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At the Gates is badly flawed, and strangely compelling

Civ-like strategy game is a hard task-master

At the Gates
| Conifer Games

At the Gates is a tough-as-nails historical strategy game. It’s an admirable attempt at redefining the 4x genre by focusing on people, rather than buildings. Although it falls short of its ambitions — due to a sluggish pace, user-interface issues and inexplicable design decisions — I find myself enjoying its peculiarities. This is a difficult, bloody-minded game for difficult, bloody-minded players.

At the Gates is designed by Jon Shafer, best known for his work on the Civilization series, which dominates the market for explore, expand, exploit and exterminate epics. Unlike Civ, this game does not ask me to expand my territory by planting new settlements, and husbanding their growth. Instead of developing the city through specialist buildings, like granaries, barracks and libraries, At the Gates focuses on inhabitants, who must be trained and tasked. It’s a people-management sim.

At the Gates begins with an overhead view of a small settlement, which must be built into a large, powerful state. But it does not attempt to take in history’s full canvas, focusing instead on the late Roman Empire, and in particular the rise of migratory tribes, like the Goths, Saxons, Vandals, Picts and Franks.

Training screen in At the Gates
Conifer Games

Skills and personalities

I attract individuals by creating a tribal land that’s appealing to wandering peoples, who are generally looking to find work, fill their bellies and live in peace. Once they arrive, I look at their skills and personalities, and I assign them tasks. A violent person might make a good soldier. A placid person is trained as a farmer. A smart, inquisitive person becomes an explorer.

Taking note of my people as individuals is what makes At the Gates feel uniquely separate from Civ and its ilk. People are not merely a resource. They are human beings, with their own quirks and annoyances. If I want to expand my tribe, I must account for its various personalities and relationships.

To train people, I learn skills and master technologies, which takes time and resources. The urgent strategic point is to direct my research towards the resources at my disposal.

The world map is dotted with resources that can be collected at different levels of efficiencies. Wheat, coal, mutton and stone can be foraged by people who are trained at a low level. But the resources will soon be exhausted, so I am motivated to train miners, farmers and loggers who create longer-lasting structures, that generate higher yields. Inside my city, I train artisans who can craft those resources into useful products, like wine, paper and weapons.

If my lands are rich with forests or rivers or mineral deposits, I am going to react accordingly. There is no point in my training fishermen if I live in the middle of a tundra.

If I do a good job of allocating my people, they work efficiently and in harmony. If I fail, they succumb to internal divisions and feuds, which leads to a loss in yields.

Winter is pretty, but unforgiving
Conifer Games

Hard Times

A trading caravan arrives every few turns, allowing me to dump surplus goods in exchange for needful items. In this respect, At the Gates plays a bit like Settlers of Catan. The game also has a hand-drawn board game look that draws comparisons with Carcassonne.

Pretty soon, I’m engrossed in the business of creating a smoothly functioning tribe. I expand my footprint by building watchtowers. I do not expand for the mere sake of expansion. Resources being precious, I ignore barren land. When my native homelands are stripped of usefulness, I can pack up my people and move them.

But there are significant obstacles. The land is home to small pockets of raiders, who I’m obliged to fight and defeat. Rival tribes take up land that I might desire. Fighting them directly is extremely challenging, with a somewhat opaque combat system. A bizarre mixture of strength, health and morale obscures more than it directs.

Rome sits at the center of the world. I win the game either by conquering Rome, or by gifting the city so many high-level military units that I’m effectively the new emperor. I’ve been playing for more than 20 hours, but I have yet to win a single game.

The biggest challenge is Shafer’s insistence on building seasons into the game. Winter is extremely brutal, depleting resources and hampering travel. If I’ve failed to plan ahead, units caught far from home during the cold months will be stranded, and will die of starvation. Much of my attention is taken up with ensuring that my people survive the turn of the seasons.

It doesn’t help that the game is just plain bad at offering crucial feedback. Units die, or are killed, without my noticing. Only when I look for them, do I realize that they are dead. The user-interface fails to inform me of important events. Likewise, it feels like there’s a disconnect between the speed at which I can train individuals, and the time it takes to learn new skills. I find myself able to train high level artisans, but focused instead on churning out low level grunts who can keep my people alive. These feel like design failures that ought to be tweaked.

A rival for power
Conifer Games

One More Game

But in general, Shafer’s adherence to Iron Age realities is admirable, even if it makes the game move at an extremely slow pace. This is where I enjoy At the Gates, despite its flaws. I find myself playing the game as a strategy roguelike. I don’t wait to die, only to recognize the signs of decay, the clue that I’ve made bad choices, or I’ve delayed difficult decisions too long.

I begin again, and try to improve, try to tease out the fat of the land, the right way to manage my fractious tribe, who live in the teeth of natural hardship.

I’m still playing, not so much because I want to win, but because I want to become good at leading a tribe.

Civ games are famed for their addictive “one more turn” capabilities. At the Gates is more of a “one more game” affair, in which I hone and sharpen my strategic bones. This game has a lot of problems. It’s not for everyone. It really is slow, frustrating, and missing key UI components. But I like its harshness, its uncompromising vision of historical conquest and its spirit of inventiveness.

At the Gates is available now for Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by Conifer Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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