likely it is that the roll will result in instant death. Let’s take a look at the head location for examples.
If the player rolls a one or two, the survivor’s head explodes in such a grotesque mess of gore that the other survivors lose a survival (a valuable tool in avoiding damage). Results of three or four are decapitation and instant death. Skipping a few, a result of seven will cost the survivor an eye, decreasing their accuracy stat. A roll as high as a ten will simply knock down the survivor. In the instance of a severe injury to the head, there’s a 40% chance of instant death. Even if a survivor is able to escape death the first time, they’ll have to take a severe injury for all future damage until the Showdown monster, or your survivors, are dead.
Settlement Phase and Brief Respite
Once the Showdown is complete, any Survivors who are lucky enough to still be standing return home to their settlement to complete the Settlement Phase. The Settlement Phase is arguably the most important one as this is when survivors are able to spend their resources to improve their odds of future success.
Every survivor that safely returns to the settlement earns a valuable Endeavor point for this Settlement Phase. Endeavors are spent to build new facilities within your settlement, granting access to new armor and weapon recipes, as well as making new event options accessible.
After players gain their endeavors, they draw from a very ranged deck of random events. Some of them can be beneficial, others devastating, and most are a combination of both where the die will yet again determine life or death. Without spoiling too much, there’s one event in the game that pits a select number of survivors against one another in a series of competitions. Winning survivors will earn stat bonuses while losers can suffer permanent injuries like losing an eye or limb, or even be exiled for their failures.
Following that, the settlement’s timeline gets updated. Each campaign that players can choose from grants them a different timeline that details when each monster is unlocked to hunt, and what story events trigger and when. This is what will guide players through their campaigns as they outlast their expectations and dive deeper into the world of Kingdom Death: Monster.
Once the timeline events are complete, players will check their survivor’s weapon proficiency, courage, and understanding stats against milestones. These are stats such as Hunt Experience, Courage, and Understanding. Each of those stats will trigger a corresponding story event that play out now for any survivor that has reached one of those milestones. These events all give the player an opportunity to shape how their survivors grow and progress. Most of these impact a survivor’s innate skills and/or permanent stats.
After checking and following through on any milestone events, players can then start to spend their endeavors. It’s important to have a basic outline of a plan for choosing how these will be spent. Using these properly can open up a plethora of ways to create unique armor and weapon sets. But under the right conditions, endeavors can also be spent to trigger certain valuable events.
This includes what I believe is arguably one of the most important events in the game, Intimacy. When your survivors die, and they will, it decreases your settlement’s total population. If that depletes, your story is at its end. But by triggering the Intimacy event, survivors can birth new settlement residents and plan ahead for the impending population decline. However, like everything else in this game, even the best pursuits can backfire. High rolls grant children while low ones result in miscarriages, death to the pregnant survivor, or for those who are particularly unlucky, both of the would-be parents decide the world is too harsh and the best course of action is to go the way of Romeo and Juliet.
The least depressing option is to spend the settlement’s earned resources to craft new gear. This is only stage of the game that doesn’t have any immediate detrimental consequences. The various resources types (hide, bone, organ, and scrap) can be used to fabricate armor for different hit locations or consumable items to be carried into battle with survivors. If players create a matching set of armor to cover every hit location, they’ll get a bonus effect for using the complete armor set. As the monsters get harder and harder, there’s nothing that survivors will want more.
But the Settlement Phase isn’t all fun and gear. The last part of the phase is the worst: Special Showdowns. In some cases, something will be stalking the edges of the settlement and choose to go after your survivors only now. These are known as Nemesis monsters and they are horrible. Just when you’ve begun to enjoy your spoils and feel safe, these vicious challengers set foot on your doorstep.
As this is the last part of the Settlement Phase these special showdowns are considered the last part of a lantern year. So the bit showdown board comes out again and a new fight gets setup. Like the quarry monsters that players choose to fight, the nemesis monsters also have their own unique HL and AI decks. However, it’s far less likely that they will have a resource deck, and if they do, those resources will be far more difficult to obtain than a quarry. When you choose a monster to hunt, the game intends for victors to return with a haul, but when a nemesis knocks on your door, victory just means living to see another day.
In the case of the nemesis battles, one defeat will not be enough. They will hold a grudge and return later in your campaign, stronger, and more aggressive than before. But once the nemesis battle is complete, the lantern year finally comes to a close and survivors can finally get the rest that they deserve.
Hunt Phases and Random Doom
Normally, the Hunt phase takes place before the other two, but the Prologue example we started with is the one instance that the phase is skipped. The Hunt Phase is the part of the Lantern Year when the survivors follow the trail of their target monster. After players select which survivors will be departing the settlement, the Hunt Phase board (on the reverse side of the Settlement board) will need to be set up.
There are thirteen spaces on the board in a single row. Survivors begin on the farthest left space on the board and the rest of the spaces on the board are filled with basic or Monster specific event cards in accordance with the hunted monster’s rule page. The rule page will also instruct players on where the monster’s starting space is as well.
Once the board is set up, survivors will take turns moving on space forward at a time, revealing and completing each of the event cards on the board until the survivors reach the space with the monster, triggering the Showdown Phase.
The basic event cards will all trigger players to roll two d10 dice on a table of a hundred events. Using the result on the white die takes the place represents the first digit of the table and the result on the black die represents for result of the second digit. For example, if the white die lands on a nine and the black die lands on a two, players should turn to event ninety two in the book and follow it to completion.
Monster specific events have a tendency to alter the state of monsters and survivors when the showdown begins. Monsters and survivors can earn buffs or debuffs depending on even results.
Both basic and monster specific events can cause event damage before the Showdown even begins. For the most part, event damage functions as any other damage would. Event damage will decrease armor values and inflict light and heavy wounds but can never cause a severe wound. None of these injuries will heal until the survivors return to the settlement after the Showdown.
Some of the event cards will move the monster farther or closer to the survivors, neither one of these are great. If the monster moves into a space already occupied by a survivor, it triggers an ambush where the Showdown Phase begins with the monster now attacking twice before the survivor’s turn. If the monster moves farther away, the additional even space will need to be revealed, risking death yet again, before the Showdown can begin.
The Not-So-Little Bits
For all of the content present in Kingdom Death: Monster, there are a lot fewer components than I would have expected, but nineteen pounds of box weight is still a ton to cover. In summary, there are a ton of tokens, but there could be three or four times more if it weren’t for the game’s character sheets. Instead of tokens or bits being used for armor values, there are spots for all of it and details that would otherwise be represented by a card, are all on character sheets.
What tokens do exist are either generic and can represent whatever players need them to, or are double sided. There’s a set of tokens for each major stat like Luck, Accuracy, Strength, etc. each one double sided and illustrated with beautiful Greecian artwork that represent temporary changes to stats. As Hunt events and Showdown AI cards influence survivor or monster stats, these tokens can be simply placed on top of character cards or the monster Showdown board in order to track temporary buffs/debuffs. One on side of any of these tokens there’s a +1 or -1 to each stat to represent the changes as needed. This approach cuts the quantity of tokens in half making a bulky game just a little lighter.
The character and settlement sheets do the rest of the heavy lifting in terms of gameplay. As armor values increase or decrease they are recorded on individual character sheets, as well as any other disorders, permanent bonuses, and special attacks that are learned. The settlement sheet serves similar purposes by keeping track of timeline, available quarry monsters, etc. While player and campaign sheets are not uncommon in board games, Kingdom Death‘s does a lot to reduce the amount of tedious content present in the game.
Even the inside of the box is well designed. The box includes a vacuum molded plastic insert that helps separate the various tokens and decks of cards in the box.
But one of the biggest draws for both gamers and hobbyists are the “miniatures”. They are big, beautifully detailed and horrifically twisted. Within the core box alone there are forty-five different models that come unassembled. Once assembled, they don’t fit back in the box and fans will either need to find creative storage, clear off a few shelves, or buy one of the many alternative storage options available on the market.
KDM can technically be played without any of the miniatures by utilizing anything from the universal tokens included, down to scraps of paper to represent survivors and monsters on the board. However, I would argue that by doing so, players would be missing out on one of most thematic and visually appealing parts of the game.
I never thought that I would enjoy hobby glueing a bunch of plastic bits together, but I quite enjoyed the hours I spent assembling miniatures. Despite how many pieces are available, they can easily be assembled in waves. Only the four prologue survivors and the White Lion are needed to begin playing. The other seven monsters can be assembled as they become revealed. The remaining thirty-three minis are entirely optional builds as they are minis to replace the starting four that represent each of the available armor sets in the game. If players don’t want to go to that length for KDM they can simply opt not to build them and the gameplay experience will remain unchanged.
Personally, I grew to enjoy taking my time to customize each of the miniatures with the assorted weapons and armor that became available. I treated it as a nice quiet activity at the end of the night or over coffee in the morning, building one armor set at a time, that allowed me to better customize my own copy. But under no circumstances should the hobby aspect of Kingdom Death: Monster prevent players from embarking on the journey.
How Death and I Became Acquainted
My wife and I played Kingdom Death: Monster together twice before we knew it was going to become a regular activity. We immediately rounded up some friends, hyped them up about how punishing the experience was, got some beer, and settled in. I read them the picture book style prologue introduction as a teacher would read to a class of pre-school students, set the prologue White Lion Showdown up, and explained the game mechanics. We began with the monster’s first attack as I walked them step by step through the process.
The lion’s first attack was targeting my character, Guy (Galaxy Quest red-shirt character reference), only to find that he was about to get hit three times. Next, I rolled the hit location dice explaining how this would indicate where Guy was going to be struck. All three die landed on the head. I spent my only survival point to dodge damage from the first hit, hoping it would save Guy.
The second hit to the head filled in the heavy injury spot and knocked him down. The third hit forced me to roll for the severe injury. A four, decapitation. Before Guy ever had the chance to defend himself, he was dead. I took him off the board, emotionally conflicted as I was both sad to see him go and proud of my now accurate reference to red shirts.
The best part of KDM is watching as your own stories evolve as consequences of player choices and random events. Debra was another one of our characters who met a tragic fate after she lost her arm and was no longer able to defend herself with the two-handed axe she’d become so proficient with.
Cyrus was an accomplished warrior who killed the crazed Screaming Antelope, but met his fate when he fell in love with Mabel upon his return to the settlement. But Mabel brought his mood down so much that instead of having children and increasing our settlement’s population like we asked them to, they gave up hope in this mad world and walked off into the wilderness to die together.
Kingdom Death: Monster‘s narrative evolved naturally over time as players experience the wretched world around them. It pulls you in as you become too invested in your characters as they fall to disease, decay, and dick monsters.
Even down to the difficulty curve, KDM is highly calculated. Each monster has its own blind spots where survivors can hide in the get a bonus to accuracy for their attack. The White Lion teaches players to run for the blind spot, and gain the advantage of the boost to accuracy.
But the next monster unlocked, the Screaming Antelope, is a skiddish one and punishes players for attacking where it can’t see them. After getting hit, the antelope will buck at the player, possibly causing severe damage, and then run off making it far more difficult to target.
Everything we’ve discussed already makes Kingdom Death‘s battles do not treat players kindly. But neither does the game’s structure. It gently lures you into a false sense of security where players believing they know what to expect, only for the game to flip the script and punish them for being so gullible.
Kingdom Death: Monster is savage and unfair in the best way. A simple die roll determines the fate of your favorite character and one wrong roll can be heart-breaking. But the beauty of the game are the stories the intricate system can generate. They feel as engaging as they do outlandish and terrifying. As expensive as Kingdom Death: Monster is loaded with well designed content and unique content to keep the most masochistic of players coming back to discover more of this world again and again.
Did we mention there are expansions?
1-4 players with variants that allow up to 6.
Prologue scenario walks players gently through how to play and slowly gets more complex, never exceeding a natural curve.
The core game provides one campaign, but enough content so multiple (successful) playthroughs are required to experience the base game in its entirety.