Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Pillars of the Earth

On Sat 26 Jan 2008, Han, Michelle and I played Pillars of the Earth. This was a first time for Michelle and I. Pillars of the Earth is based on a novel of the same name, by Ken Follett. I have read the book and enjoyed it, and the only thing I didn't like was that the bad characters felt unrealistic to me.

Like many other Eurogames, in Pillars of the Earth you also compete to score victory points, and this is done over six rounds. You have basically three things at your disposal to do this - 12 workers, represented by little man figures, 3 master builders, represented by chess like pieces, and craftsmen, represented by cards. The workers help you gather resources - sand, stone and wood. The master builders help you claim various spots on the board to perform various special actions, e.g. getting tax exemptions, obtaining free craftsmen, obtaining temporary workers, getting special action cards, buying and selling resources, avoiding bad events etc. The craftsmen mainly help you convert your resources into victory points.

You start with some money, which is needed to employ craftsmen and to pay taxes, and may also be needed for your master builders to claim spots on the board. Money can be tight, and you have to be careful to spend just the right amount of effort into earning money. You cannot have more than $30, so it is pointless to earn too much. However, money can become critical especially in terms of employing craftsmen or being able to place your master builder at a critical spot on the board.

The competition in the game comes from two main areas - the card selection (7 resource and 2 craftsmen cards available every round) and the master builder placement. At the start of every round, 9 cards are displayed, and players take turns to claim the cards. A resource card determines how many workers you must commit to "harvest" a particular number of a particular resource. You must have enough workers to claim a resource card. Sometimes some of these 9 cards will be left over when no one wants to or is able to claim them.

The other area of competition is placement of master builders. This is determined semi-randomly. The start player of the round draws the master builders out from a bag. The first master builder drawn can be placed (by the owning player, who is not necessary the start player) at a cost of $7. For the next master builder drawn, the cost reduces to $6, then $5, and so on, until $0. If your master builder is drawn and you do not want to pay, then your master builder stays on the semi-circle and waits. This is an interesting balance of cost and opportunity. Sometimes it is worthwhile to pay so that you can choose a spot important to you. Obviously there is some luck in terms of the order the master builders are drawn out of the bag. In our game, in the last round, all three of Han's master builders were drawn in the first 3 draws. He couldn't afford to pay, so in that round he had to place all of his master builders last. That's not good.

Michelle and Han. Michelle is drawing master builders from the bag.

The very rich game board. That half circle in the foreground is for determining how much a player needs to pay to place a master builder, if his/her master builder is drawn early. The track at the bottom tracks money.

My team of craftsmen (the cards). They mostly convert resources to victory points (represented by the pointed arch). The left-most one converts resources to money. I also have 5 resources - metal (blue), stone (grey) and sand (white).

Close-up of the board, in particular the tax exemption area. The special die (2/3/3/4/4/5) determines the amount of tax to be paid each round.

My two favourite characters from the novel, Philip and Jack.

Michelle and I picked up the game quite quickly. It seemed a little confusing at first, because of the various tools at your disposal (workers, master builders and craftsmen), and the various options on the board. However the sequence of actions is logical and orderly and we picked up the game quickly and managed to play competitively. Well, actually there are not many direct ways to hinder your opponents, and you are mainly trying to be as efficient as possible with your workers and craftsmen, and then master builders to give you additional advantages or boosts in efficiency here and there.

After playing the game, my impression is this game feels very Euro. It feels very same-ish. I guess this is because I have played Caylus before, and I have played Age of Empires III before (worker placement mechanic), and of course, many other Eurogames are about efficiency and about scoring victory points. So, there seemed nothing much new or exciting for me. Having read the book, I do recognise characters (that appear as event cards) from the book, and some locations on the board are related to the book. However, I think that's as far as the relationship with the book goes. The game doesn't really feel very much like the book. The story in the book does have the building of a cathedral as a backdrop, but it is much more than that. It is about how bad things happen to good people, and how bad people do bad things to good people, and how the good people struggle to overcome (not always successfully) difficulties and challenges in life.


Aik Yong said...

Interesting. So how would you rate Pillars since its samey as Age of Empires III and Caylus.

I mean I agree with your assessment. Just curious how you feel about each of them.

For me, Pillars is kinda meh, when compared to AOE3 or Caylus.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I'd rate AOE3 (played 3 times) 8 and Pillars (played once) probably 6.5. I don't find anything wrong with Pillars, just that there is nothing exciting and new for me. It'll probably click much better with non hardcore gamers.

I am undecided about Caylus. Only played once, as a 2 player game. (not counting my 2 solo plays) At the moment I am sure I like AOE3. Caylus is definitely more complex and longer, and need some more plays before I decide how much I like it. So far I am intrigued, and am interested to explore it more.

Aik Yong said...

Cool! I'll agree on the Pillars and AOE3 ratings. But I'll put Caylus at 9 or 10.

Now not many people are going to like Caylus just because it's too serious and AP-inducing. My casual gamer friends sort of anti-caylus while my gamer friends sort of worships it. But if you like heavy, Caylus is the deep end of the pool.

The next action-placement mechanic game which I'm looking forward to is the Agricola game. Tried it once and love it. The best thing about the game is that the complexity scales according to how many deck of cards you use. The basic game i feel can be as easy as pillars! And if all cards are used, it is as complex as caylus.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Cool! How did you manage to get in on a game of Agricola? This is another game I am watching out for. But the preorder price for the English version is quite high, so I'll wait-and-see before deciding. Maybe I'll buy after it is published. It may be cheaper to buy from an online retailer.

Aik Yong said...

Imagine Games, the local distributor brought a demo copy in.

We also did some Essen releases at the recent Eurogame retreat.

I preordered Agricola =) can't resist the animeeples

Cecrow said...

Finally found Pillars of the Earth here in Canada (was out of print for a while; I don't know if I've snagged a reprint or found an old one that wasn't picked up). I'd agree with your assessment, leaves some tension to be desired in a two player match for sure, but apparently there's rules to adjust this. However, my wife likes it as is; this is "her speed" of game, so we chose well. Looking forward to playing with three or four.