Jon Shafer’s At The Gates is a 4X strategy and Civilization management game developed by Conifer Games. It is available on Steam and Humble Bundle. The humble bundle link is a referral, I get a small commision if you purchase the game trhough it. This game was reviewed by Joseph Pugh.
At a glance, At The Gates resembles one of the Civilization titles, and with good reason. The man whose name is in the title was a designer of Civilization 5. But don’t be fooled, At The Gates is no copy cat game. Jon’s title is it’s own breed of 4X with a pretty unique formula and interesting systems.
By design At The Gates set up is asymmetrical, you and the other factions do not start on even ground. You aren’t exactly competing with each other either. You begin At The Gates as one of many barbarian tribes, at first you can only play as the Goths. However, you can unlock many other tribes by interacting with them in the game. Each one has a unique quirk to it. The Goths start with more food and treasure for example.
You play from an isometric perspective on a gorgeous randomly generated map with an art style reminiscent of watercolor paintings. The aesthetic is very pleasing to the eyes and visual aspects such as units and resources are clear and easy to spot. It really feels like a painting come to life and the game is more enjoyable for it.
Like most 4X games, much of the map is shrouded and needs to be explored. Exploration is incredibly important in At The Gates.
This is because a large amount of the game is focused on survival and resource management. Keeping your tribe fed and storing enough food for the winter is very reminiscent of survival games. In At The Gates you only have one “city” and it starts out as a settlement that you can pack up and move around in a nomadic fashion. You have to seek out and exploit various resources to slowly build yourself up to a civilization that can accomplish your goals. That goal is Rome. Go big or go home I guess.
Rome is split into two factions in At The Gates. Western Rome and Eastern Rome. At the start of the game, they are powerhouses but slowly weaken over time. You win the game by conquering the capital of either faction or by taking them over from the inside with an economic/diplomatic victory. Either way, getting to that point takes a lot of meticulous planning and long term strategy. But first, your tribe has to stay alive.
Your units in the game are represented by individual clans. These clans have families that grow over time, making each clan stronger and more efficient, but also increasing the amount of food they consume. Each one has two traits that can be positive, negative or in between. Some might be aggressive which makes them better soldiers but causes them to feud with other clans more frequently.
You might have ones that are afraid of animals and will become upset if forced into an animal related profession. Some may frequently acquire desires they wish for you to meet, while others will have none. Two clans feuding, a clan committing a crime, or getting a desire at a bad time can really throw a wrench into your operations. Politics is such a drag. ..No government shutdowns for you, the wise leader of the tribe.
You will have to manage who gets punished in feuds, and who’s desires your willing to meet. Happy clans have higher morale and work better, unhappy ones work less and have lower morale. Is it worth bringing the hunter that’s 10 tiles away home so he can warm up in the settlement? If that’s the hunters’ desire, it’s your choice.
You can train clans to take on various professions, essentially turning them into units. Gatherers to pick nearby berries, hunters to get meat from animals. Diggers to mine stone and iron and so forth. There are a numerous amount of professions that you are able to research. So many that you will never have enough clans to fill them all. You have to plan both your survival and economic strategy ahead of time.
Many resources can be refined into other resources. Iron can be made into tools by turning a clan into a blacksmith, or into weapons by a weaponsmith. These advanced resources are required for training and upgrading more advanced professions and structures. Furthermore, you also need to sell wares to a caravan that periodically drops in, so you can buy the resources you aren’t able to acquire or make yourself.
Foraging resources deplete them, you can slow down the depletion and increase production with wooden structures and more advanced professions such as miners and farmers. But eventually, you will need to pack up and find greener pastures, until your advanced enough to build permanent stone facilities at least.
All the while you will be contending with bandits, starvation and the occasional aggressive tribe. It’s a lot to keep track of while you plan, more than once I nearly busted out a note pad and the game even lets you write your own notes. You need to plan your strategies many turns in advance, what is the resource line? Your food line? What profession needs to be researched next? Did I shut the oven off and feed the dogs??
Luckily At The Gates provides you with easy access to almost every tidbit of information you would need. Nearly every aspect of the game has a very handy and informative tooltip you can activate just by hovering the mouse over what you need information on.
Then each tooltip has keywords inside them that you can hover over to open another tooltip. That’s like, three layers deep, inception man. You are never far from an abundance of information, without having to open up and dig through an in-game encyclopedia.
The game is very much about micromanaging professions and resources, where Civilization is more about managing an empire of cities. Another interesting aspect that pulls from its survival theme is the dynamic weather. Like many other titles, the terrain has different traits to it, requiring more or fewer movement points to traverse.
But weather affects each title, if it rains, rivers may flood other nearby tiles, making it impossible to move your units. Snow and cold will make it so you can’t harvest plants like wheat. Like the real world, and unlike most Civ games, it isn’t a global setting. One part of the map may be snow covered from a winter storm, but another section is simply cold. Rain falls in different places, not the whole map at once. Impassible rivers can be crossed after they freeze. It all works really well.
Each of your clans outside of your settlements influence will have to be supplied from nearby tiles. Normally supply is plentiful. But in the hot desert or the winter months, you will need to encamp them or find them more plentiful titles to survive on. Again, it’s all about planning. The game is very thought heavy, and wrong moves can be costly. But it’s done in an engaging way that doesn’t feel arduous like many other micromanagement games. Even if you feel like you might need a spreadsheet at times.
Combat works fine but it’s a bit simplistic. There aren’t a lot of variables between units aside from power and given the amount of detail the rest of the game received, it’s a shame the combat wasn’t as fleshed out.
The other factions are also a bit of a disappointment. You will end up clashing with other tribes out of necessity, as you struggle to keep your clans fed and your economy growing. But they don’t seem to do much on their own. They don’t expand or compete with you for resources. Even when you attack, they don’t react all that much. Each faction feels like a set in stone challenge of numbered units and fortified positions rather than a living and breathing entity. At The Gates has no multiplayer at all, so the AI should really offset that fact, but it doesn’t
As much information as the tooltips provides, I still found myself scratching my head at times. Once you have a large number of clans it can be hard to keep track of them all, and more than once I had a clan go missing and it took me several minutes to figure out they had been killed by a bandit. The game didn’t provide me with any prompts or explanation that they had been killed. Likewise, my only indication that a nearby tribe declared war on me, was some amped up music played. No details as to why or what happened.
Overall At The Gates is a very compelling game that will make you strap on your thinking cap extra tight. It implements survival elements in a fun fashion without diving in too deeply. It’s take on managing clans, professions, and resources very clearly distinguish it from similar titles such Civilization. It has a couple of weak points I’d like to see improved, the AI in particular. But If you like titles that make you think and plan. You will probably enjoy At The Gates.
- In-depth clan and resource management.
- Dynamic weather
- Beautiful art style
- High replay value
- Interesting survival mechanics.
- Poor, almost nonexistent AI for the other factions
- Doesn’t always tell you why you lost a unit, or that a war started.
- Combat is simplistic.
- Difficult to keep track of clans after you have a large number of them.