Thursday, October 15, 2015

Kingdom Death: Monster - Gameplay Review

I mentioned during my review of the game box contents of Kingdom Death: Monster (KD:M) that I wasn't comfortable making any strong statements about how the game plays until I had actually sat down and experienced it myself.

Thankfully, it didn't take very long to get a chance to play the game. I was able to sit down with a friend of mine recently and take the game for a test spin (each of us controlling 2 survivors). 

The short review is: KD:M plays as good as it looks. Its a very fun, engaging co-operative game that has surprising depth, excellent design, and seems to have plenty of replay value just with the core game set (with plenty of expansions coming as a result of the success of the Kickstarter). The total package of the game and the supplemental materials makes KD:M one of the absolute best products I've encountered in all of my nerd gaming years.

Long review after the break.

The Setup:
One of my bigger concerns with the playability of KD:M is how much time would be spent just shuffling around gaming supplies. The game constantly rotates between three separate phases, all of which require a different gaming board/aide on the table (and different cards handy); I was worried that having to set up then tear down different board/model/card/etc configurations would cause the game to drag.

I am happy to report that does not seem to be an issue at all.

Someone behind KD:M deserves special praise for how the Settlement, Hunt, and Showdown boards were designed. The way the boards work - the Settlement and Hunt boards are on the same cardboard (one on each side) that folds up for easy storage, while the Showdown board folds into thirds to be fairly compact - makes it very easy to flip from the Settlement phase to the Hunt phase, then get the Hunt board out of the way for the Showdown board, which is then easy to move out of the way for the Settlement board, etc, etc.

It was a little slow going at first once we were figuring out the rhythm, but once we figured out the best/easiest way to fold, unfold, and store the different game boards, we were able to transition between phases in a matter of minutes. Moreover, the time spent setting up each phase is roughly proportional to the time it takes to complete: the Settlement phase is the fastest to set up and resolve, the Showdown phase is the most time consuming, and the Hunt phase is somewhere in the middle (though that specific bit may change as you go on more difficult hunts, or roll different types of Hunt Events as you travel).

The one thing that does feel like a bit of a drag on time is how you need to randomly build various decks/sets of cards at different times during set up. It isn't a terribly complex process - the most time consuming one is probably building the monster AI decks, and even that is clearly spelled out - but it does take someone dedicated to the task a minute or two to complete. This is where having multiple people working on set up is a huge help: while one person is building the AI deck, someone else can be setting up whatever terrain is on the board, while another person can be getting miniatures together, etc. 

Overall, setup and tear down worked out much more smoothly than I expected. Executed poorly, these transitions could have been one of those "great idea, terrible in execution" moments; it would have been an absolute momentum killer. As is, the transitions are relatively quick and effortless, which gives the players that much more time to spend actually playing the game (and enjoying the dynamic that having the three different phases brings to the game).

The Storage:
Special note needs to be made of the storage provided by the KD:M boxed set. Namely, that it gives you tons and tons of it. 

There are many more spots for storing things than there are things to store. Part of this is future proofing - I'm sure a good chunk of that extra space is supposed to be filled by expansion materials - and part of it is the designer providing you with plenty of space to store groups of cards specific to your campaign. Because you have so much storage, it is easy to store, for example, your Settlement's specific set of available Innovation cards (along with any you've chosen), the gear you've all acquired, the things you've built in your settlement, etc, making it very easy to put a campaign down and pick it back up at another time.

I was also very impressed to discover that the game comes with its own card dividers, making it very easy to store all of the cards while keeping the different groups separate. You get a set of dividers for each type of card - i.e. the bigger cards used for monsters, resources, etc, and the smaller cards used for equipment - and they go a long way towards keeping everything sorted. 

The dividers also make it easy to find different card sets during play, so you can just keep everything in the box and grab it (or return it) as necessary. That keeps the clutter down on the game board significantly, and it is another aspect of the game's design that makes transitioning between the different phases relatively quick and painless.

The Combat:
As suspected, the combat in KD:M is pretty straightforward - roll dice, flip cards - but is very fun.

The core combat rules are simple enough to communicate and remember that you can jump right in and be fine - the whole of combat boils down to: pick attack, roll dice, determine hit location. The specifics of how you resolve combat varies based on if it is a monster or a survivor attacking, but the flow remains the same.

The process of making attacks is super easy, and is the same for monsters and survivors (this is important because players each take turns controlling the monster, so monster combat needs to be accessible):

 - Every weapon/attack has a Speed stat. That is the number of dice you roll to determine the number of times you successfully hit. Ex. a weapon/attack with Speed 2 would roll 2d10 when determining the number of hits.

 - Every weapon/attack also has an Accuracy stat. That is the number you need to roll on your attack dice (generated based on the Speed of the attack/weapon) in order to successfully strike your target. Ex. a weapon with Speed 2, Accuracy 7+ would roll 2d10 when attacking, with each result of a 7+ being a successful hit.

We found this system to be simple and straightforward, and it being the same for both monsters and survivors was a very, very smart move on the part of the game designers.

Things fork is when it comes to applying damage from attacks.

Damaging Survivors
For monsters attacking survivors, every attack that hits does damage (unless it is cancelled out by armor, Survival points, etc). That damage value is listed for the attack - ex. a monster attack would read as something like Speed 1, Accuracy 3+, Damage 2 - and that is the damage applied to the survivor for each hit.

Damage locations for survivors are determined by rolling special d6s that have the hit locations printed on them (one die face for each location). You roll a damage location for each hit suffered by a monster attack, and apply damage from that attack to that location.

Using the previous monster attack as a continued example: assuming the one attack made by the monster using that attack profile hit (3+ on 1d10), you would next roll a hit location for that attack and apply 2 damage to that hit location for the unfortunate survivor that ate the attack.

As another example (and something we misplayed): if the monsters attack was instead Speed 2, Accuracy 3+, Damage 2, you would still roll 2d10 to determine the number of hits (looking for 3+s). You would then roll a hit location for each successful hit and apply 2 damage to each of those locations (such an attack would shred any survivor unfortunate enough to get caught in it, at least early on).

While that sounds a little complicated (and it can initially be tricky to keep all the numbers straight and apply them properly), it quickly becomes second nature and is very simple and fast to resolve in practice.

What was most surprising to us initially was the fact that monsters don't need to roll to damage the survivors. This is different from the majority of games but makes perfect sense in the context of a harsh setting like KD:M - every attack is dangerous (especially since the survivors don't have a lot of damage boxes to work with) so combat is always high stakes for the survivors.

Damaging Monsters
For survivors attacking monsters, more dice are involved, and some random card flips factor in as well.

When a survivor successfully attacks a monster, you flip one card off of the Hit Location card deck for each hit the attack generated. Ex. two hits = two locations flipped.

The survivor then works through those hit locations by picking a hit location, rolling to wound that location, resolving any effects from success or failure to cause damage, then doing the same for each hit location generated.

Unlike monsters, survivors have to roll dice to determine if damage is applied. Once again, this makes sense in the setting: the survivors are always fighting an uphill battle against creatures inherently stronger than they are, so their success at inflicting damage is going to come down to equipment, experience, and luck.

Damage is determined by rolling 1d10, adding any applicable Strength bonuses and penalties (at the very least, weapons give you a Strength bonus, so you'll usually have at least a +1 to this) and trying to meet or exceed the Toughness stat of the monster.

The other thing that makes rolling dice for damage interesting on the part of the survivors is that they - unlike monsters - can inflict critical wounds. Some monster hit locations have a critical wound entry on them and critically wounding the monster (at base, rolling a natural '10' on a wound roll, though equipment and stat bonuses can make it easier to get critical wounds) results in a more elaborate result. This is usually to the benefit of the survivors, as these critical wounds can give them extra resources from the fight (used when making equipment/upgrading the settlement), inhibit the monster in future rounds, or even grant the survivor a permanent stat bonus.

AI Cards and Damaging Monsters
What makes damaging monsters especially interesting in KD:M is that (for the most part) monsters do not have damage boxes or wound tracks as they would in other games. Instead, the damage a monster takes is tracked by removing cards from its AI deck (the random suite of cards you build for each fight that determines what the monster does each turn).

This an especially interesting way to track damage, for a few reasons:

1) It allows monsters to easily be scaled up (or down) in health as necessary.

2) It makes it very, very easy to track monster health during the fight.

3) It changes the behavior of the monster as the fight goes on. This can make a fight harder (if a monster is reduced to a few of its most potent attacks that it repeats over and over) or easier (when a monster is reduced to just its basic attack), and there is no way to tell how it is going to play out. The AI deck is randomly generated before each fight, and the cards are shuffled often enough that you won't know which ones are going out of the deck at any given time.

That last point is an important one, as it illustrates one of the small but important ways that no two fights in KD:M are going to play out the same way (even when building fights from the same pool of options). The variance of the AI deck, when wounds happen, and how cards are removed all but ensure that no two fights will wind down the same way.

The Hit Location Deck
The other big source of variance - and the thing I was most impressed by - is the Hit Location deck.

When I first heard about the Hit Location deck, I thought it was a neat idea. After seeing it in play, I'm deeply impressed by what it adds to the game.

There are three factors at play that make the Hit Location cards such an effective mechanic:

1) Failure states and Reactions - some locations have penalties for failing to wound that location (adding another layer of danger and tension to the fights), and some locations have Reactions, which may or may not go off regardless of if you wound or not. The Reactions keep things really interesting; getting certain ones at key times can change the shape of a fight dramatically. And all that is happening as part of a regular 'ol attack.

2) Trap cards - Each monster has a couple of cards in their Hit Location deck which are labeled as Trap cards. When you reveal one of those cards as part of the "attack-hit-wound" cycle, you done screwed up: a Trap card cancels all hits the monster suffered from that attack and allows the monster to immediately do something unpleasant (usually at least attacking the survivor that triggered it) while also denying the most powerful tools survivors have to mitigate attack damage.

These Trap cards add a tremendous sense of danger to each attack, and they do a lot to keep everyone awake during combat rounds. It also keeps the survivors on their toes; an otherwise successful round of attacks can turn on you in an instant, so you can never feel too secure in how your turn is playing out.

3) Randomness - While all the Hit Location cards are in the deck to start the encounter, the deck is shuffled to randomize the order. You never really know where your next attack is going to hit or what the consequences are going to be. This keeps combat fresh and interesting, even after fighting the same monster type a few times (very important, as it seems like you'll be fighting some of these critters a bunch).

The Hit Location deck, combined with the AI deck, creates a board game combat experience I have never experienced before. It is a very fast, fluid, fun system that still manages to preserve the feel of "us vs. a terrible monster" while keeping everything mechanically co-op. It is very impressive.

The Hunt:
Our experiences with the Hunt Phase of the game are probably relatively shallow; we only ever hunted the level 1 White Lion, and only did it twice. Those hunts seem all but guaranteed to result in a Showdown phase, so we didn't get a chance to experience what a really long, precarious Hunt Phase is like.

That said, I think it is interesting that the Hunt Phase can result in failure at all. It adds another element of risk and danger to the game cycle, and it once again keeps players engaged: you are not guaranteed to get a chance to fight whatever you're hunting that year, so you better pay attention and be ready to adapt to whatever comes up.

The way the Hunt Phase plays out is very straightforward: move along the track, resolving random events as you go, until you either hit the monster or fail to catch it (or possibly die in the wilds, though I'm not sure how likely that is).

This phase plays out pretty quickly - most of the time is spent in set up and reading off the cards/events - and is quite entertaining. The random events are pretty great: they are usually darkly entertaining, they can inflict all kinds of crazy maladies or boons on your survivors, and there are enough of them that you likely won't get bored with them for awhile (especially since each hunt target adds its own events to the pool).

The Settlement:
Like the Hunt Phase, the Settlement Phase is a pretty quick one to resolve. This is also the most regimented of all the Phases, with each Settlement Phase being resolved as a series of steps that you walk through.

The first several of those steps are fairly rigid, and mostly book keeping: heal the returning survivors, generate Endeavors (the resources you spend to improve your Settlement), resolve yearly events, resolve random events, etc.

The rest of the phase plays out similar to something like X-Com: your group decides how they want to spend their resources to upgrade the Settlement, build equipment, or research new developments. There are a lot of options available at this stage, and most of your time in the Settlement Phase is likely going to be spent here. It is also one of the most satisfying parts of the gaming cycle, as it is when you get shiny upgrades and one of the most likely sources of character upgrades, which are always satisfying.

After you've upgraded everything, you pick a new hunt target, gear up, and head out for another cycle Unless of course there is a Nemesis Encounter at your door; then you gear up and get ready to fight a particularly nasty critter (no Hunt Phase, skip right to the Showdown and pray!)

The Settlement Phase, I think unsurprisingly, ends up being the most satisfying part of the in-game year cycle. It is the safest phase for your survivors (very, very relatively speaking), it is where you see the most direct growth in terms of power and capabilities of your group, and it is where you get the most tangible rewards. Much like how it would work in the actual world, the Settlement Phase is an invigorating respite from the harshness of the Hunt Phase and the danger of the Showdown Phase.

Although it is probably the least exciting of the three phases, that is precisely what makes it so necessary. Otherwise, everyone would probably become completely numb to the harshness of the other phases and tap out of the game entirely.

Final Thoughts:
Having played KD:M for a couple of game cycles now, I am very impressed with how well it all comes together.

Each of the phases bring something unique and interesting to the game, while also feeling like natural abstractions of how the survivors would attempt to eke out an existence in such a harsh world. The rules have enough randomness to keep things from becoming too stale, while also being based on enough strategy and sound reasoning so as to consistently reward players for making good decisions. And, most importantly, it is a helluva lot of fun to play.

I said before that I thought KD:M was well worth the investment just for the models it contains, and the overall quality of the product. After playing it, I will happily add that the board game aspect of KD:M is also very strong, making it an extremely worthwhile purchase overall.

I'm very much looking forward to playing this more, this time with the rest of my usual gaming group. Hopefully we'll be able to get started sometime soon. If I get the chance, I may share their adventures and misfortunes on here.

As always, thanks very much for reading!

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