Wot I Think: King Of Dragon Pass

put your back into it; it's worth it

A Sharp and HeroCraft’s King of Dragon Pass [official site] is perhaps best described as a management game presented like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but that would be to profoundly undersell it. A new version arrived on Steam last week: is it still as good as the legends tell?

King of Dragon Pass is the best game you’ve never played. Unless you have played it, in which case you’d probably agree that it’s one of the best games you’ve ever played. First released on PC in 1999, it was recently overhauled for mobile, and that new version has now returned home. Despite some unfortunate technological corner-cutting, it’s become more essential than ever.

In the past, I’ve used the phrase “the nexus of all PC gaming” to describe the original X-COM’s deft blend of strategy, roleplaying, tension and storytelling, but maybe that salute is better applied to King of Dragon Pass. So much is fed into it, so many games feed from it. From the agonising weighing of morality against practicality that we see in Bioware-style RPGs to the careful balancing act of statistics familiar from RTSes and roguelikes, this is a grand and beautiful tapestry of concepts. It can’t be approached lightly, it requires study as well as roleplaying indulgence and it can spin off into more directions than you may be able to keep track of. That’s what makes it so satisfying, so compelling, and so fiendish.

You’re in charge of a once-mighty but now down-on-its-luck tribe who settle in the dangerous Dragon Pass, and their well-being is your enduring concern. Food must be provided, farmers and fighters’ needs must be met, trading with other tribes is vital, as is either brokering peace with rivals or crushing them under your heel. Men and monsters alike will bedevil your efforts, while various gods must be placated in order to gain new knowledge and secure healthy harvests. All of this management happens with clicky buttons and simple sliders; characters are usually named rather than shown, and interactions are chosen from lists of text. There’s loads going on, and the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to help you keep track of it all.

What seems at first like juggling 99 dodecahedronal balls soon becomes clear but acute concerns, often directed by pop-up events, your response to which can mean crisis or reward, or something in between. “There are no right answers” is perhaps KODP’s mantra, but nonetheless there are so very many wrong answers. As in Game Of Thrones, characters’ fates can turn on a sentence, or a character’s unknown whim. Approach a rival leader in a way which offends them and you might find yourself at war. Choose poorly in your re-enactment of a myth and one of your tribe’s leaders might be slain by a god. Refuse to indulge a visiting troll’s seemingly pointless request for single combat and you’ll suffer regular skirmishes from hundreds of them, their having become convinced that you’re weak and cowardly easy prey.

Decisions, decisions, countless decisions. It’s enormously stressful. There are butterfly effect consequences to everything: some wrapped up relatively quickly, others haunting you for years. What about that mystic item you agreed to look after for passing nomads? Other groups kept asking for it, and eventually you traded it away for another trinket, afraid there’d be war if you said no. There will be a reckoning when the nomads return: but when? How severe will the repercussions be?

Games such as FTL, with their moment-to-moment, rather mechanical disasters, end up feeling so small by comparison. Bioware-style RPGs seem so hand-wringing, so focused on Good or Bad and what that means, rather than the infinitely more complex business of keeping a community safe. There may be magic and monsters here, but most of all it’s politics, and the horrible compromises and exploitation governance always seems to involve. The dynastic sweep of Crusader Kings and the slow-burn choose-your-own-attrition of The Banner Saga are probably the best touchstones, both thematically and in terms of what your primary concerns are. But it’s X-COM I come back to when I think about KODP, in terms of mood and feel. The ceaseless worry, the sense of the world’s dangers escalating faster than you can keep up with, the crushing weight of responsibility for other people’s lives and well-being, that dread feeling as you watch the numbers go down. Your warriors, your food, your wealth, your allies: so vital, so easily lost.

The only combat there is KODP in is auto-resolved and, like everything else in the game, purely shown as a screen of text and numbers with a single, static illustration. Somehow this feels no less involved than an X-COM mission, as you stare at the statistics, agonise between a couple of options about who to send where or what overall strategy your guys should take, searching for something that might tip the odds, praying that fate will be kind even when the situation is clearly desperate.

Fate does play a big part in KODP’s almost unbearably tense proceedings, but a spine of concrete strategy runs through it. To win, you’ll need practice and research, learning from your past failures and paying close attention to the many screens and paragraphs of mythology unlocked as you commune with this world’s many gods. Certain scenarios are prophesied, while the difficult Heroquests which unlock major bonuses and new story beats require ritualistic precision to complete.

The great disappointment of this new version of KODP is that it lacks the facility to have multiple windows open or a built-in note-taking system, to ease the blow-by-blow reference to these unwieldy myths that’s necessary to beat the Heroquests.

On the other hand, this forces you to take a more painstaking approach, taking manual notes or working hard to memorise and repeat ancient tales: unknowingly recreating the very roots of human storytelling as well as adding a certain sense of investigation. Perhaps there one day will be another new version of KODP, with wiki links and an annotation system built-in, and it will be interesting to see whether this elevates or undermines the game. For now, there are cheaty methods if you so wish, such as copying the URL of the myth page which clunkily loads in a Steam browser window, then pasting it into a tab to refer back to later. It’s a side-effect of a rudimentary port back from mobile: you could only close those screens on iPad, but this too clearly demonstrates that so much of what powers the game is a series of offline webpages.

Seeing how the sausage gets made does mildly disrupt what is otherwise a phenomenal exercise in world-building. KODP’s mythology and lore seems so fully-formed and self-contained compared to most any RPG, its elaborate, careful tales of ancient gods seeming to be as long-held and passed down the ages as our tales of Norse or Egyptian deities today.

Some of the wider presentation is far too rudimentary too, at least in terms of creating a barrier to entry for the wary. Buttons and sliders are ugly, typography is perfunctory, so much information gets awkwardly crammed into small spaces, there are no tooltips, some screens involve an inordinate amount of scrolling but have no mouse-wheel support, and a text-selection interface designed for touch occasionally yields an incorrect option with a mouse.

Again though, these are barriers not deal-breakers: the point here is to lose yourself in another place with a raft of new concerns, your interest not in flashiness but in management. Were King of Dragon Pass more mercenary, it could call itself Fantasy Village Manager and get away with it. However, that would undersell its determination to avoid both trope and mawkishness. This is not a game you can second-guess, nor one which ever emotionally blackmails you into doing the right thing.

King of Dragon Pass might look simplistic and even a little cheesy, but it is enormous, smart and fiendish. Choose your own adventure writ at the grandest scale, and a chance to tell your own history, not a mere legend. While the ‘new’ version is only a baby step towards technological contemporariness and cuts far too many corners on PC, it is nonetheless a more accessible improvement over its 90s ancestor, and most of all it’s a very good excuse to embark upon one of the most rewarding, compelling and tragedy-strewn adventures you’ll ever have.

The 2015 version of King Of Dragon Pass is out on Steam now, or the cheaper 1999 version is available on GOG.

38 Comments

  1. Faldrath says:

    Such a great game. I never played the original, but I did play the iOS one to death (KoDP and 80 Days are the only mobile games I’ve actually enjoyed. Well, there was also New Star Soccer, but that got a bit too greedy with the IAPs).

    It takes a while to learn, but once you do… it’s such a delight. Do read the manual, by the way. I know this isn’t usually done these days, but the manual helps. I haven’t bought this new PC version yet, but I hope it has a manual too!

    • Sin Vega says:

      Oh gosh, 80 Days. That’s the only mobile game I’ve ever bought, and I feel it might be the last, as it can only possibly be all downhill from there. No game has ever made me feel more like I was on an adventure than 80 Days. It’s a real delight.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        I am in exactly the same position. Luckily there still seems to be heaps of 80 Days left to discover. My last playthrough I decided to go via the north pole. Oh my God.

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          Harlander says:

          inkle’s conversions of the Sorcery! gamebook series are pretty great too, especially the third one, which expands the gamebook into a near-open-world thing that works really well

        • Samwise Gamgee says:

          I went through the north pole and completed my journey in 42 days which is great except I don’t think I will ever be able to beat that time!

          • dontnormally says:

            I went through the north pole and died a frigid, glamourless death – it, too, could not be beat!

    • Beefenstein says:

      Hello Faldrath! I suspect you are the same guy from Home of the Underdogs. If so, you send me a book once.

      • Faldrath says:

        Oh hey! Yes, that’s me… it’s been a long time! I have some vague recollection of that event, but I honestly can’t place the details :(

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    gritz says:

    I feel like all of the comparisons to X-Com’s statistical crunch miss a major failing of this game: its systems are frustratingly opaque. And that opacity hugely distracts from making important decisions which is the whole core of what makes this game special.

    You are provided so little (usable) information about the pros and cons of any given decision about things like combat, agriculture, magic and trade that you essentially are stumbling around blind for several hours, even if you follow the tutorial.

    The advice from your ring is contradictory and unreliable, which may be “realistic” and engrossing, but useless for actually deciding how to play the game.

    • nmarebfly says:

      Hate to ask, but did you read the manual? It has a ton of gameplay tips and helps identify some of the only real arbitrary number you need to know. I’ve played a ton of this on IOS and never really felt like things were deliberately obfuscated besides stuff like having to remember ‘oh I’m feuding with this clan because they composed a poem about how stinky my people are.’

      What systems did you find frustrating specifically? How could they shed more light on them when part of the whole point of the game is that oftentimes there is no right answer?

      Also your ring tends to give great advice, but only if they’re highly skilled in the related matter. Like, your Lhankor Mhy guy is going to know lots about law and custom but probably don’t take his word on fighting. Assuming he’s good at his job, which isn’t always the case (but you should know that.)

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        gritz says:

        Yeah, I read the manual. And whatever strategy guide I could find. And read a Let’s Play. None of them could tell me what mechanical benefit I would get from Maneuvering instead of Charging, or spending one point of magic instead of two.

        And even if you understood the mechanics of charge/maneuver/evade rock/paper/scissors, the game doesn’t give you enough information during gameplay to give that choice any meaning. It might as well be completely random.

        Choice in games is only meaningful if the player has some inkling that what they’re doing will correspond to a predictable result. With the lack of information given by KoDP, so many choices are rendered frustratingly pointless.

        • nmarebfly says:

          I agree that a bit more info in combat would be nice, even if it was just clan personalities (like the Blue Raven clan tends to be very aggressive!) — but giving you numbers and plusses and minuses and chances of winning? Vehemently disagree.

          What the manual doesn’t tell you can be gleaned from experimentation. Just checked the manual and it has plenty to say about the combat options — it’s just a matter of how much you want to win versus how much you stand to lose, with charge on one end of the spectrum and evade on the other. Manuever is off to the side and has a chance to work really really well or extraordinarily badly, more a desperation move when you hope you can eke out a lucky win with the odds against you. Honestly, the main thing to remember is that you’re a damn Orlanthi so what you should do is charge right up the middle every time.

          And on magic:
          – The more magic you have on your side in a battle, the better your chance of overcoming the enemy’s magic in the initial clash. The side that bests the other’s magic gets a bonus in the melee.

          That’s… pretty obvious to me. Maybe a note at the beginning of a fight saying something like ‘Their magic seems to be really strong today!!’ might be useful, but if you want an adviser to tell you that you’ll need to spend exactly three points to beat them this is sort of the wrong game for you.

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            gritz says:

            If experimentation is only necessary because the game has deliberately obfuscated its mechanics, then that is a crucial failure of the game’s design.

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      Rhygadon says:

      Normally, I’d agree. In fact, in almost *any* other case I’d agree. Opaque mechanics are almost always a bad thing. But KoDP’s case, they’re arguably the defining conceptual core of the game. You’re an amateur leader of a displaced tribe, without the benefit of science or even much history, in a strange and hostile world. Even mundane things like agriculture are still unpredictable to you, let alone gods and ducks. Tradition is one of the few things you have to go by, and the game is at its best when you start feeling the seductive pull of legend-based conservatism. (Which, to be clear, is as anathema to me in real life as it’s possible for anything to be.)

      While playing, one does feel that dull ache of desire for a wiki to clear it all up. But that would be disastrous. This isn’t a slick, well-balanced system for creating optimization puzzles; it’s a (masterful) scaffold for roleplaying an alien epistemological state. The confusion, the shaking your fist at the unjust heavens, is absolutely part of the game.

    • Tim James says:

      I don’t want to sound like the typical elitist in an RPS comment thread, but the biggest obstacle is your expectations from other games that spell these things out. They don’t make the mechanics opaque arbitrarily. It’s actually surprising (and impressive) how well things go if play the game as intended, by putting yourself in the shoes of a tribal chief in the world of Dragon Pass.

      There are no Paragon points to auto-win tricky situations, though having a reserve of cattle makes things easier for a few years. As soon as you stop trying to game it and start thinking like a chief, you’re well on your way to enjoying the game.

      Except for heroquests. It’s generally acknowledged that they’re too random and difficult, even if you memorize the lore.

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        gritz says:

        No, if the game wanted me to play it that way, it would eschew all of the sliders and numbers it throws at you with minimal explanation. Putting myself “in the shoes of a tribal chief” works fine for the choose your own adventure side of the game, but does not help me understand if I need to clear a certain amount of forestland for crops, or deciding whether cows or goods (measured in cows, of course) and in which amounts are appropriate for a trade mission.

        These are not expectations I’m bringing into a game, these are mechanics built into the game and presented to the player poorly.

        • Skhalt says:

          You need to populate your ring with people able to counsel you in these matters, and then just heed their advice. It’s not rocket science, really.

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            gritz says:

            The ring advice is great (if vague and contradictory) for the choose your adventure sections, but it gives no usable guidance about the strategic mechanics at play.

    • captainparty says:

      If you see it as a story and a roleplaying experience, then you’ll get the most from KoDP, trying to wring the most benefit from any situation takes away any other weight that would have. Knowing the bonuses I’d get for killing the Duck Tribe would turn that decision into weighing up stats, not choosing to fight against a peachful tribe of duck people. Not every game has to be beaten throughly to make it enjoyable.

  3. Person of Interest says:

    Can you talk a bit about the differences between the GOG, iOS, and Steam versions?

    I have the GOG version but the low-res text make the game hard for me to read. (I find CK II unplayable, for the same reason). The iOS version looks much better (example: link to images.eurogamer.net ). How does the Steam version fare?

    • anHorse says:

      Steam version is a mobile port, I think it runs at a higher res than gog but I can’t say for sure because my gog version wouldn’t run last time I tried

      Couple of changes requiring mobile gestures i.e. click and swipe but it’s very functional

    • anHorse says:

      Just checked your screenshot

      That’s the exact version on steam, just ported across obviously

    • WiggumEsquilax says:

      According to the wiki, PC KoDP doesn’t yet have the expanded iOS content. Though that’s expected to be patched in the future.

      • malkav11 says:

        To clarify, the deal is that this is a port of the Android version. The Android version isn’t quite as expanded as the iOS version because the Android version was licensed to a third party and there’s been some additional content patched into iOS since that hasn’t been reflected on Android. The PC port is also licensed and not being done by the original designer(s) for various reasons, but the porting company have said they’ll be working to include that extra iOS stuff now that they’ve got the port done. So it’s definitely an improved and expanded version compared to the original release as sold on GoG, it’s just not the very best version. Yet.

    • jeeger says:

      There’s a pretty good mod called “Better Readable Font Mod” on the steam workshop for CKII, which makes the font much clearer. You can use it without any loss of functionality (ironman, achievements etc).

      • Person of Interest says:

        Thanks, I’ll give it a try. I tried the CKII UI Font Mod in the past, hosted on the Paradox forums, but there was only so much it could do.

  4. ZakG says:

    Nice to see this get some deserved praise, it’s been in my top ten games of all time since i first played it. Right up there with X-com, Moo 1+2, SMAC, CivIV, Darklands, Sword of the Samurai etc.

    For many years i was completely rubbish at it, playing it as a typical ‘wargame’ trying to ‘beat’ the games challenges. It took watching a women play it (my missus) to finally get a grasp on the Hero Quests, and those are a huge key to the game. I can say with some pride i have indeed been King of Dragon Pass, twice, but not managed it again these last three years. The game is not binary and even knowing the right thing to do does not always result in the expected outcome.

    What a fantastic game, and the pen and paper rpg system it was based on was probably my group of friends favourite during those school years.

  5. daver4470 says:

    Don’t mess with the ducks. They’ll mess you up, man.

    • Ialda says:

      Well, they *do* worship the god of Death after all. You dont mess with the Durulz.

      I guess keeping track of all the different myths and gods and pantheons should be easy if you keep a collection of books from the original TRPG within reach; for example, easy mode would correspond to this one: link to glorantha.com

  6. Scurra says:

    Wow, 1999! I must have bought my copy in about 2001 from the back of a dusty shelf in Playin’ Games after it had been taunting me there for months when it was clear that nobody else was ever going to buy it…
    Like ZakG, I made the mistake of playing it like a wargame instead of what it was – the closest thing to a proper pen-and-paper RPG in which the stories were what mattered and the outcomes were both random and entirely predictable. It’s worth noting that the reason the background feels so real is that it comes from an even more venerable RPG setting, the world of Glorantha, that was used in the game RuneQuest and is still being written about and extended today. Not too many fantasy settings can claim that.

  7. anHorse says:

    So, 8/10?

  8. blastaz says:

    Having never played this before I bought it when you announced it was out on Steam as it had always looked like something I might like. And I did. I would say it’s a cross between Darklands and crusader kings as much as xcom. I really like the words and oil painting vibe, more games should use it.

    It’s amazing how freeing text is when it comes to world building even after twenty years of huge 3d worlds, you can still do more with just a few sentences.

    Further playing on normal I found it relatively easy and am about three years away from a short victory only having to look up what I actually needed to do to win and reload one disasterous year.

    I have two broad gripes: features and feedback.

    Features: when you form a tribe I would like more options, ordering around other clans, making feuding clans in enemy tribes pay recompense (as I have to after raids) or make peace. Make other clans join your tribe, etc. Further I couldn’t see how to end a feud properly is there a way to win a war completely any tribe I raid into the ground just regenerates.

    On feedback: a good set oh hyperlinks would be very useful, and for diplomacy so would notifications “this tribe is paying us tribute, don’t raid them etc…

  9. Sakkura says:

    Your ‘official site’ link points to link to rockpapershotgun.com

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    teije says:

    Great, engrossing experience. I suck majorly at it but enjoy every attempt I make.

    Very rarely has a game so clearly evoked a world. JA2 and Sunless Sea are two other games I can think of that do that equally well.

    Re version, playing it on the iPad is definitely preferable with content and UI.

  11. Shakes999 says:

    I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m having a blast doing it.

  12. newc0253 says:

    “ODP’s mythology and lore seems so fully-formed and self-contained compared to most any RPG, its elaborate, careful tales of ancient gods seeming to be as long-held and passed down the ages as our tales of Norse or Egyptian deities today.”

    It’s a shame that, in an otherwise excellent review, there’s so little mention of the Glorantha setting which makes up so much of the game. Particularly in light of how the designers of Quake and Skyrim were so heavily involved in its development, to name but a few.

  13. klops says:

    “[Y]you’d probably agree that it’s one of the best games you’ve ever played”
    Yes.

  14. RegisteredUser says:

    It says a whole darn lot about the state of game development if we have to go back 16 years to something that isn’t generic black/white or oversimplified good/bad and provides depth, challenge and narration.

    And, what a surprise, it doesn’t require 15+ GB of high-def pre-rendered cutscenes to be captivating, provide a story and character and to draw you in.

    If only the majority instead of minority of games and gamemaking revolved around having understood the power and impact of what a truly meaningful gaming experience is.