King of Dragon Pass is a game in which I coerced a tribe of ducks to pay me tribute, raised several triceratops and trained them to plow my fields and sacrificed ten cows to kill a vampire. That get your attention? Excellent. Read on, my friends, for tales of mirth and misery lie forward and the poets shall sing of your exploits until the sun no longer shines. Come, join me by the hearth and let me spin you a story like none other!
No, I’m not going to do that for the entire length of this article, I still want to talk about the game. Now, I came into this game woefully unprepared and uninformed. King of Dragon Pass came out in 1999 and I haven’t played it. Between 2011 and 2014 it came out on iOS, Android and Windows Phone, and I haven’t played it (though a friend did occasionally rave to me about how great it was). Two years ago The Banner Saga, a game allegedly bearing some similarities to the item at hand also came out and got praised almost universally. I say “allegedly” because I haven’t made time to play The Banner Saga yet. But I played the recent Steam release of King of Dragon Pass for ten hours over the course of two days, so I’m going to talk about its own merits rather than how it compares to its predecessors.
Boy, I hope you love reading
Now, now, calm yourselves. This is by no means a warning about the length of this article (after all, I have some more KoDP to play after I’m done writing) but rather a fair warning about the sheer amount of lore, stories and dialogue lines there are in this game. Developer A Sharp delivered in King of Dragon’s Pass the most mechanically complex interactive book that I’ve ever played. I approached it with some degree of apprehension, because from the very beginning, the game throws a lot of lore at you: Orlanth The Storm God, Uralda The Cow Mother, King Heort, Trolls, Elves, The Pharaoh. It gets a bit overwhelming, until you realize that it’s just asking for your input in order to determine your starting bonuses and other stats, then throws you in a (mercifully) less academic environment.
You are given command of a clan of barbarians descended from the Orlanthi (people who were under the protection of The Storm God mentioned above) which are heavily influenced by the Iron Age Norse. The Orlanthi are a largely agrarian people. Most of the population is involved in tending to either the crops or the herds and your main currency is Cattle. Even when you acquire riches or goods, their value is estimated in cattle. You may assign seven advisers to your council (or clan ring), each with his or her own specializations (be it leadership, combat, agriculture, diplomacy), personality, opinions and faith.
Whenever you want, they will give you their often conflicting opinions based on either the situation at hand or the clan management screen you’re in. You begin the game during the Sacred Time: a short period before the beginning of the farming season where you are given some stats about the previous year, your overall clan reputation, a forecast for the following year and an opportunity to assign your Magic points to various domains: Crops, Herds, Trading, War, Diplomacy, Quests and more. Magic is a limited resource which replenishes yearly (and can be gained or lost during events) and gives you a slight edge in all actions that are part of the domain, for example, assigning Magic to Crops gives you a more bountiful harvest and fewer food losses.
After this, the calendar year begins. It is split into five seasons: Sea, Fire, Earth, Dark and Storm which roughly correspond to late spring, summer, fall, winter and early spring. Each season you may assess the situation, view your stats, perform minor adjustments to the distribution of your people and undertake two major actions. Your choices, as far as actions are concerned, are plentiful and each come with their own risks, rewards and costs. You may want to pursue a warpath. In this case, you’ll want to train many Weaponthanes (warrior nobles dedicated to fighting) to lead the bulk of your army (which is composed of little more than armed farmers) into battle. However, paying too much attention to the Weaponthanes will upset your farmers, there being a constant rivalry between these to castes. You may raid your neighbors for cattle or other resources, but this may bring your clan into a feud with them, and additionally raiding during the Sea season when the crops are sown, or the Earth season when they are harvested will leave your farmers understaffed, and your food supplies will suffer. These are the kinds of subtle nuances that King of Dragon Pass subjects you to.
You may wish to be a peaceful clan. You will send constant emissaries to resolve feuds and forge alliances. You’ll negotiate trade agreements and explore distant lands. You’ll be raided less, by other clans, but you’ll also be under-prepared for raids by beastmen or trolls. You’ll send ranging parties to the far reaches of the continent and have them be repeatedly destroyed by the legendary Cragspider because you didn’t listen when she first told you never to bother her again. You may also learn the mysteries of the gods and build temples to them, which give you various bonuses based on the god’s domain, and learn their ancient myths which you can then reenact by using a kind of astral projection and receive rewards most bountiful that the people of the earth may gaze in awe upon them and…I’m doing it again, aren’t I?
King of Dragon Pass, interactive picture book
I’ve certainly gone on about it, haven’t I? And I haven’t even gotten into the meat of the game, which are the events. Each time you perform an action, there is a chance you will be met with a random event. These are usually crises both big and small that are affecting your clan, and you need to choose a resolution for them. Your clan ring will help and each of them will give you their opinion as to what the best options, in their opinion, would be, but the final choice is yours, and the clan ring won’t mind if you disregard them. The game tells you early on that there’s rarely a “wrong” choice, but each choice does have its consequences, both good or bad. For example, you may be asked for asylum by a group of Orlanthi refugees fleeing from the tyrannical Pharaoh. You may turn them to another clan, if you don’t want the hassle, adopt them into your clan as either commoners or nobles or even as thralls (essentially slaves). Based on your clan size, total land owned or tradition regarding the ownership of slaves this can affect your overall clan mood, your food supply, your agricultural productivity or your military power.
And there are literally hundreds of these events, each one unique, with many ramifications, some will even be followed up later and offer more options (such as my early example of the triceratops eggs that I found, which I could have either traded away, sacrificed to the gods, trained for battle or burden). Furthermore, each event comes with one or more intricately drawn and colored picture depicting it.
Your goal in King of Dragon Pass is, for the “short” game, to perform one of the Heroquests I mentioned above, so that Orlanth will grant you permission to form a tribe. Having succeeded this (and you will fail several times before you do), you will begin negotiations with other clans, a minimum of four, to form the tribe. Each clan will have requests and some of them will conflict. You will rarely be able to please everyone, because each clan has harbors its own animosities and sympathies, but eventually you will succeed. Finally, you must become the clan’s king and rule uninterrupted for ten years. It won’t be easy. It won’t be pretty. Representatives of the clans will come to you with their problems. They will bicker among themselves. They’ll have requests and they’ll make accusations and you have to find a way to please them. The “long” game is similar, but you will have to become the eponymous King of Dragon’s Pass. All of it.
King of Dragging Fingers on Glass
Now I’ve definitely went on too much, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the complexities of the game, but let’s talk about some of the issues it has. First, and most glaring, is how obvious the fact that it’s a mobile port is. Various screens in the game contain scrollable lists where you can neither click on the entries, nor actually use your Gods-given mouse wheel. You need to press, hold and drag to use the list. Like on one of them mobile cellular telephone machines that kids these days use. However, my trustworthy friend that has been playing this since days long gone when Orlanth walked the Earth has assured me that the developers are working on improving the interface, and that’s definitely something to look forward to, but it would have been nice to have scroll functionality already implemented. The music and sounds are decent. Nothing to complain about, nothing to rave about either. After a while I turned them off entirely and played my own music.
The art, however, is where the game really shines. I don’t know how much justice these screenshots do it (what do you even show people from a game that is mostly text, UI and paintings?) but it really takes you back, both to the silver age of video games and to those distant times of farmers and raiders. I know I’m going to sound incredibly nitpicky right now, but some small, subtle animations within the event images would have made this great game feel incredible.
There’s a lot of World in King of Dragon Pass and a lot of lore. This is both a blessing and a curse, because while I love good world-building, there are times when knowing the lore intimately is mandatory to your progress, such as during the completion of Heroquests. Had I been younger, such as back in high-school when I played Morrowind and knew every scrap of Tamrielic lore, I would have dominated Dragon’s Pass. But we’re all grown up now, and some may feel that their time is not best spent learning about fictional worlds, and therein lies the greatest caveat in my recommending this game. It won’t be for everyone. I, personally, loved it and it’s probably going to be one of those games that I’ll gladly replay every now and then, but it may not be the game for you. However, if you’ve read this review and at least some of what I’ve told you about it gets your attention, you should know that there’s much more that I haven’t mentioned, and I’m confident that you’ll enjoy it.
King Of Dragon Pass was reviewed on the PC.
Disclosure: Game copy was provided by the developer/publisher
PS: I initially wanted to include the following anecdote somewhere in the review body, but I feel I’ve already outstayed my welcome so if you’re still with us, consider this an extra. You’ve purchased the Director’s Cut, so to speak. This game was immensely hard to get into for me as a skeptic. First few tries, I played the way it came naturally to me. Straight-laced, minimal attention to religion and superstition, full on technology and diplomacy. However, this is not a game of doubt and critical thinking. It is a game in which the Gods are very real and superstition is a palpable thing. So do yourselves a favor: if the shadow of a bird passes over the head of a young unmarried maiden, don’t ignore it. Sacrifice some friggin’ cows to someone, because you can and will get a bad harvest or ten years bad luck or whatever.