G@mebox author Doug Adams writes about the game:
Die Saeulen der Erde is a board game for two to four players. The players control a party of workers, builders and craftsman, who are constructing a cathedral in 12th century England.
The game is the latest in a series of literature based board games from Kosmos. Other titles in the series have been The Lord of the Rings and Beowulf. This latest game is based on the novel "The Pillars of the Earth", by Ken Follett.
Die Saeulen der Erde is a beautiful looking game. The game board depicts the fictional English villages of Shiring and Kingsbridge, which are featured in the novel. The board is lavishly illustrated with locations such as the Priory, Castle, Bishop, woods, sand pit and quarry. Dominating the centre of the game board is the location where the cathedral will be constructed.
Each player controls a set of wooden pawns, which consists of three master builders and 12 workers. Cubes in four colours represent the staple construction materials in the game - stone, wood, sand and metal.
There are several decks of cards that are used during the game. Ten of these cards are events, one of which is revealed each turn. As there are only six turns in the game, four of these events will not enter the game.
There are sixteen advantage cards that players can acquire during the game. These come in three flavours - "this happens immediately", "this happens when you choose, but once", and "this happens once every turn for the rest of the game".
The most important cards, however, are the worker and craftsman cards, which players recruit during the game. Worker cards turn a players workers into material cubes, while craftsman are recruited by the players, and generally turn material cubes into victory points.
To keep the theme and atmosphere of the novel, there is a lot of German text on the cards. This is roughly divided between flavour text and game effect text. If translating German while you play the game is likely to bother you, then perhaps wait for the rumoured English edition due to appear in 2007. I got by printing off some sticky labels for the cards and game board.
The game is played over six turns. The starting player receives a chunky wooden piece of the cathedral, which will be placed over the site of the cathedral in the centre of the board at the end of the turn. These six cathedral pieces are nothing more than game clock and start player marker. However it does look nice as the cathedral is put together turn by turn.
Each turn, there are three phases. I'm not sure of the correct translation, so I will call these phases the Worker, Master Builder and Resolution phases.
During the Worker phase, players take turns to draft worker and craftsman cards. Nine cards are available each turn - 2 of these are craftsman, while the rest are worker "contracts" that require a certain amount of workers to return a certain amount of material cubes from either the sandpit, quarry or woods. The workers are taken from the players' pools and placed onto the game board to show the work force committed and what players have remaining. The materials are all worth different values, ranked stone, wood and then sand. The more valuable materials require more workers to extract it, and return more gold or victory points.
Craftsmen are different. They are recruited for a cost in gold, and belong to that player for as long as they want them. Each player may employ five craftsmen during the game, and begin the game with three of them. Craftsmen are a bit like factories - accepting input and producing output. The most common conversion is material cubes into victory points, however there are exceptions. One carpenter coverts wood into gold, while others convert gold into victory points. Your craftsmen drive your strategy.
The craftsmen are also seeded so as the game progresses better and better ones appear. They may be able to convert at a more efficient rate, or do it more often during each turn. The elite craftsmen appear on the final turns of the game, who specialize in gold leaf and metalwork, and return large amounts of victory points.
The Worker phase is over when all the available cards have been drafted, or when all players have passed. Workers who haven't been sent off to harvest material cubes for this turn are sent into the wool mill, where they will earn their masters (i.e. the players) some valuable gold income this turn. Gold is so scarce in this game that deciding how many workers to send to the wool mill has to be seriously considered.
During the Master Builder phase, each player's three master builder pawns are placed into an opaque bag. The current start player then draws a pawn and places it on a simple cost track. The owner of the pawn has to decide whether to pay the current cost, beginning at a whopping seven gold, to place the master builder, or to pass placement and save their money. Either way, the cost marker bumps down by one gold, and the next builder is drawn. This is repeated until the bag is empty. The start player gets one right of veto per turn, enabling them to reject a drawn master builder, returning it to the bag and a new pawn is drawn.
If the owner of the drawn master builder decides to pay for placement, they may place the pawn onto one of several locations on the game board, claiming the special ability of that location for this current turn. Choosing a location is driven by strategy and goals for the turn - if a player is heavy in material and shy in cash, a visit to the market perhaps is in order; picking up a cheap craftsman in Shiring is always popular, as are the advantage cards on offer at Kingsbridge. The King's Court is very popular - it grants tax amnesty, and the King is so touched he awards the first visitor there a metal cube. When the locations begin to dry up, there are a few victory point scraps to be had, and of course you can seek sanctuary from potential bad events at the Bishop.
The master builder phase is one of the areas of this game that may cause some gamers some problems. The pawns are drawn randomly from the bag, and it's very possible that somebody's pawns will be drawn late, and all the good stuff is gone. The upside is they get to place their pawns for free, but that's not much consolation if their strategy revolved around obtaining the King's metal, or a juicy craftsman. Alternately, players may be flat broke and get drawn from the bag early - they cannot afford to place, so they must pass and wait their turn in the cheap seats.
When all the master builders have been deployed onto the board, the board is resolved. This is a 14 (!) step process, which is much simpler than it sounds, and only takes a couple of minutes to complete it.
First off, the next event (1) is revealed from a deck of ten events. Five are good, five are bad, yet only six appear in any one game. If a player has placed a master builder at the Bishop's (2), they can claim immunity from any negative consequence of the event, or instead take a good for free from the market.
Any workers who didn't visit the wood, quarry or sand pit were sent off to the wool shed (3). This is now resolved, with each worker present earning their owner one gold. A nice event card doubles the gold for one turn.
Players who placed master builders in Kingsbridge (4) take the associated Advantage card there. These cards are all based on characters and events in the novel, and break the rules in favour of the owning player.
Next on the tour around the board is the Priory (5) where master builders earn their team a victory point or two. Then it's on through the wood (6), quarry (7) and sand pit (8) where the workers committed earlier in the turn bring home little coloured wooden cubes of stone, wood and sand.
The King's Court (9) sees the start player roll the taxation die, generating a tax this turn of between 2 and 5 gold. Any player who doesn't visit the court is taxed at this rate. The player who was first to visit the court during the master builder placement receives a lump of metal (a blue cube). Metal is precious stuff in this game.
Any master builders that were placed on the craftsmen spaces in Shiring (10) are now awarded to the players. This, along with the drafting of craftsmen in the first phase of the game turn, is the only way to employ new craftsmen onto your workforce. While you don't have the pay to take craftsmen during this stage of the turn, you probably had to pay to deploy the master builder there (unless your opponent's were asleep!).
There is one space available for a master builder at Shiring Castle (11). The lord of the castle awards two neutral grey workers to the player for use during the next turn, whether it be rock, sand, wood or wool. Two extra workers are very handy (there is also an advantage card, Otto, who gives you an extra worker for the rest of the game).
At the Kingsbridge Market (12), players who have visited may take an action, in order of arrival, until they have all passed. An action is simply to buy or sell material cubes in one type of commodity. Wood, stone and sand can both be bought and sold for the same price. Metal can only be sold, however, and returns a nice 5 gold to the seller. Any commodities bought at the market drain the market for the current turn - there is only four cubes of each good on offer for purchase. Sold commodities are returned to the pool of cubes on the board, and not to the market. The market is worth visiting to top up the dwindling cash reserves, as well as snaffling a cube or two to wring some more victory points out of your craftsmen.
Finally, we reach the site of the cathedral (13). Players now plug materials into their craftsmen, and process the output. Most of the time the output is victory points, which are recorded on the scoring track. However, there are some craftsmen who are a little bit different - some provide a few victory points simply by being there, while others turn commodities back into gold. Later in the game the specialists appear to put the finishing touches on the cathedral, such as the glass blower, organ maker, and so on. These craftsmen award large amounts of victory points, however you only get a turn or two to use them.
Players can hold up to five cubes over from turn to turn, and the decision about what to use with your craftsmen and what to hold over can be interesting. Why plug 3 sand in for a victory point when you could possibly get a better exchange rate next turn, and so on.
The turn end with the start player placing a nice, large wooden chunk of cathedral on the board. This really doesn't mean anything apart from "Turn over", yet it's strangely symbolic and fits nicely with the theme of the game. If any player placed a master builder on the "start player" space (14) on the board, they take the next piece of cathedral, otherwise start player moves to the left.
After six turns, the player with the most victory points is the winner of the game, with gold breaking ties. The last turn, when the best craftsmen are in the game and there is metal everywhere sees large jumps in victory points. The best final turn score I've seen so far is 18 victory points, but I'm sure more is possible. The lesson to be learned here is that catch-ups are possible, if you don't let any players out to a large early lead.
Die Saeulen der Erde is a beautiful looking game that plays very cleanly. It does remind me of other games, but it stands on it's own as a solid game. The game it will draw most comparisons to would be Caylus, as the theming is very similar. This game is much shorter than Caylus, with four player games taking around 90 minutes.
I do like Die Saeulen der Erde. There is the nice feeling of managing your resources, accumulating material cubes, not letting the gold supply run down too far, etc. The game puts some pressure on the players, as everything is tight and you'd like to do much more than you can. Placing the master builders on the board calls for some quick thinking, and changing of plans as the random draw of the builders from the bag can affect your strategy.
Recommended for players who enjoy resource management games.
While Doug's review gives you a rather good overview of the game's mechanisms, let me just say a few words about the game's closeness to its background topic. Having read "The Pillars of Earth" by Ken Follet before playing the game, I enjoyed this rather good game all the more because of the closeness between the story and the playing elements. Major characters, events and places from the book appear in the game, but nothing is forced or out of place. Quite the opposite, the transition from book to game is rather smoothly and people who were fond of the novel will like the game even more because of its great atmospheric depth. Building the Kingsbridge Cathedral is a rather entertaining challenge!
Finally, it should also be mentioned that a new Expansion for the game had been released in 2007 which now allows up to six players to participate in the building of the Cathedral. New characters and craftsmen are introduced, but most important is the addition to the gameboard which allows new choices in order to house the master builders of two additional players. Thus, a player may become the King's tax Collector, enjoying not only tax immunity but also some income from the round's taxes. A master builder may be sent to France to inspect Cathedrals on the other side of the channel, allowing its owner the special use of a Craftsman owned by any player. Also, commodities may be sold directly at a Channel harbour, yielding higher prices than the Kingsbridge Market but allowing only the selling of materials. Finally, left over workers now may be sent onto a Crusade instead of the Wool shet, yielding one or two victory points instead of the usual Gold.
To keep the game balanced despite of the random drawing mechanism, the bag now contains only two master builders from each player. Whenever a player uses his first master builder in a round he must place his third master builder figure onto a special track, and only when all other master builders have been used this track with one master builder from each player will be emptied in reverse direction, meaning that a player who got the chance to act rather early will be penalized by placing his last figure rather late. A neat little trick, but it profoundly adds to the game's balance.
As a matter of fact, the expansion is also playable with less than six players, and I must confess that I would not like to miss the additional choices offered by the new board with any numbers of players. Player's have quite a few options from which to chose, but at the same time they will still not be overwhelmed because the game is not overburdened. The expansion made a good game even better, and I really recommend it to players who have enjoyed the basic game!
Looking for this game? Visit Funagain Games!
Copyright © 2006 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany