Once again, I’m confronted with the question, “Should games be reviewed in a vacuum?”. When considering a game, should I look at it from the perspective of when it was released? Should I compare it to similar games, or to the past works of the designer(s)? In the end, I think all I can really do is share how a game makes me feel when I play it, while trying to be fair to the passage of time.
How to Play
The Pillars of the Earth by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler is based on the 1989 novel of the same name, written by Ken Follett. In The Pillars of the Earth, players assume the roles of builders, working to construct a cathedral, and earning victory points based on the resources and labour they commit to the project.
The main mechanism of The Pillars of the Earth is worker placement, but it has a bit of a unique hook. Players each have 3 ‘master builder’ pawns that all get tossed into a bag. One by one, the first player pulls the pawns from a bag. The player whose pawn is pulled from the bag has a choice, they can either place their pawn onto an action space and pay the associated cost, or, pass. Whether they place or pass, the cost to place is reduced by 1, and the next pawn is drawn. This repeats until all the pawns are removed from the bag. Then, the players who passed take turns moving their pawns out onto the board for free.
I should mention, before the pawn placement phase, each round begins with a draft. 7 cards depicting resources are divvied out to players. Each card requires you to commit workers to them, meaning you can’t just choose the one that gives you the most resources. Sometimes you’ll desperately want both Stone and wood, so you’ll opt to take the cheaper cards first.
Anyway, once the resource cards are distributed, and the player pawns placed, all the actions resolve in numerical order, moving clockwise around the board. There’s an event that triggers, with an associated action space that protects that player from the effects of the event, special visitors who will bestow persistent benefits to the player who selects them, a space to earn points, a place to evade taxes, a space to recruit builders, a resource market, and finally, capping off the round, an opportunity to convert the resources you acquired into victory points. After 6 rounds, the player who earned the most victory points is the winner.
In some ways, The Pillars of the Earth is unique and interesting, and in other ways, it feels very 2006. The main hook of the game, the way actions are distributed by pulling pawns out of a bag, was neat and interesting. It can be both a blessing and a curse to be the first pawn pulled out of the bag. On one hand, you get first pick of any space on the board. On the other hand, you’ll pay dearly for that privilege. Should you feel strapped for cash, and two or three of your pawns come out early, suddenly your fortunes twist from getting first crack at the board, to going absolutely last.
The components of The Pillars of the Earth are pretty good. The mini cards are adequate, the resource cubes are slightly larger than average, and each player gets a handful of human shaped meeples in their colour. The standout component is the main board. While a standard size, it’s beautifully illustrated. Another component that I want to highlight is the 6 cathedral blocks. At the start of each round, you’ll add one block to the cathedral, representing the progress players are making in building this grant project. I feel a bit of dissonance with this aspect, however, no matter how much or how little players contribute, the building will still get built. It can serve as a round marker, but the numbered craftsman cards do a better job conveying that information. Ultimately, the cathedral is whimsical, but pointless.
I almost feel like the cathedral should be built in stages according to the sum of all the players points, sort of like a semi-cooperative game. Perhaps that could be a way to end the game early, if all the resources needed for the church are completed, then the game is over. I’m just speculating here, but I do like games that have a project that all players contribute to, such as Troyes (Sébastien Dujardin, Xavier Georges, Alain Orban, 2010) or Caylus (William Attia, 2005).
Teaching and playing The Pillars of the Earth is fairly straightforward. The rulebook is only 8 pages long and covers all the actions nicely. We did feel the lack of an appendix detailing all the cards when coming against an ambiguity. Like, “player produces one additional stone each round”. Does that mean the player needs to produce at least one stone for this power to trigger? Turns out, no. It’s a minor complaint, but I dislike it when ambiguity on card text forces us to pause our game and consult the forums.
If there’s one aspect that makes me feel like The Pillars of the Earth is an older game, it’s how the game chooses to use randomness. There’s an event each round that gets revealed after the players all place their pawns for the round. One of the spaces available is to protect yourself from the impending event, but you don’t know what that event is going to be, so, you place your pawn in that spot to protect yourself from that randomness? It’s a bit odd. Along the same lines, each round the King demands taxes. Halfway through the complete action phase, the start player rolls a die, and all players need to pay between 2 and 5 gold, depending on that die roll, unless you happened to place a pawn in the King’s Court, then you’re exempt from this requirement. Again, not knowing what you’re mitigating feels very 2006.
I try to put myself back in the year 2007, when most people would have played The Pillars of the Earth for the first time. I suspect that back then, the novelties of the worker placement mechanic would have lit some worlds on fire. I find myself wishing that mechanic was tied to a more interesting game. Beyond the pulling the workers from the bag mechanic, the rest of the game is fairly dull. A somewhat generic convert resources into victory points affair. As the game rounds go on, the craftsmen that become available are the same as the ones you already have, but are, just, better. The Stonemason you have at the beginning of the game needs 2 stone to convert into 1 point, while the end game Stonemason will convert a single stone into 2 points. Now, you’re not able to hoard resources all game and just wait for the final craftsmen to show up, which makes The Pillars of the Earth feel less strategic and more tactical. The Pillars of the Earth is not an engine building game, you can never guarantee your income or resource production. Instead, you’ll need to squeeze the most value from the goods and craftsmen that become available to you in order to come out ahead.
In the end, The Pillars of the Earth was a fine game to play. We had fun for the two hours it took us to learn and play, but when we were finished, we all agreed that we wouldn’t choose to come back to it. Compared to all the games that we own and want to return to, The Pillars of the Earth is a bit of a relic of the past. It evoked similar feelings of Caylus (William Attia, 2005), but without the brutality of the provost. I’m glad I played The Pillars of the Earth, but it’s not a game I’ll be clamouring to return to. If I’m thirsty for a worker placement game, I’d sooner return to Agricola (Uwe Rosenberg, 2007) or Viticulture (Jamey Stegmaier, Alan Stone, 2013) first, and I feel the desire to convert cubes into points, I’d much sooner play Century: Spice Road (Emerson Matsuuchi, 2017) or Stone Age (Bernd Brunnhofer, 2008).