With a pedigree that includes work on Civilization V and plenty of time to cook the recipe, Jon Shafer’s At the Gates has promise written all over it. A sort of 4x strategy game/rogue-like hybrid, it serves a small slice from the grand pizza of history and remixes and re-imagines the rules of traditional Civ-like games, sometimes for the better and sometimes, not so much.
At the Gates examines a relatively narrow band of ancient history, and tasks the player with leading a barbarian tribe to Rome and domination. Instead of a network of vast cities connected by busy trade routes, you have a single, relatively small settlement. This settlement may be moved, which is good, since often it will be faced with hostile neighbors or a lack of resources due to the randomly generated maps, which can easily start the player in an untenable position.
Instead of commanding a rich nation and dozens of worker and soldier types, you control a small number of clans, each with a randomly preset selection of strengths, preferences, and weaknesses. At the Gates has a deep and expansive selection of specialties for your clan to invest in, though not all are useful and some only become relevant near the game’s end. Some specialties come with the expected RTS perks, like increased resource collection or faster unit training.
Like the relative richness or barrenness of the environment, weather and the seasons play an important role in the cycle of gathering, movement, and construction and there is rarely a moment where a clan is comfortable and well supplied. Winter means defeat for a poorly equipped and unprepared clan, and while lost workers and clan members can be replaced, re-training them takes a very long, resource-intensive time. Not unlike many real-time strategy or economic sims, At the Gates throws a lot of factors on the radar — clan happiness, morality, physical well being and, of course, resources. Friendly or hostile relationships with other clans is also part of the equation, and either fighting or allying with another tribe unlocks it for gameplay later on.
One of At the Gates’ biggest drawbacks is the glacial pace at which research and unit development takes place. It could be argued that it’s in keeping with the timescale of the historical period, but gamers used to moving from prehistory to space exploration in Civilization in a few hours will be annoyed. Especially in its early hours, At the Gates can be one of the most obtuse strategy games in recent memory. It does not give up its secrets easily. With a hand-painted watercolor art style, the game looks bright, simple and appealing, as if to balance the gameplay complexity and depth that percolates beneath the veneer.
Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is not a mass-market game. It decries the populist and dumbed down direction in which the Civilization franchise has moved, replacing it with a strategy title for the patient player that tolerates a measured pace, likes the challenge of long-range planning, can overlook some bugs, and finds satisfaction in a cerebral, hard-fought victory. For the average strategy fan, At the Gates may frustrate but the rewards of pushing through to comprehension are significant.