Tuesday, September 4, 2012

You Should Probably Play This: King of Dragon Pass

You Should Probably Play This is my positive review column.  In it, I'll review a game that I think needs more attention.  It may be an obscure oldie, something that was released recently with little fanfare, or something that was badly received on release but has since been made better.  This time: Steal cattle and crush the duck people beneath your heel, we're goin' to Glorantha

How do I define King of Dragon Pass?  RPG?  Strategy?  Management sim?  Choose your own adventure?  I honestly have no idea, but this right here is what this column is for: An obscure, brilliant, and unique game that was only popular in Finland for some reason.

King of Dragon Pass was created by A# Studios, and the game was released in 1999.  It quickly faded into obscurity, although it's recently been rereleased on iOS.  I haven't played the port, but I hear it's well done.

So back to that tricky question: What is King of Dragon Pass?  Well, it's maybe best described as an interactive story.  You (although you don't have an in-game avatar) are the leader of a Viking-ish clan of nomads who have settled in the mysterious Dragon Pass.  From there you have to manage your clan, interact with the denizens of the pass, and deal with whatever mean things Glorantha decides to throw at you, as you attempt to build your clan up and become (wait for it) King of Dragon Pass.

So from this description you might expect it to be similar to Civilization, or maybe a city-building game like Zeus or Sim City.  Except it's really not at all.  To start, let's take a look at the interface where you spend most of your time (this is the Trading tab):

Okay, so you do have an array of advisors.  But that's where the Civ similarities end.
It's nice, right?  A lot of love's been put into the presentation of the game.  Your time's mostly divided between the various tabs of this interface (you switch back and forth via the carvings on the arch at the top of the screen) and the various critical events you have to deal with.  In addition, at the beginning of each year you get a little summary of your progress over the last year and a view of your "tula" (the center of your clan) like so:

Other than that though, much of your time is spent with this interface.  This is where you handle all of the management aspects of the game, which include trading and diplomacy with other clans, sacrificing and building shrines to the gods, exploration, constructing defenses (which, along with temples, are the only constructible things in the game.  Not a lot of building-focused stuff here), adjusting patrols and sending soldiers on raids, and managing your pastures and farmland.  It may take a couple of false starts to get into the swing of things, but once you do this is a game I'd recommend to those who're afraid of overly complex management sims.  For the most part the management's pretty intuitive, low-key, and easy to get the hang of, and you feel like you're in control and know what the consequences of various moves would be, as opposed to feeling afraid to do anything because you don't really know what it means or what will happen.

I'd also like to briefly mention religion, because I like the way it's handled.  Religion comes in two primary flavors: worship and heroquest.  There are quite a lot of gods in the game, each governing stuff like war, storms, motherhood, etc.  The primary role of gods is providing blessings.  Initially you'll only know the blessings of the gods you start worshiping (which is affected by your choices pre-game).  In order to learn more blessings you must sacrifice cows, trade goods, or thralls to a god of choice.  Certain gods have certain preferences (the goddess of husbandry likes cows, the god of trade likes goods, etc.) that increase your chances of learning a blessing with your sacrifice.  Once you learn a blessing, you can sacrifice again to ask your god to provide you with it, or you can construct a shrine to make the blessing permanent.  The catch is that each shrine requires regular upkeep, and you must make them bigger (and thus increase upkeep) if you want to have more permanent blessings.  It creates an interesting balance in the resource management: Focus too much on temples and sacrificing and you won't have much to trade, but focus a lot on trading and the gods might become neglected.

Orlanth shown here about to shoot a laser from his head, Ultra Man-style.
The second role of religion is in the awesome Heroquest mechanic.  A Heroquest is essentially the renactment of a folktale for some sort of benefit.  Heroquests can give substantial bonuses, such as magic items, strengthening the quester, increasing the fertility of your animals, increasing your military might, starting the tribe creation process, and more.  You must perform a certain amount of Heroquests (three in a short game, seven in a long one) in order to win the game.  Heroquests are also where the lore section of the interface comes into play.  Because you need to reenact your myths in order to complete a Heroquest, you need to read over the appropriate myths to make sure you do it right.  In addition, you may be missing details from some stories or might not even know certain stories.  If other clans owe you favors you can ask for information on a story, and also have a chance of learning more story details when sacrificing to an appropriate god.

A klanth is that weapon he's wielding there.  It's basically the Gloranthan equivalent of a Macuahitl.
Even if you have all the details of the quest, it's still entirely possible to fail, either because you're quester isn't good enough, your ring isn't balanced (your ring are your advisors, you have a higher chance of success at a Heroquest if they each worship a different god), if you didn't allocate magic to questing, or just because the random number generator screwed you over.  Interestingly though, it's also possible to alter a myth during your quest.  Sometimes random events will pop up in your Heroquest, such as a worshiper of another god showing up and agreeing to help you if you give them some benefit.  If you then manage to complete the Heroquest, your folktales will morph to include this new aspect.  Although the Heroquest mechanic might not be to everyone's taste (especially if you're annoyed by you making the best choices and still failing.  But that happens a lot in this game), but I love it both for the distinct air of magical tribe-ness it lends to the game, and for giving you an actual reason to read the lore.

The combat is also quite easy to get adjusted to, but surprisingly fun.  At the start of combat you're presented with a strategy screen:

I've been practicing my barbarian battle cry for just such a moment.  BLAAAARGH YAAARGH FLARGLFEFLASLLAAAAASAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGLB.
From here you can use Magic to give you an edge in battle (I'll talk a bit more about Magic once I get to talking about the game flow), sacrifice to appropriate gods for a blessing (but you risk the chance of being interrupted while sacrificing, putting you at a disadvantage), and adjust your objectives and battle tactics.  Once you click proceed, the game calculates the result of the battle with no further input and presents you with the battle results.  Sometimes however, important events happen mid-combat that require you to make difficult, intense decisions.  For example: You're overpowering your enemy, but then your war leader gets hit in the chest with an arrow.  What do you do?  Do you push on, with full knowledge that your leader will likely die before he can reach medical aid?  Do you have your army pull back, significantly reducing your chances of victory but saving your leader?  Do you have your leader try to get to the healers himself, though there's not much chance of him making it?  It's these choices that really make combat interesting.

And choices are really at the center of King of Dragon Pass' gameplay.  The choice and consequence in King of Dragon Pass is absolutely stunning, and puts modern attempts (Bioware) to shame. Right from the start you're presented with a series of choices with how you shape the starting position of your tribe.  These questions take the form of you manipulating the mythical past of your tribe.  For example, during the wedding of the sky god and the earth goddess, did your men join the sky god in the festivities?  Did your women retreat to weave with the earth goddess?  Did your tribe stand outside and guard the feast against interlopers?  These three choices determine your starting god and the general personality of your tribe.  From there, you make more choices such as how peaceful you are, who your ancestral enemy is, how much you trust dragons, and so on.

The choices, of course, carry on into normal gameplay.  Multiple times per in-game year you'll find yourself presented with various events you have to respond to.  The events are varied and interesting (I believe the count is somewhere around 500), and the long chain of choice and consequence is absolutely brilliant.  For example (slight spoilers): I lost an exploration party to the wild beastmen in the northwest.  Several years later a beastman wandered into my village, claiming he was the leader of the lost expedition, having been turned into a beastman by a profane ritual.  I decided to believe him and took him in.  Over the next couple of years I had to deal with several events related to him, such as reconciling my citizens to his appearance, finding him a wife who'd accept him, and dealing with the fact that his curse is hereditary (his child came out tusked).  However, it all payed off when the beastmen tried to raid me and he was able to talk them out of it thanks to his appearance.  I haven't completed that game yet, so it's entirely possible there are more events related to him.  Choice and consequence in pretty much any other game pales in comparison to King of Dragon Pass, if I had done something different at some point during these events, the guy's story would've ended up completely differently.

This is the guy, by the way.
I've talked about most of the elements that make up the game, so let me now give you a quick idea of game flow.  The game is divided into years, and the years are divided into five seasons and the Sacred Time.  The Sacred Time takes place at the beginning of each year, after the Tula view.  During the Sacred Time you're given a forecast from the seers of how your harvest will do and any omens they received, you can see your reputation, and you can distribute your clan magic.  Magic is a resource that's gained depending on how high your ring's magic stat is.  The make-up of your ring also determines how much magic you can put into each thing (which are Children, Crops, Diplomacy, Health, Herds, Hunting, Mysteries [increases the chance of learning things from sacrifices), Quests, Trade, and War).  However, it's not a good idea to spend all of your magic during the Sacred Time.  As previously mentioned, magic can be used to give a bonus during combat, and many events can also be solved by liberal application of magic, so you always want to keep a little in reserve,

After the Sacred Time, you move into the Sea season.  The Sea season is the planting season, so you don't want to go on Raids because taking so many farmers away from the fields will result in a poor harvest later in the year.  That being said, if you can muster a good combat force without crippling yourself, enemies will generally be surprised by attacks during the Sea season.  After the Sea season comes Fire, which is the traditional raiding season.  Enemies will be more prepared (and you should be too), but it's also safest economoy-wise.  After Fire is the Earth season, which is the harvest.  Like the Sea season, sending out raids during Earth will result in you crippling your harvest, which is generally bad unless you have a significant food surplus.  The next season is the Dark season, which is winter.  The Dark season is tricky, because most parties sent out will be held up by bad snow and will be forced to return home or even become lost.  The last season is the Storm season, which is like a lighter Dark season.  It can be risky to send out parties, but you're considerably less likely to meet with failure then during Dark.  During any of the seasons you're free to take any of the myriad available actions (trading, sending emissaries on diplomatic missions, deploying exploration parties, making raids, sacrificing and building temples, performing Heroquests, adjusting the management aspects of the game such as pasture and number of farmers vs hunters).  Each season holds two actions before moving on to the next season.  The previously mentioned random events will pop up when times moves (i.e. after you do an action), but they're random events, which means that there's no way of predicting when something'll show up.  Sometimes you'll get multiple events in a season, sometimes you'll go a season without one.  So yeah, the paragraph's long, but the game flow is really pretty simple.

Oh yeah, I'm threatened...  (The sad thing is, the duck totally murdered the champion I sent to face him.)
Lastly, King of Dragon Pass is beautiful.  I can't stress this enough.  Your interface is very nice, your many advisors have their own portraits (which change as they age), and the images detailing the various special events are excellently drawn.  The game also makes good use of differing visual styles to give a unique feel to different types of events.  The paintings at the beginning of the game when you shape your clan are smudgier and more colorful, the in-game events use a more realistic art style, and the style used to illustrate your clan's folk tales is more dramatic.
I definitely don't want to mess with anyone who slings a deer over his shoulders while meeting with emissaries.
The music is also very good, making good use of more folky instruments such as bagpipes (don't worry, it's not too ear-rending) and shakers to give the game a tribal feel.

I really don't have anything bad to say about King of Dragon Pass.  It's excellent, unique, and challenging, and has tons of replay value due to the events and general different directions your clan can go in.  In my time playing the game I didn't notice any significant flaws or bugs.  The game's fairly unforgiving and can be frustrating when, despite all your best interests, things turn out terribly, but that's part of the point, and I'd strongly suggest against save scumming (for those not in the know, that means saving before something important and then repeatedly reloading until you get a favorable result).  Over all it's a brilliant game, and has easily made it into my top 5 games list.

Silly Enastakos, there's always room in the budget for thralls!
King of Dragon Pass is is available for 6.99 from GOG.com.  I highly recommend you pick it up if you're at all interested in storytelling, excellent presentation, choice and consequence, management sims, interesting worlds, or if you just want something different (don't expect action though, there is none here ;)).  Alternatively, the iOS version is 9.99 on iTunes.

And you can conduct lawsuits!  AGAINST GHOSTS!  What more do you need?


  1. Oh, and next time I'll be doing a game from this millennium. I was going to do a more recent game this time, but then I got King of Dragon Pass and knew I had to write about it ASAP.

  2. This has to be one of the more appealing-looking games of its type I have ever seen. Especially that shot of the city view. There's something about the texture to the art that's very pleasant to look at. I don't have time to read the whole review right now (gotta get to bed, class tomorrow), but I will when I get a chance. I'm intrigued by the game now.

    1. Yeah, I found the art and general presentation to be pretty great. I'd definitely recommend looking at getting it. It's a really unique game that, for me at least, sets new standards for storytelling and player choice.