King of Dragon Pass is a sort of turn-based strategy game developed and published by A Sharp. A classic if somewhat obscure old Windows title, King of Dragon Pass has gotten a second wind of late, finding the funds for a redevelopment and re-release on iOS, and the original getting picked up on GOG. With that coming about, I've wanted to take that as an opportunity to reflect on an older game that ate a lot of my time when I was younger, and since we can one again get it, there's no time like the present. It's one I'd forgotten about myself until a friend suggested it to me from GOG and purchased it for me, and I'm glad they did, certainly, getting a chance to relive the neat little game that it is was great fun.
King of Dragon Pass is ultimately about a story
And one thing it does very well, especially for the time, is that it is your story. Presented through a sort of series of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style choices, the prologue sets the scene: you're the leader of a tribe of people whom originally emigrated from the titular Dragon Pass, but having fallen upon some variety of hard times - what, specifically, somewhat dependant on your choices - you make the decision, along with some other tribes, to resettle this legendary area despite the dangers you know it holds. With your chosen deity and others on your side, you must do your best to find success in that dangerous land of myth and mystery.
King of Dragon Pass thrusts the player into the sort of mythical-Nordic-themed world of Glorantha, and there's a lot of intricate detail even in the sort of cursory glance at the source material that the game offers. Its nowhere as deep as the tabletop source, but it's a very good cross-section of said world. One master-stroke in story-telling is making the over-arching goal of the game to complete Heroquests to achieve leadership of the various tribes of your region. Each 'Heroquest' is essentially a chosen hero of the tribe reliving the mythical story of one of the gods of the realm, and since it's presented in a format where you make your own choices, it avoids complete linearity and allows for you to solve those old problems of myth in some different ways if your hero has different advantages. It's a really neat marrying of the game lore, theme, and gameplay together that even so many years later, today, we don't get enough of.
It is a good harvest
At the heart of King of Dragon Pass' gameplay beyond that goal is essentially a management sim - you are balancing the needs of the clan you created over the seasons and years. It's somewhat unusually segmented in that way, each "turn" is a season, and each of those seasons is part of a broader year. Every year you can spend the 'magic' of your clan to improve different attributes, such as their efficacy in war, health of the tribe, or the harvest, among other options, and then each season you micro-manage the various aspects of the clan to ensure that everything is seen to: farming and hunting, magic, political relations with other tribes, trade, war, and exploration.
Each tribe has several different kinds of members - farmers form the bulk of your population and tend the fields, weaponthanes are the trained, professional soldiers you have on retainer, nobles are the pool of political leaders you have to form the clain council with, crafters produce trade goods to use in trade and diplomacy, hunters are essentially your backup food source, and if your clan supports the taking of slaves (one of the political choices you make in the creation of said clan), you may also carry thralls. Of each of those categories, you have the healthy number, the ones that are sick if any, and the ones that are wounded, if any. Of these number, you can recruit additional farmers or weaponthanes from a variety of sources, with varied levels of success, odds that can be increased by offering sheep along with land, or even more so by offering cattle. Hunters meanwhile are culled from the number of farmers - you can reduce the number of hunters to have more hands in the field, or vice versa.
Farming and hunting form the backbone of a successful tribe, since the need for food is omni-present, and you will have to balance the three sources of food. In particular - the more land you expand into for pasture-lands and fields for crops diminishes how much you can hunt in the wild, and how you divide the fields you have for pasture and crops also affect it. The wheat of the crop-lands is the staple and most abundant food, but cows and sheep in pasture are valuable trade goods (indeed, other trade goods are measured in how many cows they are worth), and the hunters will sustain you through hard times such as bad harvests or particularly harsh winters, so there is a balance to be struck there and there was definitely some play it took before I got the hang of it. It be a bit deep for some players, as with the management of the game in general, though I personally enjoyed the management offered by KODP once I got the hang of it.
The Seven Lightbringers
Magic is the central part of the game thematically, as your tribe will have a patron deity to pay homage to, and things like healing rituals are the means by which to heal the sick and wounded. There are basically three things to do here - for each god you may build a lesser shrine or a greater shrine, for one or two of their boons respectively (which change based on god, of course), or you may offer any god a sacrifice to temporarily receive one of their boons your do not already receive, or to receive insights into the mysteries of that god, expanding the lore you know for their respective Heroquests. The third thing is to embark on a Heroquest, which sends one of your village nobles on a mystic quest to retrace the steps of the gods, as described above.
I could go into some detail about the different gods, but that would be quite the mouthful, suffice to say there is quite a complex and interesting politics of the gods, with each of them interacting with each other in different ways that are interesting. For instance the minor goddess Vinga allows a boon that allows your women to defend your lands (tula) that you otherwise would not be able to have. There's all kinds of interesting nuance and lore to each god and none of them are objectively bad - they all offer different benefits and it's more a matter of what suits your play-style and how many shrines your clan can support as it grows - you can build quite a few and I never found a hard limit, but each one has a maintenance cost of sacrifices of goods and cattle every year, so over-building will harm you.
Elmal Guards the Stead
Sooner or later you will end up in conflict with other clans, whether it be by them raiding you, or you deciding to expand yourself. Even if you don't, there are all variety of monstrous raiders in the lands that will see especially a starting, fledgling tribe as an easy mark, and they won't offer you a choice in the matter. Proactively, there a variety of fortifications you can build that give you more warning and help defend yourself, building walls, a stockade, ramparts, and the like, all make your land more defensible and help see your defence be more successful.
Offensively, you can launch cattle raids - night-time attempts to steal the cattle of other clans - or full-fledged raids which are full-scale offensive raids against another clan. One of them gets you the goods, the other strikes a mighty blow against your opposing tribe - if you're successful. In launching either, you'll be asked how many weaponthanes and untrained footmen to commit - for a cattle raid you'll want to be as small as you think you can get away with, as more soldiers is a greater chance of detection, while in the latter it is the opposite, since you'll want to commit the largest force you can without leaving your lands undefended while you're away. As time goes on, you'll also be able to call upon alliances, your tribe if you form one, and clans that owe you favours, to fight alongside you in offensives, and they have a chance of warning you or assisting you on the field if circumstances allow.
Combats themselves essentially are auto-calculated - you set what tactics to use and if you make any offerings to the gods beforehand, and then the game gives you a narrative that explains how the battle went. In some instances, you might be given some choices to make in pivotal moments in the battle, such as whether to chase a fleeing enemy, or how your leader might try to inspire your forces if they are flagging, which can affect the outcome. However, I do find this to be one of the weaker aspects of the game, since such important a moment as a pitched defence of your tula for instance could be feel somewhat uninvolved to say the least. There's skill to the combat, but it's in the management sim sense - the setup, having everything right to succeed, rather than in tactical or strategic acumen.
Politics might kill, but they're also essential
The name of the game hints at the over-arching goal of the game: to unite the tribes and become the titular "King of Dragon Pass" (or Queen, one supposes). In doing so, forging relations with the other clans in your area - and as time passes, the native inhabitants, such as the monstrous duck-men or industrious dwarves - and as such political choices are important.
This is where the aforementioned clan council - "The Ring" - comes into play. From your pool of nobles, you select the best among them to advise you on topics such as war, magic, the harvest, and trade, as well as one to serve as chieftan. You will want one with good attributes in their chosen field, as they serve as your representatives in such matters, and as such, those stats are important. Furthermore, in each random situation that comes up, provided your councillors are not predisposed (sent off on a political envoy for instance), they can advise you on what would be considered the appropriate response to the situation. Your councillors will each have different interests, so each one may offer different advice and reasoning, and its up to the player what choices they make and which interests they most pursue.
Where the story really comes into it's own is in that. Those choices are remembered, and can have long-term reprecussions for the tribe. Perhaps you will find an ancestral spirit that protects your tribe and offers additional boons you would not otherwise have in your magic. Perhaps you will spark a long-standing feud between yourself and one of the other clans. This is what the game does best - it weaves the players choices into what feels is a compelling story. A saga for the tribe you can then re-read, or even save to share with others, and there's a certain joy to the idea you're creating your own story you can share with others, definitely.
Exploration becomes an important aspect after you get your feet under you - sending parties out to explore the realm and make first contact with different tribes. You're given the choice of who to send - who will represent you if something comes up - and how many weaponthanes and soldiers you send with them. This is always a careful balancing game - you want to send a competent and meaty group if yo come into combat, but because exploration is so risky, and can often lead to deaths, you don't want to send so many people you're crippled if the exploration fails, and you while you will want a leader that represents you well, you don't want to send someone you'd be lost without, either. The risk of that exploration can yield great rewards however - finding new trading partners, sacred sites you can make offerings to, or even unique artefacts that give your clan a distinct advantage in some significant way.
The culmination of that overarching goal does video game design right as well - you have to combine your political acumen with leveraging different clans, with military might to destroy their detractors, economic strength to sustain the larger undertaking, and ultimately, a grand Heroquest to prove you are a marked leader to unite the clans into a tribe. Pull all of that off and it's a victory in the easy difficulty - in the harder difficulty, you have yet another step - you will be one of what could be many tribes, and you have to further unite those tribes under your crown to become that titular King of Dragon Pass. This is what the final objective of any game should be, in my opinion, a sort of final examiniation, seeing if you have mastered all the components of the game, and King of Dragon Pass does this well.
The world King of Dragon Pass offers us is gorgeous
I would be remiss if I ended this review if I didn't expand on just how well this game is themed. It really is what elevates the game from just another management sim with a curious but interesting emphasis on narrative, to the unique experience that King of Dragon Pass is. The hand-painted art on offer throughout the various scenes is nothing short of gorgeous, and there's quite a lot of it, especially for a game of it's age. The soundtrack, composed by Stan LePard is also of particular note. It's not the best thing I've heard, though don't get me wrong - it's very good, but what it is, is absolutely perfect for the game. Thematically, the choice of instruments and the composition as well as the compositions themselves do so much to evoke the mystical sort of tribal Nordic feel of the game, and I absolutely adore it to bits. It works so well in the context and at reinforcing the context.
The biggest bugbear is technical issues
While I'm told that the Steam version of the game is actually better in that regard, I don't own it there, but rather the GOG version, and I have to say, it definitely represents the biggest problem of the game in the technical aspect, as it were. Which is to say more plainly: getting the game to work was a bit of a pain. It involved disabling my second monitor, and compatibility mode fiddling, and a lot of it. While it was stable as all hell when it did run, with not a bug in sight - very notable for any game these days and the late 90s were no exception - the road to getting it working was so arduous, a good hour, that it'd definitely be a turn-off to many. I can't really fault anyone for that, but it's a shame since the game itself is so excellent. A testament to the problems that often come with trying to run a late 90s game on modern hardware, one supposes.
(It's worth noting that at time of writing, the Steam version could be more stable, but it's also literally almost twice the regular price of GOG: 5.99 USD at GOG, with Steam being 12.99 CAD.)