The Pillars of the Earth board game is a mid-weight 1-2-hour euro game set in Ken Follett’s fictional Kingsbridge universe. It is for 2-4 players (being better with more) and the suggested age range of 12+ feels about right.
While playing lip service to the setting in terms of locations and action cards, this is much more a resource conversion game than it is a thematic one. Yes, by the end of the game you’ll have built a cathedral. But the competition comes in the building, not the political power plays of the novel.
The artwork is gorgeous and component quality varies from standard to excellent. In the box you’ll find around 140 wooden pieces, a cloth bag, 80-ish small-sized cards, the main game board and one dice. The highlight is a chunky wooden cathedral (made from six parts) which acts as nothing more than a visual turn counter. For about £30, by today’s standards this is fantastic value for a big box board game.
This may look like ‘just another worker placement game’ today. But on its 2006 release Pillars of the Earth was a SdJ Recommended title, winning at least five other international gaming awards. It feels familiar because many of the ideas it championed are standards in game design today. And its continued presence just outside the Top 200 games of all time on Board Game Geek is no fluke.
Teaching The Pillars of the Earth board game
The game is played over six rounds, each split into three distinct phases. No hidden info makes it an easy teach. Especially as you can pretty much explain the basic overview at the start, and then each phase as it happens. After one full round, players should be generally up and running.
In phase one, players choose resource and craftsmen cards in turn order. Each player starts with three craftsmen, who basically turn three of the game’s four resources into victory points. Each round, increasingly powerful and diverse craftsmen become available to employ. This gives plenty of opportunity to diversify, but there are strict limits on the number of craftsmen you can keep – and on actions you can do if you stop employing workers with certain skills.
Phase two is in random order. Three wooden ‘master builders’ per player are drawn from a bag, one at a time. The first drawn can be placed for seven gold (7g). You can never have more than 30g, so this is a significant amount. The next builder drawn will cost that player 6g, then 5g etc. If a player pays the cost, they place the builder on any of the board’s 11 worker spaces. The good ones disappear rapidly, as nine only have space for one worker. If you don’t (or can’t) pay, the worker sits and waits. After the seventh worker drawn costs 1g, the remaining ones drawn are free. Once these are placed, any earlier draws not paid for are now also placed for free.
Taking your actions
Phase three sees players carrying out their chosen actions, this time in game board order. Each action space has a number printed on the board, so this order plays out in the same way each round. But many of the action spaces are associated with cards and events drawn randomly each round, which adds plenty or variation. Space one, for example, is an event that can be good or bad for all players. But if you’ve placed a master builder on space two, you can choose to ignore this event (or gain a resource).
Most spaces either give/exchange resources or cards (craftsmen, special actions, points etc), or dish out penalties. There are a couple of ‘push your luck’ elements. The event described above, plus a 2-5g tax you can place a builder to ignore (before knowing the cost). But generally you’ll know what you’re going to get when placing builders. Finally, players get to trade their resources for points and gold via their craftsmen.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: The Pillars of the Earth board game gets so much right. You’re constantly thinking about what other players want to do, which makes you weigh the odds often. Should I overspend now, or potentially miss out? This push-your-luck element, built into each phase of the game, really makes it sing. But also means that, with just two players, it can be a little disappointing. Take away that jeopardy and the game loses a bit of spark. Leaving me to think they could’ve put a little more thought into introducing two-player restrictions (as many other games do).
- The thinker: There’s not a lot of strategic thought here. The game is very tactical, with limited real choice throughout. But in a game of such tight margins those choice can have real impact. However, play to play, these choices are very similar – limiting replayability for those of us who want more depth. And for me, as a tactical game, it plays a little long. So on balance it’s not for me – but it is a strong design and one I’m happy to play occasionally.
- The trasher: The more players you have, the nastier Pillars of the Earth can get – but it’s very much passive aggressive. For example, there may be just one of a resource card available that turn. Even if it’s not much use to you, why not take it? You’ll guarantee to spoil someone else’s plans. And you can still sell the resources for money! That said, the market is always available to all players. So underneath all those tough decisions it really boils down to an efficiency engine. Will I play it? Sure – it’s better than all those heads-down euros. But will I pick it? Probably not, no.
- The dabbler: Really nice artwork does a pretty good job of making up for a dull theme. But to be honest, there’s no theme here to speak of. You certainly don’t feel as if you’re building a cathedral, no matter how nice and chunky the wooden blocks are! But despite that, I really enjoy the game. It’s fun and tricky deciding if to place your master builders for money, or to wait. And yes, it has that typical euro game ‘turn this into this to get points’ element. But it’s a simple progression, with more of the emphasis on competition and timing. I like it a lot.
It’s amusing to read recent criticisms of The Pillars of the Earth board game saying it has “nothing new”. Maybe these same people would criticise a ZX81 for not having HD quality graphics. That said, for a purchaser, the game does need to be judged on whether it stands up against modern alternatives. For me, with 3-4 players, it does. Which brings me on to the fact its not at it’s best with two. I still find it enjoyable, but it definitely loses some of its mojo. But, if you want less random, perhaps you’ll enjoy it more that way.
While I feel the randomness is required to make the push your luck elements sing, the level of luck is going to bother dedicated engine builders. And as it very much feels like a tactical game, I don’t think it’s a problem – especially as there are strong ways to mitigate situations. But if you want a game where you can plan your route to victor meticulously, this is not the game for you. That said, I disagree there is a lack of tension – the game has it in spades. Although it’s definitely of the randomness/push your luck kind.
One criticism I do sympathise with is replayability. Many of the ‘random’ card draw elements have strict rounds they come out in. While with others you see most of the cards each game. Gamers playing regularly will soon grok where and when certain cards will appear. While other draws will be useless late in the game, meaning fewer interesting choices. An expansion was released in 2007. But Kosmos (who recently re-released the game) has not put it back out. It adds space for two more players, plus many more board and card options. But right now it’s very hard to get hold of.
Finally it’s fair to say that, for the amount of strategy (not much), the game does play a little long. Because the fact it’s almost totally tactical means you’re constantly needing to re-evaluate your position. Do I mind this? Personally, no. But it can make for a long game – especially with players who suffer from analysis paralysis.
Conclusion: The Pillars of the Earth board game
Despite some pretty legitimate criticisms, this game has stood the test of time. Why? Because it’s a fantastic gateway to the euro game genre. Personally, I find it way more enjoyable than Lords of Waterdeep. And different enough from Stone Age to stand alongside it. The fantastic board art and accessible theme give it extra new gamer points. While the ease of teaching also works in its favour. But unless you can find the expansion, I can’t really recommend it for more experienced gamers. As for me, it’s a keeper. I love a euro game that makes me think about pushing my luck. And as my games don’t get too many plays, I’m sure my groups will be untroubled by any replayability problems!