England, 1135. A prior has a pipe dream: to see a cathedral constructed beyond superlatives in Kingsbridge. Woodworkers and mortar-mixers are the first to arrive. Then come the masons and sculptors, followed by goldsmiths and bell-makers. Builders jostle for precious metals, locked away in the royal mines. Fawning sycophants rush to King Stephen’s court, falling over themselves to gain tax exemption. Meanwhile the expanding cathedral looms over all, as they live and die under its imposing shadow.
Ken Follett’s gripping novel, The Pillars of the Earth, reached international bestselling acclaim in 1989. 17 years later, Kosmos Games teamed up with German duo Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler. Together, they adapted The Pillars of the Earth into a Euro-style board game. It featured a mechanism called worker placement, which was still new and shiny at the time.
That was back in 2006. That was before iPhones. Before Instagram. Back when Daniel Craig made his debut as James Bond. That was… kind of a long time ago. In the 14 years that have passed since, the world of modern board games has erupted, ten-fold. So the question is: can The Pillars of the Earth stand its own in today’s saturated market? Or has it become a crumbling ruin, crying out in vain to recall the worshippers that abandoned it?
The Gap Betwixt Heaven And Earth
In The Pillars of the Earth, two to four players take on the role of rival builders. Your aim? Contribute materials towards the erection (no giggling) of Kingsbridge’s sumptuous cathedral. Worker placement stands at the pulpit, but an assortment of mechanisms emerge from the foundations. Pillars lasts for six rounds, and each occurs in a formulaic, structured manner.
Rounds have three phases to them. First there’s a draft, where players hire cards for the round that provide building materials. Or, they can hire permanent characters to join their workforce. Next comes a worker placement phase. Spots are for the most part first-come, first-serve, but there’s a clever sting in the tail.
Then the location sites on the board activate in a sequential manner. Players earn rewards associated with the spots they placed their worker(s). Last of all, everyone runs their workforce tableau. Mechanisms-wise, you spend your gained materials to earn the most points. From a theme point of view, your labourers craft the spectacular pillars that bridge the gap between heaven and earth.
What’s The Chef’s Secret Ingredient?
Games like Pillars of the Earth are akin to a hearty stew. When you boil down any Euro-style game, at the bottom of the pan sit exercises in efficiency. The delight, you’ll find, comes with discovering the subtle sprinkle of micro-mechanisms. These are the teasing aromas you don’t appreciate first time around when hearing a rules summary. These arrive after the second or third mouthful. Tiptoeing, these announce themselves mid-round, causing you to cup your chin.
They’re the nuances that sit between mechanisms. They’re the chef’s secret ingredient, and they captivate board gamers worldwide. And let me tell you: Pillars has more than one classified spice bubbling away in the background…
Social Distancing In 1135: No More Than Five Craftsmen
Phase I’s card draft presents you with decisions seeped with dual considerations. In turn order, you pick one at a time from a public array of Building Resource cards. These feature ranging quantities of the three key materials – wood, stone, and sand. You want resources to flush them through your Craftsmen tableau at the end of Phase III.
Cards have designated costs (between 2-10) in workers. You have 12 workers to spend every round. Frugal choices could result in you drafting multiple cards. Of your 12, seven are individual, small workers. One is larger, representing five workers. Don’t overlook this. No change gets given for that large worker!
Another consideration – or, if you can’t afford the remaining cards – allows you to pass. Got excess, unspent workers? They sit on the Wool Mill location. Later in the round, you’ll earn one coin per worker you placed here. The income you gather could prove vital; you’ll rely on those coins to fund future actions. Squander access to your in-game revenue at your peril.
Also present are two Craftsman cards for you to invest in, as well. As the game progresses, more characters get revealed. They’re an upgrade from your current workforce, offering lucrative exchange rates of materials to points/coins. These cost money, not workers. Claim one and they sit alongside your starting default trio of Craftsman cards. You can have five at most in your tableau, in a one-in, one-out fashion. Who makes the cut?
Money Is The Root Of All Evil
Phase II is the headline event: worker placement. Everyone puts their three Master Builder pawns into a draw-bag. The first player reveals a pawn. The owner of this Master Builder places this pawn wherever they want. These locations gain you resources, extra Craftsmen, getting cosy with King Stephen, and more.
When I first heard about this aspect of Pillars, I’ll admit: I felt sceptical. It sounds like a blind raffle, doesn’t it? A luck-fest. Get drawn first, get first pick of the board. Where’s the strategy or accomplishment in that? But there’s a catch. A simple, yet brilliant hurdle. The earlier you get drawn out of the bag, the more expensive it is to place your pawn.
First out has to pay an eye-watering seven gold coins. If you’re happy to pay, great; the board is your oyster. Current cost a bit rich for your blood, though? No shame in that – you can pass, instead. Regardless, the cost marker slides down one value. The next Master Builder gets drawn from the bag. Now it’s their turn to decide: they can visit any vacant spot for six coins, or pass, and so on.
At last, the cost becomes zero. Every Master Builder drawn from this point onwards places for free. Once the bag’s depleted of pawns, turn order returns to the Master Builders that passed earlier. They too place that pawn for free. Of course, the cost has plummeted to a significant discount. But are the juicy spots on the board still available?
It’s a wonderful crunch. Everyone’s finances are public knowledge. Can you risk to splash the cash and place your worker? More important: can your rivals afford it, if you don’t act now? By this point, the value in gaining regular income at the Wool Mill starts to sink in. You need coins – lots of them – if you want to reap the ‘good fortune’ of getting drawn early. In other ways, you don’t want to see your pawn come out of the bag, first! Deciding when to bite the bullet and cough up the cash is a suspenseful stand-off.
A Brat With A Crossbow
Everyone placed their Master Builders? Now location actions on the board resolve in a specific order. They’re easy to follow, going clockwise from 1-14. You’ll reveal an Event card: will it be good or bad? (There’s a spot for one pawn to gain protection against this Event!)
Pawns placed in Kingsbridge earn an Advantage card. (Two get revealed at the start of each round.) Some provide immediate/one-off rewards; others have ongoing passive benefits. They’re ‘free’ to those who placed pawns here. But remember, you aren’t really claiming them gratis. You paid for them in coins, when you placed your pawn in the first place. This is the same for claiming extra Craftsmen cards in Shiring.
Wood/stone/sand gets distributed according to your Building Resource cards. Then the first pawn placed in the King’s Court earns precious, rare metal. (Some Craftsmen produce big points in exchange for metal, so its high in demand.) The other pawns here receive nothing. Why place them there, then? Because King Stephen’s tax demands fluctuate from round to round. He’s like a fickle brat who’s learned how to fire his father’s crossbow. A tense D6 die roll determines the coin requirement from anyone that didn’t send a pawn to visit him. Can you afford to ignore your monarch? Is the penalty worth it, to visit elsewhere on the board?
Shiring Castle, meanwhile, earns you two extra workers for the next round. These could become game-changing. Extra workers mean you could afford more lavish cards in the next draft. Or, you’ll have further excess to send to the Wool Mill. The Market is your final chance to buy or sell resources before players activate their Craftsmen. Arrive here late, and supplies might sell out…
Pious Power In The Palm Of Your Hand
Last of all, did anyone claim the First Player location? It’s a worthwhile consideration. You get first pick in the next card draft, which is a shrewd advantage. Also, you’ll draw the Builders out of the bag. Once per round, the First Player can decide to ignore the result of any one revealed player pawn. They can return it to the draw-bag. Drew yourself first, but can’t afford seven coins? No drama, pop yourself back in. Drew your rival at the worst possible moment? Don a devilish smile, and back into the murky depths of the bag they go.
In a game about constructing a house of God, when you reveal these pawns you feel like a deity, yourself. All eyes gaze upon you. Colossal, pious power sits in the palm of your hand. Of course, if you draw the same colour again that’s karma, and hilarity ensues!
Michael Menzel Does It Again
Michael Menzel’s art transports you to twelfth century England in the blink of an eye. There’s painstaking details in all fourteen locations across the board. Citizens working in the quarry, guarding the King’s Court, or busy at the cathedral evokes the mise en scène. Locations all have text descriptions – no confusing iconography, here. Teaching this part of the game is a breeze.
The cost track looks like a stained glass window. There’s no cardboard coin chits in Pillars. Instead, your cash tally is a humble disc on a gold coin track, running along the board’s base. Flanked by two ornate, Corinthian pillars, you’re reminded of Prior Philip’s grandiose, visionary dream.
Event and Advantage cards have flavour text alongside gameplay functions. You’ll curse the name of William Hamleigh when he demands more taxes. You’ll smile when Tom Builder enters the fray. You don’t need to have read Follett’s novel to feel a rapport with these characters. Menzel’s captured their expressions to help you connect the dots. Of course, if you have read the book you’ll feel a closer affinity to these protagonists. It’s like Lords of Waterdeep. You can still enjoy that game without ever having played Dungeons & Dragons.
These Components Are So Twelfth Century
Your Master Builders look like symbolic wooden bishops from a chess set. Coloured cubes make up the resources. The workers are the most exciting pieces, which isn’t saying much. They’re simplistic human silhouettes. In comparison to modern game pieces, these components feel practical, rather than pretty. Dated comes to mind, and dare I say it… dull.
One component that is divine, though, is the First Player token – or should I say, all six of them. The nave, the transept, the apse, the towers and the roof. All six form together to make the formidable cathedral, itself. In the final round you’ll place the ‘roof’ on top. It’s a neat touch. After all, you spend the game providing the means to see this monumental church take form. They pack snug into a custom plastic insert, too. As well as pure visual gratification, it’s comforting for storage and travel purposes.
Final Thoughts On… The Pillars of the Earth
Pillars of the Earth is one of worker placement’s forefathers. It’s on the lighter cusp of being a midweight Euro, in today’s market. An alias for the mechanism is ‘action drafting’. Pillars delivers this with pure transparency. The strategical glee comes not with knowing where to place, but when.
The crux of a round in Pillars is getting materials to maximise output from your Craftsmen. You can’t hoard more than five resources at the end of a round. Your decisions now have a lasting impact on later rounds, none more so than your finances. Money, it would seem, truly is the root of all evil…
Mid-game, the blind bag draw introduces layers of fascinating player-to-player psychology. That’s when you realise it isn’t a lottery; it’s Pillars’ ace in the hole. It’s like The Man Upstairs wants to play with the fate of the participants. This, alongside the tax die roll and Events, are the three unpredictable elements. Were it not for these, Pillars would feel a little too lukewarm, too safe. Rest assured, it’s far from a random generator. The rest of the information you need is all present at the start of the round.
But sometimes we seek that thrilling feeling of the unknown. It’s why we ride roller coasters; it’s why we watch horror movies in the dark. We play board games for those moments of adrenaline that make us sit up straight and pay attention. Because the payoff is worth it. Because we want to rejoice when things go our way, and shake a fist at the heavens when it doesn’t. We play for the resounding highs and the crushing lows. That was the same back in 2006 as it is today in 2020.
Has The Pillars of the Earth aged well? It’s an emphatic yes from me, despite some misgivings. It shines at four players, not so much at two. I can forgive the bland components. Its stellar – albeit subtle – micro-mechanisms does the talking, anyway. Those aside, hand on heart, I can’t venerate about Pillars of the Earth enough. Now I need to read the book…