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Follow-up acts are hard; follow-up acts a full nineteen years after the first are particularly hard, more so when the first is so revered. King of Dragon Pass was a commercial failure back in 1999, but its utterly daring artistic vision led to it becoming a cult classic with a loyal fan base, including yours truly. It was a unique mix of fantasy RPG, strategy, resource management and Choose Your Own Adventure, lovingly portrayed through hundreds of illustrations and several fat fantasy novels’ worth of text. It re-emerged and achieved success as a handheld game on the iPhone in 2011, which in turn led to the development of a long-awaited spiritual sequel, Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind. I stress the phrase “spiritual” sequel – you can absolutely jump into this without having played King of Dragon Pass. I’ll also mention from the outset that I was given a free copy by the developers in exchange for an honest review.

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Like its predecessor, Six Ages is set in Glorantha, a role-playing world developed by anthropologists and historians in the 1960s as a specific counter to the Tolkien-derived generica that was already becoming dominant in fantasy; a marvellous setting with a rich backdrop of cross-cultural lore, mythology and religion. You’re in charge of a clan of about six or seven hundred people who have recently migrated to a new land, trying to settle in amongst their new neighbours, some of whom are culturally similar to you and some of whom are terrifying monsters.

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You control the clan’s agriculture, trade, diplomacy, military raids, magic, exploration and a dozen other things, plus handle the random events which occur regularly, ranging from things as mundane as legal disputes or a falconry contest to totally bonkers stuff like flying skeleton birds or the ghosts of your ancestors demanding vengeance against their killers. You’ll be presented with multiple options and your advisors (who appear at the bottom of the screen and are active characters within the game’s story – fighting, exploring, ageing and dying) will suggest options you might take based on their own expertise, opinion and quite often their own prejudices or agendas. Six Ages very firmly slots into the category of strategy games in which there isn’t always a right or wrong decision, but every decision you make is impactful: everything is counted in the behind-the-scenes tally of how much another clan likes you or how strong your battle magic is or how displeased the gods may be with you.

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Comparing it directly to King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages comes up shinier in a number of ways. Firstly, the decision to keep about 90% of the gameplay system fundamentally the same – the raiding, sacrificing to the gods, keeping track of cows and goods – is a sound one. King of Dragon Pass was a brilliant game. What made it brilliant was its utter dedication to setting, story and worldbuilding, and all that a fan could ask for is a fresh setting and a fresh story. Six Ages delivers this in spades, while also implementing an interesting fundamental change which long-time players of the game will appreciate: you no longer play as the Viking-esque Orlanthi, but rather their long-standing enemies and rivals in King of Dragon Pass, the horse-centric Riders. What at first appears to be window dressing is revealed in short order to be quite clever: the Orlanthi are not merely distant enemies the way the Riders were in King of Dragon Pass, but active clans dotted across the map, whom you can directly raid, trade with, send diplomatic missions to, etc. In King of Dragon Pass, everybody – even the duck people – were Orlanthi. Six Ages has a more split and more volatile political situation, and it’s a clever move by the developers to put you in the shoes of the first game’s enemy, so to speak.

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There are further mechanical tweaks which greatly benefit the game: more transparency in some of the gameplay effects, for example, with the main screen reminding you when you have things like “raiding omen” (the gods said not to raid this year) or “morale stress” (the people are pissed off you took in refugees). This is a handy reminder if you come back to the game a few hours or days after not playing, and I imagine it’s helpful for new players, considering the game’s steep learning curve. Six Ages is also fully compatible with VoiceOver, which I understand makes it completely accessible for visually impaired players.

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In comparing it to King of Dragon Pass, however – and every fan of that game will – the game does literally come up short in one aspect. I beat it on my first time playing, in about 35 in-game years, and found the main storyline to be both quicker and easier than that of King of Dragon Pass. This doesn’t really matter, given how rich the game is in replay value, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t catch me by surprise; I thought I was only at the midpoint of the game, and I think most veterans would prefer to know beforehand that this is a shorter game than its predecessor.

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Though that brings me to the title, which derives from the developers’ intention to put out six of these games, if this is successful (hence the title Six Ages and why I probably should have referred to this one as Ride Like The Wind). That seems like a ballsy challenge – but given how they took an ugly duckling of a concept back in the 1990s, plunged a half-million dollar budget into it, put out a product with a miniscule team, and eventually not only ported their way to a profit but got enough backing to make a sequel two decades down the line… well, who’d bet against them?

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My overall verdict on Six Ages is fundamentally the same as King of Dragon Pass. If you’ve read this review, looked at the screenshots, got an idea of how it plays and thought “nah, not for me” – you’re almost certainly right. It’s a niche title and not everybody’s cup of tea. If, on the other hand, you find your curiosity even slightly piqued, you should absolutely take a punt on it. It’s $10.00 on the app store, and likely the best ten bucks you’ll spend on a game all year.

 

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The World in Winter by John Christopher (1962) 224 p.

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John Christopher, as always, is great for an engaging sci-fi potboiler you burn through in a couple of days. This one’s an apocalyptic story about a calamitous weather event causing a new ice age which renders the northern latitudes inhospitable, similar to the film The Day After Tomorrow, and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s also Christopher’s most nakedly political book, but discussing that will involve spoiling the entire plot, so duck out now if you want to read it.

Scene: London in the early 1960s. Men are men and women are women, and the first act of The World in Winter, while briefly mentioning the news stories about the sun’s radiation dipping, is mostly about the emotionally cold protagonist Andrew, his new friend David, and the love quadrangle that emerges between themselves and their trophy wives Carol and Madeleine: scotch and soda, sitting rooms, suspenders, it’s all very quaint in a Mad Men sort of way, with an emotionally stiff British slant. As the scale of the crisis becomes clear and the British government introduces rationing, David (a senior civil servant) urges the others to emigrate to tropical climes, where he will eventually follow. When the situation worsens, with a military cordon around a snowbound central London and the temperatures steadily dropping, they follow this advice, and the second act follows Andrew, Carol and Madeleine as refugees in Nigeria – the British pound worthless, European migrants lucky if they can get basic labouring jobs, Andrew and Madeleine reduced to living in a slum. The third act follows Andrew after the new normal has set in and he joins a Nigerian hovercraft expedition which is probing back into England for a possible re-colonisation effort, attempting to beat the other African states in a sort of Scramble for Europe. (Yes, hovercrafts. Britain thought they were going to be the Next Big Thing in the 1960s; my only memory of old-school Doctor Who is Tom Baker engaging in a risible hovercraft chase.)

Now, there are plenty of people who consider this a racist book and I can understand why. But I think it’s important to separate product-of-its-time racism (i.e. words like Negress) from a fundamentally racist worldview or assertion. This is, after all, speculative fiction. So what is Christopher speculating, beyond the catastrophic events of a new ice age? It’s obviously a thought experiment in turning the tables, in asking a white reader how they would feel if they were a penniless refugee in a country that resents their presence (even more topical, these days) but also in ultimately asking how a weak and impoverished Britain would feel if the shoe were on the other foot and it was Nigeria colonising London under the guise of aid and charity.

The answer to both of those, of course, is obvious. But it’s the stuff between the cracks that makes it more interesting, and while reading this in the 21st century you’re constantly waiting for the shoe to drop – for Christopher to say something terribly racist or portray Nigerians as hopeless buffoons. He does brush up against this at times, though nothing depicted as negative (Nigeria having a bribery-riddled culture, an undisciplined civil service or a society rife with tribal affiliations) is presented as something inherent to the race. There was something I couldn’t really put my finger on, though. I did think for a moment near the end of the book that he’d finally showed his hand:

Abonitu turned to look at him. “A black man. Some years ago, in your Parliament, one of your leaders said that all Africans are liars.” But for Epimenedes’ paradox, I would say that also. Abonitu, an African, says that all Africans are liars. There is no paradox, really, of course. To be a liar is not to lie with every word one speaks. And we are murderers, too, and cheats and tyrants. Some of the time.”

On the face of it this seems outright racist, and no less so for Christopher putting the words into the mouth of a well-educated Nigerian character. But this segment comes directly after the expedition has just escaped frozen Guernsey, which has been turned into a petty little kingdom ruled over by a violent, ruthless white man. Neither Christopher the author nor Abonitu the character believes that white men are not also capable of being liars, murderers, cheats and tyrants. This may be a sci-fi potboiler but you still need to read between the lines.

It was during those last few chapters, after the encounter on Guernsey when Abonitu takes control of the shambolic expeditionary force, that it clicked for me. I looked back at a book in which the brutish lout who now rules Guernsey turns out to have been the groundskeeper, tormenting his former employer and governor, a decent chap who’s known simply as ‘the Colonel;’ in which a Nigerian princess is extremely kind and helpful to Andrew and Madeleine, while a lowly bank clerk savours their misfortune; in which the two white British members of the hovercraft expedition are portrayed as rough drunkards with working class accents (“hope you can flogging well swim, china”); in which a British Army captain with only a “slight” Yorkshire accent does his unpleasant but professional duty in tear-gassing the East End oiks who attempt to mob his patrol while he protects those lucky souls behind the barrier in central London; in which Andrew fits quite comfortably into Nigerian society after he luckily secures a well-paid job and gets a penthouse with paid staff.

So, like most Englishmen of his generation, Christopher’s chief subconscious prejudice isn’t race: it’s class. Even at the end of the book, when Andrew ultimately chooses to stay in London and help ward off African colonisation attempts – after he has clubbed Abonitu on the back of the head and taken him prisoner – he and Abonitu still speak to each other cordially and cheerfully as though they’re on the playing fields of Eton in the months before World War I. It’s all very fundamentally 20th century British in a Wyndhamesque sort of way.

And like the works of John Wyndham, The World in Winter both an interesting book and a very entertaining one; dated but still immensely readable. I think I polished this book off in two sittings. I really need to track down the rest of his back catalogue.

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