Jon Shafer’s At The Gates Review – Should We Let Him In?

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Jon Shafer’s At The Gates has had a rather long and tricky development spanning some six years, a Kickstarter campaign and personal struggles. As for the titular Shafer, he used to work for Firaxis, the same company responsible for Civilization series. In fact, Shafer was the lead designer on Civilization V. In 2012 he left to form his own company called Conifer Games which then launched a Kickstarter in 2013 for At The Gates, a new 4X game. So, roughly six years after its initial funding has Jon Shafter’s At The Gates been worth the wait?

On paper At The Gates is familiar; you eXplore, eXpand, eXterminate and eXploit your way across the map turn by turn. You start off with only a single tribe available (the Goths) but you can unlock the ability to play as more by allying with them in-game or conquering them. Each new tribe offers different bonuses.

Platforms: PC

Reviewed On: PC

Developer: Conifer Games

Publisher: Conifer Games

Review code supplied by the publisher.

Unlike most 4X games, though, you only get a single settlement in At The Gates. You can, however, pack up your settlement and send it travelling across the country in search of a new home. Indeed, the game encourages you to do this, especially earlier when you’re still at the gathering stage and depleting all the nearby resources. This nomadic style is a fun idea, and later on you can even opt to settle somewhere permanently, providing a few bonuses at the expense of staying in one place.

You can’t just train new workers and sling them out into the world. Instead, At The Gates is based around Clans who come along and join your little settlement. Each of these clans acts as a single worker and can be trained in various professions like farming, mining or weapon smithing. The key is that you can only train a single Clan at a time, and you have a very limited number of them. In fact, you have precisely not enough.

It’s a cool idea on paper. At the start you have just a few clans to work with and a lot of jobs needing done. You might train one clan as ranchers to look after sheep, and then a second clan as a butcher to massively increase your food output. The problem is that is two entire clans taken up producing food. Then you have the complex production chains; one clan gathering wood, another turning that into coal, yet another mining iron, one more turning the iron and coal into steel and finally a clan smithing that steel into weapons or tools. That’s five clans dedicated to one thing. When you only have say 18 Clans in total, it all becomes a bit tricky.

By default new clans will join up with you periodically. You’ll also need to throw some resources into upgrading your clan limit. My advice is to work toward a profession early on that creates Fame, which will attract clans much quicker. If you don’t do this, the game’s pace is very slow, forcing you to work with a handful of clans for extended periods of time. With that said, the most clans you can have is 40, so no matter you do there’s always going to be the feeling that you don’t have enough damn slaves. I mean workers. I mean valued clan members.

Clans offer up other complexities, too. Each one comes with two traits that can be helpful or a pain in the arse. One clan may become unhappy if forced outside of agriculture, which could lead to them doing worse at their job. Another one might be prone to picking fights with other clans if their on the same tile or both in the settlement. These traits throw an interesting curveball at the player, forcing you to consider what a clan wants rather than railroading them into whatever you need. A couple of times I had to re-adjust my whole tribe and economy to slot a new clan in. A few other times I just wanted to set a clan on fire. Good times.

Clans come with another silly human weakness, too; desires. Sometimes a clan will be working away and then suddenly decide that it wants to change profession. Fail to meet these terrorist demands and they’ll become a bit annoyed which will cut down their production.While you train up clans and contemplate whether to build that gold mine or not you’ll also be researching new professions. This uses Knowledge, a resource you can increase by training up clans in specific professions. The gist is that your Knowledge output dictates how long it takes to research new professions. A simple forager might take a turn or two, while a Knight could potentially take a hundred unless you have a clan or two generating Knowledge.

It’s a simple system to understand. You’ll start off with simple gatherers and then before long you’ll have a Priest chilling at the settlement, farmers running around, steelsmiths pounding metal and maybe even a clan making booze in the corner.

Once winter hits this already slow game becomes glacial. The supplies on each hex that your clans require to survive when venturing outside of your sphere of influence freeze up, and now movement becomes incredibly slow. If a clan stays out of your borders on tiles without supplies they take hefty damage, so inevitably you have to slowly bring everyone home or get them to camp out. Basically, winter means you can’t do much of anything. Sure, you could retrain a bunch of your clans to do some passive things like turn timber into boards, but to retrain them you need to bring them back to your settlement first – a slow and boring prospect.

But winter does serve one good purpose; early in the game it can really screw you over. Your farms will all shut down, thus food can become scarce quickly if you didn’t stock up over the summer. It forces you to plan ahead more, but sadly it doesn’t take long before your basic economy is strong enough for you to ignore winter entirely.

The 4X genre has never typically been fast-paced, but even by those standards At The Gates does feel slow. When the ground isn’t frozen solid and slowing you down even more clans still only move a few hexes at a time typically, and various bits of terrain reduce that further. Even identifying a plant or mineral takes four turns, equalling two in-game months. I can only imagine the forager or digger staring at it with a perplexed expression for two months before having a eureka moment and realizing its barley or stone.

As for the other various tribes scattered around the place they may as well not exist. They all seem content to do nothing, barely ever expanding even though they start the game vastly more powerful than you. You’ll occasionally see a message flash up stating that X demanded tribute from Y, but outside of that interaction is rare. A few times another tribe asked me to join their religion, and once a tribe declared me a dick and a menace to the world because…uh, I don’t know. A few games in I decided to force the issue by going to war with them, but otherwise the A.I. is utterly brain-dead.

Your options for dealing with your fellow humans are limited to say the least. Jon Shafer has promised that diplomacy is going to be the focus of a future update, but for now you have a barebones system in place. You can offer tribute or demand it from other tribes, and you can ask to be allied or declare war. That’s all there is. You can’t trade with them. And considering how little they do anyway you can actually ignore diplomacy entirely.

There are some roving bandits to contend with, though they typically won’t budge unless you come quite close to them. This brings us to combat which doesn’t break the 4X mould; you click on the bad people and either win or lose. By hovering over the enemy beforehand you’ll get a combat weather forecast telling about the likely outcome so that you don’t foolishly try to send some archers against a massively more powerful force.

Two win conditions are what you get in Jon Shafer’s At The Gates. Your ultimate goal is to topple the slightly wobbly Roman Empire, and you can do that in one of two ways; either barrel in with a bunch of troops and do some damage, or you can send five top-tier troops to become Roman Legionnaires. The first option means dealing with the basic combat and the poor A.I. who appear largely unfazed by your aggression. The second option is essentially the economic victory route, although like simply fighting Rome it still ultimately means having to develop military whether you want to or not.

Jon SHafer's At The Gates during winter

Like many 4X games achieving victory feels hollow in At The Gates. Whichever path you take toward winning it ultimately feels anti-climatic.

For me, the big problem comes once you’ve got past the initial survival part of At The Gates. When you have your farms churning out food and your mines are pumping out stone and iron things become…dull. At this stage you’ll have realised that the top-tier professions are mostly just better versions of stuff you already have, letting you harvest more wheat or make coal better. The nomadic concept that seemed so interesting earlier gets mostly forgotten about as you no longer need to worry about depleting resources. At this point my entire experience largely revolved around clicking on the “next turn” button.

Much like lacklustre victories, though, this is a common issue with 4X games. To help counter this there’s usually cool late-game unlocks to pursue or something like that, but At The Gates lacks this. There are no cool buildings to unlock or awesome new professions to research. You just get slightly better versions of things you already have.

Of course, the solution is that once you get to a stable point you can always fire up a new game whereupon the randomized map, resources and clans will throw up different challenges. This is something I really liked because in a lot of other 4X games I’d often rely on the same basic strategy over and over again, whereas At The Gates does make you mix things up.

Before I wrap up this review I’d also like to praise the brilliant tooltip system. It doesn’t replace a proper tutorial, which is still missing, but almost everything has its own tooltip and within each tooltip there’s usually at least one clickable word that will present a tooltip for something else. It’s brilliant.

Jon Shafer’s At The Gates is tricky to render a verdict on. Although the game has been officially released the truth is that it’s far from finished. An extensive development plan can be found on the Steam forums, and numerous systems feel like they need fleshed out. There’s an exciting future for the game, though.

So my final verdict on At The Gates is that it’s a 4X brimming with potential, but in its current state is certainly not a game I can recommend to everyone. The story of the development and of Jon Shafer himself is a hell of a tale, and I always hate sounding negative about projects like this but ultimately there some pretty big flaws holding the gates closed. Unless you’re a die-hard 4X consider waiting a hile for this one.

3 out of 5

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