Return to Glorantha with King of Dragon Pass Successor Six Ages21 Jun 2018 0
In the beginning was an egg, which hatched into an infinite dragon. From the dragon came first two gods, then a third, who spawned a bunch more lesser gods. They fell to fighting, as gods do, and then Chaos invaded, and the Cosmic Mountain exploded and the few humans who were around had a really miserable time of it.
Welcome to Glorantha, a fantasy world like no other. Invented in 1966 by a student seeking to deepen his appreciation of cultural mythology, it has spawned several tabletop games and a single videogame: 1999's King of Dragon Pass. A bizarre mix of strategy and story-telling, it got a face-lift and a wave of adulation for a modern iOS release.
"It only scratched the surface of the wealth of stories you can tell in Glorantha," the designer, David Dunham, admitted to me. "And people have been asking for a sequel for almost 20 years. It wasn't until 2014 that I figured out what sort of game was a worthy successor."
The answer is Six Ages: Ride like the Wind, due for release at the end of June. It takes place during the aforementioned God's War, known as the Storm Age in Glorantha parlance. "It's the mythic past compared to King of Dragon Pass" Dunham explained. "And you’re playing a barbarian clan from an entirely different culture."
In spite of Dunham's implication that it's a different sort of game, fans of the original will quickly find themselves at home. The player is in charge of making decisions for their clan on a season by season basis. What Gods they should be sacrificing to, where they should be exploring, which other clans they trade with or raid in war. I asked Dunham what had changed.
"We tried to address some things that frustrated people," he replied. "Combat is no longer as abstract, while we abstracted food production a bit more, still keeping it as a critical component. There’s also a lot of changes you can’t see directly. But it’s now much easier to add new interactive scenes, new treasures, maybe even new ventures."
The interactive scenes he's talking about are the other key component in the game's appeal. Events, usually tied into Glorantha's unique lore, often pop up, requiring you to choose between various options to resolve them. Children in your village, for example, might suddenly exhibit the ability to wield powerful fire magic they can't control. Do you keep them? Ask a more magic-rich clan to train them? Cast them out before they burn down someone's house?
Whatever you choose, the consequences often lead to further events later in the game, slowly building a clan saga in epic detail. And this, I sense, is where the bulk of the differences lie. "Some changes just reflect the fact that we’re telling a different story," Dunham told me. "You’re in an unknown land, so the map starts blank. It’s also much larger, and you can choose what your party is looking for. You can deal with spirits, as well as gods."
Glorantha is a very unusual setting and Six Ages is a very unusual game. The marriage of statistical management and story can clash as you're rarely able to see exactly why your choices played out the way they did. But Dunham's in no doubt which he thinks is more important to the experience. "If I have to pick, then it's a narrative game," he opined. "The strategy ties together the story. But if you haven’t figured out how to feed your clan, your story might not have a happy ending."
Still, he's made other changes to the game to help the player to understand what's going on. "We still try to fully immerse you in the world, rather than leave you on the outside peering at game numbers," he explains. "But we also tried to give more in-world feedback to explain why things happened. For example, if a hero quest fails, your quester will reflect on what went wrong."
Hero quest isn't a reference to the fondly-remembered board game of the 90's, but another slice of Gloranthan pie. They're ritual re-enactments of stories from a clan's mythology which gain access to powerful rewards. You can undertake them in the game, but your clan starts out with only a piecemeal understanding of these myths. Patching them back together is an important goal of play, which also pushes the player deeper into Glorantha's bizarre setting.
They were also a part of King of Dragon Pass. That game, though, originally came out on PC. With the advent of mobile, Dunham quickly realised the potential of a port. "The short interactive scenes are perfect for very short game sessions," he enthused. "Your clan advisors help remind you of the context, and you can always refer back to the Saga for more specifics about what happened. I think being turn-based helps too, since you don’t have to set aside enough time for a complete Battle Royale match."
Still, launching on mobile alone in the modern multi-platform market seems risky. It's not what Dunham had originally planned. "I'd hoped to launch on more platforms," he explains. "But a bunch of things didn't work out. Luckily, I think the game is perfectly suited to iPad. Sitting back with a tablet is just like reading a great book, except you’re playing one."
In the time I've spent with the preview, it's hard to shake the feeling that I've been here before, in several senses. First, Six Ages plays a lot like a smoother, more refined version of the earlier game. Second, you're back in charge of another bunch of barbarians, which Dunham refers to as the "movers and shakers of Glorantha". But mostly, it's familiar because we're back in the rich and vivid world of Glorantha. I'll take a little sameness in the game mechanics if that's the price to explore this extraordinary place again.
Six Ages: Ride like the Wind is due out on iOS Universal on June 28th, and pre-orders are available starting today.