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Game Review

Gamemaker Jon Shafer was once a lead designer on one of the über-popular Civilization games. Now he's released his own version of a so-called "4X game" (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate) called Jon Shafer's At the Gates.

So is this new gaming entry, which was seven years in the making, simply another empire-building strategy title?

In a certain sense, yes. But Shafer invites players, young and old, to strategize their way through the tougher side of carving out their hard-earned place in the world. He wants them to focus closely on the things around them, to manage more day-to-day details, and to think more about the rigors of survival in a cold and barren wilderness.

The Barbarians Are … Us?

Right out of the, uh, gate, you'll notice a hexagonal map layout, a birds-eye point of view and certain researching elements—all bits that are very similar to what you'd expect to find in your typical Civ title. But from there, Shafer's game plows fairly new ground.

Rather than sweeping through hundreds of years, this game moves much more slowly. Each turn represents the passage of two weeks. The game commences when your little mobile settlement is plopped down on a randomly generated map, representing a few miles of land somewhere in Europe in the year 400 A.D. (And every time you decide to start anew, the procedurally generated surroundings you encounter will be a little different, and the immediate resources will vary.)

Players begin with the bare basics: a couple tents, a handful of bedraggled clansmen who have few skills and a small plot of land. Around you are roving bandits, other more-developed settlements, and two factions of the fading—but still intimidatingly armed—Roman Empire.

Given those threats, the first goal, of course, is simply not to die.

You begin by training the few clans in your settlement to fulfill important jobs. Some will be gatherers, tasked with bringing in nearby berries and honey. Others will be explorers who find out what's shaking in the world around your area. A digger will discover and excavate useful minerals for possible weapons. A hunter can produce meat stores for the oncoming harsh winter. A wood collector will supply the materials needed to corral a herd of sheep or build a farm. Oh, and let's not forget camp protection: An archer can ward off those fierce bandits lurking in the gorge next door.

Who's Turn Is It With the Shovel?

There are six different discipline trees to explore in this game, with each holding scores of possible jobs that require multiple turns to train for, as well as time to research and unlock. The various vocations include weaponsmiths, traders, farmers, ranchers, lancers, miners, woolgathers, weavers, etc. The list of possibilities stretches on and on, with each category being potentially necessary as your economy grows and your settlement expands.

Of course, you can't fill jobs, bring in the hard-to-come-by resources and build a thriving economy without people. So as time ticks by, and word of your achievements leak out, small clans of folks—each with their own strengths, tendencies, frailties and personality traits—straggle in to join your cause. It's your task to match them with the right job, balance their production, protect them, and keep them from feuding and killing each other.

The ultimate goal is to fortify your burgeoning kingdom to the point that you can take down a Roman stronghold, or train up five military legions that can join the Romans and surreptitiously take over from within. But trust me, when you're starting out with a tiny scratch of dirt and a couple of wild-eyed clansmen with little more than a single shovel between them, both of those objectives feel nearly impossible.

Frustrate Me, Please

There's no real negative content here. There are some possible battles, but any birds-eye armed conflicts are small, simple and bloodless. And though alcohol can be created and used to calm an angry clan's mood, we don't see any actual imbibing.

So more than anything else, it's that sense of facing the impossible that can make this game intriguing, while at the same time potentially making it very frustrating. You will fail, over and over. It may be a brutal snowy winter with no food that finishes you off, or a roving band of bandits that you're not prepared for or just the fact that your management decisions have been such a mess. These failures can be discouraging and maybe even make you feel like you've wasted your time playing.

The fact is, however, each stumbling face-plant actually teaches you a lesson for the next go-round. You learn how to avoid shortages, how to handle relationship problems, how to diagnose potential security issues. And with each new try, your settlement gets better. It becomes more structured, more stable, and you move closer to the favorable outcome you and your filthy hordes long for.

That won't make At The Gates the perfect game for every game-playing leader. But for the strategist who doesn't mind failing, learning, starting over, and playing the long game, it could earn a hearty barbarian war whoop or two.

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January 23, 2019

On Video

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Bob Hoose

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