Friday, April 27, 2007

Pillars of the Earth and Distillation Games

Of all the games of 2007, I can’t think of one that has been talked about more than Pillars of the Earth. Favorable buzz began as soon as the game showed up at conventions, and continued after the game was released. The game even created a first-time situation with the Appalachian Gamers: one night we had two separate Pillars of the Earth games going at different tables. I’d never seen that before.

But not all the comments have been positive. Along with those who favorably described the game as “Caylus Lite” were gamers who thought Pillars of the Earth was too derivative and unoriginal to be worthy of such extravagant praise. Been there, done that seems to me to be the attitude of these gamers.

Michael Barnes of Fortress Ameritrash has been openly contemptuous of the game. He seems to think Pillars sums up everything he hates in Euro-games, and is incredibly derivative to boot. While I don’t share Mr. Barnes sneering tone, I think he has a point.

But he has also missed the point. I don’t think Pillars of the Earth was mean to be a very original game. Its very derivativeness is the whole point. To me Pillars of the Earth is a distillation game.

What do I mean by distillation game? I mean that it tries to capture the essence of its genre while eliminating superfluous complexity and trimming game length. In other words, Pillars of the Earth tries to be to the Caylus-and-Goa resource-churning genre what Railroad Tycoon is to the Age of Steam cube-shuttling railroad genre. This means that you could describe Pillars of the Earth as Caylus-for-Morons or as Caylus-made-Accessible-to-the-Masses, and both descriptions would be accurate depending on your point of view.

Whether you have a positive reaction to Pillars or Railroad Tycoon largely depends on how much you value simplicity and short playing time. And on whether you had played the similar games that preceded Pillars and Tycoon before you played Pillars and Tycoon themselves. For instance, I played Railroad Tycoon long before I ever played Age of Steam or any of the other Martin Wallace train games. This meant that Tycoon seemed fresh and original to me, and it instantly became one of my favorite games. When I finally got around to playing Age of Steam, I found it to be a brutally-competitive brain-burner without any of the charming toys or over-sized board that I loved in Tycoon. I have a strong suspicion that my reaction to Age of Steam might have been very different if it had been the first Martin Wallace train game I played.

Even though Pillars seems derivative to me (because I played Caylus first), I will be keeping it as a gateway game to play with non-gamers. I have a suspicion that it will be a good game to bring out for non-gamer friends who have already mastered simpler fare like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan. Once these truly introductory games have been played, I can whip out Pillars and say: “This is a moderate-complexity Euro-game. There are a whole lot of games like this.” And if they can play and enjoy Pillars, I will know that they can handle a wide variety of the games I own.

And the hard-core gamers can always play Pillars if we don’t have time for Caylus.


Coldfoot said...

I wonder if Wal-Mart gamers feel this way when asked to play "Barbie Monopoly."

"You take a great game like Monopoly, but instead of a shoe token you have a high-heel shoe token... It ruins the whole game."

huzonfirst said...

I love distillation games, Kris. Get the Goods is distilled Freight Train and is a much better game, IMO. When Caylus Magna Carta finally comes out, you'll find it's distilled Caylus (it's the true Caylus Lite) and, while missing some of the original's depth, makes up for it with its speed of play. So boiling a genre down to its essence is a fine way to design a game.

No, my problem with Pillars is the huge amount of luck in the choosing of the workers from the bag. In the game I played, it affected just about every turn and really made a mockery of the planning that came before it. Similar complaints from other gamers convince me that this isn't an isolated concern. Games with planning and randomness don't mix for me, particularly when it's very hard to mitigate against bad breaks. Otherwise, it's a fine game, but that one aspect really spoils it for me.

Anonymous said...

I like the term "distillation game." I've always thought of Web of Power as a good example of such a game. I hope the get in a game of one of the Caylus lites before too long.

Melissa said...

I like that term - distillation game. Are all distillation games gateway games, do you think? At least to the genre, if not to gaming overall.

dgilligan said...

For those who don't like the luck factor in Pillars, you should do what I did when I played it (I was playing at the other table that Kris mentioned in his blog...) Play the game so poorly that no amount of luck will allow you to win!

Seriously, though, I can see why some people don't care for the luck factor in this type of game. Very analytical with potential longer term planning all ruined by some bad master builder pulls. I think I would particularly ticked if the game came down to the last turn and was determined not by the wit and skill of the player but by the order in which the MBs are drawn, something I can see happening with some regularity.

Still, I liked the game and would like to try it again (hopefully playing better!) I also agree with Kris that this might be a good game to get folks who only play very light games to take the next step. Nice blog Kris.