My eyes open yet all I see is Darkness.
Where am I? WHO am I? Answers evade me.
What is that? A tiny pool of amber LIGHT! I rise, unsteady and alone, with naught but a loincloth to cover me. Beneath my feet the uneven, stony surface bites at my soles. The path to the timid pool of orange light is direct, yet takes many more steps than expected. Time is nothing here, only my footsteps mark progress. Slowly the light expands; it is a lantern, laying upon the stony ground. A strange, unsettling shiver runs through me. The ground is uneven because it is formed of an endless cluster of carved faces–silently screaming, frozen in lifeless stone.
Movement! Just beyond the soft illumination. I raise the lantern. Something approaches with slow caution. It is a–what is that called again? My mind, my memory, is blank, yet words appear as if rising from some unknown abyss. A WOMAN! It is a woman like me; naked save for a loincloth. We try to speak, mirroring each other’s wordless mouthings. She reaches out, a tentative yet curious gesture. I respond in kind. Her touch is soft, warm, comforting. We stare into each other’s eyes, seeking answers neither can provide. I barely notice others joining us, same as we: naked, wide-eyed and bewildered. There are six of us now, three more lanterns add to the glow. For the first time since I awoke in this grim place, I begin to feel ease, inspired by the comfort of companionship.
Then comes the blood.
A nightmare beast of claws, fangs, and muscles has found us. In a breath, a man like me is laying upon the stone faces, shredded and dying as his blood pours from his wounds. Another breath, another death. My heart pounds, the woman and two others flee. I follow. I trip and fall, my lantern bounces but does not break. As I scramble toward it in desperation, my hand falls upon a sharp bit of broken stone. I rise with this primitive weapon in hand, choosing to die struggling instead of fleeing. The woman and the others, join me.
The enormous beast, unsated with two corpses, follows.
We cannot escape. The White Lion is upon us.
So began our first session of Kingdom Death: Monster. Narcisse kickstarted the game three years ago. It looked cool, a grimdark miniatures board game set in a mysterious dimension. For the cost of $100 and a very long wait, Narcisse received an enormous black box weighing seventeen pounds. We unboxed it, marveling at the exquisitely sculpted plastic miniatures and wondering at the strange things among the sprues.
So many pieces!
The Game boards, yes BOARDS, were taken out, followed by hundreds of cards and reference tiles. We hadn’t even opened the rule book yet, and it was already evident this was a game like no other we had ever played. Excitement grew with each discovery.
At last, we opened the rule book and found a thick, beautifully illustrated storybook with rules and scenarios. Every encounter has a full page painted illustration to help set the mood and scene. It is a big book because Kingdom Death: Monsters does nothing small.
When it came time to play, we decided to stay “spoiler free” and we didn’t read ahead. Quickly determining what was needed to start, we built the beginning four survivors and their first encounter, the menacing White Lion. And then we set it aside, committed to playing only when we had four players and a full day at our disposal.
At long last, the fated weekend arrived! Narcisse, her husband, a longtime friend, and I were ready to play. Little did we suspect that it would take us hours to get organized. It was evening when our four survivors faced off with their quarry–the White Lion.
It was evident within the first minutes of play that Kingdom Death: Monster does not tolerate fools or lazy gamers. It is a grim, vicious, unforgiving world that requires a blend of strategy, sacrifice and inspired lunacy to prevail. Luck helps too. We were so absorbed by the combat that hours passed without notice. Each turn, each decision felt critical and momentous. We were stressed and invested–and the campaign had only just begun.
It is important at this juncture to point out that our gaming group all possess dark, weird, and off-color senses of humor. Indeed, those elements are what makes gaming with each other so much fun. I couldn’t help but notice how our usual banter escalated with the stress of the battle.
“Stab it in the balls!” became our battle cry (attacks from behind have a slight advantage). To our surprise when we finally prevailed, one of the prizes we found was the lion’s testicles! Thus Maia, Messiah the Nutcracker, Drax the Ball Fondler, and Dodgin’ Danikin arose victoriously.
Feeling some relief, we proceeded to read the rules after the tutorial. We were surprised to find that there is another aspect of this game beyond combat–the Settlement phase. It wasn’t enough to defeat a giant lion; now it was time to create a tiny community. Kingdom Death: Monster is not about individual heroes, but a family of survivors finding a way to survive. We named our commune “Fondler’s Quarry.”
The Settlement phase is no less engaging than the Showdown (aka big fight). A lot of decisions that will impact the future must be made. For example, what to do with the dead? Eat them and break them down for resources or bury them? Each ethical decision has its benefits and drawbacks. We chose to bury our dead as the idea of cannibalizing them was just too depressing.
Procreation is another critical element of this phase for when the last member of the community dies, the campaign ends. Thus, you need to breed. Procreation is the part of the game which sensitive people will find most challenging. We rolled terribly for our starting population. We also had no idea how difficult successful breeding can be. To that point, our very first couple decided sex was NOT the answer and instead held hands and walked off into the Darkness to meet their doom. Our next attempt was just as terrible. A male survivor named Traug managed to get a woman pregnant only to have her belly explode in childbirth, killing her and the baby. It soon became evident that we would be making some weird and perverse choices regarding eugenics if we wanted our settlement to survive.
After our breeding failure, the best quote of the evening came from Messiah.
“I’m dying in battle, not with my legs wide open!”
It was at this point that we had a rather involved conversation about just what ‘world’ we were in. There are no details beyond what I described in the opening story. Survivors emerge from the darkness and wipe black ink from their eyes. They have only lanterns for light as they trudge an endless plain of screaming stone faces, fleeing from abominations that hunt them at every turn.
Once Fondler’s Quarry was set, we moved to the next game phase: The Hunt. This is a mini-game within a game. There is yet another game board that represents the hunt for a ferocious beast. Feeling bold, with our new bone weapons instead of sharp rocks, we went out after another White Lion.
It was already midnight, and we were burnt out. Lo and behold, the next lion was way tougher than the first. Once we found it, we were in the fight of our lives. As grueling as the first scenario had been, it paled in comparison to the White Lion that faced us. This beast was thirsty for blood and intent on murdering every single one of us. The game uses random monster AI cards that really keep things interesting. One minute the lion was dragging one of us to a dark corner, another it was roaring and knocking us back. In short, this game does not favor the survivors. Through a mixture of strategy, experience, bone weapons, and good die rolls, we once again prevailed. Two of us got up and cheered. We high fived. We drank. It was becoming clear that this game was elating in ways that we couldn’t quite explain.
Loaded with fresh new resources (pelts, teeth, a golden mane), we headed back to our fellow survivors and our second Settlement Phase.
This time, before we arrived home, we encountered a giant stone head with a gaping maw. Entering the maw a survivor risked death, but had the opportunity to receive a boon. Messiah, the brash woman that she is, dashed inside the gaping stone mouth and emerged stronger. Seeing as how Messiah seemed untouched, Maia stripped down and rushed inside, hoping to also claim a gift. To Narcisse’s horror (Maia was her character), the stone mouth snapped shut and swallowed her whole. And just like that, one of our first survivors was gone.
The following morning over breakfast, we couldn’t stop talking about this insane game. We were sort of scarred and curious …and bewildered?! A few days later, after vowing never to play again cause it was too damn depressing, emails began flying back and forth that read something like: “When are we playing again?” and “Are we really doing this?” We were clearly hooked by the disastrous horror that is this game. So much so that only after two sessions, Narcisse went out and bought expansions.
Over the course of another weekend, we encountered a monstrous villain named the Butcher, an enigmatic Hooded Knight who bestowed a cursed sword upon Danikin, and witnessed the birth of a star child (aptly and ironically born from Messiah’s womb). Fathers slept with their daughters and a woman named A’lissaan was elevated to Brood Mother. You can just imagine what went on in the name of survival.
Common out of game remarks tended to be along the themes of “Who THINKS of these things?” and “How masochistic are we, that we cannot wait to play again?”
To date, we are five seasons into a thirty-plus season campaign. We have family lines and a sense of purpose. The story that is unfolding is unique for us, driven in equal measures by random chance and our twisted sense of humor. It is already an epic tale, and we cannot wait to find out what happens next.
Despite our successes against overwhelming odds, there continues to be an immutable sense of dread. All we know for certain is that the horrors we have seen are only the beginning and that death awaits us all.
We stand at the boundary of our home, the point where the light from the lanterns heaped in the center of Fondler’s Quarry fades and the Darkness begins. The cursed sword weighs heavy upon my shoulder, but not as heavy as the responsibility it represents. I am not alone in that feeling. It is not dying that we fear, it is failure. Our lives here are tenuous at best. I turn to wave at my daughter; she smiles and lifts our baby’s hand to wave back. My heart skips, it is for them I hunt, it is for them that I strive to be strong. My attention is called away when Drax laughs; it is an unsettling, quiet sound, full of menace and anticipation. He is caressing his giant cleaver again. Messiah, mother of our greatest progeny, consults with Traug, our best tracker. Shoulder to shoulder, they gaze out into the silent black. Without a word, Traug raises his fiery hand and points. As if sensing his gesture, a grotesque screech comes to us from the void. Our Hunt begins once more.
TO BE CONTINUED….