Road of Kings by Dancing Sorcerer Games
Dancing Sorcerer Games, 2014
Dancing Sorcerer Games
Road of Kings makes no pretension toward narrative complexity. The game’s protagonist, a procedurally named barbarian (Urd the Dragon in my most recent outing), depicted in his static portrait as a battle-ready but handsome man with magnificently flowing black locks, is driven by a simple goal: amass 500 gold pieces and return by ship to his people within 100 days so that he can be crowned the chief of his tribe. This pragmatic goal might disappoint a generation raised on the grandiose tales of adventure and morality found in Final Fantasy or Dragon Age, but from a narrative standpoint, it’s remarkably freeing. Divorced from questions of right and wrong and achievable in infinitely diverse ways, the quest for riches is a fantasy adventure flavored take on the empty white room in which so many amnesiac protagonists awaken, a horizon point from which any number of potential narratives can unfurl.
And Road of Kings is, surprisingly, a narrative-driven game. It just so happens that this throwback app is also a roguelike, meaning that the narrative it delivers unfolds randomly and is most often punctuated by sudden and brutal death. Typical of the roguelike genre, each play of Road of Kings begins and concludes its own self-contained story–there’s no concept of extra lives, save points, or New Game+. So it happened that Urd the Dragon, starting his pecuniary quest at the desert-adjacent town of Eridfort, spent a few days at the tavern, trotted off to the northwest to help a newfound friend slay a great wolf, then traveled south to wrest a valuable idol from the hands of the savage Ghore, hiring (with the profits from the wolf-slaying expedition) a pair of Renetian crossbowmen to assist in the great battle. However, his new bodyguards proved unequal to the task, and before he could flee the melee, Urd was slain by the chest-thumping Ghore.
Although he did not live to complete his quest, Urd’s memory lives on in the songs of bards and on Road of Kings‘ score page, which immortalizes his brief saga. Whenever I feel the need to relive old adventures, I can check the score page and note that Urd the Dragon amassed 75 gold over a span of 18 days before being killed by Ghore defending their holy idol. That’s a pretty good run, but he was outclassed by Yogund Edrikson (snapped in two by a massive dragon) and Tyr Dulltooth (killed by a band of reavers). One of my barbarians, Clovis Stonespear, actually survived long enough to be crowned king after 74 lucky days, while Magar Slickfingers scraped together 490 gold pieces but missed his boat back home and Scur Bonesnapper gathered 563 gold pieces but, in an overambitious assassination attempt, was killed by Father Warwick’s guards in the priest’s bedchamber.
Like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (Road of Kings is also the title of a Conan story arc), the app’s protagonist is just as likely to liberate a village of oppressed peasants as he is to raze and pillage their pathetic town. The opportunistic, amoral goal the game sets forth allows for the ultimate flexibility in player choice.
In many ways, Road of Kings represents a throwback to an earlier era in game design. Its premise and hex-grid map recall Arnold Hendrick’s 1981 classic Barbarian Prince (now available in a free print-and-play edition from Dwarfstar Games), a single-player adventure that mixed a text-heavy Event booklet, copious lookup tables, and an overworld map to create a story-driven but unpredictable adventure that mirrored the experience of tabletop RPGs.
But Road of Kings takes this quintessentially analog format and folds it into the digital, hiding all of the story-generating lookups and encounter rolls behind a glowing screen reminiscent of a paper theater. As you wander around Road of Kings‘ landscape one hex at a time, you may encounter other wanderers along the road, shieldbearers or mercenaries or Hun-like nomads. Generally, you can either fight these strangers for their gold or hire them to join your band. Stick to the road for guaranteed travel or try to navigate the wilds, with the chance you’ll get lost and end up right where you started, another precious day wasted. Every once in a while, in specific areas, you’ll encounter more elaborate story moments that could result in a named character joining you–if you make the right choices. But be wary, since each follower you lead means another mouth to feed from your tiny inventory of rations (which maxes out at a meagre 20 meals’ worth). You can go hunting at the end of every turn and replenish a few rations, but when you’re leading one, two, or three followers, you’ll seldom do more than break even. After a few turns spent going hungry, your followers will get fed up and leave. Needless to say, if the mercenaries you’ve hired die in combat or abandon you out of hunger, you don’t get your deposit back.
But Road of Kings is about more than just what happens on the titular road. At towns dotted across the land, you can visit taverns and hear rumors of treasure or other quests. Once you’ve caught wind of a treasure (usually guarded by a terrible beast), it’ll be marked on your map with a red X, randomly popping up in a different terrain-appropriate location each game. You can also delve into ruins for a guaranteed source of cash, but it’s far more interesting to follow one of the story threads the game dangles in front of you. There’s a usurper who loves bloodsports, another king who’s started worshiping a strange northern serpent god, a trio of holy relics of the sun god to recover, and more to discover as you play. Some of these story threads offer alternate win conditions if you can see them through to the end, but most are just there to make the game world (and your barbarian) richer.
And it is an incredibly rich, if small and crudely drawn, world. Road of Kings is something of a magical experience–despite its lo-fi presentation, its ability to deliver bite-sized chunks of memorable and endlessly variable storytelling is unmatched on the app store. Or was unmatched, I should say; as of the time of this writing, Road of Kings is no longer available in either the Apple or Android app stores. It’s been killed under unknown circumstances–an email to Dancing Sorcerer Games couldn’t uncover the source of the app’s removal. But its memory lives on in my device, where the game still waits for me to stalk the hills, conquer the ruins and claim my crown.