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Subject: Alone in the Dark, a Review of Kingdom Death: Monster. rss

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Scott Sexton
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I'm going to try something a bit different with this review, I'm going to work backwards. Conclusion: I am absolutely smitten with this game, and I think that will be very evident as I share my thoughts about Kingdom Death: Monster (hereinafter KDM). If you can afford a copy and want a solo RPG experience, you won't find a better game.

I'm not going to discuss the quality of components or give a game play summary. All of those are things you can find in other reviews and videos. I want to talk about the game play, specifically what works and doesn't work.

KDM is not a traditional board game. In truth KDM is a robust RPG game system that combines a resource management civ. building exercise with a tactical minis combat game, ALL of which is wrapped up into a campaign system that is filled with story events brimming with player choice and a glut of tables to roll against.

Lets look at what I like:

1- Organic story progression. Typical "story" games have followed the design elements first found in "Tales of the Arabian Nights" where the game gives you a fixed story framework, and the players gradually fill in the story with random adventure passages read from a game book or cards (see also, Agents of SMERSH, Above & Below, and to a certain extent Eldritch Horror.). Another common way of creating a rich narrative in a game is exemplified by "Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective" where you have a fixed narrative that the player navigates, typically through their choices. The first method can produce rather disjointed results and often times the sense of continuity is episodic at best and incoherent at worst. Even though you have an overarching frame to the story, the story episodes feel wholly random and often unrelated, and there is no real character arc or growth. The second method feels far less disjointed, but there is no real progression to the story. Having a character arc or progression wouldn't be possible in this format because a player can uncover story elements in any order they choose. This works fine in games where you aren't interested in character, but are instead trying to solve a puzzle. The player must become a passive observer to the story that unfolds. KDM does something new. It starts with a basic outline of mandatory events that are required to occur, however, in addition to this frame work, a random series of events will fill in the spaces between the mandatory events. The order and outcome of these semi-random events allows for a completely different narrative every game despite the fact that it follows a programmed script.

Further, the results of game play (success or failure in combat, how you develop your characters and settlement) directly effect how both random and mandatory events play out. For example, lets say that I know every game I'm going to need to buy food in Year 8. In some games I may get robbed on the way to the market, sending me down the side path of becoming a murderous vigilante, but in another game I may go to the market only to decide to spend all my money on magic beans, and in yet another game I may decide to stay at home and eat my village elder. What is special here is that even though the story incorporates random events and game play development into a programmed story line, it is scripted in such a way so that the story always feels organic. Characters have natural story arcs (which arise from a combination of events and your game play choices). They live, love, kill, toil, and die. Oh boy do they die (but that is another topic). Story events also "loop" depending on a number of possible input variables. For example, a merchant may come to sell you a cool sword. If you don't have anything to buy it with, they may come back in a few years to try and sell it again; or you can try to steal the sword, only to have the merchant's friends return in a few years wanting to get revenge. The story line events often loop or have consequences that echo throughout the entire campaign. Some of the smallest events (those you randomly come across while you are out on the hunt) are often random (much like those you find in Tales or SMERSH) but the consequences are often designed to scar your characters in such a way that they combo with the bigger story events that unfold. The polish on the story system always feels special and is a quite clever and endearing quality of KDM.

2- Combat is visceral and brutal, but fair. I'm going to say something controversial. KDM is not a hard game. Years of playing JRPGs have taught me that in turn based combat I can spam the attack button to win (assuming I've been grinding and/or min-maxing). This doesn't work in KDM. Combat in KDM demands careful use of terrain, gear, and relative positioning of units. Running up and punching a lion in the face is a great way to have your arm ripped off. The key to winning in any combat situation (regardless of all the dice chucking) is to understand how the enemy AI and hit decks function. If you can exploit the AI's weaknesses better then it exploits yours, combat becomes a more of a chess game and less of a luck fest. Yes, characters are going to be torn up. They'll stack up a number of mental and physical impairments that make them serious liabilities, but combat doesn't feel cheap.

3- Combat is very diverse. The AI and hit locations allow for every different monster in the game to feel VERY different from other baddies you face. I am in AWE at the level of detail and planning that went into the crafting of the various AI & Hit Location decks. It is a VERY robust system that is so incredibly detailed, that I have no idea how a mere mortal could have crafted such a thing, much less do so in a way that felt different from every other monster's deck. It is a marvel of game design and one that truly sets KDM apart from anything else I've ever played.

4- Gathering resources is as much fun as batting around a Pinata filled with sealed packs of Magic cards. As you gather resources in the game (typically during combat or in its aftermath) you draw a series of random cards from an assortment of different resource decks. The feeling you get from landing a critical hit that gives you a random resource is one of pure joy. You get to flip a card. Maybe your card will be awesome, maybe it will just be useful, but rarely will it be disappointing. Gathering resources is simply a joy, and for me, it evokes that same rush I got opening packs of CCGs back in the 1990's.

5- KDM is a game that will make you feel smart. This is no picnic of a game, but once you begin to figure out how the machine works, your battles will be filled with fist-pumping moments of triumph. I have never cheered out loud during any game as much as I have during a good role as I have during my KDM plays. KDM rewards players for coming up with good plans and clever combos, and punishes those not willing to put the brain power in to the game.

6- KDM gives you value in play time. KDM is NOT a short game. I've sunk over a hundred hours into KDM over the past few months, and I've not even begun sifting through the expansions. If KDM is a game that you get into, its one that will demand your attention for months (and years).

7- The interplay of card combos is rich and overwhelmingly deep. You have mental disorders, you have physical impairments, you have special abilities, you have equipment, you have the positioning of equipment on your grid, you have character elemental alignment, you have fighting styles, you have secret fighting styles, you have knowledge/courage abilities, you have weapon proficiency (abilities), you have normal stat development, and so on. Once you start sending your vanilla characters into the world, the world changes them, dramatically, and its up to you to craft their development through story choices and gear usage. The combos of cards and abilities you will string together is so astonishingly deep that your characters inevitably start telling stories of who they are.

8- The story line plays with some of H.P. Lovecraft's themes and ideas in ways that aren't stereotypical. Most of the time when you see people making games that seem to pay homage to Lovecraft it is something that feels a lot like Arkham Horror (thematically so). Most "Lovecraft style" board games seem to think that a Lovecraft theme is a mixture of Elder Gods, the early 20th century detectives, and a high level of difficulty. That is an EXTREMELY SHALLOW understanding of Lovecraft's themes/work, specifically what he called Cosmic Horror. KDM, NAILS many of the aspects of Cosmic Horror without using all the public domain tropes you see in pretty much every Lovecraft game. KDM and its story depict a mostly original setting that is incredibly consistent with the theme's of Lovecraft. In fact, I would venture to say that if Lovecraft were to travel through time and play modern board games, he would be quite vocal in his support of KDM. I would go so far as to say it is perhaps the MOST Lovecraft consistent game ever made. The ONLY place where KDM strays from Lovecraft is in the role a player takes in the game. Players take the role of a guiding force that drives the settlement forward. Effectively, players become a benevolent god guiding their settlement. Lovecraft of course takes the position that no such benevolent gods exist, and at best such a being would be indifferent to the plight of human beings. Aside from that tiny issue, this is a nearly flawless execution of a "Lovecraftian" theme in a board game. I imagine that all of this cannot just be a coincidence on Adam Poot's part, surely, this was part of his vision for the game. Assuming it is intentional, the integration of Lovecraft's ideas/themes without the stereotypical Arkam mythos tacked on is simply genius and worthy of critical study.

9- The rule book is a joy to read. Yes, it has its flaws, but it does a good job of teaching the game in an organic manner and the production quality of the book is quite high (although I am anticipating getting it rebound due to wear).

10- The game deals with psychological damage in very intriguing ways that you don't see in other games. Character's in the game can accrue points of insanity that serve to shield a character's mind against the horrors they encounter on their adventures. If you build up too much insanity, your character is exposed to the attrition provided by the game's many events (ie, they cause more bad things to happen out of battle). If you don't have enough insanity built up, your mind is more likely to shatter and develop severe mental illnesses during battle (typically at the worst possible moment). Part of the brilliance of this game is how it coveys a sense of corrosion and attrition for your characters' mental well being. You may be building powerful warriors by leveling them up on adventures, but the mental toll of grinding them leaves you with a character who's mental health has deteriorated to the point that they have become a liability for your settlement. This game mechanism is prevalent throughout the game and allows the player to experience a sense of the Cosmic Horror that is so integral to the story being told.

Problems-

1- Combat surprises will kick you in the codpiece. There is a "boss" character in the mid-game I spent several years planning for. I had an airtight strategy to take the baddie down, when on the second turn of the Showdown, the boss pulled a card that let him ignore all of my ranged attacks, when I had specifically brought two characters I was counting on having available for ranged attacks. The battle went sideways on me really, really quickly. Instead of a lopsided battle in my favor, the showdown stretched out into a gut-wrenching battle. One could argue that this is a plus to the game (and I do think the tension in combat is awesome), however, there are folks who will have a sour taste in their mouth when cards like this come up. My advice to those folks is to "cheat". Try reading through the AI decks ahead of time so you know what to plan for. I no longer enjoy going into combat completely blind, and am happy to review the enemy decks so I know what to expect from combat.

2- There are a few clunky rules that exist only to add difficulty without furthering the fun or theme of the game. I'm looking specifically at the overly complex rules governing damage rolls. With each damage roll on a hit location, you check your strength against the target's toughness (with modifiers on both sides) plus your roll. Regardless of this equation, you also check to see if you score a critical hit (which is modified by the luck stat). If your roll meets or exceeds 10 after applying modifiers, you score a critical damage hit, BUT if the target has no critical effects, this does nothing. NOTHING. EXCEPT, if you roll a natural 10, then you do score a damage regardless of all other factors. Clear as mud, right? My beef is with the part about the Hit Location Card requiring a critical effect in order to deal damage on a modified critical damage roll is silly. It adds complexity and difficulty for no real reason. It makes the game more fiddly, but there is no thematic pay off and I wish this rule were removed in future printings. It would be far simpler to take the part about the hit location card needing to have a critical effect in order for a luck modified roll to cause damage.

3- The rule book is long and would have benefited greatly from having tabs. While the glossary of rules at the end of the book is very good at serving as a quick reference, you'll find yourself flipping back and forth between rules and story pages quite a bit. This is a book that will take a good bit of a beating.

4- No instructions for constructing minis. This sucks and is almost inexcusable. One of the very first figures you have to put together doesn't tell you how to add the last piece of a loin cloth. As a result, you can see several different pictures here on BGG and the vibrant lantern website showing slightly different versions of the same figure because most folks aren't sure how to add the piece to their mini.

In summary, KDM is full of brilliant ideas and lovingly crafted details. It is a Lovecraft fueled RPG saga that exists without peer. I am hopeful that other game designers can build upon some of the more successful elements of KDM's design and offer an experience to the masses. Those who are willing to commit to the steep price should do so with confidence that they are buying a solid product that is worthy of their valuable gaming time. For now, however, I must leave you and return to my own adventures as I struggle against the terrors awaiting me in the darkness.
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Drake Coker
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Interesting and (to my mind) instructive review.

Personally, I think you nail the appeal of the game. Good job!
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Val Doonican
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Surely the biggest problem is the ludicrous price and lack of availability?
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Bijan Ajamlou
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This kind of games takes 3 editions to be great. I wish game designers designed their games so that the same components could be reused when the rules are rewritten. Becouse ruleswise the games are in early alpha when released and it sucks to rebuy them to get a 3rd edition release.
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Benoit
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Thank you for the review, I really enjoyed the read and pretty much (see below) have the same feel about the game.

Quote:
2- There are a few clunky rules that exist only to add difficulty without furthering the fun or theme of the game. I'm looking specifically at the overly complex rules governing damage rolls. With each damage roll on a hit location, you check your strength against the target's toughness (with modifiers on both sides) plus your roll. Regardless of this equation, you also check to see if you score a critical hit (which is modified by the luck stat). If your roll meets or exceeds 10 after applying modifiers, you score a critical damage hit, BUT if the target has no critical effects, this does nothing. NOTHING. EXCEPT, if you roll a natural 10, then you do score a damage regardless of all other factors. Clear as mud, right? My beef is with the part about the Hit Location Card requiring a critical effect in order to deal damage on a modified critical damage roll is silly. It adds complexity and difficulty for no real reason. It makes the game more fiddly, but there is no thematic pay off and I wish this rule were removed in future printings. It would be far simpler to take the part about the hit location card needing to have a critical effect in order for a luck modified roll to cause damage.

To me there is 2 points here:
- regardless of toughness/luck, a lantern 10 is always a success (not necessarily critical though) and a 1 is always a miss. To me this rule has to be there, I feel it would be too deterministic otherwise. Am I right saying it is a standard RPG rule when chucking dice?

- You either wound with [roll - (toughness-strength) >= 0] or with your luck attribute [roll - (10-luck) >= 0] if the hl card allows it. It adds complexity to the wound rolls but it flows easily once you understand the system. I personally think this rule is great and really adds depth: it can change strategies against different monsters (don't want to spoil and name monsters here). For example, on some monsters it has an impact on your decision to throw some of your founding stones.

Though, I have to admit I got the luck/toughness wounding rule wrong when I started playing KDM and I wish it would be explained better in the rulebook. It would be great to have a flow chart with the different cases.
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Adrien Boyeldieu
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Thanks for your review.

Your first paragraph can use a break, it's a bit of a wall to get by.
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Ryan Abrams
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ValDoonican wrote:
Surely the biggest problem is the ludicrous price and lack of availability?

So you're saying that the two biggest problems with this game are that it costs way too much for any rational person to purchase and that you can't find a copy to buy?
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Scott Sexton
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ValDoonican wrote:
Surely the biggest problem is the ludicrous price and lack of availability?

The price is justifiable (with regards to quality and quantity of content), and the lack of availability is going to be fixed in time. Its a lifestyle game. If you are going to sink 100+ hours into a gaming experience, is spending $400 worth it? That is a question for the individual player and you can't speak in sweeping generalities. The legions of Magic players, LCG players, miniature players all spend that much (and more). For me, I've gotten more play time out of KDM then I have the last several batches of games I've gotten from CSI and MM.
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Scott Sexton
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bijanajamlou wrote:
This kind of games takes 3 editions to be great. I wish game designers designed their games so that the same components could be reused when the rules are rewritten. Becouse ruleswise the games are in early alpha when released and it sucks to rebuy them to get a 3rd edition release.

I'm sorry, are we talking about the 51st State: Master Set or KDM?

Is this a criticism of buying ANY game in its first print run? I've actually played KDM, and I'm telling you it works perfectly fine out of the box. There is no need to overhaul the game with a third edition. Yes there will be errata, but nothing is "broken" per se out of the box. Further, if you don't like something about the game, it is super easy to house rule the game (When I roll for the wound check, I always wound when I score a critical, unless the target location is impervious).
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Bonaparte
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ValDoonican wrote:
Surely the biggest problem is the ludicrous price and lack of availability?

Spend some time pricing miniatures from high end mini games. The price is shocking for KDM but it is not out of line. Availability cannot be a game problem. Lots of games are out of print and unavailable.
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Greg
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scottatlaw wrote:
... Yes there will be errata, but nothing is "broken" per se out of the box. ....

Apparently the 5-6 player variant is totally broken. I haven't tried it myself, so I can't elaborate, I've just heard from players who did try it that it doesn't work at all. So that could be considered one of the things that could be improved in a later edition.



 
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Scott Sexton
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Glic2003 wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
... Yes there will be errata, but nothing is "broken" per se out of the box. ....

Apparently the 5-6 player variant is totally broken. I haven't tried it myself, so I can't elaborate, I've just heard from players who did try it that it doesn't work at all. So that could be considered one of the things that could be improved in a later edition.


That is a fair point, however, I would never play this with a group that large regardless of the rules. This is a campaign game that requires a long term commitment, meaning, I prefer to play the game solo. If you have a long term campaign, how likely are they to get in multiple campaigns? Maybe if I was in High school, living in my parents basement, I could put something like that together, but it isn't realistic for me.
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scottatlaw wrote:
...it is super easy to house rule the game (When I roll for the wound check, I always wound when I score a critical, unless the target location is impervious).

Isn't it how the game is supposed to be? A wound check that is critical always wounds (unless the location is impervious), even if the hit location doesn't have a critical location information. You just can't apply any critical bonuses such as the Bone Axe one if the location card doesn't have said critical location information.
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Greg
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marcusnc wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
...it is super easy to house rule the game (When I roll for the wound check, I always wound when I score a critical, unless the target location is impervious).

Isn't it how the game is supposed to be? A wound check that is critical always wounds (unless the location is impervious), even if the hit location doesn't have a critical location information. You just can't apply any critical bonuses such as the Bone Axe one if the location card doesn't have said critical location information.

My understanding is that checking for a wound is separate from checking for a Critical Wound. So, for example, if the monster has toughness 14, and you roll a 10 and your Strength bonuses are 3, you would fail to wound.

Now, rolling a 10 should give you a Critical Wound, but if the Hit Location has no info for a Critical Wound, then nothing happens in that regard either.

 
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Greg
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scottatlaw wrote:
Glic2003 wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
... Yes there will be errata, but nothing is "broken" per se out of the box. ....

Apparently the 5-6 player variant is totally broken. I haven't tried it myself, so I can't elaborate, I've just heard from players who did try it that it doesn't work at all. So that could be considered one of the things that could be improved in a later edition.


That is a fair point, however, I would never play this with a group that large regardless of the rules...

Me neither; I agree with the guy who said it worked best as a 2, or maybe 3, player game (because if you have 3 players and one character dies you have a "spare" character for that person to use).

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Glic2003 wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
... Yes there will be errata, but nothing is "broken" per se out of the box. ....

Apparently the 5-6 player variant is totally broken. I haven't tried it myself, so I can't elaborate, I've just heard from players who did try it that it doesn't work at all. So that could be considered one of the things that could be improved in a later edition.

Do people really expect little optional variants at the back of the rules to be totally balanced, though? The game states that it's for 4 players. Would it have been better to just not include any suggestions on how to go beyond 4?


Glic2003 wrote:
marcusnc wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
...it is super easy to house rule the game (When I roll for the wound check, I always wound when I score a critical, unless the target location is impervious).

Isn't it how the game is supposed to be? A wound check that is critical always wounds (unless the location is impervious), even if the hit location doesn't have a critical location information. You just can't apply any critical bonuses such as the Bone Axe one if the location card doesn't have said critical location information.

My understanding is that checking for a wound is separate from checking for a Critical Wound. So, for example, if the monster has toughness 14, and you roll a 10 and your Strength bonuses are 3, you would fail to wound.

Now, rolling a 10 should give you a Critical Wound, but if the Hit Location has no info for a Critical Wound, then nothing happens in that regard either.

You're both wrong. A lantern 10 is always a wound (unless the hit location is impervious). If there is a critical effect on the hit location, a lantern 10 (or less, with luck) will be a crit.
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Benoit
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Quote:
Isn't it how the game is supposed to be? A wound check that is critical always wounds (unless the location is impervious), even if the hit location doesn't have a critical location information. You just can't apply any critical bonuses such as the Bone Axe one if the location card doesn't have said critical location information.

That is not quite how it works. wounding through critical wound and wound against toughness/strength are different. Impervious hl are locations that can only be wounded with critical wound. You can roll a critical wound but if the hl does not have a critical wound part, it won't succeed unless you meet the requirement [roll - (toughness-strength) >= 0]. Here is what I explained on another thread:

When you do a critical wound on a hit location with a critical wound effect, you wound directly and apply the critical wound effect. i.e. You don't need to fulfil the toughness-strength requirement. You can have someone hitting with 5 luck and 0 strength wounding on 5+ on locations with critical wounds (regardless of the monster's toughness). Conversely, if there is no critical wound effect on the hit location card, you cannot wound with your luck. In this case, you only wound if you beat the toughness or roll a 10 (lantern 10 is always a success).
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Benoit
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Quote:
If there is a critical effect on the hit location, a lantern 10 (or less, with luck) will be a crit.

Unless the monster has some luck or you have negative luck .
 
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Scott Sexton
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I think the above exchange illustrates how wacky the wound roll rules can be and why I prefer that it be simplified a bit.
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John
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scottatlaw wrote:
I think the above exchange illustrates how wacky the wound roll rules can be and why I prefer that it be simplified a bit.

Note that your simplification makes the game easier and removes some of the flavor from the Butcher and other monsters.
 
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Scott Sexton
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jma5terj wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
I think the above exchange illustrates how wacky the wound roll rules can be and why I prefer that it be simplified a bit.

Note that your simplification makes the game easier and removes some of the flavor from the Butcher and other monsters.

The reverse is true too, having the rule as is makes the game significantly more fiddly, while only adding tiny bit of flavor and making things only slightly more difficult.
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John
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scottatlaw wrote:
jma5terj wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
I think the above exchange illustrates how wacky the wound roll rules can be and why I prefer that it be simplified a bit.

Note that your simplification makes the game easier and removes some of the flavor from the Butcher and other monsters.

The reverse is true too, having the rule as is makes the game significantly more fiddly, while only adding tiny bit of flavor and making things only slightly more difficult.

We'll just have to disagree. Once you get it, it's not at all more fiddly. You just apply the critical rule. I'm the cases where it applies.
 
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Benoit
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Quote:
The reverse is true too, having the rule as is makes the game significantly more fiddly, while only adding tiny bit of flavor and making things only slightly more difficult.

Like John, I disagree with you on this, not claiming I am right, we simply have different views on this one rule. Looking at the different threads on bgg, it is for sure a hard rule to grasp, the proof being many people get it wrong (e.g. the recent review from Geg's). Though, once you understand the rule, it is easy to implement and it just makes sense. It also adds a great deal to the game in term of depth (showdown strategies and feels change due to this one rule).

In summary for me: is it a hard rule to grasp? Yes. Is it a hard rule to implement? No. Does it add depth to the game? 10 times yes.
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Henry Akeley
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scottatlaw wrote:
jma5terj wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
I think the above exchange illustrates how wacky the wound roll rules can be and why I prefer that it be simplified a bit.

Note that your simplification makes the game easier and removes some of the flavor from the Butcher and other monsters.

The reverse is true too, having the rule as is makes the game significantly more fiddly, while only adding tiny bit of flavor and making things only slightly more difficult.

I don't find it fiddly at all. The rule is perfectly clear.
 
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Scott Sexton
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Earskeepers wrote:


In summary for me: is it a hard rule to grasp? Yes. Is it a hard rule to implement? No. Does it add depth to the game? 10 times yes.

I'm ok knowing that folks disagree with me on this point, after all, I think we all agree that just about everything else about this game is amazing. The only reason I even bring up this issue is that it has been a recurring topic of conversation by several players, and I think it is a fair critique. Different people will have different tolerances to the finer details of the game's rule set. This isn't a game like Splendor where there is virtually 0 rules ambiguity. The trade off any time you make a game with significant depth (both in mechanisms and theme) is that you are going to risk overly complex or poorly worded rules. This happens all the time in good Ameritrash games.
 
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