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Kingdom Death: Monster is the Everest of board games

Its graphic art style and wider universe detract from the masterful gameplay

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Two humans wearing rags face off against a giant winged monster with an old man’s face inside its mouth and hands bristling all over its feathered surface.
Survivors fight a Phoenix in Kingdom Death: Monster.
Charlie Hall/Polygon
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.

This article is absolutely NSFW.

On my kitchen table was the ass end of a giant demon bird. I was inspecting its empty orifice, comparing it to a photo on my iPad. The directions said that I had to glue a tiny lump of human hands, less than a half inch across, into the beast’s cloaca.

I’ve stuck a lot of things to a lot of other things in my time playing tabletop games, but this was a first for me.

I read the directions over again. I compared the photos to the parts in front of me. I looked up the definition of “cloaca” while I trimmed off some flashing to adjust the fit. Then I gently pressed some super glue out of the tube, applied a firm, even pressure and counted to ten while the cyanoacrylate got a good bond inside its hole.

I held the model up to the light to admire my handiwork, and just as quickly I put it down.

Just a few nights prior I had one of the best tabletop gaming experiences of my life. Over nearly six hours, Kingdom Death: Monster had challenged and mystified me, presenting me with combat encounters and opportunities at world-building that I had not anticipated.

What in the hell was I doing now?

The Phoenix is a gigantic bird seething with human hands. Inside its mouth there appears to be an old, mustached man trying to escape.
Charlie Hall/Polygon
The miniature has an incredible sense of scale and movement and is one of the most remarkable sculptures I’ve seen in a tabletop setting.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Kingdom Death: Monster is a tabletop game created by Adam Poots. More specifically, it’s a hobby miniatures skirmish game, sold at retail for $400.

The “sold at retail” bit is academic as the game has been out of print for most of 2016.

The product is so rare that existing copies, even damaged or partial ones, go for many times the price on eBay. That makes the game’s current crowdfunding campaign, run through the Kickstarter platform, all the more notable. Its goal is to put more copies of the game into the wild, along with an upgraded ruleset dubbed the 1.5 edition.

That campaign has over $9 million dollars in pledges, making it the single most successful gaming Kickstarter of any kind. A basic copy is available as a pre-order for $250.

Normally I’d be here celebrating such an achievement, but with Kingdom Death there’s an awful lot of baggage.

Inside the 18-pound box are hundreds of cards, dozens of dividers and cardboard chits along with racks of plastic sprues filled with the parts and pieces of dozens of plastic models. But that’s not the baggage I’m talking about.

The Kingdom Death universe is notorious for its sexual imagery and body horror. Poots calls it “nightmare horror,” but it’s hard to look past the flat out grossness of it all. In particular its the add-on components, non-canon miniatures and in-canon narrative sculptures that he sells on the side that rub some people the wrong way.

The above image is of a new expansion, available through the Kickstarter campaign. A demonic phoenix with hands reaching out of its insides is the least disturbing part of the universe.

Kingdom Death is easily the most offensive game that few have ever played. One miniature called the Wet Nurse was sold alongside the first print run. It featured a monster with phallus-shaped tentacles in the midst of violating its female captives. You don’t play the game as the Wet Nurse, nor do you play against it. But it’s part of the game’s lore, it exists in the game world and that alone troubles people.

When I reached out to Poots to clarify what was going on with the Wet Nurse he explained to me that the tentacle wasn’t having sex with the woman, it was merely feeding off her miscarriage. As if that was supposed to make me feel more at ease.

So yeah. The hands clawing their way out of the genital flap of the demon bird in my kitchen gave me pause.

The starting player character models in Kingdom Death: Monster appear very inspired by Greek and Roman sculpture. The game also includes anime and manga-inspired art. They’re larger than your average miniature, with a 35 mm scale. That allows for uniquely thin and graceful limbs and defined drapery.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Prior to my night affixing fists to a phoenix, I had spent roughly six hours playing Kingdom Death with some friends in Chicago. It was, without question, one of the best nights I’ve spent playing a board game in my entire life.

Kingdom Death: Monster, the core product, is outstanding.

The massive base set is a masterclass in product design. Once unpacked, it’s set up like a Rolodex. Every bit of the game’s content is at your fingertips. The presentation ranks among the very best in the industry, meeting and exceeding the lavish pack-ins found in Riot Games’ Mechs vs. Minions.

While it’s sprawling and awkwardly sized, it is entirely self-contained. Other hobby miniatures games require you to gin up your own army sheets or spend time and treasure creating terrain to fight on. As a starter set, Kingdom Death is exceptionally complete. Everything you need to run a game — excluding the delicate miniatures — fits inside the box.

The game manual itself starts off with a set of lavish, full-page illustrations. The accompanying once-upon-a-time story enraptured my players, engaging them immediately in the universe. They awoke alone, naked save for a loin cloth, on a seemingly endless plain of stone faces. Without the power of language, they met the other human figures at their side before being set upon by a ravenous white lion. It was a fight to the death, and their only weapons were sharp stones and a will to survive.

Charlie Hall/Polygon

All of the game’s enemies are driven by a novel deck of artificial intelligence cards. Picked at random, you never know what’s going to happen next. Add to that the completely foreign landscape, the bizarre and otherworldly creatures and you have a turn-based game that is fresh and magical.

The entire experience is enhanced by Kingdom Death’s exceptional tutorial. The manual’s first 30 pages are a study in how to concisely educate players on gameplay fundamentals. It tells you only what you need to know, makes details easy to find and reinforces its ruleset with accurate diagrams and useful illustrations. Everything is where it should be.

I’ve spent years as a games master, with Dungeons & Dragons and other systems. I’ve taught complicated games to people who have never rolled a die in anger. I can safely say that there is no better ally, no better tool for teaching a game than the first few chapters of Kingdom Death.

After that first battle the game blossoms. It’s like stepping out of the Vault for the first time in Fallout. Players found a tiny village where they invent language, make strategic decisions about how they’ll fortify themselves against the unknown and make plans to hunt the very creature that nearly killed them. The next battle is more harrowing than the first, and on and on.

Fans of board games will spend a lot of time and money searching for the best way to store and organize their games. With Kingdom Death: Monster that’s not necessary.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

The only prize in the game are resources, materials carved off the bodies of monsters to be fashioned into weapons and armor.

Imagine XCOM: Enemy Unknown where, instead of a set of wealthy nations sending you ammunition and fresh troops, the only way to get ahead is to wear the alien’s flesh as a cloak and wade, still dripping with gore, onto battlefield. The only way to increase your number was to take two consenting adults and mate them together, praying for a successful roll of the dice. That’s the kind of game we’re talking about here.

Actions are decisive, and the stakes are high. Many have compared the game to Dark Souls, but that franchise’s approach to death doesn’t truly capture what’s at stake in this game.

Once characters are wounded in Kingdom Death they must roll on a table to determine if they’ll be permanently disfigured, emotionally crippled or simply killed outright. Total party kills are common. Entire campaigns — dozens of hours of gameplay — regularly get written off as a total loss.

This game is extraordinarily hard, and extraordinarily rewarding at the same time.

And yet...

Charlie Hall/Polygon

For that first playtest nearly every player at the table was so interested, so engaged and so excited to play. One lamented the fact that they’d not brought their paints and brushes with them, otherwise they’d be speedpainting as we played. Another said they’d been following the game online for years and was looking forward to putting up money for a copy.

By the end of the evening my initial set of players had been so repulsed that three of the four wanted basically nothing to do with it ever again.

“Great game, just not for me,” said one.

“It feels a little rapey,” said another.

“I really like the game,” one of my players told me. “It’s exciting and it’s challenging. But the art styles are jarring. It feels like every other page was illustrated by a sex-deprived 14-year-old boy.”

That first night in Chicago wasn’t the only playtest that I ran. In my second, the players ended the night excited to carry on with the campaign. I have plans to run a second battle for them against the Screaming Antelope in a few weeks. The lengthy, brutal campaign is a mountain we’re interested in climbing together.

But after even a cursory glance at the Kickstarter campaign, no one at that table wanted anything to do with the expansions or the “narrative sculptures” available.

The gameplay was enough for them, and I’m inclined to agree.

Charlie Hall/Polygon

Clockwise from upper left, the King’s Man, the Screaming Antelope and the Watcher.

I’m personally looking forward to the hobby aspect of the game. I have dozens of player character miniatures left to assemble, and I’m waiting because the customization options in the base game are so extraordinary.

I’ve been able to take pieces, individual arms and torsos and legs and weapons, and mix and match them together to create accurate representations of my most powerful characters. But those player characters are so unlike the art represented in the game manual — and the Kickstarter’s add-on items — that it feels like I’m playing a different game.

So long as I don’t engage with the art in the book, or with the universe’s larger body of lore, I feel like I can get a lot of enjoyment out of Kingdom Death. And, for the current pre-order price of $250, I think it’s an absolute steal. The campaign runs through Jan. 7.

But if you decide to buy a copy, be completely aware of what you’re getting yourself into. This isn’t for kids, and it isn’t for the faint of heart. Board games are intimate experiences that bring together diverse groups of people in real life. That’s what makes them special. Be a good steward of whatever table you play on, and be open about what’s inside before you begin to open this particular box.