“Once upon a time, there was a place of carved stone faces. A man with a lantern lay sleeping a dreamless sleep. The man knew nothing.
“One day, the man woke up. He rubbed the dried ink caked over his eyes and opened them. Around him, he saw other people stirring, and beyond, a horizon of broken bones.
“A woman approached the man with the lantern. Her soft hand reached out to him. They had no words. They were a mystery to each other.
“Suddenly, a monster emerged from the darkness, its eyes wild with hunger. It attacked.
“The people were no match for the monster. It tore their flesh and crushed their bones beneath its teeth. Some, it devoured whole.
“Overcome with terror and grief, the man with the lantern collapsed to the ground. Cold stone noses pushed into his side. There was no escape.”
So begins the other massive cooperative tabletop/RPG game dominating BGG and Kickstarter, Kingdom Death: Monster. Recently I had a chance to try it. Although it has elements in common with Gloomhaven (which I wrote about a month ago) it provides quite a different gaming experience. Since both have Kickstarter reprints happening, and most people won’t have time or money to devote to both, I thought it might be instructive to compare the two in case you’re looking to back one.
Components-wise, KD:M is stunning. The game comes with dozens of minis (many many more available as expansions) which are exquisite-looking and begging to be painted. The rulebook is gorgeous, with artwork throughout and (from what I can see) well laid-out and organized. There are a ton of different kinds of cards, from components to innovations to buildings, and the illustrations are beautiful without making the text hard to read.
As you might be able to glean from the introduction, the world of KD:M (for short) has an explicitly “nightmare horror”—not quite Lovecraft/Cthulhu, but definitely not your standard Tolkien/Leiber trope either. The campaign centres around a settlement which you found in your first session, and your job is to maintain and expand that settlement over a series of “lantern years” (which from what I could deduce actually could be decades or even generations) until you uncover the ultimate secret of your existence in a final showdown with the game’s mega-boss, The Watcher.
From session to session you will be taking the role of different “Survivors” (ie, members of your settlement), going out to forage and stalk beasties. The scraps and spoils from these expeditions will be used to build new buildings and craft better gear, and so on and so forth. Since Survivors have a nasty habit of not actually surviving, you will regularly be taking on new and different roles as the campaign progresses. Managing the pool of Survivors in your settlement is a key element in the game.
Each lantern year consists of three phases. In the Settlement Phase, you’re actually returning from the previous fight, dealing with (usually) nasty random events, crafting new stuff, and expending Endeavours (ie actions) to do things, including having “Intimacy” which is known to produce babies (but also can kill the mother in childbirth). You also get to “Innovate”, discovering new techs and, when your Settlement reaches certain sizes, choosing new social policies. Finally, you decide which Survivors will be going out to adventure, what kit they will be taking, and (usually) what they (as a group) will be hunting.
In the Hunt Phase, you approach your prey on a stylized track (which reminded me of En Garde or BattleCon: Devastation of the Indines). Entering each new space involves turning over and resolving encounter card (some generic, some specific to the creature you’re hunting) and usually involves making a choice and rolling a die, with all kindsa mixed results.
When you reach the prey’s space on the Hunt track, you move to the Showdown Phase, which plays out on your usual tactical grid, except this one is huge, darkly beautiful, and somewhat randomly set up with various scenario-specific terrain and/or potential loot opportunities.
The combat system is both card- and dice-driven. Monster behaviour is driven by a deck of AI cards unique to that monster. In an interesting twist, that AI deck also acts as the monster’s life-support; damage to the monster tosses cards from the deck, making it “dumber”, and when the cards are all gone, so is the monster.
Not that damaging the monster is easy. You roll dice depending on the speed of your weapon, possibly getting some hits; then, for each hit, you draw a card from a Hit Location deck, which not only tells you where you hit but if and how the monster retaliates and what happens if you get a critical hit.
Now when you get hit you can take all sorts of damage, both physical and mental. Weirdly, unlike say in Arkham Horror, insanity provides a shield from mental damage. You can also spend “Survival Points” to react to attacks, buff your attacks, and help other players up if they get Knocked Down. Insta- (and perma-) death is ever-present. But with good teamwork and a healthy helping of Lucky Charms (they’re magically delicious) your Surviving Survivors will knock the critter out for good, pick up the loot, and scamper back to the settlement for the next Settlement Phase.
And so it goes, lantern year after lantern year, until you tick off the final box on your calendar that means it’s time to meet your Watcher, and…
Well, I don’t know what happens. Something good maybe, something bad maybe, something weird definitely.
* * *
And so: you and/or your gaming group loves the idea of a co-operative legacy-style dungeon crawl. You’ve pooled your resources, and are ready to splurge on either Kingdom Death: Monster or Gloomhaven. Which should you buy?
Well, to start with, there is price. The second printing of Gloomhaven will set you back $99, and Kingdom Death Monster 1.5 is $200—neither including shipping. The extra amount you’re paying for with KD:M are the minis; although Gloomhaven comes with minis for its heroes, it’s hard to beat what KD:M’s has to offer, so if assemblin’ and paintin’ is in your wheelhouse, the choice is clear—although at a steeper price tag, of course.
There is no doubt in my mind that both with provide hours and hours and hours and hours of immersive entertainment. Both will give you a chance to create characters that you will nurture and grow and identify with and snuffle a tear when they die or retire. Both will create epic storytelling experiences that you will remember and share.
Your choice will come down to what kind of story you want to tell and how you want to spend your time telling it. Gloomhaven is the more traditional fantasy world. You will be spending most of your time hacking and slashing in pre-constructed scenarios—although there is also the option of randomly-generating dungeons using a separate deck of cards, very clever but I haven’t tried it yet so I don’t know if it’s any good. From time to time you will return to Gloomhaven (the city) to level and gear up, and at certain points you will unlock new character classes which open up new possibilities and strategies, but the fact remains that most of your time and energy will be spent in “tactical mode”. The combat system is elegant but has a steep learning curve; on the other hand, since there is no perma-death (unless you choose to use that optional rule) there is not much to lose by failure since you walk away with XP and gold most of the time. There is randomness but it can be mitigated. Your characters max out at Level 9 so you will have to create new ones from time to time, but you can safely grow attached to your embryonic heroes and nurture them into awesome fighting machines.
Kingdom Death: Monster’s world explicitly promises a nightmare horror experience, which is darker and more sinister than Gloomhaven. There is perma-death, and there is definitely more of a capricious feel to its randomness (horrible things happen a lot with no way to guard against them). But because you are managing a settlement of Survivors, the idea is to absorb these body-blows and deaths stoically and trot out a new Survivor to plug into the breach. Still, if you’re the kind of person who sees red when your beloved character dies suddenly and with no recourse, you may find KD:M hard to take. Combat is more streamlined, and therefore you will be spending almost as much time in your Settlement phases as you will your Showdown phases, which means deciding what new things to craft, what new buildings to build, how and when to use them, and so on. It’s a more “macro” feel, in other words, almost a Civ-like experience (with a touch of…Minecraft?…thrown in?).
So there you have it. How lucky are we that we have the luxury of choosing between two such awesome games? Answer: so, so lucky. Enjoy.