Back in the late '70s, I attended a game convention where I stumbled across a new board game from a company I'd never heard of called Chaosium. It was called White Bear & Red Moon, and it was designed by Greg Stafford. It was set in a place called Dragon Pass in the world of Glorantha--a strange, evocative, well-conceived world--not your typical fantasy drivel about orcs and elves, but containing things like the Dragonewts and plains-dwelling zebra riders. A touch of Moorcock, a touch of Dunsany, but every inch of it was Greg Stafford's. The accompanying art--in glorious, multicolor mimeography, the likes of which I could certainly never coax from my Gestetner--was beautiful. And the game itself was great fun.
When I returned from the convention, some friends asked me what I thought of it. My response: "I am going to California to grovel at the feet of the Master."
I was that impressed.
The world of Glorantha provided the setting for Runequest, a paper fantasy RPG fondly recalled by many a gamer; for some, Glorantha has the same appeal as Middle Earth or Poictesme--an unearthly realm of considerable power.
Of course, this is all background to the game at hand today: King of Dragon Pass, designed by David Dunham, Greg Stafford, and Robin D. Laws--and set in the world of Glorantha. Dunham seems to have been the technical lead; Robin Laws is one of the most interesting paper RPG designers of recent years, creator of Feng Shui (a Hong Kong-action chop-sockey game), and co-designer of Ars Magica.
So, a couple a paper guys and a coder--what do they know from computer games, eh?
They apparently know enough that King of Dragon Pass has been selected as a finalist for the Independent Games Festival, a Miller Freeman event at the Game Developers Conference devoted to "indie games"--games developed by people with no funding from publishers, and meant as a showcase for new and original talent. King of Dragon Pass surely qualifies; you won't find it at the local CompUSA or Electronics Boutique. At present, it's sold solely via A Sharp's web site, a few other web dealers, and in hobby games outlets.
But enough of the background. What's the game like?
That's hard to encapsulate. It's not a shooter, and it's not an RTS. It's an original game design, something all too rare in this world of big-budget clones and version IIIs of titles that sold well ten years ago. If you want a high-concept description, the closest I can come is to say that it's an elaborate version of Hammurabi mated to a series of myth-based text adventures, the myths in this case being those of the strange gods of Glorantha.
You are the head of a bronze-age clan, recently escaped to freedom in Dragon Pass from servitude in a nasty empire. Your goal is to rule your clan wisely and well, attain the favor of the gods, and unite the clans--first into a tribe, and then into a kingdom encompassing the whole of Dragon Pass.
Each season, you may take two actions. A whole slew of actions are possible, including sending trade missions or embassies to other clans, holding a feast to improve the morale of the people, sacrificing to the gods, raiding other clans, and exploring. You are advised by your "clan ring," a group of characters each with his or her own personality and agenda. At the end of each season, some semi-random event happens--perhaps you are attacked by another clan, perhaps a quarrel among your own people arises--and you must choose a response. Acting like a modern general or a greedy bastard (rewarded in most games) will injure you; you must act like an open-handed, noble, bronze-age chieftain. But if you are too generous, the people may starve. In short, this aspect of the game is a matter of resource management; perform it well, and the clan will prosper and its loyalty will increase.
But resource management is not the heart of the game; the focus is on the quests you must perform. One quest allows you to form a tribe, uniting with friendly clans, another to form a kingdom. But you must also perform several other quests (thereby gaining the gods' approval) in order to win.
To perform a quest, you must learn the details of the associated myth. You do so by sacrificing to the god associated with a quest (which takes up one of your two actions for the season and involves the expenditure of resources, so you must not do so too often). And here, you must carefully read the myth, learn its details, and try to reproduce the actions of the myth's hero yourself (perhaps something that will not appeal to some gamers). Since the myths of Glorantha are not the myths we are familiar with--more Amerindian in tone than Greco-Roman or Celtic--this means you have to read text carefully and memorize its details.
There's a feeling of Joseph Campbell here; and a saving grace, perhaps, is that the myths are well written. Most story-dependent computer games have superb graphics and animation and truly lousy writing and dialog; King of Dragon Pass has the reverse--static images, evocative prose.
Static images? Yes; from a conventional computer-game perspective, King of Dragon Pass is a truly primitive product. There's no 3D animation here--not even 2D sprites. Each screen of the game has accompanying art--well-drawn fantasy images--but the heart of the game lies in text interaction. If you're a fan of degraded twitch games, you will find this far too slow-paced, and far too dull. If you're a fan of games that make you think--and of deep, emotionally engaging fantasy--you'll find much to like.
So should you buy it? That depends, of course, on your tastes. If what you want is the kind of spectacle that a $40-million budget can provide, go buy Final Fantasy or Shenmue. If what you want is fast action, go buy Soul Calibur or Quake III.
But if the imitative, narrow palette of modern computer games leaves you cold, if you long for something truly original, or an imaginative and novel approach to computer-game design, King of Dragon Pass is a must-buy. This is what an "indie" computer game should be: a product that the big publishers would never touch because they lack imagination--a game that appeals to an aesthetic sensibility untouched by current mass market dross.
Dragon Pass is not without flaw; the manual is not the best, the interface takes effort to master, the underlying game algorithms are far from transparent, and the droning Celtic-folk music drives me nuts. But I loathe Celtic folk music, and I have a limited tolerance for Steeleye Span or Richard Thompson; musical taste is individual, and for all I know, most players will adore it. (And the options menu lets you turn the damn soundtrack off).
Still and all, this is an amazingly polished and engaging product for a low-budget indie effort.
I must go now. The people grow restless. The gods of our forefathers demand our respect and emulation. Fare well, in Their name.