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Subject: Die Säulen der Erde Review rss

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Doug Adams
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This review first appeared at Kulkmann's G@mebox...

Die Saeulen der Erde is a board game for two to four players. The players control a party of workers, builders and craftsman, who are constructing a cathedral in 12th century England.

The game is the latest in a series of literature based board games from Kosmos. Other titles in the series have been The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf. This latest game is based on the novel "The Pillars of the Earth", by Ken Follett.

Die Saeulen der Erde is a beautiful looking game. The game board depicts the English villages of Shiring and Kingsbridge, which are featured in the novel. The board is lavishly illustrated with locations such as the Priory, Castle, Bishop, woods, sand pit and quarry. Dominating the centre of the game board is the location where the cathedral will be constructed.

Each player controls a set of wooden pawns, which consists of three master builders and 12 workers. Cubes in four colours represent the staple construction materials in the game - stone, wood, sand and metal.

There are several decks of cards that are used during the game. Ten of these cards are events, one of which is revealed each turn. As there are only six turns in the game, four of these events will not enter the game.

There are sixteen advantage cards that players can acquire during the game. These come in three flavours - "this happens immediately", "this happens when you choose, but once", and "this happens once every turn for the rest of the game".

The most important cards, however, are the worker and craftsman cards, which players recruit during the game. Worker cards turn a players workers into material cubes, while craftsman are recruited by the players, and generally turn material cubes into victory points.

To keep the theme and atmosphere of the novel, there is a lot of German text on the cards. This is roughly divided between flavour text and game effect text. If translating German while you play the game is likely to bother you, then perhaps wait for the rumoured English edition due to appear in 2007. I got by printing off some sticky labels for the cards and game board.

The game is played over six turns. The starting player receives a chunky wooden piece of the cathedral, which will be placed over the site of the cathedral in the centre of the board at the end of the turn. These six cathedral pieces are nothing more than game clock and start player marker. However it does look nice as the cathedral is put together turn by turn.

Each turn, there are three phases. I'm not sure of the correct translation, so I will call these phases the Worker, Master Builder and Resolution phases.

During the Worker phase, players take turns to draft worker and craftsman cards. Nine cards are available each turn - 2 of these are craftsman, while the rest are worker "contracts" that require a certain amount of workers to return a certain amount of material cubes from either the sandpit, quarry or woods. The workers are taken from the players' pools and placed onto the game board to show the work force committed and what players have remaining. The materials are all worth different values, ranked stone, wood and then sand. The more valuable materials require more workers to extract it, and return more gold or victory points.

Craftsmen are different. They are recruited for a cost in gold, and belong to that player for as long as they want them. Each player may employ five craftsmen during the game, and begin the game with three of them. Craftsmen are a bit like factories - accepting input and producing output. The most common conversion is material cubes into victory points, however there are exceptions. One carpenter coverts wood into gold, while others convert gold into victory points. Your craftsmen drive your strategy.

The craftsmen are also seeded so as the game progresses better and better ones appear. They may be able to convert at a more efficient rate, or do it more often during each turn. The elite craftsmen appear on the final turns of the game, who specialize in gold leaf and metalwork, and return large amounts of victory points.

The Worker phase is over when all the available cards have been drafted, or when all players have passed. Workers who haven't been sent off to harvest material cubes for this turn are sent into the wool mill, where they will earn their masters (i.e. the players) some valuable gold income this turn. Gold is so scarce in this game that deciding how many workers to send to the wool mill has to be seriously considered.

During the Master Builder phase, each player's three master builder pawns are placed into an opaque bag. The current start player then draws a pawn and places it on a simple cost track. The owner of the pawn has to decide whether to pay the current cost, beginning at a whopping seven gold, to place the master builder, or to pass placement and save their money. Either way, the cost marker bumps down by one gold, and the next builder is drawn. This is repeated until the bag is empty. The start player gets one right of veto per turn, enabling them to reject a drawn master builder, returning it to the bag and a new pawn is drawn.

If the owner of the drawn master builder decides to pay for placement, they may place the pawn onto one of several locations on the game board, claiming the special ability of that location for this current turn. Choosing a location is driven by strategy and goals for the turn - if a player is heavy in material and shy in cash, a visit to the market perhaps is in order; picking up a cheap craftsman in Shiring is always popular, as are the advantage cards on offer at Kingsbridge. The King's Court is very popular - it grants tax amnesty, and the King is so touched he awards the first visitor there a metal cube. When the locations begin to dry up, there are a few victory point scraps to be had, and of course you can seek sanctuary from potential bad events at the Bishop.

The master builder phase is one of the areas of this game that may cause some gamers some problems. The pawns are drawn randomly from the bag, and it's very possible that somebody's pawns will be drawn late, and all the good stuff is gone. The upside is they get to place their pawns for free, but that's not much consolation if their strategy revolved around obtaining the King's metal, or a juicy craftsman. Alternately, players may be flat broke and get drawn from the bag early - they cannot afford to place, so they must pass and wait their turn in the cheap seats.

When all the master builders have been deployed onto the board, the board is resolved. This is a 14 (!) step process, which is much simpler than it sounds, and only takes a couple of minutes to complete it.

First off, the next event (1) is revealed from a deck of ten events. Five are good, five are bad, yet only six appear in any one game. If a player has placed a master builder at the Bishop's (2), they can claim immunity from any negative consequence of the event, or instead take a good for free from the market.

Any workers who didn't visit the wood, quarry or sand pit were sent off to the wool shed (3). This is now resolved, with each worker present earning their owner one gold. A nice event card doubles the gold for one turn.

Players who placed master builders in Kingsbridge (4) take the associated Advantage card there. These cards are all based on characters and events in the novel, and break the rules in favour of the owning player.

Next on the tour around the board is the Priory (5) where master builders earn their team a victory point or two. Then it's on through the wood (6), quarry (7) and sand pit (8) where the workers committed earlier in the turn bring home little coloured wooden cubes of stone, wood and sand.

The King's Court (9) sees the start player roll the taxation die, generating a tax this turn of between 2 and 5 gold. Any player who doesn't visit the court is taxed at this rate. The player who was first to visit the court during the master builder placement receives a lump of metal (a blue cube). Metal is precious stuff in this game.

Any master builders that were placed on the craftsmen spaces in Shiring (10) are now awarded to the players. This, along with the drafting of craftsmen in the first phase of the game turn, is the only way to employ new craftsmen onto your workforce. While you don't have the pay to take craftsmen during this stage of the turn, you probably had to pay to deploy the master builder there (unless your opponent's were asleep!).

There is one space available for a master builder at Shiring Castle (11). The lord of the castle awards two neutral grey workers to the player for use during the next turn, whether it be rock, sand, wood or wool. Two extra workers are very handy (there is also an advantage card, Otto, who gives you an extra worker for the rest of the game).

At the Kingsbridge Market (12), players who have visited may take an action, in order of arrival, until they have all passed. An action is simply to buy or sell material cubes in one type of commodity. Wood, stone and sand can both be bought and sold for the same price. Metal can only be sold, however, and returns a nice 5 gold to the seller. Any commodities bought at the market drain the market for the current turn - there is only four cubes of each good on offer for purchase. Sold commodities are returned to the pool of cubes on the board, and not to the market. The market is worth visiting to top up the dwindling cash reserves, as well as snaffling a cube or two to wring some more victory points out of your craftsmen.

Finally, we reach the site of the cathedral (13). Players now plug materials into their craftsmen, and process the output. Most of the time the output is victory points, which are recorded on the scoring track. However, there are some craftsmen who are a little bit different - some provide a few victory points simply by being there, while others turn commodities back into gold. Later in the game the specialists appear to put the finishing touches on the cathedral, such as the glass blower, organ maker, and so on. These craftsmen award large amounts of victory points, however you only get a turn or two to use them.

Players can hold up to five cubes over from turn to turn, and the decision about what to use with your craftsmen and what to hold over can be interesting. Why plug 3 sand in for a victory point when you could possibly get a better exchange rate next turn, and so on.

The turn end with the start player placing a nice, large wooden chunk of cathedral on the board. This really doesn't mean anything apart from "Turn over", yet it's strangely symbolic and fits nicely with the theme of the game. If any player placed a master builder on the "start player" space (14) on the board, they take the next piece of cathedral, otherwise start player moves to the left.

After six turns, the player with the most victory points is the winner of the game, with gold breaking ties. The last turn, when the best craftsmen are in the game and there is metal everywhere sees large jumps in victory points. The best final turn score I've seen so far is 18 victory points, but I'm sure more is possible. The lesson to be learned here is that catch-ups are possible, if you don't let any players out to a large early lead.

Die Saeulen der Erde is a beautiful looking game that plays very cleanly. It does remind me of other games, but it stands on it's own as a solid game. The game it will draw most comparisons to would be Caylus, as the theming is very similar. This game is much shorter than Caylus, with four player games taking around 90 minutes.

I do like Die Saeulen der Erde. There is the nice feeling of managing your resources, accumulating material cubes, not letting the gold supply run down too far, etc. The game puts some pressure on the players, as everything is tight and you'd like to do much more than you can. Placing the master builders on the board calls for some quick thinking, and changing of plans as the random draw of the builders from the bag can affect your strategy.

Recommended for players who enjoy resource management games.
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Barry Kendall
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Very informative review, Doug, thank you! The graphics and theme caught my eye in the Essen reports and I'm really looking forward to that English edition.

Being a Bits Puppy, I wouldn't mind seeing some plastic builders and laborers to go with that lovely board, but pawns will do.

Sounds like a delightful game.
 
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Mike Siggins
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Thanks Doug. Good review. General agreement.
 
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Jeremy Carlson
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Nice review Doug. I am curious about how you think this game plays with different amount of players.

I personally think this one is oustanding with 2, good with 3, and too chaotic with 4. Not that I would turn down a game with 4 players, I just prefer to play this one with less.
 
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Rich P
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Great review, thanks. I will definitely get this if it comes out in English (sounds like there might be a bit more German on the cards than my group would be comfortable with). At various points throughout your review I thought this game sounded like another game: Caylus, Goa, Power Grid etc. But all the games that sprang to mind were ones I enjoy, so I think I'll like this one too.
 
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Wade Broadhead
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I've been trying to play this on BSW. Even though I have no idea what I'm doing, its still a lot of fun and quite interesting. My mother loved this book and turned me onto it a long time ago, so i'll have to get this for family gatherings.
Good review
 
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Greg Cox
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did you buy the game in Australia or get it from overseas?
 
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Doug Adams
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hughthehand wrote:
Nice review Doug. I am curious about how you think this game plays with different amount of players.

I personally think this one is oustanding with 2, good with 3, and too chaotic with 4. Not that I would turn down a game with 4 players, I just prefer to play this one with less.


Smacks skull. I meant to add this, but left it out. It's on my draft notes.

I think the game is a bit too easy with two players - everything is twice as common and twice as easy to get to as compared with four players. We can churn through a game in 45 minutes or so with two players, so it's almost in the meaty filler category. I like the added pressure with four players here.
 
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Doug Adams
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coxy_fc wrote:
did you buy the game in Australia or get it from overseas?


I picked it up from Adam Spielt. I waited to see what was getting the good press from Essen, then lunged out and snagged about eight of the better sounding games (Space Dealer, Factory Fun, Medici vs Strozzi, etc.). All seem pretty solid so far.
 
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Greg Cox
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sounds good! so what rating would you give the game and is it better than the others you bought?
 
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Jens Hoppe
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Nice review, Doug, and I generally agree. My initial enthusiasm for the game has lessened slightly with more plays, though. Meaning, it's about an '8' for me at the moment, but unlike my first impression, I don't see it becoming a '9' any longer.

For one thing, I agree that with 4 players, the order you draw master builders from the bag seems like an inordinately random exercise, in contrast with the rest of the game which leans towards 'analytical and slightly dry'. The fact that the earliest drawn master builders have to pay more is of course an attempt at balancing the thing, but it simply isn't enough. In the final turns, it is simply vital that you have a bit of money and get drawn early in order to occupy the juicy spots - if you're drawn late you are in serious trouble. Dare I say it, I feel that an auction might have been in place here instead...

And with 2 players, I too find that the game feels too open. Why not scale, say, the number of available master builder spaces and the resource cards used per turn to the number of players?

Apart from that, solid gameplay, a great theme and gorgeous components still makes it a winner.
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L. Stitz
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Good review, even though most of it comprised of a retelling of the rules. I had hoped for a bit more opinion.

Quote:
Die Saeulen der Erde is a beautiful looking game that plays very cleanly. It does remind me of other games, but it stands on it's own as a solid game. The game it will draw most comparisons to would be Caylus, as the theming is very similar. This game is much shorter than Caylus, with four player games taking around 90 minutes.


Sorry, but a 4 player game of Caylus with my group is about 90 minutes long short as well, so I wouldn't argue that this game is "much shorter". It may have the tendency to be so, however, because you don't have that many different choices as in Caylus, not that many strategies to pursue, and thus not that many agonizing decisions to make.

Moreover, what I like in Caylus but am definitely missing in this game is the ability to build your own buildings. I think this game is a fairly shallow Caylus clone, albeit with a great theme and very good artwork. If choosing between Caylus and this one, however, I'd always take Caylus.
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Robert Martin
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Great review Doug. This looks like an interesting game.
 
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