Europe, circa 1558. Religious rivalries threaten to tear entire cities apart. Centres of trade across Europe – Kingsbridge, Paris, Antwerp and Seville – all offer lucrative deals. But these cities are ticking timebombs. They’re the battleground for the incessant war between the Catholics and Protestants. And you don’t want to get caught in the wrong city if you’re part of the wrong crowd. These mobs drive you – and your hard-earned business – out of town.
A Column Of Fire is the third game (and book) in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge trilogy. All three got the adaptation treatment from novel to board game by Michael Rieneck and Kosmos Games. (Click here to read my Pillars of the Earth review!) 2017 saw A Column Of Fire complete this triumvirate. Here, dice management plays a prominent role (zing; who’s counting the puns?).
But the sequel business is a tough gig. For initial publicity, you get to ride off the crest of your earlier, successful wave. But the market is quick to judge. If it’s not a spectacular ride like its predecessor, fans feel crushed. So the question is: can A Column Of Fire shine bright against its precursors? Or is it more of a damp wick?
The Elevator Pitch
A Column Of Fire is a Euro-style efficiency race for 2-4 players. There’s no set number of rounds – the end-game trigger occurs once someone hits 50 points. You’d then play that round to conclusion, and work out extra end-game scoring. Most points wins the bragging rights.
Your aim: score points by building profitable alliances with powerful luminaries. Each European city has its own demands for specific resources. Befriend folks that provide produce, then sell it through your trading houses. You also earn points if you’re present in a city when it has a ‘Religious Conflict’. (But only if you’re on the winning side!)
Sixteenth Century Hashtags
You have a 50|50 chance of starting the game being Catholic or Protestant. Everybody has six D6 dice in black, blue, brown, white, orange and purple. A starting roll of your black D6 equates to how many rounds you’ll be supporting that religion.
In the first half of the round, you reduce this die down one face. You cannot go lower than ‘1’; at this point you reroll your religion die. Then you can decide to switch your faith! Do you want to remain #teamcatholic/#teamprotestant? Or swap? (They didn’t have hashtags back in 1558, but you get the gist.) Regardless, the black die result always determines how many rounds you’ll follow that religion.
During the second half of rounds, you take turns rolling your remaining ‘free’ coloured dice. Die colours represent the four cities on the board. Kingsbridge is white, Paris is blue, Antwerp is orange, and Seville is brown. Your purple die is wild, counting for all four.
Each city has a Character card deck, with one card face-up. You spend one of your available dice (of a corresponding colour) to gain a business partnership with that character. Let’s say you spend your white die to gain the character in Kingsbridge. This character is either Catholic (purple), Protestant (grey), or neutral (beige). You place a matching religion ‘stone’ in that city. If a fourth religion stone gets added, a religious conflict occurs in that city. (More on that, later.)
Lock ’Em Away In Dice Jail
The number of the die is important, as well as the colour. If it were, say, a white ‘3’, you’d place one of your trading houses into the ‘3’ spot within Kingsbridge. If an opponent’s trading house is already in that space, you push it down one value. This can have a ripple effect – and higher is better when religious conflicts occur.
You add this card to your tableau and place the white ‘3’ die on it. Again, this establishes how many rounds you’ll do business with this character. Straight away, you claim the card’s reward/action – goods, points, or Protection tokens. It could be an action like adding or removing religion stones to a city, among others.
Then you reveal the next Character card from that city’s deck. If it’s an Event, you read out flavour text, alongside a groan-inducing punishment. Everyone obeys the handicap, such as having to lock one of your dice into ‘jail’ (Loch Leven). You can ignore Events by paying a Protection token. This adds some rumination to proceedings. You can pay Protection to ignore placing a Character’s religion stone, instead.
Last, you move your disc around the Action Track. It’s a clockwise rondel; move to any next available coloured spot and take the action there. The catch is: providing you have that same colour die unlocked. (As in, not ‘locked in’ on Characters in your tableau or in Loch Leven.) You don’t ‘spend’ a die to do this, but it needs to be free right now. These actions mirror the ones on the Character cards. Some actions let you sell goods for points. This requires a trading house present in a city with a demand for said resource, though.
In the first half of the rounds, then, you’ll have a fluctuating range of Characters in your tableau. (And/or dice in jail!) Like your religion die, you’ll reduce the die face down for each of them. As you do so, you gain the reward/action on their card again. Some go hand-in-hand, like running an engine. If ever these dice go below ‘1’, your business relationship with that partner ends. The card gets removed from the game. You then regain that colour die for future use.
What’s A Religious Conflict… And How Do I Start One?
‘Column’ promises intriguing decisions. After you’ve rolled your dice, you need to think backwards. Is there an appealing spot ahead on the Action Track? If so, you can’t spend that colour die this turn, then. So you look at the remaining colour dice, and the Characters available. You’re looking at what benefits they offer. At the die pips you rolled, because that’s how many times you’ll earn the card’s reward. Also: what’s the Character’s religion?
Religious conflicts occur in cities when a fourth religion stone gets added. If there’s a majority of one type of religion stone over another, that religion wins the ‘conflict’. (Neutral stones make up numbers, but don’t count towards majority.)
The city riots, in favour of the majority. Anyone with a trading house in that city who’s following the triumphant religion gains points. This is equal to the value of their trading house: (1-6). If you’re in the minority during the conflict, your trading house gets removed from that city. You earn zero points. All stones get wiped, and the status quo returns… for now.
The Cold War, Medieval-Style
You won’t want to miss out on cities about to riot. Long term, you also don’t want to lose presence in a city where you can perform lucrative trades. The risk, though, is that if you help a religious conflict for your faith, chances are you’re helping your allies, too. It’s no good triggering a city if you have a trade house on the ‘1’ spot, and someone else has theirs on the ‘6’. You’re giving them five points.
The dream is to make a city pop when you’re the sole benefactor. But that’s tricky, because you’ll need to be in the minority. Three versus one is a struggle, because the majority will put out your fires, so to speak. It’s easier (but still tough) in a three-player count – there’s always guaranteed to be third wheel. On other occasions, the religious presence in a city grows like the Cold War. Two super powers glare at one other: an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
Mangled Through A Caricature Engine
Artist Michael Menzel has crafted a board that emanates sophisticated resplendence. The layout of Europe is from southern England’s perspective. Kingsbridge and her cathedral dominates the foreground; a conceptual vision of Europe, beyond. It’s a romantic vision, perhaps, of how Britons viewed the continent circa 1558. Seville is a far-distant dream, silhouetted against a gorgeous sunset.
There’s a lot of ‘dead space’, though. A Column Of Fire’s board could be half the size and still function. It’s portrait, which is fine, but the all-important Action Track is in the bottom-right corner. If you’re sat away from this, you’ll have to squint. At least the iconography, for the most part, is logical. Victory points are a Tudor rose wax seal; apt for the era. The box insert is a neat plastic-molded rose too, but there’s air to spare inside, too.
Menzel’s Character card art falls flat in comparison to his board’s aesthetics. The Characters look odd; they’re like replica renaissance oil paintings, mangled through a caricature engine. Some of their expressions evoke unintentional amusement. At least this gives them some iota of identity, beyond their reward and religion yield. I haven’t read the novel, but I felt less association with these protagonists than I did in Pillars of the Earth.
One irritating bugbear is the colour choice for the purple wild dice. Even under decent light, it’s arduous to distinguish it from the brown of Seville. It catches you out every time.
Lady Luck Giveth… And Taketh Away
On paper, the dice management in A Column Of Fire piqued my interest. Balance the value you feel Characters provide, versus locking that die away for a period of time. Low numbers seemed decent for a quick turnaround and flexibility. I’d hoped it would present similar, marvellous puzzles like Pillars’ worker placement fee. The problem is that some decisions in Column feel like they’re pre-loaded. Others feel like they’re taken out of your hands all together.
Whenever dice get involved, Lady Luck giveth and taketh away. That’s tolerable in doses. Elements of luck, or randomness, are ingredients for strategy games that quench our thirst. How you harness or exploit that luck is what elevates the challenge, or replayability. But problems arise when there’s luck across multiple mechanisms. It can ratchet up to the point where it spirals out of control. Output randomness results in a lack of long-term planning, and more reacting. Hoping. Praying.
Can You Control Your Luck?
Some Characters seem to provide better rewards than others. One gives 2VP per round. Claim it with a ‘6’ and that’s an easy 12 points. But it also means you place your trade house into the 6VP spot in that city. It’s a no-brainer of a double-bonus. Rolled a paltry ‘1’? You’re out of luck on both accounts. Problem is, you’ll feel obliged into hate-drafting that card if it’s available on your turn. So, are you left with a decision, at all?
The ‘get one Advantage Tile’ card feels overpowered, too. You draw Advantage Tiles blind, but they offer a reward or extra action every time. You can cash them in whenever you want. This is formidable, because it negates needing free dice for the Action Track. They could also be 1-3 secret points, which make a monumental difference at the end of the game.
Luck can serve up frustrating, less-appealing cards on your turn. It’s a second kick in the groin if you then reveal one of these ‘better’ cards for your opponents. Advantage Tile cards sit in all four decks, so randomness could see a player claim two or more of them. And if they pay with a ‘6’ both times? It’s nigh-impossible to catch them with that many Advantage Tiles in their arsenal. One action lets you remove a card from a city (or your own tableau, but not another player’s). You’ll end up playing this move out of spite!
You Dirty Rat!
Warring religions presents a compelling conundrum. Which side to pick, and when? Some players might not feel enthused by the theological tone. Rest assured: faith itself isn’t rammed down your throat. These could be gang wars controlling turf across New York boroughs. At times you’ll need to form grudging alliances. But when you hold the upper stance, of course! Or, you could be the turncoat, the dirty rat, and flip the odds…
The problem is, I experienced players tending not to change religion that often, if at all. In an ideal scenario – and in juxtaposition to your other dice – you’d roll a ‘1’ on your religion die every time. That grants über-flexibility for switching when the time’s right. Otherwise, you have to make a decision that locks you into a faith for the long-term.
There is, at least, a way to mitigate locked dice. One action lets you rotate one of your locked die faces on a card plus or minus one. You could speed up a die trapped in Loch Leven, your religion, or on a less desirable Character. Instead, you could keep a card in your tableau for longer.
The Curse Of Being Born Into A Threequel
A Column Of Fire was always going to struggle to compete against its Kingsbridge predecessors. Pillars of the Earth is such an overwhelming darling in its fans’ eyes. And if sequels aren’t at least 10% bigger, better, louder, faster, they run the risk of getting slammed, by default. Is that unfair, because of fans’ high expectations? I’d argue: no. Column attempts to piggyback off Pillars’ good name, rather than shirking association. From a shelf presence point of view, it has the same alluring, box art design and layout. Ken Follett’s name sits emblazoned atop an archway.
Myself: I too felt dazzled by Pillars; spoiled, even. There’s some cool ideas in A Column Of Fire… but not outstanding ones. At the end of the day, I enjoyed it, but Column doesn’t give off the same heat as Pillars. Column’s solid – if you go into it accepting that swinging spectrum of input-to-output randomness. But is ‘solid’ good enough in today’s ever-growing Euro strategy games market?