Saturday, April 14, 2007

Review: the Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth is a new game by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler based on a novel by Ken Follett. It plays in around an hour and a half and accommodates 2-4 players. Originally produced in Germany by Kosmos, it's distributed in the United States by Mayfair Games.

The buzz around Pillars of the Earth has been building for quite a while now. Ever since its introduction at the annual Essen game convention in Germany, I've been hearing what a great game this is and I've been eagerly waiting to try it out. Perhaps the most common description that I've heard for this game is "Caylus Light", in reference to last year's smash hit game. How accurate is that description? Read on.


Pillars of the Earth comes in the now industry standard square box format. The beautiful artwork on the cover is continued throughout the rest of the game's production. Inside the box you'll find a lovely, full color illustrated eight page rule booklet and a gorgeous full color game board. Under that you'll find a custom molded plastic tray that holds a pack of half-sized cards, a nice cloth bag and two plastic bags full of wooden cubes and brightly colored pawns and worker tokens. You'll also find six large wooden cathedral pieces that fit together to make a pretty nifty wooden model of the cathedral shown on the box cover. The cathedral pieces don't really serve any function in the game except as a turn counter but they look very cool and they do a good job of reinforcing the game's theme. All of the components are first rate but the artwork on the game board is particularly beautiful. In fact, it's one of the prettier boards in my collection.


In this game, players represent master builders working together to construct a cathedral. Resources in the form of sand, stone, wood and metal must be gathered from the surrounding countryside and brought to the work site where they will be handed over to master craftsmen who will use the raw materials to erect a magnificent cathedral. Players earn victory points by employing the best craftsmen and contributing the most materials to the cathedral's construction. During the construction, the King and local church officials may lend their support or occasionally present additional challenges that threaten to stall the project.

I have never read Ken Follet's novel, upon which this game is based, but I can only imagine that they've done a pretty good job of replicating the feel of his story without negatively affecting game play. I never felt that I was lacking something essential by not having read the novel but at the same time I would imagine that the various characters mentioned on the cards might have meant more to me if I had.

The theme works very well for this type of game and it is strongly reinforced by the beautiful components. It's an interesting theme and it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the game. It also made me consider tracking down a copy of the book.


As you might expect, the Pillars of the Earth is a production style game. Players gather resources which they use to produce victory points. As the game progresses, the formula for translating resources into points improves, increasing the potential to score more points in later turns.

The game is played over exactly six turns. At the end of each turn another piece of the cathedral is assembled in the center of the board and by the sixth turn the cathedral is complete. Each turn is divided up into three phases: a purchasing phase, a placement phase, and an action phase. I don't intend to describe all of the rules here, just enough to give you some idea of what the game is like.

In the first phase, the board is set up for the coming turn and nine cards are placed at the bottom of the board. Two of these cards are craftsmen and the other seven are resource cards that represent workers going into the gravel pit, the quarry, or the forest to gather raw materials. Players take turns purchasing cards to place in front of them. Craftsmen cards cost gold and resource cards require that players commit a certain number of worker tokens to the appropriate space on the board. Once all players have passed, any remaining cards are discarded. Craftsmen cards that have been purchased are kept from round to round but resource cards are returned to the supply for the next round as the resources they represent are collected.

Craftsmen cards dictate how a player exchanges resources for victory points. Each card has a formula that indicates which resources the craftsman can convert into victory points and how many times each turn he can do so. For example, the Stonecutter that each player starts with can convert two stone cubes into one victory point up to four times in a turn. So if you had eight stone cubes you could produce four victory points at the end of the turn. In a later turn, you might be lucky enough to employ a Sculptor who can exchange one stone for two victory points a certain number of times each turn. Players are normally only allowed to keep five craftsmen at a time so as more craftsmen become available it becomes necessary to decide not only whether or not to employ them, but also which craftsman to let go in order to make room for the newcomers.

During the second phase of the turn, the bag is used. It contains three master builder pawns for each of the players in the game. One by one a master builder pawn is drawn from the bag and its owner gets to place his master builder on one of the action spaces on the board. Master builders that are drawn early can either be placed on the board for a price or they can be set aside to be placed for free later in the phase. There can be a lot of competition in this phase since some actions are clearly better than others and usually only one player can claim a given action. Once all of the master builders are placed on action spaces the final phase of the turn begins.

In the final phase, actions are carried out in sequence. Each action space is visited in a predetermined order and whoever's master builder is at that space gets to carry out the appropriate action. These actions include claiming cards that grant special abilities, claiming a couple of easy victory points, securing tax immunity for one turn, obtaining additional craftsmen for free, getting a couple of additional workers to help gather resources for a turn, being allowed to trade resources in the market, and claiming the right to be the starting player in the next turn (meaning you'll get the first crack at purchasing cards).

At the end of the turn, players use their craftsmen to exchange their resource cubes for victory points. Only five cubes may be carried into the next turn so it's important to be able to exchange enough of your cubes so that you don't find yourself wasting precious resources.


It's pretty clear to see why so many people have compared the Pillars of the Earth with Caylus. Like Caylus, players are working together to construct a major public work. In Caylus it's a castle; in the Pillars of the Earth it's a cathedral. Like Caylus, there is a worker placement phase where players take turns claiming actions which will then be executed later in the turn. Unlike Caylus, the order in which those actions are executed is the same every time the game is played, all actions are guaranteed to be executed, and the actions don't significantly change over the life of the game. The card purchasing mechanic at the beginning of each turn is also not found in Caylus and actually is a little more reminiscent of Saint Petersburg. And, of course, the Pillars of the Earth is a significantly shorter game than Caylus, playing in about half the time. I think that Caylus is definitely a deeper game and it is absolutely a lot less random since Caylus is a perfect information game whereas the Pillars of the Earth has many random mechanisms that introduce quite a bit of uncertainty into the game.

It is this random element that really makes the Pillars of the Earth its own game for better or for worse. There are a lot of areas where randomness is introduced: there are the event cards and the privilege cards which appear in a random order; there is a die roll to determine taxes each turn; there are the craftsmen cards which, although they appear four at a time in a scripted order, two are chosen at random and made available for purchase while the other two can only be claimed with master builder pawns; and then, far more significantly than the rest, there is the master builder placement order which is completely random. The order in which the master builders are placed has such an enormous impact on the game (particularly in a four player game where the competition for action spaces is so tight) that it is often the deciding factor in determining who wins or loses.

Overall, the game seems quite well balanced. All of the games I have played have been fairly close with one game even requiring that we use the tie breaker. There are plenty of potential strategies to choose from and no single strategy seems obviously stronger than the others. A lot of the game seems to come down to who gets lucky during the master builder draw and who just happens to have gotten lucky in other ways as well. Yet for the most part, none of the luck seems overly harsh. It's possible to have a few things go wrong and still recover.

Furthermore, the game seems to play well across its player range. I've played it with two players and I've played it with four players and while the game feels very different it seems no less enjoyable. I think the two player game is just a bit better than four because with four players it is so easy for one of the other players, or just the luck of the draw, to completely ruin your strategy. With two players, there might be very little direct competition so long as you each choose to pursue mutually compatible strategies. I think that three players might be the sweet spot for this game but I haven't yet had the opportunity to try it out.

So to sum it up, I think that the Pillars of the Earth is an excellent game. It's particularly well suited for casual or family play since there is enough luck in the game to allow a weaker player to occasionally score a win. It's not nearly as deep (or in my opinion as good) as Caylus but it does have the advantage of being easier to play and it has a significantly shorter playing time. The theme is strong and the artwork is excellent. I definitely recommend it.


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