If you’re tired of mindlessly tap, tap, tapping mobile games, then consider Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind, a Bronze Age fantasy role-playing simulation game for iOS. This complex game challenges you to guide your exiled clan through a dangerous world already teetering on the edge of apocalyptic disaster. You’ll have to deftly manage your people, magic, and cows to see your clan safely through this punishingly hard but entrancing story. Complex, challenging, and rewarding, Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind is one of the best iPhone games you can purchase for your Apple handheld.
A Little Prehistory
Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind is a prequel and spiritual successor to the PC game King of Dragon Pass, which was adapted and rereleased for iOS and Android in 2011. Both games are set in the world of Glorantha, a fantasy universe originally created in 1975 for the tabletop wargame White Bear and Red Moon. In the intervening decades, Glorantha has been the primary setting for the RuneQuest RPG system, itself an original peer of Dungeons and Dragons.
Game designer and author Robin D. Laws is the primary writer of Six Ages, helping produce some 468,000 words for the game over 400 playable vignettes. David Dunham, one of the original creators of King of Dragon Pass and the primary designer of Six Ages, envisions Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind as the first of six generational games. The next two are hinted at in the Six Ages app, and are currently titled Lights Going Out and The World Reborn.
If you’re already a RuneQuest fan, or you played the original King of Dragon Pass, or are a fan of Dunham and Laws’ work, you’ll probably love Six Ages, which is available for $9.99 on iOS with a macOS and PC version planned for the future. I, however, walked into the game with no knowledge of the setting, and was quickly entranced.
Six Ages lifts its design directly from the original King of Dragon Pass, which gives it a decidedly static feel. There is no animation and no tricky three dimensions. Text-based menus are balanced with hand-painted artwork and an appropriately sweeping soundtrack. The experience is similar to that of an interactive novel, like Steve Jackson’s mobile game series Sorcery! But Six Ages has far more management elements, and the choices you make are far more morally grey than in similar games.
For all its difficulty, Six Ages has some remarkably generous features. You can have an infinite number of saved games, each with a different clan and backstory. You can also restore to the end of any given year, if you really screw up and need to try again. You choose the number of restores at the outset of the game.
Magic, People, and Cows
The seasons set the rhythm for your Bronze Age clan in Six Ages. The beginning of each year is Sacred Time, where you’ll see a rundown of what happened the previous year and allocate magical points in different areas, such as Harmony and Rituals. You don’t need to distribute all your magic points, but the areas that get magical attention will be less challenging in the coming year.
Each year, you can dedicate your tribe to a single large Venture, or project. Each season, you get two actions to make on your management screens, allocating your clan’s efforts and resources. You can send out explorers to discover more of the land around you. You can send trade emissaries to other clans in the valley. You can even raid the herds of your neighbors. You can also sacrifice to the gods or bargain with spirits, for magical intervention.
Cows, and to a lesser extent goods and goats, are the engine of all things in Six Ages. Cattle are a symbol of status, coveted by neighboring clans who may trade for or try to steal your blessed heifers. Having a bountiful herd also ensures your people will not go hungry. Keeping your herds healthy and numerous is a major challenge of the game.
In Six Ages, magic, gods and spirits are not only real, but a critical part of existence. Your people need magic to survive their harsh world. Magic comes from the gods and various spirits, who need your people for worship and your herds and goods for sacrifice. At first, it’s unintuitive. If clan members are sick, you might first look for some way to apply medicine. Instead, you need to sacrifice to Erissa to receive her Healing blessing for the year. Constructing a temple to a particular god makes the blessings permanent, assuming you can spare the herds needed to keep them in good order.
You only get two actions per season, and there are a dizzying number of sacred and administrative options. Balancing the mundane and the magical is one of the tensions of Six Ages. While I’m not prone to analysis paralysis in board games, I often found myself biting my nails over whether or not it was a good time to expand my fields.
Crises and Consequences
Most of your time will be spent in the management screens, allocating your clan’s resources and managing its magic. After your two actions are spent, your clan is faced with two events—interactive vignettes that can range from issuing battle commands to your warriors to brokering a dumpling-cooking contest between neighboring clans. Some choices are better than others, but even the best choices can carry negative consequences.
You’ll immediately recognize an event is happening because the management menus vanish and are replaced by gorgeous paintings with text on the side. All the art in the game is intensely colorful, and really projects the character of the people and creatures you encounter in the world of Glorantha. Most of these are little snippets that only hint at a larger world, which let my imagination run wild with questions.
Most events are one-off occurrences that might net you rewards or cost you resources. Many are interpersonal, which can lead to animosity or new friendship with your neighbors in the valley. Other events are just episodes in larger stories. There are many narrative layers to Six Ages, and I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across the central story. But it’s not always heavy stuff. The game has deft writing that is funny, strange, and heart wrenching in turns.
I found myself frequently eager to get to more events, rather than muck around with management menus. They’re just more fun than fussing over numbers and check boxes. These sections are the most like an interactive novel—already a popular niche genre on mobile devices—and are quite compelling. I wonder if Six Ages would benefit from a lighter, story-focused mode for people less enthralled by the management aspects of the game. BioWare RPGs, for instance, feature a mode that de-emphasizes combat.
Among the Gods
Most of your magical interactions are transactional: You spend magical points or sacrifice goods and herds to earn blessings from above. Rituals, are a different and truly unique twist to the typical roleplaying experience.
When your clan performs a Ritual, you select one of your members to embark on a quest into the timeless, endless conflict of the Gods War that is both history and present. During the ritual, your quester plays the part of a god, reenacting a divine drama. You’re presented with several of the game’s beautiful painted vignettes and must choose the best option for your quester, following in the footsteps of your clan’s sacred stories.
If you make the right choices and complete the ritual successfully, you earn a major boon for your clan. When things start spinning out of control (and they will), a Ritual is a good way to turn the tide in your favor. Failing can yield smaller rewards, or even take the life of the clan member who entered the world of the gods. But it’s an enthralling experience. For much of the game, the gods are distant and feel more like dice rolls than deities. During a Ritual, the gods are very close at hand—for better and for worse.
Rituals aren’t done lightly. You can try to guess your way through these, but you may lose esteemed characters and waste valuable resources. Instead, you need to build your knowledge of the clan’s stories, read them, and basically pass a comprehension quiz. You have to do more than just regurgitate facts, however. You have to role-play, in addition to recalling details from the stories. I found this frustrating at first, but mastering a ritual brings enormous rewards.
Think Like a Hyaloring
Unlike most other games I’ve played, I really had to get into the mindset of my clan to be successful in Six Ages. Many games try to drive home the idea that your choices matter, but end up with a fairly binary moral system of good and bad choices. Six Ages goes the other way around. You, the player, have to adapt to the game’s logic, and are rewarded not necessarily for good and bad actions but for best playing your part.
For example, throughout the game I was repeatedly presented with opportunities to invite desperate, nomadic groups into our village. “Aha!” Cried all of my instincts. “We must be open-handed and egalitarian!” But that’s not how my clan thinks. They’ve been wandering for years, looking for a place to call home, and barely scratching out an existence as it is. They’re insular, and distrusting of outsiders they can’t understand. Welcoming in outsiders had its benefits, but my people didn’t take well to it.
Another example: I was so concerned about keeping my people fed and safe that I completely neglected cattle raiding. To me, it was a dangerous distraction, but it meant that neighboring clans—even sworn allies—thought my clan was weak and raided us instead. I had to start thinking like my imaginary clan to make better choices, and that means occasionally stealing some cows.
Fortunately, you’re rarely alone in Six Ages. Your clan’s council sits at the bottom of the screen, ready to advise you about the decisions you make. I was skeptical of the council’s utility, remembering Civilization 3’s FMV advisors that struggled to ever be helpful. But the council is a useful guide to understanding how the clan thinks. They’re not always right, and understanding the biases of specific members is important, but they’re rarely totally wrong.
Its Own Worst Enemy
I cannot deny that Six Ages is a difficult game. It’s punishingly hard, and enormously complex. The app’s design, however, is occasionally the biggest obstacle. It’s not always clear where to go to accomplish a given task. The game is filled with icons and symbols the meaning of which is frequently obscure. Sometimes, I even struggled to find the exact right part of the screen that needs to be tapped or swiped.
Critical information is sometimes needlessly hidden. Seasons play a big part in Six Ages, but to see the season you have to tap a stone at the bottom of the screen. It’s very easy to miss, which led me to send explorers out into a blizzard because I forgot what season it was.
One particular annoyance that encapsulates my frustration with the Six Ages app: My advisors were going on and on about how I needed to make use of the spirits I had gathered. But I couldn’t figure out how. It turns out that there’s a slim, sliding submenu at the top of the Magic screen that lets you toggle between Gods and Spirits. I played the better part of a full game before realizing it. And even once I found it, it seemed unwilling to respond to my touch. More often than not, trying to interact with this menu accudientally pulled down the iOS notifications panel.
Six Ages is hard enough as it is, without having to seek out menus in addition to magical artifacts. The game comes with a tutorial, but reading the enormous manual is probably required. I’d love to see a reimagining of the game’s interface that is just a little more polished and user-friendly.
Bronze Age Antics
When I first picked up Six Ages, I was initially put off by its fiddly details and punishing learning curve. But it quickly sucked me in with its rich universe, gorgeous art, and rhythmic tempo. I have thought about the game often since I played its beta, and have relished getting back into it. I am not sure I’ll ever complete it, and less sure that I’ll ever truly succeed in delivering my clan to prosperity (or at least a state of not-starving). I am sure that Six Ages is the rare game that will stick with me for years to come.
Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind is a unique experience on iPad or iPhone. Its rich story, lovely art, and haunting world make it well worth the comparatively high price. The learning curve is steep, and the interface occasionally baffling, but the rewards outweigh those challenges.