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Review of Pillars of the Earth

This new Kosmos offering got great buzz from Essen. Everyone was saying "plays like Caylus, but faster!" I took this as a mixed recommendation, because I don't think the only thing wrong with Caylus is its length. Caylus is a very good game, but it is slightly uncooked. On the other hand, Kosmos (and other German heavy-weights like Hans Im Glück and Ravensburger) have a well-deserved reputation for game development. They take good designs and refine away all the impurities, stripping a game down to its essence. If the design is very good, then this development process produces a gem. If the design is only mediocre, then the process can produce a game that's oddly flat, as it has no charm or flavour to prop up its design flaws.

Pillars Of The Earth is a very good design, and it's very well developed. It's not precisely like Caylus, but it does have mechanisms that are reminiscent of same (as well as another recent game, Leonardo da Vinci, than which it is also better).

In the game, each player essentially assumes the role of a powerful family contributing to the construction of a cathedral. The game lasts for 6 rounds. In each round, you get to use your troupe of "masters" to select three actions you will take (from about ten different options); some of these actions can be taken by more than one players, others can not; some of the actions change from round to round (special privileges that can be had, craftsmen that can be drafted). Also, in each round, you get to use your troupe of "workers" to gather resources, or generate income. Finally, in each round, you can use your money to hire craftsmen (only two players each round can do this).

The opportunities for privileges, craftsmen, or gathering resources are controlled by decks of cards with different costs and benefits. (For example, there's a card to let you acquire two sand cubes by assigning two workers; there's also a card to let you acquire four stone cubes by assigning ten workers.)

The turn order for assigning your workers and hiring craftsmen is determined. The turn order for assigning your masters is not. All masters go into a bag and are drawn out one by one. As with Da Vinci, you pay a high price (in money) to assign a master when yours is drawn, but you can pass and put your master in a queue. This makes the assignment price cheaper for all further masters. This process divides master assignment into two sections: the first section of assignments where it costs money, and the second section of masters who are sitting in the pass queue. Finessing this process is a very important part of the game: do you pay to take what you need, or do you pass, making choices cheaper for everyone else (including you if you have masters still left to be drawn)?

Pillars Of The Earth is all about figuring out the relative worth of just about everything in terms of eventual pay out in victory points. There are two ways to get Victory Points: assign your Master to the action of "Get 2 VPs" or "Get 1 VP"; or use a craftsman (hired or drafted) to turn resources into VPs, or money into VPs. There is also a single craftsman that gives you one free VP every turn, and a single craftsman that lets you turn resources into money.

So, the question is - what do I pay for this craftsman? Is the cost worth it? What do I pay to make sure I get this action? How many VPs will I get out of it in the end?

And the game has luck: the privilege cards and event cards are randomly drawn (and some privileges and events will not feature in each game, unknown which ones), and the craftsman cards are organized into six "waves" of four, but within each wave, it's not known which two craftsman may be hired and which may be drafted. Turn order determines who has the opportunity to hire, but since drafting is a "master" assigned action, it's unknown who'll have the ability to draft first.

The presence of luck means that another huge component of the game is managing risk. Don't put all your eggs in one basket, and always try to have several paths to victory for as long as you can.

Pillars Of The Earth seems like such a good game, that I'm certain that it will see table time and take away table time from Caylus. And it has stopped me from buying Leonardo da Vinci: since I have both Pillars and Caylus, I can see no real reason to buy da Vinci. On the other hand, Pillars does not have the depth that either of the other two games has, and so I'm not sure what its shelf life will be. Will it tap itself out at some point? Caylus, despite its length and flaws, may have longer endurance simply because of the wider and deeper number of options available to players.

But it's encouraging that we played a three player in the afternoon, and then immediately wanted to play a four-player in the evening.

(Plus, as is typical of Kosmos big-box games, the bits are undeniably gorgeous. The rules are clear and help you learn the game on your first play in a clever fashion; and the game components themselves assist you in playing the game in a very good, although language dependent, manner.)

A very good game and well worth the money.

(Review first appeared on, by Viktor Haag.)

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