Review: Jon Shafer's At the Gates23 Jan 2019 0
Review: Jon Shafer's At the Gates
Released 23 Jan 2019
There’s no point wasting too much time on context with Jon Shafer's At the Gates – it's easily searchable if you know what you're looking for. Suffice to say, this has been in development a long time. The game was successfully kickstarted in 2013, but due to personal & health issues Jon (a.k.a. Conifer Games) was unable to finish it until now.
At the Gates is an historical 4X game where you play as a barbarian tribe eking out a living on the edges of the Roman Empire. It's an abstraction of the time period after the Empire split into two parts, but before the Western Empire collapsed. Tt's not meant to be historically accurate, but rather tries to capture the essence of era from the ‘outsider’ perspective.
It also aims to shake up several 4X conventions in unique ways, which I'm happy to say it does - up to a point.
Clans themselves grow as they generate more 'families' which increases their performance stats, but also their food consumption. There's a limit to how many clans you can support – both in terms of food production but also a hard limit that can be extended via spending resources. Every clan comes with two randomly assigned traits that will determine their nature and sometimes which discipline they are best suited for. There is perhaps some work to be done still in the trait pairing, and you must be ever vigilant of traits that can cause brawls, feuds or crimes – if you have to punish a clan, they become sad and lose all the experience they've gained up to that point.
Eventually, you'll research the means to improve how you extract resources – Farms, Mines, Logging Camps... the resource nodes are still finite, but in theory you're able to get more out of them (although I think that point Is debatable given certain combos you can pull off with certain sets of jobs). Still, you will eventually exhaust what there is and be forced to move on again, again.
As a nomadic tribe, you have to try and exploit what's around you to survive. Food is paramount, so you must send out your clans to find naturally occurring fruit, wheat, herds of animals... whatever you can get your hands on. You can also cut down woodland for building materials, and mine deposits of Iron, Gold or other select minerals that are present in the game. The problem is, this method of extraction takes its toll, and the resource nodes will eventually run out. This means you must migrate to a new area which you'll need to find first as in true civ style, everything but your immediate surroundings is unknown.
Your tribe will grow over time as new ‘clans’ join you, the rate of which is controlled by ‘fame’. Each clan can be trained in one specific discipline and a single job connected to that discipline. You don't want to be switching disciplines if you can help it, but switching jobs within disciplines is fine, and in many cases encouraged it the situation calls for it. Jobs are ‘researched’ the same way you would technologies in other 4X games. You can only research one new job at a time, and train one clan in a job/discipline at a time.
You're not alone in this world – other factions do exist. The two Roman Empires (East and West) are somewhere out there for you to bump into, and of course there are the other barbarian tribes. These tribes seem to spawn in variable states – some very well established, others just starting off like you. There are also lots of bandit camps dotted about the place that will spawn raiders, as well as 'neutral' clans that can be conquered.
You start the game only being able to play as the Goths (a 'vanilla' faction of sorts), but if you either make a formal alliance or conquer another tribe, you unlock the ability to play as them in future runs. This isn't as easy as it sounds – Diplomacy is rather non-existent and other than declaring war, relationship building seems to be solely in the hands of the AI. Trying to build up enough force to conquer a tribe is tricky, and your path to victory isn't always clearly visible. Still, the other tribes all have unique traits or starting conditions, so they make additional play-throughs more varied. The Saxons, for example, start every game next to the water with a Galley unit.
The resource management of the early game is infinitely compelling, given your starting conditions are different every time. I don't think I will ever tire of trying to kick-start what is essentially a barter economy with what I have around me, whilst also looking for that next migration spot and trying to keep everyone fed all at once. At the same time, this side of things can also be infinitely frustrating. Given the specifics of how the resource management aspect is designed, there is clearly 'optimal' actions to take in any given turn, and with any given clan set up. Any time a turn doesn't go according to plan is like a tiny little needle being stabbed into your brain... although that might just be me.
This cycle of harvesting and migration is not sustainable, given there are only a finite amount of resources in the game world. It’s also not really useful towards achieving the endgame. At the Gates is, ultimately, a fairly sparse experience but there are two win conditions you can work towards: either conquering one of the two Roman Empire's capitals or trying to take over 'from within' by first sending off five clans to become Roman Legions, and then once you’ve done that you can declare yourself Magister Militarum. This is akin to an 'economic' victory, with the first one being 'military'. There's nothing remotely close to a tech or culture type victory at the moment.
Conquering either one of the Roman Empires sounds daunting, but another unique trait of At the Gates (in theory) comes into play here. Both of the Roman factions start strong, but over time they get weaker (as in history) meaning that towards the later stages of the game they shouldn't be as tough to conquer. We have yet to attempt this style of victory and generally it's hard to witness this happening, so we’re taking that particular claim at face value for now. I remember the early Alpha builds used to throw up notifications whenever something bad happened to the Roman factions, but that doesn't appear to be the case anymore
Regardless, to try and achieve either victory type you're going to want to settle down and form your own Kingdom. Doing so fixes your settlement in one place (meaning you can't migrate anymore) but it also allows you to make permanent structures out of stone. These don't degrade the resource nodes and so they can be mined ad infinitum (or near enough). You can also send additional clans to work as ‘apprentices’ to increase output, and Watchtman (and early-game job that extends zone of control) become really useful at this point. At this point, provided you’ve got everything you need nearby, it’s just a matter of time.
The End of the Beginning (tl;dr)
At the Gates has all the foundations of a wonderfully unique 4X game, but it's also incredibly spartan when viewed as a whole. The early game is definitely compelling and fairly re-playable, but there is an obvious lack of depth and breadth in a lot of areas. Diplomacy is non-existent, warfare is simplistic and can basically boil down to Civ 4-like stacks with minimal tactical depth. The AI (apart from the bandits) is incredibly passive, especially if you move your clan away from their starting areas. Once you get your economy into a more permanent and sustainable state, resources stop becoming an issue and thus the economic game stops being interesting. Essentially, this has the same weak mid-to-end game issues all 4X’s suffer from, but there is an added dimension of it being fairly lean.
If we’d implemented something as granular as a +/- system, I’d happily give this 3+. Sadly, despite Jon doing a lot of work to polish the core gameplay loop he started with all those years ago, it’s lacking a bit too much content to really warrant a higher score. This is definitely not a waste of time or money, but until Jon manages to get his post-release content plan rolling I imagine there’s only so much time you'll end up dedicating to it in the face of 2019's other strategy hits.
All in all, Jon Shafer's At the Gates is a unique, albeit small, window into the creative potential of the 4X genre and we hope it gets the chance to grow into itself.