Jon Shafer is best known as lead designer on the popular Civilization V, which released in 2010. Since then, his attention has been on a game of his own conception: Jon Shafer’s At the Gates.
At the Gates is best described as a turn-based strategy similar to the Civilization series. However, the most notable difference is that At the Gates introduces a more unique world by incorporating rogue-like and unpredictable elements.
At the Gates starts similarly to most games of the same genre. Players begin by choosing a faction to play as; although only one is available to newcomers, a total of 10 are unlockable. The first and only settlement is spawned on a procedurally generated map. The player then dedicates most of their time to managing ‘clans’ within their settlement, assigning them to professions and disciplines and keeping them happy. Each clan comes with two traits, which affect how they act in the world and react if given a certain role that does not suit their personality.
The personalities of the clans can become quite the obstacle, especially if one of their traits claim they are prone to desires. Desires are when a clan wishes to do something else, whether that be to return to the settlement, change professions, or even change disciplines. If a clan gets a desire, it may force the player to constantly switch clan professions in an attempt to keep everyone happy.
The game’s depth lies within its profession and discipline system. At the Gates has six disciplines and within each one is a variety of professions that the player can study and then assign to clans. Often, the player will find themselves reassigning professions to clans, as they discover better and more efficient professions, or, instead if one of the clans desires to stop being the primary food supplier to go do something useless. Managing these desires and professions as well as trying to keep up a sufficient income of food and materials can be quite challenging, but add that to trying to complete the game’s ultimate goal and long sections of the game become a ruthless grind.
The two distinct ways to beat At the Gates are to conquer the capital city of one Roman Empire or become the Magister Militum. Although the goals in At the Gates are easily defined, they are not so easily reached.
At the Gates in no way holds the player’s hand. Sure, the game has an entire encyclopaedia of definitions and explanations, but, even then, the preferred way to learn is through trial and error. Initially, everything can be quite daunting, the player given complete freedom over what they want to study and what roles they would like to give to their new clans. Between the number of options and the rapid approach of in-game winter, players can be left with a sense of ‘what do I do?’ or ‘am I doing this right?’ These questions are usually answered by the player’s explorers starving in the cold and the settlement being left without a stable food source for the remainder of the long winter.
At the Gates begins several turns before winter, giving the player little time to prepare or even grasp the basics. Winter slows the game down, bringing potential assaults and exploration to a halt, either forcing clans to return to the settlement or encamp at their current location to maintain supplies. The landscape becomes coated in snow, making the movement of troops almost impossible. Crops wilt and become unharvestable in the cold, forcing the player to rely on their meat suppliers and food storage. Anyone not properly prepared for their first winter will spend the remainder of the year trying to recover.
Outside winter, the player will likely devote most of their time to gathering supplies, as they are crucial to getting anywhere in the game. Gathering supplies in the early game can be intimidating, especially since several turns must be spent identifying the material or animal before it can be harvested. Having limited clans is really what makes resource management difficult; the player can find it challenging, especially when they do not know what resources they should be dedicating their time to in the early game.
This limited amount of guidance in the early game is very confronting. The player constantly is left asking, ‘is this what I’m supposed to do?’ Players are left to wonder if they would be better off devoting another clan with another set of personality traits to a task or if they should just make do with what they have. However, once a rhythm is found, the game can actually be quite enjoyable. Nevertheless, this rhythm only lasts so long and, as play continues and the rate at which clans join the settlement slows, the player is sometimes left wondering where to go next. At the Gates has a distant goal, but the path to get there is uncertain. This trait can be part of the charm of strategy games, but might throw some players off.
The early game can be particularly painful for players new to the genre. With very little in terms of direction and explanation, users may be left floundering around for the first few hours. However, the free and directionless beginning might be familiar to those who are accustomed to Civilization and similar titles, making the harsh beginning far easier to seasoned players, though their experience might not save them from the somewhat clunky menus.
The menus can sometimes seem a little clunky and moving between them can be confusing on occasion. A few bugs involving them are noticeable, but not game-breaking: words sometimes seep over the borders of the windows, and hovering over certain words does not always show their definition.
Jon Shafer’s attempt at slow-burn strategy has been mixed with rogue-like elements to give the game an original feel, and, overall, it works. At the Gates’s randomly generated land, clans, and enemies allow for hours of replayability The clans and personality features give the game an edge against its competitors and forces the player to strategically look at every move they make. At the Gates is a game that strategy lovers will enjoy and holds just enough depth and content to keep players entertained, but it can also be difficult to players new to the genre.