Words About Video Games

Player vs. Backlog - At the Gates

In my previous update, I said I’d probably finish one more game this month. I’ve finished two, and I’m certain that’s it for January. This brings the total remaining down to 28. I’m just writing about one of them today.

At the Gates
Technically it’s called Jon Shafer’s At the Gates. I kickstarted back in … 2013. The promise was an asymmetrical strategy game from the lead designer of Civilization 5 in which you played a Northern European tribe being driven into the path of the Roman Empire and ultimately seeking to bring it to its knees. Going from tiny tribe to force that could bring down an Empire? It was a compelling premise. It could also be a giant mess.

I’m sorry to say that At the Gates is a mess, and it’s not even that interesting a mess. I had the first inkling of this a year or so into the kickstarter, when Shafer shared early video of him playing the game. The initial phase of the game is a worker placement puzzle in which you’re trying to determine what resources to harvest with the limited number of hands at your disposal. This isn’t inherently uninteresting, but I struggled to see how this game of individual clan management would transition into gathering a force that could bring down Rome.

Seven years of development hell later, it released, and the worker placement part of the experience is the only thing that’s remotely well developed, and even that falls apart as the game progresses. Diplomacy offers the options to delcare war or strike up an alliance, but no direct means to curry the kind of favor needed to build relationships that can lead to alliances. No one declared war on me the entire game, so I never felt pressure to pull my clans away from providing for my settlement to defend it. The one time I declared war on someone else, their settlement was completely undefended, and I occupied it with ease. And then, in spite of the fact that I’d occupied their settlement, I was able to repeatedly pillage it, collecting 100 gold each time I did.

Without the need to war, I could focus my clans on knowledge and fame gathering. Fame attracts more clans, so I had plenty of workers to advance my clan. Knowledge progresses you through the game’s tech tree, and I quickly reached the point were I could discover a new tech, at the highest part of the tree, in 1 turn. All of the friction from the experience disappeared. With advanced techs and lots of manpower, I could easily get steel equipment I needed to send my clans to Rome to train as legions and bring down the Empire from the inside. With the money I amassed from selling what I made and pillaging the Saxons, I could always buy enough food to feed my tribe.

When you start At the Gates, it warns you that it’s a “hard, slow” game. One of those is right. I declared victory with little resistance in my first campaign after six or seven hours of play, but it still felt like an eternity. While my clans were training as legions (taking one in-game year and then another in-game year for the coup, for a total of 48 turns) I had nothing to do. No one was fighting me. I wasn’t under resource pressure to survive. I actually took my clans off of knowledge training to make tech discovery take longer, just so that I wouldn’t have to make a pointless choice of which tech to research (techs I no longer had any need of) every single turn.

Other mechanics also go nowhere. You can decide your tribe’s religion, and are sometimes asked to convert by others, but I both converted and refused to convert, and it didn’t make any difference. Your clans have preferences and will sometimes squabble with each other, which reduces their productivity, but they never rebel or break into an outright feud. These dynamics are nowhere as deep or impactful as similar in games like Crusader Kings II.

Lastly, and it astonishes me that the game shipped with this exploit and has not yet been patched to fix it: there’s a caravan that comes a couple times a year, and the game randomly rolls to decide if the prices on certain goods to the caravan are above or below average. Sometimes that roll means that you can sell goods to the caravan for more than the caravan will charge you to buy them. You can then sell to the caravan, re-buy, and re-sell infinitely at a profit. The caravan never runs out of money. I was past the point of having money problems by the time I noticed this, but if I hadn’t been, this would have made the game even more trivial.

And Rome? They do virtually nothing. Their legions never leave their cities. While waiting for my legions to train up, I sent an expeditionary force to try to discover Roman territory (I hadn’t even discovered it by the time I was sending clans there to train as legions.) I found dozens of Roman cities, but never located Constantinople (the military victory condition is to capture either Rome or Constantinople.) In all my time shuffling knights around the Roman empire, they never even asked me what I was doing.

It kind of makes you wonder why Rome had to fall at all.

Rebecca Harwick