What happens when a designer gets to be in charge of a board game, without any of the usual constraints of a marketing department, a budget, or anyone at all to rein in his ideas? You get a game with a narrow, built-in-audience that takes hours of assembly, 35+ hours to finish playing, thousands of components, weighing 18 pounds, not sold in stores, and retailing for $400. Oh, and it also earns game of the year accolades, completely sells out, and now auctions for up to $1,200 on eBay.
That is Kingdom Death: Monster. And you have never seen anything like it. In a world best described as Dungeons & Dragons meets Lovecraftian horror, players work together to build a settlement in a mysterious world of perpetual darkness. As a team, they construct new additions to the settlement, make new gear (swords and shields and things like that) and seek out monsters to hunt. And die.
The brainchild of designer Adam Poots, the game was initially a normal sized board game when he kickstarted it in 2012. Players would need to custom-assemble the playing pieces representing their characters, and there were some cards involved, but overall the scope was not unlike other games already sold on the market.
Then, over the course of the kickstarter campaign, something happened. The game slowly got bigger. Adam’s plans got bolder, and before he knew it, the game components had exploded to more than four times what he initially envisioned. Kickstarter backers had their doubts, as the game seemed too big to actually produce, and the years fell off the calendar, one by one, with no game in sight.
Finally, in the fall of 2015, backers saw the end product. It was shockingly huge. And utterly magnificent. We’ve been playing regular games at the office ever since.
We recently caught up with the creator, Adam Poots, and got the chance to ask him how this all came about.
SJI: So we’re huge fans of Kingdom Death: Monster here. We’ve had a weekly ongoing game set up in the office since last spring, as well as a weekend marathon playing it to completion. Apart from the gameplay, which we obviously find hugely entertaining, one of the things that most stood out to us, being graphic artists, is the overall design and attention to detail. Can you talk a little bit about your background in that area?
AP: Thats amazing! I am glad to hear you have been enjoying it.
When I was 17-18 I got really into MacroMedia Flash. I was convinced if I learned it, I could make my own super cool animations. This resulted in me spending a lot of time in Barnes and Noble reading books about Flash, design and action script. My old man wanted rent for my bedroom (since you know I was 18 and now a grown up) so I started to freelance with my limited website making skills. (I apologize to all of my early clients, I was terrible to you!) I know I was a kid and $250 was a pretty good deal for a little Flash website, learning to become a professional was a bit of a struggle in the beginning.
SJI: What’s interesting is that I’d assumed you would have come from an art background, as opposed to a technical / programmer one.
AP: The programing, webdev and the dreaded actionscript side of it, was all a means to an end. I wanted to MAKE things. Light programming I am ok with, I enjoy it. But really designing stuff, spending hours pushing pixels around, that’s where I was most happy. Flash had room for me, as a more visual person to make animations and menu transitions without it devolving into looking at a screen filled with script.
Anyway, I ended up working at Atari in NYC. They were trying to rebrand themselves. It was a political mess though, so not much really happened. After that I bounced around between startups in New York, doing a combination of design and front end web development. The highest position I held was “Executive Concept Designer” wherein I took what the boss wanted, made pretty designs. Then had some people within the team I could task with helping me implement it. But yeah, no formal background in art or design. I didn’t bother with college as I hated learning in academic settings. I liked and still do, getting right into things. Taking a vision, then pulling it, kicking and screaming into reality.
At what point did you decide to transition to creating your own brand and product line?
It was after Atari, I think when I was 24 or 25? I’ve always been a tinkering type, working on a zillion things. Kingdom Death: Monster (KD:M) was my creative escape after the sometimes very boring office days. How hard could making a board game be? How hard would it be to find an artist and then sculptors to make miniatures?
I started on KD:M while I was waiting around all day to see if I’d be on jury duty! I took a bunch of old games book with me for entertainment and spent a solid 6 hours day dreaming. Thankfully someone had moved all the evidence to the wrong courthouse and at the end of the day, I got to go home.
Then we released one of our most popular models (not a part of the game), our little website got over 50,000 hits in a single day, and I made more money in two hours then I did working for two months.
To what extent did you focus on the gaming side as compared to the artwork/aesthetic side? Was it like, oh I have this great idea for a game, or did you more think up the universe and what the monsters would look like first?
To me, again with no formal background, everything is connected. The entire experience is one. How the game played, how the rules were presented, what it felt like, what type of world would be most appropriate for the style of gameplay.
You’ve created a really unique aesthetic, very modern, but drawn from historical sources. What kinds of things did you specifically look at for inspiration?
A lot of classical artwork. I’ve personally found very old, especially religious artwork, to be very unsettling and often down right creepy. The artists, these absolute masters of their craft, were commissioned to paint or sculpt the indescribable, majestic and miraculous. And some of it is just so extremely mind-blowing. I visited museums in the states and a few aboard, while specifically thinking about KD:M.
I can see a lot of influences in there, from Medieval to Roman, to Far Eastern. It’s like an amalgam of different styles of etchings and sculptures. How hands-on were you in the creation of that look? I know at this point you use multiple artists.
Yeah! Cultures trying to understand the world around them! It’s amazing stuff.
That idea, cultures trying to understand the world around them—that really sums up the universe you’ve created.
Well I designed almost everything. The characters, the creatures, the world, resources, innovations, settlement locations (each with different card sets)— I’d try to find artists that I think would do a good job taking my insane ramblings and giving it form. And I have and still do, art direct everything myself.
So you did initial sketches, or finished art as well?
Yeah, I make a pretty great stick figure! Along with tons of notes and often references. Different artists respond to direction in their own unique way.
With multiple different artists working on the project, each with different styles, how did you go about organizing it all and giving them direction while maintaining a cohesive vision?
Well, since I was both the genesis and the person approving finals, it was a pretty organic process. If something looked wrong or didn’t feel right, I’d keep working with the artist until it was.
(the Kingdom death universe exists someplace where the ground is literally covered in mysterious face carvings)
You were doing the actual graphic design?
Yes. I designed or touched up every asset you see, including cards, pages, tokens etc. My partner Anna, picked out the font we use on our game cards, established a base layout for the rulebook and handled its “information flow”. The AI cards, after a look and feel was established, was a tremendous team effort to match the design choices with game rules and clarity. It got so intense, I ended up leaving the room and delegated Anna to make some hard final choices!
In terms of the overall product concept and design, it’s a pretty uncompromising vision. It’s gone on to be hugely successful, but the game is unflinchingly dark and adult-orientated, takes 20 hours or more to play, and retails at $400. It would seem at first impression to have a very limited audience. Can you talk about some of the decision making process in going that route?
When it comes to Kingdom Death, I don’t like creative restrictions. I wanted to be able to explore any theme, any place and any character. Marketing, audience, sensitivity, those were all thoughts that long ago faded from my mind. I wanted to make the best experience I possibly could and there was no room for anything else in that mindset.
The artists and sculptors highly respected it, so early on that helped me win the favor of some incredible talent, whom often felt like they had to hold back on certain things.
That’s a pretty ballsy approach; just make it great and they will come.
I think it’s a more vain approach? I just wanted to make something that I liked, something that if sent back through time, would have shattered the mind of 13 year old Adam Poots and friends. I wanted to make something I could play with the people I grew up with. As far as the price tag is concerned… that was more of an accident then anything else. The original planned price was $100.
But then we moved to hard plastic, instead of PVC, which is a much more expensive and gorgeous material. And due to the many manufacturing delays we had, I ended up going kind of overboard on content. I felt a very strong sense of sticking to my word and doing my absolute best by the backers. By the time it was all said and done we went tremendously over budget.
So I had to scale up the final price to reflect our remaining inventory after kickstarter fulfillment. It was a little scary, but I wanted to ensure we stayed in business!
Between your background in programming, and the games crunchiness, it seems like it could have been a video game instead- was there ever thought to that?
Nah, KD:M is very much a board game. It’s designed to be played with friends and the game introduces its rules as you play, or as your survivors develop new gear and innovations within your settlement. If I were to design a video game, I’d want to take advantages of what that interaction has to offer for its own unique experience. The pain and triumph of a board game, can stimulate the imagination in a very different way—compared to a video game—and I wanted KD:M to really capture that.
Did you ever have any doubts, looking around the studio, and seeing all the work that was going into it?
Doubts! Of course! This whole thing has felt insane to me for years now. I bite my nails before every sale and I worry about containers full of product as they cross the sea. However, it was my job to appear as confident as possible throughout its creation. I am the type that wants to keep polishing and revisiting every detail over and over again.
It was a popular topic of conversation- “How is Adam not losing his shirt on this?”
Haha! I think I most certainly did. But then I just funneled that back into work.
OK, so it’s been 5 years or so since you started, the game has launched, it’s been well received—what’s next on the horizon for you?
Looks like we are headed back to kickstarter for this reprint. We have sold out and people still want to buy the game. Crazy right? There is still more I want to create and share within KD:M and I am striving to have more of a work-life balance.
I believe it. At one point the game was auctioning for over $1,000 on eBay. (And no, I would not sell my copy for even that much!)
Yes. Our fans can be… fanatical? And a collector’s market has sprung up around our products. We don’t support or endorse it. Nothing wrong with collecting, but I am not a personal fan of scalpers. That being said, setting too many purchasing rules just makes stuff complicated and we are in the business of creating, not policing our fans.
Well this has been great, I really appreciate your taking the time. Hopefully one day you’ll hop over the bridge and join us for a game!
Yeah! But whenever I play the game tends to get very strange. Almost like it knows the creator is playing and it’s trying to fuck with us. Luck is a very strange thing!
Kingdom Death: Monster can be found at kingdomdeath.com
You can see it in the flesh at the SJI office, or stop by for a game any Thursday night!