Exploring the Disturbingly Beautiful World of Kingdom Death: Monster

Four strangers wake up on a plain covered in stone-like faces, with a giant White Lion standing in front of them. These survivors have no memories, no clothing, and no weapons, nothing to protect them from the fierce beast that lumbers towards them save for a lantern and a single cracked shard of stone, torn from the ground in desperation. As the White Lion approaches, flexing its large human-like paws, the survivors come together, hoping to stave off the beast and make their first unsteady steps towards building a civilization in a dark and unforgiving world. This is the world of Kingdom Death: Monster, one of the most acclaimed board games available today.

Created by Adam Poots, Kingdom Death: Monster is a unique cooperative game that balances civilization-building, resource management, and combat. Players slowly build a community over the course of 30 "Lantern Years", learning new innovations like language and sculpting while also collecting resources to build new weapons and armor. These resources are usually collected on hunts, in which a party of four survivors stalk a wild beast and then fight it, hoping to survive both random threats encountered while tracking the beast as well as the monster's unique capabilities. In addition to traditional resources like hide or sinew, the survivors themselves are perhaps the game's most valuable resource. As a survivor grows in experience, they gain more strength and fighting abilities, which can makes them more important to their settlement. However, the world of Kingdom Death: Monster is unforgiving, and a random event or a poor hunt could leave that Survivor with a permanent injury or dead, leaving the community vulnerable in future encounters. And if a settlement runs short on Survivors, the players lose and have to start over with a new group of survivors and no resources.

The world of Kingdom Death: Monster is an incredibly dark one, filled with unspeakable horrors at every turn. A Survivor's only mental defense against the oppressive terror of the world is their own insanity, which provides a cushion of detachment from simply going mad and wandering off into the darkness, never to return. But while the "boutique horror" game is one of the more brutal board games available today, it's also one of the most beautiful. In addition to hundreds of pieces of fantastic artwork, a central feature of the game is its intricately detailed miniatures, depicting both the Survivors as they cobble together new armor and weapons and the terrifying creatures that threaten them at every turn.

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(Photo: Kingdom Death)

Although there's nothing like Kingdom Death: Monster on the market, the game's origins was swayed by traditional fantasy. Creator Adam Poots noted to ComicBook.com at Gen Con earlier this month that the game is a "reverse homage" to the fantasy genre in that it's a game without a history embedded in its storytelling. "Kingdom Death is a world that doesn't have a human history," Poots explained. "I had to think, well why doesn't it have a human history? What is going on there that makes it so settlements cease to exist? Kingdoms don't exist long enough to create a history, so is something behind the scenes that's making them disappear?"

The monsters of Kingdom Death: Monster are grotesque, with a heavy emphasis on body horror. Many of the monsters have some vestige of humanity in them, whether it's a face embedded into its mouth, or human hands clasped together to make up its backs. That's a deliberate choice, according to Poots, since the game is all about the relationship between the monsters and humans. When designing monsters, Poots notes that he asks why these organisms exist, and tosses in some additional uncertainty about the differences between the creatures and the Survivors. "Are the humans monsters? Are the monsters humans?" he said, when we pointed out the numerous human features present in many of the monsters.

Every piece of Kingdom Death: Monster is incredibly high quality, which is why the game has attracted a dedicated following despite its rather steep entry cost. The core game costs $400, and individual expansions range in price from $60 to $100. Many backers of the game came from Kingdom Death's record-breaking Kickstarter, which raised over $12 million dollars back in 2016. Kingdom Death is still fulfilling the Kickstarter nearly three years later, in part because Poots refuses to compromise on making the best game possible. His vision for Kingdom Death continues to expand, which leads to more monsters, more expansions, and more mechanics being added to future plans. His most recent Kickstarter update noted that a planned box of small pieces of gameplay became a full-fledged expansion with new game mechanics and innovations, which has resulted in the planned Wave 3 content being delayed by a year.

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(Photo: Kingdom Death)

"I set out to just make a thing that I loved, and I wanted to make it the best I could," Poots said, when asked about the game's meticulous detail. "We just kept developing the game more - playtesting it more, and putting more artwork in. It kept expanding and expanding to the point where it was basically four times what we initially expected we'd do." The end result was a 21 pound box of gaming equipment that has drawn in an continuously growing fanbase.

Neither the price nor the acknowledgement that new content won't be rushed has dented Kingdom Death's popularity. The game's booth at Gen Con had a continuous long line during the four day convention, with tables filled of player's testing out new monsters (like the hideous Frogdog) or admiring a full-sized version of the Lion Knight, one of the many threats that stalk the Plain of Faces, or the many sculpture-like miniatures on display. The game also boasts an 8.8 ranking on BoardGameGeek.com, making it one of the top-rated games on the board game site.

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Kingdom Death: Monster likely isn't for everyone, but it's easy to see why fans get drawn into its hauntingly captivating world. From the strange monsters to the gorgeous artwork, everything about Kingdom Death: Monster is unique. It's a deadly and uncompromising game that you'll want to play again and again, forging new stories and lamenting over lost Survivors each time.

You can check out the horrifying world of Kingdom Death: Monster on its website. The core game and various expansions are available on the Kingdom Death store.