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How a mature board game became the biggest Kickstarter game ever (update)

We talked with the creator of Kingdom Death: Monster and his fans about the graphic miniatures game

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The biggest game in Kickstarter history isn’t a video game. It’s a gruesome and graphic miniatures game called Kingdom Death: Monster. This week it unseated a fun-loving, cuddly game called Exploding Kittens to become the most highly-crowdfunded project in the games category. With more than $9 million already pledged, it may be one of the most controversial projects ever to succeed on Kickstarter.

This story contains images and content that are extremely NSFW.

So what do we mean when we say gruesome and graphic? Here’s a sample of what Kingdom Death offers:

In the opening tutorial for the base game players have the opportunity to sever a lion’s testicles and carry them off as a prize.

Inside the game manual is a character from the game lore dressed in what can best be described as a series of strategically-placed leather belts.

One currently out-of-print narrative sculpture, intended to illuminate the game’s lore, features enemies that wear a skin-tight collection of severed tongues tied to their bodies. Another includes a phallus-shaped tentacle on the verge of penetrating a female slave.

And yet, despite these sorts of images the game has a devoted following. The Kickstarter pulled in more than $5 million in its first weekend.

This Isn’t Kingdom Death’s first crowdfunding effort. The original campaign raised more than $2 million in 2013. Once manufactured, all remaining copies sold out within just a few months. For a core game that costs a whopping $250 that’s quite an achievement. This new campaign will put thousands more copies into circulation by the end of 2017, all in a newly-revised 1.5 edition.

Curious then that one of gaming’s most expensive, and most rare, products is so overtly offensive. Creator Adam Poots tells Polygon that’s because he’s not interested in compromising anything in terms of his creative vision.

The Screaming Antelope from Kingdom Death: Monster.
Adam Poots Games

“I’m changing nothing [in this version],” Poots told Polygon. “I’m very, very fortunate and extremely lucky that so many people have enjoyed what we've made. The creative process was absolutely one of open arms, of accepting everything and not restricting the artists whatsoever. I see no reason to change that based on people's very valid personal feelings on some of the artwork that we have.”

On the table, Kingdom Death is a skirmish game with a long, cooperative storyline. Poots credits HeroQuest and its successors, specifically Warhammer Quest, as his inspiration for its mechanics. Players start each campaign on a dark plain of stone faces, naked except for a loin cloth and armed with nothing more than a sharp stone. As the arc continues they’ll craft more powerful weapons and armor from the creatures they kill.

It’s those creatures that so fascinate fans of Kingdom Death.

Steve Lamoreaux, member of the private Facebook fan group By Lantern’s Light, credits the game for its “fresh storytelling and lore. You never know 100 percent of what is going on or why the world is the way it is. That gives it a mysterious and enigma-like feel.

“This unknown drives me to continue my campaign, and experience and buy up all the extra models and kits.”

Many games have trolls, orcs and dragons. Kingdom Death has towering birds bristling with dozens of human hands and screaming antelopes with gaping maws where their bellies should be. Every battle is unique, thanks to a novel set of artificial intelligence cards that drive its bizarre creatures.

A professionally painted White Lion, the starting enemy in Kingdom Death: Monster.
Adam Poots Games

Total party kills, where every player at the table sees their character eviscerated, are common. In that regard, many have compared it to the Dark Souls series of video games.

Kingdom Death has received a lot of criticism specifically for its portrayal of female characters. Many of them spill out of their outfits, or are barely covered at all. Rather than shy away from this sort of imagery, Poots says he’s working hard to expand it. The new crowdfunding campaign features more male figures than ever before. Poots says that thanks to the quality of his concept art, he’s been able to partner with female sculptors who specialize in the Yaoi style, colloquially known as “boys love” manga.

“I can absolutely empathize with someone who finds the ballsack on a monster to be uncomfortable,” Poots said. “But at the same time, it doesn't mean that I'm going to stop the artists — who have free rein for probably one of the first times in their creative lives [spent] working with other companies — and cut them off at the pass.”

Adam Poots Games

“A lot of people mistake the Wet Nurse as some sort of horrific cycle of birth,” Poots said. “The monster itself is actually infertile. It drains the milk from women, mixes its own hormones into it and nurses babies. This changes their hormones and sets them on a course of becoming ‘holy landers,’ the rank and file monsters of the holy lands.” Not pictured is a tentacle in back of the miniature.

What makes the Kickstarter campaign all the more unusual is its success in selling add-on items, like expansions and collectible sculptures not specifically intended for use in-game. Many take the form of “pinups” as Poots calls them, and feature revealing depictions of male and female forms.

The $1,666 pledge level, called Satan’s Lantern, includes the core game valued at $250 as well as the Gambler’s Chest, which is filled with dozens more miniatures as well as advanced rules, and numerous pinups from this Kickstarter campaign and the last one from 2013. Multiple fans of the franchise have resorted to publishing intricate spreadsheets to make sense of it all. Many have sunk thousands of dollars into the project.

The current average amount pledged per backer is $550.

“With our last campaign we over-delivered,” Poots said. “After our first campaign, I felt so responsible and humbled by the support that we were shown. ... I decided to take the profits we had on our month-to-month regular sales and pour them back into development.

“How many times in your life do you have the opportunity to make exactly what you want with the money that you need to do it? So I figured I'm just going to go all out. ... I wouldn't put anything up there I couldn't deliver and if there was something we couldn't deliver, we would just refund everyone.”

Fans of the game tell Polygon that their devotion is just as much due to the challenging gameplay as it is the subject matter.

“I love that you're playing as a society and the individual survivors are as much a resource as the bones and hide you gather from slain monsters,” said Simon Penni in an email. “I remember feeling that same rush and feeling of accomplishment I got killing the Butcher nemesis as I did from beating Ornstein and Smough, and wearing Screaming Antelope pelts into battle has that same primal vibe I loved from Monster Hunter.”

A narrative sculpture featured on the Kickstarter as an add-on item. From the Kingdom Death: Monster product page: “So great was Satan’s self-obsession that it split into twin hermaphrodite lovers to share the world with itself.”
Adam Poots Games

Penni went on to add that the rarity of the game also brought out many new players who wanted to see what it was all about. The result is a group of players that has galvanized over the game, and one that meets to play on a regular basis.

“The artwork, gameplay, and fantasy adventure is truly befitting a game such as Kingdom Death: Monster,” wrote Jordan Agudelo in the private Facebook group. “If you are easily offended, this is not for you. But all those that are truly mature will be able to indulge and experience everything this game has to offer. With random events, deaths and unique crafting/combat system, this will give you hours of enjoyment. And now with even more expansions, you may well have years to play.”

While the expansions and much of the concept art that have driven the game to become such a huge success on Kickstarter are over the top, many fans of the game are satisfied with the basic gameplay experience.

“I still have no interest in the pinups, male or female,” wrote one fan named Louis in an email. “I still cringe a little thinking about my wife looking over my shoulder at the painting desk and asking why I would be interested in broccoli-shaped genital monsters.”

The campaign for the 1.5 edition of Kingdom Death: Monster ends on January 7. Polygon has received a copy of the original game, and has put it through extensive playtests.

Update: Creator Adam Poots reached out after we published this article with some clarifications on the Kickstarter campaign. We’ve updated the text and images to reflect them.