Monday, August 18, 2008

Eleven O'Clock Shadow (Pillars of the Earth, In the Shadow of the Emperor)

In a satisfying Western Middle Ages-themed evening, we played two games new to the group: Pillars of the Earth and In the Shadow of the Emperor.

Pillars of the Earth is a game for 2-4 which evokes the trials and tribulations of building a late Romanesque/Early Gothic cathedral in 12th Century England.

Based on the novel by writer Ken Follett, players need not have read the source material to enjoy the game. I'll skip exacting details of the rules, but here's a general overview:

Players seem to be competing teams of craftsmen and workers trying to contribute most successfully to the construction of a cathedral. Turn order is determined initially by random selection.

Players then draft resource and craftsmen cards from a common market in turn order from the start player, which determines which craftsmen are hired (at a cost) and which resources their workers (labourers) will harvest in the upcoming turn.

Subsequent "round order" is determined by a fairly original blind draw method, which gives each player the option to select their action when their pawn is drawn from a bag by paying a set cost or passing. The cost decreases with each draw, each player having three pawns in the bag and selection (followed by payment or passing) continuing until all pawns of all players have accounted for an action. Players who pass on the opportunity to pay for an action select an action for the pawn much later in the round for no cost

The rest of the game is a sort of resource management and task optimization game - you need X number of Y type of material to get Z number of victory points - different craftsmen deliver different ratios of material (or gold) to VP (or occasionally gold) conversion. Other action/locations confer other benefits (gold for each worker at the Wool house, 1 or 2 VP at the Priory, skip random events at the Abbot's house, and so on).

After determining play order, the players conduct 17 (!) steps in each round - at each "stop" along the path, taking the actions in the order indicated by the placement of the pawns during the action draw mechanic. You resolve events, get paid, take VP, harvest resources, draw new craftsmen, gain temporary workers, sell or buy materials and convert said materials (as desired) into VPs, then determine the start player for the next round.

The game is fun and thematic but has a number of random elements which can significantly alter player success quite independently of their skill in playing the game. The pawn draw action order mechanic is the first heavily random element. Second is the material selection cards. Third is the craftsman cards, a fourth is privilege cards and the event cards also insert a considerable amount of luck to play. Now, I'm not against randomness on principal and in this case it seems to fit well with the theme, but it does get to be a little much. Balancing against the randomness (and in the designer's defence) you can select actions or use strategy to avoid being hurt drastically by either random events or the craftsmen/resource/privileges which you either receive or manage to miss. However, you cannot escape the fact that luck can be a major factor in your success or failure.

I like the look and general feel of the game. The round timer (a miniature, stylized wooden cathedral) is overdone but fun to use and gives a good sense of progress. Play is relatively quick (once you get the general concepts down) despite the drawn-out action selection process.

Overall, a decent game (if not something which grabbed me like Imperial did) with good production values and solid gameplay. Looking forward to additional plays.

From very random to not so random at all, In the Shadow of the Emperor is an area-influence game with some aspects of Way Out West, Intrige and a number of other area-influence games.

Players are powerful aristocratic families in Mediaeval Germany, vying for power and high political office in the Elector states of the Holy Roman Empire. One player is chosen at random as starting Emperor, but from that point onward, no randomness intrudes. Players place barons and knights into positions, and then have the option to conduct actions which move, negate, age, marry, promote (and so on) the barons and knights so as to achieve enough power in each of the three ecclesiastical states and four secular states to elect the emperor. Various machinations affect their positioning, along with an interesting mechanic for aging nobles, essentially putting a timer on how long you can hold onto power in each state.

The game suffers to some degree from a rulebook with some bad translations and oversights, but generally it's a challenging and very strategic game with a lot of direct player competition and intrigue. Some might criticize the clockwise-from-the-Emperor turn order mechanic, as seating position and initial Emperor selection can have a great effect on the outcome, but you can't complain about randomness in the game itself. Play continued past the 11:30 PM mark in order for us to be able to finish the game, but no one seemed anxious to abort the game early, which is always a promising sign.

Since the strategic depth is so great (and the gameplay mechanics relatively light) this is a game where multiple plays are possible and desirable for best appreciation. I hope this one gets that privilege.

In non-WAGS news but still game-related, I managed to get in a game of 1960: The Making of the President which is only two-player but worth mentioning. I had traded a few of my older and seldom-played wargames for 1960, which is an area influence game with a card-driven strategy mechanic and a wargame-y feel. Players take the roles of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the American presidential election of 1960. It's sort of a re-themed version of the designer's earlier game, Twilight Struggle, but the games differ enough to be different games, while being similar enough to make transition from one to the other quite smooth.

I like Twilight Struggle more, of the two, but 1960 is no slouch either, and well worth owning, if only for its gorgeous production values, clear rules and concise player references.


  1. thanks for those overviews, I enjoyed reading them. Not sure if bharmer isaware, but pillars has an expansion out which takes the game to 5-6 players. In the shadow of the emperor also sounds very intriguing. Who won the games?

  2. Pillars of the Earth was won by... uh... you know, I've forgotten completely. I thought I did know when I started this entry, but I'm not so sure now that I try to reconstruct the final scores. I didn't come in last, I know that much, because I know I was close to winning (if I didn't win). Maybe I did win? I had a pretty decent score... I don't remember. Total cranial vapourlock on that one.

    In the Shadow of the Emperor was won by Shemp, with Ouch coming a close second and Bharmer taking third. I came in last. Something like 7 VPs separated the winner (Shemp with 24 (?) VP and the loser , Kozure with 17 VP).

    Both games seemed tight. I thought I was doing pretty well in ItSotE until the third or fourth round of six, when Shemp started cleaning up on Elector turn-overs. I don't know where those other two got their points from, the blackguards!