Six Ages is a strategy simulation narrative game out for iOS from the makers of King of Dragon Pass. For people who have played that game, it feels somewhere between a remake and an extension; it’s firmly within that world, mythologically and systemically. As a result, it’s difficult to talk about Six Ages without placing it in conversation with its predecessor.
Six Ages, like Dragon Pass before it, is a high fantasy simulation game. The setting is caught between the high drama of the gods and the daily life of your clan in a more-or-less Bronze Age world. This is a world in which the gods affect the affairs of mortals, are pleased or unmoved by offerings of herds and goods, and whose myths shape the survival of your tribe. (I mean this quite literally: one of the tasks is performing rituals and Hero Quests that require the players to have read the founding myths in the Lore section and follow them.)
Six Ages is divided into seasons, from which you choose your actions: you can conduct diplomacy with nearby clans, embark on projects, explore territory, go to war. At the beginning of every year, there’s a venture, a project spanning multiple seasons that players don’t have to attend to and will finish on its own. The seasons aspect feels fiddly; with so much possibility, I wanted to do everything immediately, and wasn’t sure where to focus my resources and attention first. Do I want to try and improve my relationship with the Red Feather clan so that they no longer hate us? Or would I rather send goods to the Eyes of Gold and attempt to secure a caravan route? I wanted to have a better sense of what I was doing on a season to season basis rather than throwing resources at problems without knowing what might result, and felt as though I was muddling through. This very much has a gameplay point: as the leader of the tribe, you’re tasked with making decisions and appeasing the gods, but you aren’t always going to fully understand why something works.
And there is a pleasure in that, especially when the game’s long event chains kick in. When a seemingly innocuous choice you made in Fire season several years back turns out to have stoked warfare, the game’s robust reactive storytelling engine truly shines. If I’d just given the Mor-Kagini clan more cows, they might not have been so angry with me; and I wouldn’t have had to give them cows in the first place if I hadn’t accidentally slighted them in the first year of the game by refusing to side with them in a dispute. With a wide variety of possibilities, the struggles of your clan do feel minute, intense, and personal.
One of the most interesting aspects of the personal in Six Ages is the clan’s advisors, all of whom are good at different skills, and all of whom have different perspectives on what’s best for the tribe. After you’ve sent off your riders or warriors or explorers, seasons finish with a random event, where you receive a scripted incident and several multiple choice response possibilities, and your advisors will often be split on the best course of action. A flock of ravens may descend, and a shaman will offer the opportunity to play a trick on a rival clan. Riders from rival clans may appear, each claiming that Kimka agreed to marry him, and demanding recompense for the humiliation; you’ll have the opportunity to decide who to side with, and if you want to save the marriage. Scripted events often zoom in to the affairs of families or individuals, although they have implications for the whole group. It’s this interpersonal drama I find most interesting about the game, and, I suspect, what will get me to come back. Most of the time, the implications of these choices seem opaque or difficult to discover, and I try to pick based on whose perspective I find most intriguing.
But it’s this opaqueness that I keep grappling with; the story aspect and the resource management aspect don’t entirely cohere for me. Six Ages is ambitious: it wants to be both a turn-based strategy resource management game (though it also has a combat system) and a highly-developed characteristic-based narrative storygame, and there will inevitably be places where these drives clash.
Generally, the narrative system seems to take precedence, meaning that encounters can often result from obscure circumstances and have obscure consequences, due to decisions your clan made earlier in a game. I’m interested in this, because of how that obscurity squares with the Saga feature, the sense that your clan is constantly narrativizing how they’ve come to this point. I don’t always fully understand why things happened, but my people don’t either, and that’s where stories come in. The Saga tab doesn’t always include the reasons a venture succeeded or failed–did the Mor-Kagini reject my trade route because we’re poor, because they don’t have enough rapport, or because Kimka is only Very Good at Bargaining? But it does, at least, tell me that that happened, and allows me as a player to watch my relationship with the Mor-Kagini to evolve over seasons, without anchoring me to the mechanical underpinning instances of individual choice success or failure.
This strategy works well for a game built on story construction; there’s just enough information to let me watch my clan elders squabble over what decision I ought to take, without indicating which is the “best” choice. A more resource-focused strategy game might present decisions as inevitable given my balancing acts of previous seasons, which would make the experience less surprising. (And probably less challenging, for better or for worse.)
Which isn’t to suggest that the resource-management side of the game is easy. There’s a constant feeling of juggling things–time, bows, goods, magic–at the beginning of the game to ensure your clan’s safety and progress. But it feels a bit thin, and far less interesting than the emergent story that’s wrapped around it.
The UI feels overcrowded, with three buttons on either side of the main menu, and three below, and each of those opens its own sub-menu. The manual is nested in the Lore section, two nodes deep, and contains more words than I enjoy reading on an iPhone screen in one go. And while the tutorial features are useful, I had to keep coming back to them because there was too much information to keep track of at first. My fault for playing on a plane, perhaps, but for an iOS device, it’s a consideration. For those coming from King of Dragon Pass, it might feel more streamlined, but to a new player, it’s still a daunting amount of material to parse all at once.
Ultimately, it’s that story and resource management interaction that doesn’t quite square for me. I want less resource management, I think–I certainly don’t want less engaging stories, because they’re the game’s strength. Dealing with tribal minutiae is important, but it always feels as though I’m taking a turn in Civ–thinking about what needs to be done, what I have in progress. By contrast, the scripted encounters after seasons feel as though I’m not planning, but going along with the natural rhythms of a conflicted people attempting to carve out a life in a strange world that’s often outside their control. The latter aspect of Six Ages feels more successful to me, and is likely to drag me back in even when the resource management aspect loses my interest. I’m still grappling with how I feel about the game; what I really want is the desktop version, coming in 2019, so I can dive in for a long stretch and not worry about what lore aspects I’m forgetting in between turns taken while standing in line at the post office or waiting for a friend.
Disclaimer: I received a review code for Six Ages on iOS.