Board Game Review

Knee Deep in the Gloom! (Shadows of Kilforth Review)

If this dissertation of a review is too long for you, our TL;DR version can be found here!

We’ve recently gotten into role playing games over this tricky period of time. Don’t get us wrong, we’ve done it in person before this and it was a superb experience! But the online alternative was an excellent substitute. The ability to traverse the land, engage with strangers, take on enemies and complete quests was wonderful. But, alas, the trope of struggling to get a roleplaying group together is heavily based on fact. Agendas and times don’t always fit, and of course roleplaying games aren’t for every group. So where’s the middle ground of board game and roleplaying game? Shadows of Kilforth by Hallornothing Productions is a board game that gives a solid role playing feel. It gives direction to satiate a board gamers’ need for control, and enough freedom to let you be the character you are!

Gameplay

Shadows of Kilforth is a roleplaying game at its roots, and allows players to interact with the world around them. Each player is built initially and is unique in their own quest, class, and race. Their race will determine starting stats and a specific ability/modifier, the class gives an alteration to some stats, and the quest is their own personal goal. This must be complete before they can engage with the big bad of the game. They also have a “side” to choose, which will effect their play as Night cards are drawn.

The game has four consistent stats associated to cards and players. Fight values determine how many dice are rolled for a fight test and how many are used in combat rolls. Study determines how adept you are at using magic and your Study test roll. Sneak is the dice you’ll roll to pass a stealth test or to explore. Finally, Influence is how adept you are at persuading the people of Kilforth. When a card has these stats present, players can engage with them using these tests. This may be to avoid confrontation, convince someone to help you, to unlock the magic of a location, or to eliminate them.

Setup

Setup involves laying out the 25 location cards to the table in a 5×5 grid. The Shrine card should be at the centre. Then all reward and encounter decks are placed either side of the board respectively. Players create their character by drawing a race, class and saga. This is their personal endeavour and consists of four chapters and a finale. They then take four health, AP (action point), and fate tokens, and one hidden and one coin. They then take claim/enemy tokens and a side token. Finally, they choose two cards from one reward deck and keep one of them as a rumour.

The game can be played as a solo campaign, cooperatively, or competitively. When playing a solo game, only one Ancient is drawn. Cooperative games have one Ancient per player, and competitive games again only have one Ancient. The Ancients are effectively the big bads of Shadows of Kilforth. These will appear when you complete your finale, and have effects that change how the game is played. Difficulty can be altered here, as experienced players will enjoy the challenge of ever changing events through Plot cards, whereas newer players can choose to not include these and still enjoy the experience.

Sequence

The game is played over rounds split into day and night. During the day, players can move, engage cards, discover rumours, spend money, use assets, and regale their own story. At night, a Night card is drawn which drives a location into Gloom and may alter the game’s weather, add a stranger or quest, or cause an event. When all locations are in Gloom, the game is lost.

Players take turns to use one AP each, and continue until they run out. They then set up camp. Once all players have set up camp, a Night card is drawn. This happens immediately and changes play from there on out. In example, a new weather card will have effects at the end of every round and will remove the previous weather card. If a player ends their turn in a location that has fallen into Gloom, and they are not hidden, they lose the health as listed on the location card.

Actions

As mentioned, players have a plethora of options available to them and can engage with the game as they see fit. If a card has a specific stat on it, players can engage with it in this way by conducting the associated test. There are lots of diverse cards in the game, and entering a new location will trigger a new encounter card to be drawn. Strangers are never hostile (unless stated) until attacked, or an Influence test is failed. Quests can often be completed in several ways and provide rewards. Enemies attack instantly and will often “surprise” the player, meaning they roll one extra die during the first round. Places are added to the map and have associated effect. Events occur immediately, and run as they would for their test. Tests are often classed as successes based on 5 and 6 results, but newer players will want to include 4s too.

Combat is run through a simple system of rolling dice equal to your Fight ability and counting successes. Each counts as a hit and removes a health from whomever is attacked. However, players can utilise Assets to both increase their stat value and manipulate the dice results, too. Once an enemy is defeated, players can choose to take loot or coin values, and then the reward rumour or the enemy’s card as a rumour.

Rumours

Rumours are what drive players’ personal sagas, and are kept in hand unless turned into assets. Rumours are used for their keywords to drive their saga. The saga may require three keywords such as Monster, Mountains, Attire. The player can progress their saga by Regaling, and discarding the rumours, or assets for that matter. This is effectively levelling up, and allows them a skill for their class and an extra health and AP. Each rumour has a location associated to it where it can be discovered. In example, a rumour card for the Tabi may list the Spider Grove, it would stay in their hand until the player used a Discover action in that location; it then becomes an asset.

Ending the Game

The game ends in one of two ways: either the final location is turned over to the Gloom side and all Night cards are used, or all Ancients are defeated. Should the final Gloom card be flipped, players lose. If all Ancients are defeated, players win. Competitive play is slightly different, as the winner is whoever amassed the most wealth (calculated through asset values and gold coins). Although, we’d argue if the Ancient is still alive no one really wins!

How It Handles

For us, Shadows of Kilforth is not a throwback to old school video game RPGs. Those games often gave you a linear path you could ever so slightly deviate from, unlimited time, and a progressive challenge. This game does not. It tosses you in at the deep end of freedom. It gives you the power to choose within the constraints of the game. To some, it may feel like your being dropped into this big diverse world without a grand amount of help. And it does, but it does so in a wonderful way! You fill the gaps in your story by taking the actions you do. You have specific keywords to collect and there’s often little guidance beyond that. It’s what you do to complete the Saga chapter that will be the story. For this reason alone, we’d argue this is a lot closer to tabletop role playing than it is the video counterpart. Choice.

Studying for the Test

Tests come up a lot in Shadows of Kilforth. They’re what determine how well you can do something, and often determine the difficulty of something. Should a location have any test, it’s worth setting yourself up for it appropriately. It can be infuriating when the quest closest has a Keyword you need but you can’t match the test. Surely it’s not fair, right? Wrong. Your character’s class and race are setup for specific strengths or focuses. If you can’t achieve the test, gather Assets or skip it or find a way around it. This is a hard lesson to learn, however we found trying to roll four successes when we had a skill of four to be near impossible. Fate was always an option, but these are not easy to come by and quick progression doesn’t always result in better stats. Assets do that!

Your character’s starting stats will clearly define what sort of engagements they’ll be looking for. This won’t suit everyone. We solidly believe there’s no point forcing yourself into an uncomfortable play style as a newbie here. If it doesn’t fit you, change it. However, if you’re experienced I’d highly recommend trying out different combinations! We truly believe any combination is viable, but the journey is going to arduous. This system isn’t something ground breaking, and is something that can be manipulated with the right cards. It’s frustrating when it you can’t do this, but beautiful when it works!

Challenging Them to Fisticuffs

The combat here, much like the many tests, are dice based. The difference here is that you keep going until you lose all your health, or are wanted for murder. And that’s important to note, as not all encounters are with enemies. As we said, you can engage anything with an appropriate stat – including strangers. Now this won’t benefit you greatly in terms of Keywords, as dead people don’t often explain things too well, but cash isn’t something to sniff at. You’ll drive forward with an onslaught regardless to whom is against you, as inevitably it’s life or death.

There’s somewhat of an early frustration to this. To start with you aren’t going to have a whole host of assets to help you; you’re a young spry adventurer who think they fill big boots. And you’ll inevitably have your insides made into outsides by an Actor or other nondescript stranger. As time goes on you’ll run the show and be in a much better position, but if you’re noted to it… Run the game with successes as 4s, 5s, and 6s. For your own sanity! Once you’re well into the flow of the game and knee deep in the Gloom, there’s little to fault with the combat. You’ll have appropriate Assets to enable you manipulate the dice, modifiers to buff you up, and other resources to change the encounter itself. Just be prepared to learn a steep lesson if you’ve got a taste for blood. It’s kill or be killed!

Location, Location, Location

Kilforth is a diverse and beautiful place. Crazy dangerous, but stunning visually. What’s more is the four specific variants of location are thematic in what will occur there. Mountains are home to a whole host of undead demons, troll, and lost travellers. Whereas the Badlands have no end of shady folk and people looking to have someone fix their problems. With this, there are associated encounters from the respective decks that fit thematically.

There are some human elements considered here too. For example, certain locations are more likely to produce rumours with specific keywords. It’s important to check the colour of the keywords on your saga cards! And to actually read the keywords, too! Attire isn’t likely to be found in the Plains, and Mountain cards probably have a fairly obvious location too. Again, they’re thematic and lend themselves to a player’s understanding of what a player will need to do. There are some that are trickier to locate initially, but experience with this comes through play. It took me a while to realise that Pious was associated to people, not items. Only when I picked up an Ally rumour did I find the card I wanted. I’d guess this encourages exploration and slightly deviation from one’s quest, but this is the sort of game you’ll be doing that within regardless.

The other thing about any location is the flipped Gloom side. They’re near identical other than the negative effect. In some respects, I’d have personally liked some more Gloom in my locations. A bit more horror to really drive in the whole “impending doom” element as the clock ticks down. In other ways, I’m glad it doesn’t. You only have negative effects impact you at night from Gloom, so these locations should still be utilised. Were they entirely dingy and desolate, it could deter players. Overall we found the artistic stylings to be wonderfully “adventure-esque” and thematic to the game.

My Personal Quest

Shadows of Kilforth is unique in that each player had their own goal to engage with first. The Sagas are colourful, sometimes stereotypical, quests you might engage with in a roleplaying game. They start with something trivial: find the farmer, herd the sheep, investigate a myth… Nothing that should have you immediately engaging a demigod. But these Sagas spiral down a rabbit hole of events. That farmer you found? Stolen by a cult. The cult you’re stopping? They worship a giant serpent. The giant serpent you eviscerated? The guardian of an ancient temple. And finally, the ancient temple hosts something quite monumental, linking to an Ancient. Once that’s dealt with, the Ancient rocks up.

We found it to be a really effective set up for a story. As much as the chapters are set in stone and link based on their goals, the “in between bits” are what make them unique. How did you get a Mountain rumour to find the farmer? Well, one game you might convince a peddler to help you. Another game, you may have taken out some undead skeletons! How you interact with the world is what makes the game interesting and writes the legacy of your character. It will also determine how prepared you are for the events to come. The rumours required don’t have to be collected immediately, and getting assets to use for Keywords can be a much smarter plan in the long run!

The sagas in Shadows of Kilforth are also what enable you to level up. They enhance your skills, grant you more health and AP, and take you one step closer to the end-game. Cooperatively, you’ll probably communicate the keywords needed to progress. You’ll see someone else needs a Mountain card and probably leave it if you don’t need it. Common courtesy and all that! But you’ll only be doing this if you’re all being friends. Competitively, there’s an element of spite to the game – in the most positive way possible. It may come to luck of the draw or sheer coincidence, so there’s a catch-up mechanic. If you’re regaling chapter three, anyone still on chapter one can regale too for free. We found this worked excellently, as sometimes a single keyword may take a long old time to be found. Particularly when it’s a unique or element you’ve not experienced before!

Final Thoughts

Shadows of Kilforth is a superb example of a game giving full control to the player without breaking itself. Removing the linear path for players and replacing it with an end goal and an open field is risky. Any game would struggle to hold itself together! But, through the use of independent player chapters within the saga, Shadows demonstrates how it can be done. It puts all control in the players’ hands and lets them run their own narrative, coupled in with the set saga. How they endeavour to complete this is down to them.

If you’re looking to have your own adventure within a world with its own set future, this is the one. Take on your own problems, head for the head honcho, win the game. It’s your experience and interactions that make the narrative. It’s role-playing lite without the commitments tied to it. But at the same time, it’s no replacement for the role-playing experience. I’d highly recommend this for anyone looking for an adventure, who wants a game to be a different experience every time. It definitely had a positive impact on us, even with the most of us been role-playing-phobic!