by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
One could argue that Jon Shafer has had difficulty putting his roots down. He came to fame as lead designer for Civilization V at Firaxis. Next he went to Stardock - presumably to work on Star Control Origins, followed by Paradox where he would work on a new grand strategy game. Now at the helm of his own company, Conifer Games, his new game seems to reflect that restlessness in a fresh take on the 4X genre. Did I mention he is only 32?
At The Gates can (somewhat clinically) be described as an ascendancy simulator for nomadic tribes. Smelling blood as the Roman Empire is on the verge of collapse, you set your sights on emerging out of the chaos as the new ruler of the known world. You’ll start small, and you’ll have to catch up to Rome in almost every aspect of empire building. You’re behind in agriculture, metal working, warfare… basically everything but aspiration. Remember, Rome is not dead just yet.
Location, location, location
An unruly bunch of nomad tribes have joined you, and if you are to succeed, many more will have to follow. Early on, At The Gates actively discourages you from from taking root. You will have only a single settlement throughout the entire game and you can pack it up at any time to roam the map and find a more suitable location. At least until you declare yourself to be a kingdom that is - then you’re stuck with whatever location you picked before.
And this mechanic is 4X gold. Not because it is the first 4X with a one-city challenge, but because of how meaningful the starting location is. I don’t know of any game that has made the starting location as significant it is in At The Gates. It doesn’t just determine who your neighbors are, or your ability to build ships, or even the immediate availability of a specific resource. No, it’s all those things - plus - how you will shape your empire throughout the game.
In one game I found myself scrambling for food right out of the titular gate. The one small food source nearby ran out all too quickly. I moved my settlement, found a food source but it was the wrong type from what I had gambled on to develop, and then winter hit. My clans would have starved had it not been for the trade caravans stopping by, mercifully carrying food supplies (which is not a given until you upgrade the caravan a few times). Food sources remained scarce but iron and wood were plentiful. My empire would grow to be a metalworking society, and a fertile trading ground for caravans carrying food supplies for years to come. Most of my clans colored the blue associated with metalworking professions, and research and industry were optimized in that direction wherever I could. Eventually, my expanding borders would encompass enough food sources to provide my own food, but metalworking was firmly embedded in my empire’s DNA. That’s just one example. In other games, aggressive neighbors have forced me into a military play style, and my clans have been farmers several times. Even the food type you find early on - meat or veg - means you’ll likely specialize in that type long after you added the other to your diet.
Clans bring flexibility
My initial fear was that the single settlement would turn out to be boring, but once I figured out just how much the starting location mattered, I looked at the game in a new light. In some way, clans function as the cities or planets you would build or settle in other 4X games. The main difference is that they roam, and are far more flexible in what they provide your empire. There are probably close to a hundred professions, spread across 6 disciplines such as Honor (warriors) and Agriculture (farmers, bakers), that you can assign to your clans. But there are no restrictions on these professions - you can switch at any time and the game encourages you to do so frequently and make use of any gained experience.
You gain new territory by sending clans out into the world. Your expand your territory by instructing your clans to build farms, logging camps, mines and watchtowers which they then occupy until you tell them to abandon it and move elsewhere. Should you abandon, say, a mine, but no longer need the clan to be miners, you simply bring it back home to train as a smith, or even a priest. See the flexibility? It changes everything.
Refreshing new 4X mechanics
Poor AI, slow endgame