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Subject: Father and son review of Dragon Pass rss

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Phlebas Sosostris
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Father and son review. A review written by my son followed by a few comments by his dad.

Dragon Pass Chaosium 1980

Players: 2-3
Complexity: Medium to High
Time: 3-5 Hours

Dragon Pass is a hex wargame set in the fantasy world of Glorantha simulating the wars between the Lunar Empire and Sartar. Unlike other fantasy games it is not a Tolkien clone, no orcs, no elves, only one dwarf, but an entirely made up world featuring many types of magic and purely bizarre units like the lunar crimson bat which will devour massive amounts of its own side if it is not fed. When you first look through the game three aspects will hit you; the large amount of units, the overly colourful map and the sketch artwork inside the rulebook. The game goes into great detail with background information explaining the origins of many of the units.

The game uses a scenarios system in which players start with the easiest scenario and work their way up to the full game. This works well to an extent though some scenarios are not worth playing e.g scenario 1. There is also one three player scenario which is not very enjoyable.

Each piece represents a unit of men e.g the Lunar Minor Class Magician 2, a hero e.g the red Emperor, or a magical spirit of some form. There are many different unique units in the game. In general, memorising the exact name of unit is pointless with the exception of the magicians.

The mechanics have many similarities to wargames of the same time period particularly movement; each unit has a movement value and each hex has a movement cost. The main exception is the unique magic system; all units which have the ability to send a ranged attack across one or more hexes of some form are considered magicians. These vary from the organised legions of the Lunar Magic School to the Cannon. Each turn a magician can use its agent to attack.

An unusual feature of the game is the inclusion of stack destroying units. A player can announce that they are destroying an enemy stack using one of these units and the stack is removed. Although each unit can only be used once per game for this purpose, there are about ten of these units in total. The game can be dominated by these units since about forty other units on average will be destroyed this way per game. The positive effect of these units is that players are discouraged from deploying incredibly large stacks of twenty or more units, which would result in a boring outcome. On the other hand, due to the large number of these units, one of the key focusses of the game is to locate and destroy the enemy stack destroyers which can spoil the main gameplay.

There are many different neutrals which can be allied in the game. Occasionally it will be the neutrals which dominate the game as certain neutrals contain large amounts of troops which can do the fighting for the player controlling them without the expense of his/her own units.

The problem in Dragon Pass which does not occur in other boardgames of similar style is the superhero system. Superheroes are five times the strength of the average unit in battle and have many other strong abilities such as being immune to most magic. In the full game, each player has one superhero and there is one superhero which may be allied. The loss of a superhero inflicts a devastating effect and generally determines the result of the game. The game is in general a better than average game if and only if superheroes are removed or their strength reduced.



Flaws

-Superheroes are too strong and dominate the game. However, they can be easily omitted.

-Missile fire is not very effective and adds unnecessary complication.

-Too many units have stack destroying abilities.

-The game can take too much time.


RATING

Right Complexity Level: 8/10
Rule Book: 4/10
Boring?: 7/10
Overall Enjoyability: 8/10
Aesthetics: 6/10


Father's comments

Dragon Pass was a reimplementation of the popular game White Bear and Red Moon. Its greatest strength lies in its feeling of depth. Greg Stafford clearly had spent a huge amount of time inventing the world of Glorantha and the game sits within it. The rulebook contains lots of background material on the world and the units of the game. This inventiveness is also reflected in the special properties of the various units. Hungry Jack can draw other units towards it. The Hellhound can run in a straight line to the edge of the board killing everything in its path. The Earthshaker spirit can make an earthquake. Giants are depicted only by their boots and can stomp on other units. Sir Ethilrist can use his Cloak of Darkness to freeze units within 10 hexes. Duck units can walk on water and have good missile fire. The stormwalkers can move 20 hexes in a turn and create a localized storm destroying a stack of units. The puppeteers create imaginary armies. The dragonnewts fly along mystic rounds and are resurrected at the end of the turn if they are killed. Dinosaurs are forgetful and ally to any unit that finishes the turn stacked with them. There are many more unique ideas.

There was a companion game called Nomad Gods for White Bear and Red Moon, and there were rumours of a third game which never appeared. The rules therefore contain clauses for these games that are not relevant but make you wonder. What is a treasure and what is the dead place?

The diplomacy system works off points. Each player allocates points to each major independent and when they have sufficiently more allocated than their opponent, they can ally them. Who allies whom can determine the game. Getting the third superhero as an ally, and stacking two superheros together can be game winning.

There is a lot of luck in the game with battles very unpredictable. Poor play will lose you the game but good play may lose it too. The game is weighted in favour of the Lunar Empire player. Whilst the free Sartar player is more appealing philosophically, the well-organized Roman-style empire is more likely to win.

Ultimately, Dragon Pass is a classic but don't take it too seriously.


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Craig Truesdell
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I have been looking at this. Thanks for posting.

One of my WW3 naval games has "stack destroyers" which are nuclear weapons which create real problems for armies and navies. You need to bunch up to be more effective, but if you do, and the bad guys go nuclear, now you have to start spreading out again. It can dominate a game but for WW3 games, I am not sure what can actually be done, submarines I guess.

I am reading some mass combat rules for D&D and they have the same issue. You have to bunch up to be effective but if someone has a wizard with a fireball spell, that's really bad for you. That's what makes it a lot different from historical pre-gunpowder battles.

That's why the magic users (Witch King, Gandalf, Saruman,etc) in Lord of the Rings are so lame compared to most roleplaying wizards. They would dominate the battlefield and change everything if they were that powerful.

Reading your review, I think I would have the super heroes act like special forces trying to hunt down the stack destroyers. I am not a fan of super heroes taking on whole armies, just hits me the wrong way.

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jumbit
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ctcharger wrote:
I am not a fan of super heroes taking on whole armies, just hits me the wrong way.


While I can share your feelings about superheroes in this game, nonetheless this is Glorantha, and there are individual people running about with the powers of gods. Here is Jar-Eel the Razoress defeating an entire army by herself. Next, some high priests try the old "Release the Kraken!" on Harrek the Berserk and it doesn't work out so well for them. (3 page sequence) So, it is consistent with the lore of the game world.
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jumbit
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And I should mention that Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron are all lesser gods in human form. They are in fact immensely powerful, but not in a throwing fireballs kind of way. They have the power to inspire or corrupt the hearts of others, which is far more influential than any 10d6 fireball. People will fight harder and give up less just when Gandalf is standing within a couple of miles. The ringwraiths aren't gods but they cause people to flee in terror and anyone who even gets near one of them is afflicted with a deadly condition, "the black breath", which is usually fatal. The elven lords have the ability to stop decay and arrest the flow of time itself. It wasn't for any role-playing reasons or for game balance. Tolkien was deeply spiritual and his heroes and villains reflected his worldview.
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Ray Smith
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Thanks markjoshi for the great synopsis/review!

Yes, DP has its flaws. One big hurdle is gaining familiarity with the very many special unit powers. Lots of rule book consulting. I made individual cards for each one for easy reference. If an upgraded edition ever materializes (I hope I hope!), there is plenty of streamlining to be done.

Regardless, for sheer immersion into a glorious fantasy world, and great fun win or lose, it's still unsurpassed in my book. Definitely worth the effort.

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Craig Truesdell
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I like what you said here. I like how Tolkien treated them, the movies did an excellent job of showing how Gandalf bolstered morale of the men of Gondor and influenced Theoden to ride to Minis Tirith. (still, a Saruman style fireball would have been nice when the bad guys broke through the gate)

I get it though, if the game says they are that powerful, it can make sense if it is done well. It does look like my kind of game.


jumbit wrote:
And I should mention that Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron are all lesser gods in human form. They are in fact immensely powerful, but not in a throwing fireballs kind of way. They have the power to inspire or corrupt the hearts of others, which is far more influential than any 10d6 fireball. People will fight harder and give up less just when Gandalf is standing within a couple of miles. The ringwraiths aren't gods but they cause people to flee in terror and anyone who even gets near one of them is afflicted with a deadly condition, "the black breath", which is usually fatal. The elven lords have the ability to stop decay and arrest the flow of time itself. It wasn't for any role-playing reasons or for game balance. Tolkien was deeply spiritual and his heroes and villains reflected his worldview.
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Chris Hansen
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I really think that for the fantasy time period they are covering with the game, and with the background of Glorantha, you need to include superheroes such as Jar-eel and Harrek.

No they are not balanced compared to regular units, but they are balanced in that there is a superhero per side in the conflict. They are a dominating force, but this is a game of many different dominating forces.

Glorantha is a world of high magic, with powerful wizards and shamans, greater and lesser spirits, things of chaos, and the very forces of nature. Those were all important parts of the Dragon Pass setting, and the board game reflects all that quite nicely. And the superheroes are an integral part of it and an important part of the lore.

Of course you don't have to use them I suppose, after all one can play the game how one wants. I just feel that if you're not using the superheroes though, you're not really fully playing Dragon Pass in the mystical world of Glorantha.
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Craig Truesdell
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Ok thanks. Should pick this up I think...
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Craig Truesdell
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I did not realize it was part of Runequest until just recently. Never did play Runequest back in the day though.
 
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Dan Fielding
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rdsmith wrote:
One big hurdle is gaining familiarity with the very many special unit powers. Lots of rule book consulting. I made individual cards for each one for easy reference.


That would be a great addition to the Files. Nowadays the only way to get people to look at playing a complicated game is with lots of player aids, at least to get them started.
 
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