Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Pillars of the Earth

Our shopping trip to Melbourne went spiffingly. I came away with the three games on my shopping list (and was sorely, sorely tempted to increase the size of my luggage for the return flight even more).

The Giggling One managed to get in on the action after we visited Mind Games in Swanston Street in the city "just to see" what they had. Her eagle eye spotted the Catan Card Game so we added one more game to our collection. However, I'll get to that in a future post.

After shopping trip number one to MilSims in Bentleigh last Thursday, it took us no time at all to return to our lodgings at The Giggling One's sister's house (and the 39° day was most certainly an incentive not to spend any more time outside than was absolutely necessary) where we opened up The Pillars of the Earth to enjoy the cathedral building goodness I've heard such good things about.

Ken Follett's novel is my favourite novel ever so, you know, it was kinda always going to be a game I was going to buy. I was given the sequel, World Without End, for Christmas so I re-read Pillars recently before I started on the sequel. With the events of the novel fresh in my mind, it was a joy to play a game that made references to the events and characters within.

The object of The Pillars of the Earth is to gain as many victory points as possible during the 6 rounds of play. Whoever racks up the most VPs wins.

First up, The Giggling One and I tried out a 2 player game. It looks a little daunting to begin with, but once we got the hang of it, it's fun and most definitely strategic.

The game is designed to be played by 2 to 4 players, and with the same mechanics regardless of the number of "builders" (ie. players) it's a very different beast strategy-wise with 2 as opposed to 4 players.

The reason for this becomes apparent in the first phase, but much more so in the second. Phase I sees players choose resource and craftsman cards. Resource cards let you place a certain number of workers (each player has 12 workers) in either the forest (to produce wood), the quarry (to produce stone), or the gravel pit (to produce sand). These resource cards allow you to produce either 2, 3 or 4 units of each resource during that turn depending on what cards are available, and if you can (or wish to) allocate the required number of workers to the applicable resource field.

So, for example, one resource card will give you 4 stone later during that turn, as long as you allocate 10 of your workers to the quarry. If you want to do so, then you take that card and place it in front of you, and place your workers on the quarry section of the board. This card is no longer available for the other players to choose, so if they want to get stone on that turn, they'll need to take the production cards that give either 3 or 2 stone (using 8 or 5 workers respectively) if they are available.

Seven of the nine possible resource cards are randomly available each turn, and as you can take as many as you like (taking one card at a time in turns with the other player(s), and as long as you have workers available to place on the applicable resource field) you have more opportunities to take the cards you want with 2 players than with 4.

Along with the 7 resource cards available in Phase I, there are 2 craftsman cards. There are 4 craftsman cards per round: 2 are available for purchase in Phase I, and 2 are available for free in Phase II. Which pair are available in which phase is chosen randomly (ie. the cards are shuffled before they are placed).

The benefit of craftsman cards are that they allow you to convert your hard earned resources into victory points (VPs). Some also convert resources into gold, or gold into VPs.

As the game goes on, the craftsman cards get better, so there's the dilemma of taking an available craftsman now, or holding out for a better one later on (and hoping no one else jumps in to get it before you).

Each player can only have a maximum of 5 craftsman cards (though there is a privilege card that lets you have 6), so you have to be careful which cards to discard if you get more than 5. To further complicate matters, if you discard certain craftsman cards, you may lose certain functions associated with those cards (eg. you need a mortar mixer in order to earn victory points with masons).

Phase II involves placing master builders on locations on the board. Each player has 3 master builders, and there are 17 places they can go. Simple maths and logic tells you that with 2 players (and thus 6 master builders), there are going to be more options than with 12 master builders in a 4 player game.

I'm not going to go through all 17 options (because this post would drag on for far too long), but they include Kingsbridge which allows you take a privilege card (2 of these are randomly available in the first 5 rounds (the 2 cards for round 6 are always the same) which give you certain benefits (eg. extra resources, extra VPs); the King's Court which gives a tax exemption and may also allow you to obtain metal - the fourth and most valuable resource); Shiring Castle which gives you 2 extra workers for the next turn; and Shiring Resource Market which allows you to buy and sell resources for gold.

As an aside, I should point out that gold is a not a resource but the game's currency.

Finally, Phase III kicks in. This is where players receive the benefits of the master builder placements, as well as where you use your craftsman cards to convert those long, grueling meeple...I mean worker hours in the forest, quarry or gravel pit into victory points.

The way the conversion works is a clever little mechanic. Each craftsman converts a certain number of resources into a certain number of victory points, up to a certain maximum number of times each turn.

For example, the stonecutter that each player starts with converts 2 stone into 1 VP up to 4 times per turn. Therefore you could convert a maximum of 8 stone into 4 VPs during your turn (though you're unlikely to have that much stone during the game).

Later in the game you can obtain a sculptor who can convert 1 stone into 2 VPs, so you have the choice of whether to hold off on using your stone until you can get your hands on a sculptor.

In the two 2 player games I played against The Giggling One, my strategy ended up being on obtaining the cheaper sand to begin with, and focusing on stone later in the game when sculptors became available. I won the first game convincingly, but The Giggling One came within 3 VPs in the second after she streamlined her wood production.

Interestingly, in both of these games, the Prior Phillip privilege card became available in the first round, and I snapped it up both times. Placing a master builder in the priory produced 3 VPs for me almost every turn and was a great little VP earner. I'll also mention that in the 4 and 3 player games we've played since then, it's been The Giggling One whose tried the Prior Phillip strategy, but it didn't prove anywhere near as advantageous with more players fighting over the board.

Our hosts Sandi and Danny joined us in a 4 player game on Saturday night and I soon discovered how important a malleable game plan is with resources and master builder spaces at a premium. My plan to obtain sand to start with was scuppered by Danny so I went into stone from the word go which I supplemented with wood and sand throughout the game.

Sandi and Danny picked up the game quickly, and it was very even up to the end of round 4. At this point, privilege cards were giving The Giggling One 1 extra wood per turn, Sandi 1 extra stone per turn, and myself 1 extra sand per turn.

I led by 1 VP going into round 5. Sandi, having retained the advantage of going first by placing a master builder on the cathedral space in round 4, scooted ahead while I dropped to last.

I had, however, bought another sculptor in round 5 that converted 1 stone to 2 VPs up to 3 times per turn. Not having any stone production in round 5, I decided to ensure I went first in round 6 in order to grab myself the best quarry resource card.

I also managed to place a master builder on the Bellmaker craftsman card which allowed me to convert my 2 metals in to 4 VPs each. Ultimately, this won me the game. Danny and Sandi were also metal-rich and were eyeing the Bellmaker.

Utilising all 5 of my craftsman cards, I tallied 19 VPs from craftsmen in round 6 and took my final total to 44 VPs. The others couldn't catch me, and they all finished up on 39 VPs. We all enjoyed the game immensely (though I have a sneaking suspicion that The Giggling One was a little frustrated to be beaten again, but what can you do???!).

To complete the set, on Monday night The Giggling One and I played a 3 player game with our good friend Jason at his house in Yarraville. The Giggling One went with wood as usual; I went back to my sand first - stone later strategy; and Jason went with stone.

The Giggling One obtained Ellen (a privilege card that allows a sneak peek at the upcoming event card) early on which proved to be a good move. With one master builder placement allowing you to avoid a bad event, she used this placement very effectively during the game.

Once again it was the Bellmaker that got me over the line. Leading by 8 VPs over both myself and Jason going into the final craftsmen stage, The Giggling One could only earn 9 more VPs to finish with a total of 48.

Jason and I both utilised craftsmen that converted metal into VPs to earn 17 and 18 VPs respectively. This gave me a 1 point win over the other two - the closest game yet.

So what have I learned about The Pillars of the Earth Board Game?
  1. It rocks.
  2. It's very well balanced.
  3. The limited choices and level of strategy grow with more players.
  4. It rocks.
  5. It's clever and well implemented.
  6. It's fun.
  7. I really, really want to get the 5-6 player expansion (it doesn't appear to be released in English yet).
  8. It rocks!
If you enjoy board games, then this is a great game to play. Easy enough for board game novices to understand and enjoy, and deep enough for veterans to have fun with as well.

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