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Echo Bazaar Inspirations: King of Dragon Pass

[This is the second of two posts about King of Dragon Pass. We don't have any kind of business relationship with A Sharp, who make KoDP - we just really like the game. Below, Chris explains why.]When King of Dragon Pass was released on the PC and Mac in 1999 the gaming press didn’t know what to make of it. A genre-blind title from an independent developer, spurning 3D graphics for text and pictures, and set in one of the most bewildering worlds ever forged in the white-hot nerd-fires of tabletop roleplaying? You could practically hear the shrug. It’s a shame, because it’s an exceptional game and an even more impressive achievement of narrative engineering.

It sounds like it’s going to be a strategy game. You steer a clan of Heortlings – people something like Celts and something like Anglo-Saxons – from newly-arrived stick-pickers to tribal kings. You’ll tell them what to build, who to befriend, when to raid and how to pray, while behind the scenes whirrs a merciless simulation of an iron age society. This is a game that tracks your herds down to the last sheep, which is different, do you see, to your last cow and also to your last pig, because in KoDP they are entirely separate resources. Its attention to detail could be terrifying, but it’s not – it’s texture. Because most of your time in-game is spent on screens like this one:

Every other turn or so, you are confronted by an event like this: a slice of story and a set of responses, like an Echo Bazaar storylet. The art is beautiful. The text is clean and urgent, deftly distilling conflict into a single gripping decision. Each choice has its consequences and can trigger follow-up events, with some stories unfolding over decades of play.

The temptation in strategy games is to treat everything as a resource. Effective strategic play means taking a dispassionate, high-level view of events. But King of Dragon Pass’ parade of feuds, venality, romance and nobility keep your feet firmly planted in the soil of Dragon Pass. You’ve no choice but to roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty in the day-to-day troubles of the clan.

While Echo Bazaar saves proper names for a select few characters, preferring the plausible deniability of ‘the Melancholy Curate’ and ‘the Dashing Jewel-Thief’, King of Dragon Pass names everyone and everything: ‘Thanes and priests from the Tree Brother clan come to accuse one of your young carls, Yanioth, of secret murder. “We found our revered god-talker Brenna dead in the temple, a dagger in her back.”’ The game never misses an opportunity to remind you that a clan is composed of people, not statistics. Take a look at the bottom of this screen:

Those faces are your clan ring: its chief and advisors. They’re present on every screen in the game; click on one and they’ll talk to you about whatever you’re looking at, their advice based on their skills, their position, and their patron god. Brilliantly, they never, ever agree. As time passes the faces age and eventually disappear, to be replaced by younger clan members who bring their with them their own voices.

King of Dragon Pass' other great strength is its setting. Glorantha is never less than strange. This is a world whose physics are literally myth. When you choose your clan’s ancestral enemy at the start of play, one of your options is winter itself. Key to your long-term success is heroquesting: sending one of your clan ring into the spirit-world to re-enact the myths that made the world. The risks are vast; the rewards irresistible. You’ll walk through the underworld and see its horrors, wage war against the chaos creatures that broke the world and – if you’re clever and lucky – return from the god-realm with treasures. Glorantha never stops surprising, charming and scaring you.

The game treats its world with absolute conviction, refusing to suggest it’s anything but a real place. You are never permitted even a peek at the maths busy beneath its skin, and are only given information that would be observable to your clan. You can know you have 159 hides of pasturage because you can send some poor housecarl out in the snow to measure it with a stick, but if you want to know about the mood of your weaponthanes you’re limited to a rough description like “resolute” or “unhappy”.

Its focus on people and the world they live in is what elevates King of Dragon Pass from an empire-building game to an enginethat creates satisfying story. Reading back over your clan's saga feels like reading an actual history, only with more dinosaurs and the occasional creature with a hand for a head, because Glorantha is funny like that. No other game has so effectively combined simulation and narrative.

King of Dragon Pass has recently been polished, streamlined, and rereleased on iOS devices, a medium that fits its turn-based gameplay and morsels of narrative better than a big old PC ever did. Popping it out to play a few seasons on a commute is entirely satisfying, and when you’re done you get the unlikely pleasure of slipping a whole world into your pocket. It's not a casual game, nor an easy one, but it rewards the investment you put in. You can find it on the App Store, or get more information here.