Jon Shafer’s At the Gates was a huge success story on Kickstarter way back in 2013, where it secured funding for over $100,000 and was slated for a mid-2014 release. Over 4 years later, It’s finally in our hands. After such a long wait, is At the Gates still worth your attention?
A little bit about Jon Shafer, before we get into what At the Gates has to offer. Shafer is the president of Conifer Games, company he founded in 2012, following his departure from Firaxis, where he was the lead designer of the critically acclaimed title, Civilization V. Shafer had a short tenure at Paradox in 2017, but is said to have left due to ‘creative differences’ and has been working to complete At the Gates since.
With title’s such as Civilization V to his name, it’s no surprise to hear that Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is a 4X strategy title. It would be easy to look at this title as ‘just another Civ clone’ and call it a day. It’s so much more than that though. Conifer Game’s website states that the company’s mission is to “innovate in the strategy genre, building on elements of what’s worked in the past while also borrowing interesting concepts from other genres.” Honestly, it rather hits the nail on the head.
You see, Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is more than just your regular 4X, hexagonal grid strategy game. There are elements here that you won’t find anywhere else, not even in the genre flagships. These additions are here for better and for worse, mind, but as a starting point, it’s really rather impressive.
The first thing you’ll notice is just how simple everything looks. There’s very little on screen, and that usually means disaster for new players. While other titles add options for regular pop-ups the first time you play, frequently reminding you of new mechanics and offering a helping hand, At the Gates is a little more hardcore. The help is there, and it’s plentiful, but you’ll have to seek it yourself. It pops up at the start, and unless you wish to read the lot there and then, you’ll have to seek it out should you require it again. with so many new mechanics, some automation here to stagger these a little more frequently throughout your first playthrough would be appreciated.
You can forget the idea of taking one of history’s most famous civilizations through to the space age. Instead, you’ll start as the humble barbarian, specifically one of the various tribes that collectively hastened the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, toppling the famous Goliath is your end goal. You’ll start out as the Goths, with other factions unlockable upon their discovery within the game. Unlike other titles, your focus is not on expansion. Instead, you only have one camp. You can, and will have no choice not to, move your camp around the map in search of more strategic lands and resources, as you will work your way through your land’s resources rapidly as you take new clans under your wing.
Speaking of clans, these are your units in At the Gates. Instead of enriching your lands, you’ll be enriching your people, with knowledge, and more often than not, hard labor. These clans all have their own quirks and tendencies, so one of the main challenges is finding what role your people fit into best, and making sure that they all play nice with each other. Some will come in with existing knowledge, but more often than not, you’ll be teaching them up from scratch, which does give you the chance to mold them into the right fit for your camp.
You’ll find new clans joining you regularly, depending on how much ‘Fame’ you’re generating. You’ll be able to assign them to work within the camp our out in the world, with jobs that fall under six disciplines: Honor, Agriculture, Livestock, Metalworking, Crafting, and Discovery. Your clans will then level up the longer they stick with a single discipline. While they’re helping you out, they’ll also be adding the need for more resources, as well, clans will be clans, and new mouths to feed are only 9 months away.
In the early game, the main goal of At the Gates is simply to keep your people alive. Unlike most games in the genre, seasons matter, and the world changes. You cannot farm in the snow, so you’ll be forced to ensure you spend the warmer months stockpiling for the winter, or you’ll starve to death long before Rome even knows of your existence. Seasons also affect the world in other ways. The river that’s kept you from lands of wealth can be traversed when it freezes, by you and the enemy.
At the Gates is much more focused on resource and people management than most any other title on the market, which could be seen as a mixed bag, depending on the level of balancing you want from your 4X strategy title. You’ll spend time working to gather, forge, and even buy these resources to ensure your survival. Buildings require both resources and tools, so you need to really plan your workforce around your needs. You’ll need blacksmiths to make your tools, but you’ll also need miners and gathers to gather the materials to build your tools. It all seems daunting at first, but it is highly rewarding once you get everything working in harmony.
Now, At the Gates claims to be a 4X strategy title with rogue-like features, which should scream replayability to the heavens, especially coupled with the unlockable factions. Thing is, while other 4X titles will have you coming back for more, I just don’t feel the same here. Once you’ve done it once, it seems to be much the same should you do it again. There’s a lot here but sadly, other than attempting a cleaner playthrough, the replayability seems to be a little lacking.
Visually, At the Gates features a rather gorgeous watercolor art style. The world changes visually with the seasons which is a real joy to behold with the art style and is a true testament to the work put in by the small team behind the title. Sadly, the UI around the game just doesn’t have the same level of polish and ends up dating the game rather badly. It’s a shame because the vibrant, varied colors of the world simply are not shared by the rest of the game.
At the Gates is a fantastic title for anyone who’s a fan of the 4X strategy genre. While the replayability might not be there for most, the hardcore fans are sure to find it. The art style is truly gorgeous, and while the UI might do a bit to ruin it, it really does add the final level of polish to what is a fantastic entry into the genre.