On Sat 26 Jan 2008, Han, Michelle and I played Pillars of the Earth. This was a first time for Michelle and I. Pillars of the Earth is based on a novel of the same name, by Ken Follett. I have read the book and enjoyed it, and the only thing I didn't like was that the bad characters felt unrealistic to me.
Like many other Eurogames, in Pillars of the Earth you also compete to score victory points, and this is done over six rounds. You have basically three things at your disposal to do this - 12 workers, represented by little man figures, 3 master builders, represented by chess like pieces, and craftsmen, represented by cards. The workers help you gather resources - sand, stone and wood. The master builders help you claim various spots on the board to perform various special actions, e.g. getting tax exemptions, obtaining free craftsmen, obtaining temporary workers, getting special action cards, buying and selling resources, avoiding bad events etc. The craftsmen mainly help you convert your resources into victory points.
You start with some money, which is needed to employ craftsmen and to pay taxes, and may also be needed for your master builders to claim spots on the board. Money can be tight, and you have to be careful to spend just the right amount of effort into earning money. You cannot have more than $30, so it is pointless to earn too much. However, money can become critical especially in terms of employing craftsmen or being able to place your master builder at a critical spot on the board.
The competition in the game comes from two main areas - the card selection (7 resource and 2 craftsmen cards available every round) and the master builder placement. At the start of every round, 9 cards are displayed, and players take turns to claim the cards. A resource card determines how many workers you must commit to "harvest" a particular number of a particular resource. You must have enough workers to claim a resource card. Sometimes some of these 9 cards will be left over when no one wants to or is able to claim them.
The other area of competition is placement of master builders. This is determined semi-randomly. The start player of the round draws the master builders out from a bag. The first master builder drawn can be placed (by the owning player, who is not necessary the start player) at a cost of $7. For the next master builder drawn, the cost reduces to $6, then $5, and so on, until $0. If your master builder is drawn and you do not want to pay, then your master builder stays on the semi-circle and waits. This is an interesting balance of cost and opportunity. Sometimes it is worthwhile to pay so that you can choose a spot important to you. Obviously there is some luck in terms of the order the master builders are drawn out of the bag. In our game, in the last round, all three of Han's master builders were drawn in the first 3 draws. He couldn't afford to pay, so in that round he had to place all of his master builders last. That's not good.
Michelle and I picked up the game quite quickly. It seemed a little confusing at first, because of the various tools at your disposal (workers, master builders and craftsmen), and the various options on the board. However the sequence of actions is logical and orderly and we picked up the game quickly and managed to play competitively. Well, actually there are not many direct ways to hinder your opponents, and you are mainly trying to be as efficient as possible with your workers and craftsmen, and then master builders to give you additional advantages or boosts in efficiency here and there.
After playing the game, my impression is this game feels very Euro. It feels very same-ish. I guess this is because I have played Caylus before, and I have played Age of Empires III before (worker placement mechanic), and of course, many other Eurogames are about efficiency and about scoring victory points. So, there seemed nothing much new or exciting for me. Having read the book, I do recognise characters (that appear as event cards) from the book, and some locations on the board are related to the book. However, I think that's as far as the relationship with the book goes. The game doesn't really feel very much like the book. The story in the book does have the building of a cathedral as a backdrop, but it is much more than that. It is about how bad things happen to good people, and how bad people do bad things to good people, and how the good people struggle to overcome (not always successfully) difficulties and challenges in life.