Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
This is what I say out loud. I’ll mutter things from time to time. But this I say. Out loud enough that the cat mewls because he thinks I’m talking to him.
Yes, I tell him.
The best peak moments are in games that also have the lowest bleak moments. Kingdom Death: Monster is nothing if not bleak. It will test your willingness to subject yourself to the ruthless whims of the random number gods. You will roll Blood Geysers, Exploding Heads, leprosy, and two 1’s when you only need one of them to be a 3 or higher, so your population drops because a woman just died in childbirth. It exists to kill you so that you’ll be elated during moments when it doesn’t.
It’s an oppressive summer. The heat wave keeps my main survivor from going on this hunt. She had suffered heat stroke because she was wearing heavy armor, made from the fur of White Lions we’d killed. Inappropriate attire during a heat wave, which is what I drew for this year’s event card. And we’d just been bloodied by The Butcher, so this expedition consists of a couple of lightweights and a total rookie. The rookie’s character sheet is clean and new. You can tell a Kingdom Death veteran by the character sheet. It will be smudged with the erase marks of lost and recovered armor, sanity, injuries.
So rather than throw this expedition at anything too difficult, they set out to hunt a level one Screaming Antelope. Now Screaming Antelopes are no joke. They can get awful ornery, and the trick to taking them down is keeping up with them. When fighting a lion, you just have to bear up under the flurry of attacks. But antelope hunting seems to mostly involve not getting knocked over when you try to stab, poke, or slash it. At level one, at least. When I’m putting together AI decks for a Screaming Antelope, I get a glimpse of how different they’ll be at higher levels. Turns out the gaping crevice in the antelope’s belly isn’t just a random opening.
The journey leading up to a battle can be just a formality. Roll a few random events. Hope nothing too dire happens. Maybe come out ahead with something helpful. Pick some herbs. Send someone down into a mine to hunt for iron. But sometimes the journey — called the “hunt phase” to distinguish it from the “showdown phase”, where the blade meets the meat — can change your plans, and not always for the worse. On our first hunt against a Screaming Antelope, we got lucky and ambushed it. That means we got to set up the board however the heck we wanted, and then we got to go first. We put the antelope in a corner and gave everyone a free turn to whale away at its blind spot. We kept the healing herbs it grazes all the way across the board. It made for an easy fight. Well, easier than the later ones would be. But that’s what a lucky hunt phase can do.
Hunt phases can also mess you up. The first random event on this hunt phase is a dead antelope. It’s just lying there, dead, and it’s got stuff on it we can harvest. But to loot the dead antelope, we have to risk being bushwhacked by the lion that killed it. Roll a d10. On a 7 or higher…well, it’s best not to think about it. Basically, a really bad situation happens involving the lion that killed the antelope. But I really want those resources. That’s the reason I’m out here. To get resources. To get hides to get everyone fitted with leather armor. Risk is part of any expedition. Don’t overthink it. Just take the loot — a beetle we can use for cooking and some hides, which are exactly what we need — and roll the die real quick.
Monsters in Kingdom Death: Monster are level one, level two, or level three. Each level is increasingly tough, increasingly fast, increasingly dangerous. I’m not ready for level two of anything yet. My survivors don’t have the weapons to inflict enough damage, much less the armor to withstand the damage they’d take. So it’s just level one for me. But the Dead Antelope card has just changed that. If you roll a 7 or higher — say, a 9, for instance — instead of continuing the hunt for a Screaming Antelope, you immediately enter combat with a White Lion that is one level higher than your quarry. I now have to fight a level two White Lion and I have to do it without my main character. She got heat stroke, replacements set out instead, they went poking around a dead carcass, and now they’re fighting a predator well above their pay grade.
Higher level monsters roll more dice when they attack. They inflict more damage when they hit. They move farther. It takes more wounds to kill them because their AI decks have more cards. More of those cards are advanced attacks instead of basic attacks. Sometimes higher level monsters come into play with inherent abilities. For instance, a level two White Lion has Cunning. This is an AI card that determines his behavior. It is never discarded. Cunning is a permanent characteristic of any White Lion above level one. A level one White Lion is never Cunning. A level two or three White Lion is always Cunning. So what is Cunning?
It means that when the lion ends his turn, he will automatically Grab. Grab is an ability that targets an adjacent character. The monster uses his full movement to get as far away from all the survivors as he can, and once he’s moved, the Grabee is laid prone in front of the lion so as to miss her next turn. The lion is disabling its prey and carrying it off. You ever see a cat with a cat toy? It’s like that. How cunning.
I’ve had to deal with Grab previously. It comes up on some AI cards. You have to be ready to jump out of the way or hope the lion’s Grab attack misses. But now Cunning is in effect every single turn. Furthermore, it’s not part of an attack that can be dodged. It just happens. There is no avoiding it. If you don’t have ranged weapons to deal with a Cunning lion, you’re in trouble.
We’ve got a couple of ranged weapons, but they’re not very effective. The new girl has a spear that can reach across one tile — she borrowed it from the character recovering from heat stroke — so she can attack the lion from outside his Grab radius. But that won’t stop the lion from running at her anyway, where his Cunning Grab will affect her just as much as it would affect someone without a spear. One of the lightweights has a bow, but it’s not a very effective bow. At this point in our technology, bows are Cumbersome. That’s the name of the keyword that specifies you can’t use it without forgoing all movement that turn. Cumbersome. To fire his bow, he can’t move that turn. It was comical watching him running after an antelope. By the time he’d stopped to fire, the antelope had just run off again. He spent most of the battle hoping the antelope would run toward him so he could take a shot.
But even with a spear and bow, these guys aren’t ready for a level two White Lion. I spend a few minutes going through the manual to see if there’s any rule about fleeing an encounter. My guess is there isn’t, at least at this point in the game. I’m right. And there’s no clock to run out. An encounter continues until the monster is dead, or all the survivors are dead. And given the experience level of my survivors, their equipment, and the lion’s boosted power, I know which one I’m betting on.
Monsters go first, so you draw an AI card from their deck and resolve it. The lion’s first card is Ground Fighting. It means the lion rolls over and waits to be attacked, at which point it will then freak out with a heavy counterattack. But Ground Fighting lasts as long as you want, provided you don’t hurt the lion. Until you attack, and until that attack inflicts a wound or puts you adjacent to the lion, you have all the time in the world. So we take our sweet time. We harvest herbs (the die roll nets us…one healing plant), poke through the dead antelope that got us here in the first place, which is now a terrain feature (the die roll nets us…nothing), and then get into position. Laszlo is going to fire his bow, which will cancel the Ground Fighting card. Brunnhilde, Sigmund, and Shiva are then poised to attack the lion’s blind spot. It sits patiently while we get into position, watching us, probably unconcerned with the cavorting about of these peculiar small antelopes who have yet to show any aggression.
And, sure, we get in a few hits. But then the Ground Fighting gives way to the rest of his AI cards and the battle begins. The Cunning is absolutely brutal. The Grab pulls us apart. The lion drags first one character away, then another. He’s as fast as an antelope. He moves seven tiles. We only move five. You do the math. He’s kiting us.
Playing out this battle round by round is kind of a formality. I’m clearly outclassed, and even though the Ground Fighting card was a helpful early advantage, it’s not going to be enough. I just can’t hold out against an automatic and unavoidable attack every turn that incapacitates one character and scatters my party. This will happen every single time the lion ends his turn adjacent to someone. And given that the lion is aggressive, no matter how much I try to stay out of his reach with the bow and spear, when it’s his turn to act, he closes the distance to attack. Thus, at the end of his turn, after his attack, he’s adjacent to one of my characters. Cunning kicks in. The Grab is automatic. Someone is dragged off and knocked down so that he loses his next turn. This fight is going to end with all my characters being dead. What do I care how it plays out when the end result is the same? A party wipe.
At this point, I’m pondering the implications of losing all my characters. I guess it’s a good thing my most advanced character, Persephone, is back home recovering from heat stroke. She’ll miss the slaughter. She’ll be like the guy who missed his flight and then learned the flight crashed into the sea and everyone died. She’ll have been saved by the oppressive summer. I’ll have to start brand new characters, but with her at the forefront, it won’t be so bad. And luckily, you don’t lose your equipment when characters die. It’s painful enough losing your characters. Losing the equipment you’ve carefully collected would be a bit much, even for Kingdom Death: Monster.
But I’m still playing out the battle. I guess I’m enjoying how cinematic it is. How it’s interactive. How actions and reactions ping-pong back and forth instead of the usual “I go, they go, I go, they go” two-step drumbeat of most tactical combat. How unexpected twists can happen, even though they’re mostly in the lion’s favor. I know from my earlier fights there’s a card in the hit location deck that will null the lion’s Grab ability. I think it’s the Strange Hand card? But even if I draw it, I need to roll a critical hit. I need the right draw from a deck of fifteen hit location cards and then the right roll on a d10. Basically a 1 in 10 chance during a 1 in 15 chance. I’m holding out for that. Doing some quick math, I estimate that’s, let’s see…1 plus 1 is 2 and 10 plus 15 is 25, so that’s a 2 in 25 chance. Doing some more math, that’s a 1 in 12.5 chance. I can do that. I’ve rolled 1 on a d12 before. Being bad at math can be a real morale boost.
And sure enough, Laszlo fires his bow and draws the Strange Hand! I’m briefly excited, but reading the card, I see I was mistaken. There’s nothing on the card about a critical hit on a Strange Hand nulling Grab. It just has language about affecting certain cards the lion might draw later. But his Grab isn’t from a card the lion draws. It’s a permanent effect in play. I must have been thinking of something else. Besides, I would have needed a critical hit and Laszlo isn’t even good at non-critical hits. He suffers from a Gaping Chest Wound — that’s the name of the permanent affliction he got while fighting The Butcher — that saps his strength and reduces his chance of doing damage. For a critical hit, he needs to roll a perfect 10, called a Lantern because the tens on the d10s are lantern icons. Laszlo rolls a 2. The Strange Hand isn’t severed and even if it had been, it wouldn’t have helped. It isn’t even damaged. Laszlo’s arrow bounces off the lion’s hide like a foam dart fired from a Nerf gun.
So as I’m playing out the battle, considering how to dole out everyone’s equipment to the next group of survivors, the new girl with the spear scores a hit. Her name is Shiva. She learned a secret fighting art called Red Fist when she accidentally shattered a magic lantern. Red Fist helps everyone hit harder. Except Laszlo. It offsets his Gaping Chest Wound, so he just hits normally. For Shiva’s spear hit, she draws a location card for the lion called Beast’s Paw. The card stipulates that if the attack whiffs, the lion gets a free counterattack that will inflict bonus damage to whomever had the temerity to attack the lion’s paw. Bad news for Shiva.
But then there’s the separate text that will supercede everything if I roll a critical hit. “Your attack destroys the White Lion’s foot,” the text reads. “It loses its leverage. -1 Movement. Persistent injury — Broken Foot. Ignore the effects of Grab.”
“Ignore the effects of Grab”? That’s the card I need! And Shiva just drew it! But to do damage to the paw, she needs to roll above the damage threshold. And to effect a critical hit, well, that requires a Lantern. A natural ten. I’ll be happy if she just gets a ding in, and avoids the counterattack. This will require…let’s see, the lion’s toughness is 10. The spear hits with a force of 3 so I need to roll a 7 or higher. Shiva’s strength bonus from Red Fist is +1 so I need to roll a 6 or higher. A 50% chance to ding the lion for one wound. And a 10% chance to disable the Grab effect and maybe keep this from being a drawn-out party wipe.
I’ve already spoiled what happened, but you can also infer what happened from the fact that I’m writing this. After playing several rounds assuming I was just playing out the deaths of four characters who got into an unlucky situation and found themselves punching above their weight — way above their weight — the right pieces fell into place to give them a fighting chance. Victory, jaws of defeat, all that. You don’t remember the times you didn’t roll a 1 or a 10. But you remember the times you did. And you especially remember the times you did when it was exactly what you needed to avoid certain failure.
Yes, I tell my cat again. Yes. I show him the die with the lantern face. He sniffs it thinking I’m holding out a piece of food. I’m not. I almost never am, but that doesn’t stop him from checking anyway. He’s unimpressed, but he was probably rooting for the lion anyway. He continues to act unimpressed after we destroy the lion’s paw, and then proceed to shatter its knee, rip off its jaw, and even sever its testicles before killing it. We have killed a level two White Lion.
Next: Kingdom Death: Survival
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