Funded in 2017, Kingdom Death’s new Gambler’s Chest expansion still needs work

The Crimson Crocodile, fully painted, looms over three survivors as the White Lion and two more survivors look on.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

And maybe another run through quality control, too

Kingdom Death: Monster, among the highest-earning crowdfunded board games of all time, is a rare beast in part because of its price point, which currently stands at $420. It’s also because of production issues, meaning that the game has been out of print for long periods of time ever since its first run in 2015. But if you get the chance to actually play it, as I have, you’ll find the mechanics are quite literally to die for. The base game features complex monsters and elaborate turn-based battles, a potent crafting system, and a fascinating take on colony simulation. Beloved characters will die horribly and often, potentially putting an end to your campaign after scores of hours. Add to that mix dozens of the industry’s most gorgeous multi-part plastic miniatures and you can see why I once called it “the Everest of board games.”

Now comes the game’s first big-box expansion, a second $400 crate of cardboard and plastic called Gambler’s Chest Expansion that was originally promised to backers in December 2020. More than three years later — nearly seven years after it was originally funded, mind you — it’s finally available for purchase. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a mess that further complicates an already over-the-top complex game. Unless you’re here for the miniatures alone, I simply can’t recommend it.

What makes the original Kingdom Death: Monster so compelling is the presentation. It’s a giant black box full of secrets, but those secrets are neatly organized thanks to an ingenious plastic pack-in. Lift the lid and you have at your fingertips, indexed and elegantly sorted, everything needed to play the game: hundreds of different playing cards, tokens, tiles, and dice all lined up and ready to roll. The manual reads like a storybook, with clearly marked sections for every step of the deadly journey ahead. All you need to do is turn to page one and get started.

The experience with Gambler’s Chest Expansion is nearly the complete opposite.

The full contents of the Gambler’s Chest laid out for examination, including all the miniatures fully assembled.
Photo: Kingdom Death
The box for Gambler’s Chest Expansion is only slightly shorter than the coffin-like tomb that the base game ships in.

Billed as a collection of optional expansions, Gambler’s Chest Expansion is built around a new campaign called People of the Dream Keeper that uses pretty much all of them at the same time. The campaign also remixes the monsters and bosses from the original game with an assortment of new ones, recasting the game’s previously precipitous difficulty curve in a largely positive way. But thanks to its poorly organized manual, even integrating the necessary components of these expansions with those of the original game took me four hours of trial and error.

That was just the beginning of my troubles.

The big gimmick here is a new kind of player character called an “arc survivor.” Arc survivors can level up and change in new ways thanks to “knowledges” and “philosophies.” Both can give either buffs or debuffs to characters over time, but the way that they are implemented seriously slows down the pace of play.

Knowledges are stored together in a massive wad of over 170 tarot-sized cards. While the art on these cards is stunning and thematic, the cards do not share a sequential numbering system. In looking for the one card you need on a moment’s notice, you’ll be required to riffle through that entire stack, coming into contact with visuals that are alternately disturbing and deeply fascinating. But in practice it’s time consuming, tedious, and only serves to spoil the secrets that lie deep inside the game.

Philosophies are even more arduous in their implementation. Each requires that players work from a tiny tarot-card-sized booklet that behaves like a Choose Your Own Adventure-style minigame that plays out over multiple game sessions. This effectively splits the attention of the players at the table, who are each now tasked with silently teasing out the details of their philosophy on their own. Making matters worse, players that share the same philosophy must also share the same booklet, which further slows down the pace of play.

All of this could be forgiven if the rules for philosophies and knowledges were made crystal-clear in the first place, but sadly they are not. My group and I spent a lot of time over the course of our first four sessions just trying to tease out the basics. That ultimately led us to Reddit threads filled with a handful of confused customers, but very few answers to our questions. At one point we were even left questioning how many player characters could officially be involved in the game’s best bits, its randomized hunts and visceral turn-based battles.

A collection of items from The Gambler’s Chest, including two colorful cards for Birth and Death as well as a series of pamphlets.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
Several of the larger format cards included in Polygon’s copy of Gambler’s Chest Expansion appear to be misprinted, as well as all but three of the philosophy pamphlets.

Gambler’s Chest Expansion is shot through with these kinds of inconsistencies, but also with issues that should have been caught in either the editing or the quality control processes. Several of the cards included with Polygon’s set were misprinted, for instance, with one entirely missing the values for required dice rolls. Only a few of the philosophy booklets include the proper coverleaf page that lists the necessary instructions to actually use them, an oversight that caused my group to lose about a half-hour of playtime — plus more time later on to undo what we later learned we’d done wrong.

The general consensus among the community seems to be that if you can’t understand how a rule or a system included in the expansion should work, just use your best guess. And while that feels like a viable option in a bog-standard tabletop role-playing system like Dungeons & Dragons, in a board game that includes this much character death it’s far from ideal. All these tiny failures begin to put you off of the entire experience — especially when total party kills are so common as to be included as their own special section on the group character sheet.

Then there’s the miniatures themselves. While the plastic molds, called sprues, that hold the pieces of each model are labeled, the individual parts themselves are not. Neither are the assembly instructions that are only available online. As a result, I found myself holding up tiny bits of plastic against my computer screen, slowly rotating them in space to see if I’d found the right one. When you’re working with a model that has, for instance, dozens of nearly identical human fingers running down its back that must be glued into place correctly before painting, that’s deeply frustrating.

Some models don’t even have instructions of any kind. For those I just had to wing it.

The highlights for me, however, are the monsters. The new People of the Dream Keeper campaign kicks things off with an exciting first-level critter called the Crimson Crocodile that I feel offers a much more varied experience than the base game’s fairly predictable White Lion. That’s especially useful, considering that like the White Lion you’ll be fighting the Croc quite a few times before your characters truly get their feet under them. The Smog Singers, the King, and the Godhand are all exciting additions to the game’s lore with mysterious and creative move sets hidden inside their AI decks. Taking them on in turn alongside a smattering of the base game’s original beasts — including the Phoenix, an endgame boss that was only encountered near the finale of the base game’s original campaign — feels like discovering a new hidden level in a favorite video game like Dark Souls or Nioh. Even Atnas, the Child Eater brings something interesting to the table, in spite of being a thinly veiled and gruesome spoof of Santa Claus.

Three miniatures stand looking at the viewer. One is a red loop of intestine, the other is a bird with human hands all over it, and the other is a very muscular lion.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
The Crimson Crocodile alongside the White Lion and the Phoenix for scale.

Sadly, Gambler’s Chest Expansion as a whole feels more like overreach than a victory lap for Kingdom Death: Monster. While the miniatures continue to impress, if not inspire, legions of devoted hobby painters and artists, the product as a whole feels sloppy. My recommendation is that if you already own the base game, you’re better off sticking with the smaller one-off expansions available at the webstore. There are a few gems, such as Gorm Expansion 1.6, that can greatly improve the base game.

With luck, the best bits of Gambler’s Chest Expansion will have their dents buffed out in a revised second edition, or else be broken out to be sold piecemeal. Arc survivors and knowledges are sophisticated and engaging, but they don’t meet the high standard set by the documentation and components found in other releases. For my part, now I’ll need to find a way to separate out the various components of Gambler’s Chest Expansion from Polygon’s copy of the base game — just another part of the instruction manual that should have been included in the first place.

Gambler’s Chest Expansion is currently available directly from Adam Poots Games. The game was reviewed using a copy provided by Adam Poots Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships, but not with Adam Poots Games. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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