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David Roe
Ireland
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Dragon Pass is Avalon Hill’s title for Greg Stafford’s game, originally published by Chaosium as “White Bear Red Moon.” It is essentially the same game with better components and a radically re-written rule set, done with all the best and worst features of AH’s rule writng style. Horrors like “3.5.4.1.1.1.2 Chaos Magic Point Allocation” abound.

DP is a fantasy wargame, with hex movement, some diplomacy elements and a very 1970’s wargame “feel” to it. The game is set in Stafford’s Glorantha world that was to give birth to his Role-playing game Runequest, and a host of fan-written fiction, supplements, invented history and general fandom. However, knowledge of any of this background is certainly not required and the game has it’s own atmosphere and flavour.
The board depicts the plains and valley of Dragon Pass. To the Northwest is the Imperial border of the Lunar Empire, the plains of Lunar Tarsh. To the Southeast are the mountain ranges of western Prax and Sartar. In the centre of the pass lie several independent kingdoms, mountain ranges woodland areas and plains. The board shows nine fortresses. Three each in Tarsh and Sartar and three independents. These are the strategic objectives – each side wishes to capture the others which provide victory points at game end.

The Lunar and Sartar force mixes include Heroes, Superheroes, cavalry, infantry and magical forces in varying amounts. All the units are unique and each side has large variation in the counter mix. The Sartar wizards are generally weaker than the Lunar forces, but are also quite strong in hand-to-hand combat. The Lunar infantry is weak but is present in large numbers.

The independent forces range from the tiny – the Beastmen have less than twenty units, to the super-powerful regenerating DragonNewts. During a diplomatic phase, each side allocated secret diplomatic points to try to bring the independent forces over to their side. Once activated these units are set up within their own borders which can have a considerable strategic impact.

Player turns consist of a standard move-attack series of phases. Combat is calculated with a single dice throw on a CRT which compares the force’s total combat strength, modified by terrain and ranges from the target losing from one sixth to all of the attacker’s strength in combat strength. Surviving enemy forces always counterattack, and do so at double strength, with no account taken for defensive terrain. Overwhelming odds can guarantee victory, but risky attacks can lead to disaster for the foolhardy attacker.

Magic is normally a ranged attack from the physically weak wizard units. These normally require a “spotter” unit to engage the enemy in combat, but before the physical combat is resolved, magical attack is allocated from any magic units in range. The defender allocates defensive magic and the magical combat is resolved first. Normally only the top unit of a stack is revealed, so nasty surprises can result from a carelessly planned magical attack, if strong defensive magic is revealed.

The real charm and appeal of the game is the enormous detail of the various forces. Unique and special units abound – from the tac-nuke-like Dragons to the Zombie army of Vampire Lord Delecti, to Sartar’s Duck units. Most of these have special abilities or weaknesses which, once the initial learning curve is passed can spark all kinds of strategic and tactical possibilities.

Of particular note are the superheroes. Sartar and Tarsh have one each, while an independent must be allied through diplomacy. These characters, Harrek the Beserk, Jar-Eel the Razoress and Androgeus are by far the most powerful units on the board. The most powerful cavalry units have a strength of seven, while each superhero has a strength of 20. In addition, they are immune to all magic, and can protect up to three other units stacked with them from magical attack. Should they ever be killed, they appear as reinforcements on the following turn on a roll of 3-6 on a die. Lesser heroes are almost as powerful, ranging up to strength 12, and regenerating on a 4-6. These leaders add strength to units they are stacked with and can confer other powers too.

A two player game can last up to three hours, less if the players are very aggressive. A three player variant is also detailed. This has the entire independent force as a third player and drops the diplomatic element. As a variant it is fun, but lacks balance, since the independents are inevitably squashed by the forces on either side.
As fantasy wargames go, Dragon Pass is exceptional, purely for the righ world it depicts. As a two player wargame it is packed with strategic and tactical possibilities but can be fiddly and slow.

The rule set is the absolute nadir of Avalon Hill obfuscation and opacity. I once sat in on a game with Greg and he was at pains to point out that he hated what the AH editors had done to the original. However, anyone who has tuned in to the Avalon Hill style or has struggled through the rules to Dark Emperor should be able to manage this.

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Josh
United States
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While I haven't seen this game in fifteen years, I tend to remember it as a lot of very promising ideas that suffered from poor execution. The components promised endless variability, but the rules were totally unintelligible (AH version, I should specify). If you took the time to, ahem, "play with yourself" it became very clear that there were lots of ideas that would never be applicable (i.e. needless complexity), and worse, there were counters with symbols that were not defined and thus unplayable. To me, the game seemed promising but wilted immediately when played. I always has this suspicion that the game needed a radical rewrite of the rules, and a gem would emerge.
 
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Kevin Whitmore
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Albuquerque
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I agree with Josh. I played Runequest, and really wanted to like this game. Sadly I finally gave up and traded it away. I wish I could have played this game with somone who already knew the rules. The board is beautiful, the counters were nicely detailed, the world was dripping with atmosphere, and I could even draw upon my rpg memories of campaigns set in areas shown on the map. The AH rules were totally opaque to me, and after several unsuccessful attempts to learn how to play, I finally bagged it.

But I'd still gladly sit down to play if the other player could just teach it.
 
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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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Corvallis
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It's been many years, but I played and enjoyed the first 2 or 3 scenarios. I have no recollection of symbols on counters that weren't described, and the rules seemed OK to me, but then I played all the AH wargames and was used to learning from their rule sets.
 
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Josh
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Kevin makes a good point- The components were BEAUTIFUL and the graphic design was the epitome of atmospheric fantasy. I was a fairly experienced AH gamer, but the rules were rediculously dense even by their standards. I could see this game being a blast if you had someone experienced with the rules tutoring you, as I'd expect they would have adapated around the gaps in the rules.

I don't mean to be down on the game by a long shot. But to me, I can think of no game where there was more of a disconnect between such obviously promising ideas and the reality of its crippling execution.
 
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Steve Hope
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Woodside
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FWIW, I am working with Greg on a new game set in the same world, but with a vastly streamlined set of mechanics (and therefore rules).
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Aaron Bredon
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droe wrote:
The rule set is the absolute nadir of Avalon Hill obfuscation and opacity. I once sat in on a game with Greg and he was at pains to point out that he hated what the AH editors had done to the original. However, anyone who has tuned in to the Avalon Hill style or has struggled through the rules to Dark Emperor should be able to manage this.


That's strange - I just compared my AH Rulebook to my Chaosium rulebook - they are section for section, almost word for word, the exact same. Unless Avalon Hill was editing the rules for Chaosium years before the deal for Runequest & Dragon Pass, the opacity of the rules comes from Chaosium (Robert Corbett & Gregg Stafford have the credits on the Chaosium version).

About the only thing that changed from the Chaosium version to the AH version is that in the AH version, the map is mounted on cardboard cut to accordian-fold, where the Chaosium version had the map on thick paper (and the Chaosium map uses brighter colors, which look better to me).
 
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Ray
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Carpentersville
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Sphere wrote:
It's been many years, but I played and enjoyed the first 2 or 3 scenarios. I have no recollection of symbols on counters that weren't described, and the rules seemed OK to me, but then I played all the AH wargames and was used to learning from their rule sets.


They were outlined in the errata (I can't remember if it was the General or Heroes Magazine). Some special symbols that gave better costs in terrain (like the ducks on water) but were for terrains not in this game but the sister game Nomad Gods. The idea was owners of both games could combine them.

In short ignore them as if they were not on the counter and you are playing fine.
 
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Enrico Viglino
United States
Eugene
OR
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I've got the Chaosium rules, and Dark Emperor is a whole lot easier to cope with.

But, this is also a far more complex game than DE. This was a bad era
for AH - really their rules stopped being at all bearable in the 80's.
 
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Matt Price
United States
San Francisco
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stephenhope wrote:
FWIW, I am working with Greg on a new game set in the same world, but with a vastly streamlined set of mechanics (and therefore rules).


And hooray! It may soon (ish) see the light of day!

Good luck, I'll be on board as soon as the project launches
 
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