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Game review: Pillars of the Earth and A Column of Fire board games better than the novels

POSTED: January 30, 2018 9:49 a.m.
Ryan Morgenegg/

Based on the book by Ken Follett, England, France, Spain and the Netherlands wage war for power and influence using Catholics and Protestants. Who will best exploit the changing power conditions in Europe to win the game?

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Thames & Kosmos recently published two board games based on the novels of best-selling author Ken Follett. "The Pillars of the Earth" and "A Column of Fire" are definitely popular books, but do novels make good board games? Yes, as matter of fact, they do.

In the game Pillars of the Earth, my personal favorite of the two, players are builders in the 12th century trying to help construct a great English cathedral for Philip of Kingsbridge. Whoever contributes the most to the shining new building will earn the most victory points and win.

There's a lot going on in this two-to-four-player game, but at its core it is a worker placement game. Players have a set of builders they place on the beautifully illustrated board depicting an English village. Depending on where the builders are placed, certain actions can be performed.

Timing is crucial, and the game has a unique mechanism for determining when a player can place a master builder. All players are assigned a color, and they place three master builders each in a bag. The starting player blindly draws a master builder out, and that player must decide if he or she wants to place first for seven gold pieces or pass. The next draw only costs six and so on until the cost is reduced to nothing and players place builders for free.

As in many other games, gathering resources such as stone, wood and sand is vital. This is done by taking a card from a card pool. The cards show a number of resources available and the number of workers needed to gather them. Craftsmen are also available for purchase from the card pool, and they can help increase skills and abilities needed to work more effectively. Craftsmen cost gold though, so a steady sourceof yellow ore is required.

In the next phase of the game, players will assign master builders to a variety of locations on the board. Locations grant protection from negative events, special privileges, victory points, collection of the coveted metal resource, the ability for buying and selling resources and the determination of starting players. The sheer amount of choices available makes this game highly strategic and a lot of fun to play.

The final resolution step for master builders is to help with the construction of the cathedral. This is where the craftsmen really shine as they can help convert the resources a player has into victory points, and some craftsmen are much better than others.

The game ends after six rounds. At the center of the board, a beautiful three-dimensional cathedral will stand completed. Players will tally up their victory points and the person with the most will win.

Pillars of the Earth is a beautiful board game creation through and through. Not only does the game look fantastic on the tabletop, but it also is fun to play. The content is appropriate for any age, but it does contain some advanced strategies that players must understand. It has a medium complexity level.

Note that the novel "Pillars of the Earth" has been out of print for a few years and Thames & Kosmos recently brought it back into production. It is a fantastic game and comes highly recommended. It is one of my personal top 10 favorite games of all time.

The board game A Column of Fire is the newest game based on the novels by Ken Follett. In this game, set in Europe during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a battle of power rages between Catholics and Protestants. Two to four players must take sides as they seek influence from the world powers of England, France, Spain and the Netherlands.

To begin, players are dealt a faction card that determines what religion they will start with, either Catholic or Protestant. Some random resources are also given such as cloth, wine, ore and books. Each player is also given four trading houses and a set of colored dice.

The board is lavishly illustrated and shows the four European countries of the game, a victory point track and an action track. Players roll their religion die and place it on their starting religion card. This is how many rounds the player must belong to this particular religion.

Around the board, four different decks of cards featuring events and characters from each of the four countries are available. Event cards are played immediately and character cards can be collected. Each character card has some sort of power that can be used each turn. The player who collects that character can then use the power.

A player's turn follows a certain sequence. There are two sequences in the game representing the first half of the year and the second half of the year. The first half of the year consists of decreasing the number on the player's religion die and activating the power of each character card a player owns.

It's important to note that characters from each country are collected by spending an associated die color: white for England, blue for France, orange for the Netherlands and Brown for Spain. For example, a character that grants a free piece of ore each turn is available in France. By spending a blue die, the current player may collect that card.

During the second half of the year, each player begins his or her turn by rolling any free dice (not associated with a card). The current player then buys a character card with a die of an associated color. He or she places the die on top of the card with the number on the die indicating how many turns this character will be available. He or she immediately activates the character's power.

A player may now place one of his or her trading houses in the country the player just purchased a character card from. Trading houses allow players to collect points when there is religious conflict and to trade in that country.

Each country has four slots to contain religion stones. Every time a character is drawn from a country's deck, the character is given a certain religion stone indicating their allegiance as a Catholic, Protestant or neutral entity. When the character card is purchased, its religion stone is added to a country.

When all four country slots are full, a religious conflict erupts. Whatever faction has the most religion stones wins the conflict, and those who are currently affiliated with that religious faction score points.

It's important to get a trading house in each of the four countries. At different times during the game, a player may have the option to trade goods for victory points in a given country. This is only possible if the player has a trading house present.

The final thing to mention is the action track. At the end of a complete turn, players will move a player disc along an action track on the board by using a free die. Whatever number is on the die is the number of spaces moved. Spaces can award a variety of things such as resources, a trading action or victory points.

The first person to accumulate 50 victory points triggers the end of the game. Players receive additional points for trading houses and resource tokens. The player with the most points wins.

A Column of Fire is a fun game for kids and adults ages 12 and up. It contains some new strategic mechanisms that are easy to grasp but hard to master. Knowing when to switch religious factions and which characters to influence are crucial. This is another solid offering from Thames & Kosmos.
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