Hello and welcome to Focused on Feld. In this series of reviews, I am working my way backwards through Stefan Feld’s entire catalogue. With the exception of 2 of his older games, I have hunted down and collected every title he has ever put out. It’s my hope that by the time I get to writing about those titles I’ll own them too. Today we’re going to talk about 2009’s The Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel, his 7th game.
The Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel takes place in 12th century England in the fictional kingdom of Kingsbridge, England. The players take on the roles of Prior Philip and Bishop Waleran. Philip’s trying to construct a massive cathedral while Waleran is trying to construct a fortress. The game will have the players waging war over cards using seals to acquire the resources that they need to be the first to complete their project. In the end, the first person to complete their structure will win the game.
Opening the box, you will find a deck of cards divided into four types – the advantage cards (the ‘A’ deck and the ‘B’ deck), the three fortress cards, and the three cathedral cards. There are an equal number of character markers, raw materials/resource chips, and personal seals in two different colors – red and blue. The game also includes a number of double-sided neutral seals, a start player marker and some currency tokens (1s, 2s, and 5s). Lastly, there is a rulebook.
The various tokens are nice and thick and very sturdy. The cards themselves, though, are pretty lackluster in their manufacturing. If this is a game that will see heavy play, then you may want to invest in some sleeves because these cards don’t feel very durable. The biggest flaw, components-wise, is the rule book. While it’s decently well written and includes a lot of good examples, some of the verbiage in the rules does not mesh with the verbiage on the cards and this can cause some confusion at times. Overall, though, the component quality of this game is pretty decent.
First, the players will select one of the two colors and take possession of all of the pieces and cards which match their chosen color. The red player will always take the start player marker. In addition, each color also receives 3 gold and 1 of each kind of neutral seal – the 0|5 seal, the 1/4 seal, and the 2/3 seal.
Next, each player will assemble their building cards side by side with the resource side facing up. Arranged next to these will be one set of stone, wood, and sand tiles with the other tiles placed closeby into the player’s reserve. The remaining neutral seals are placed closeby into a stack randomly. Then the A decks and B decks are shuffled and placed side by side. Nine cards are then dealt from the A deck into a 3×3 grid and the players are ready to begin.
Anatomy of a Turn
A turn of play will consist of four distinct phases – claiming advantage cards, competing for advantage cards, resolving advantage cards, and building. So, let’s discuss each of these in turn.
Claiming advantage cards:
First, the start player will select three cards in a row (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) and will place one of their character markers on each of the selected cards. Then the second player will do the same so that one of their character markers will co-occupy one and only one of the cards that the first player selected.
Competing for advantage cards:
At this point, the players will have to wage war over the card that they have both placed their character markers on. The outcome of the battle will determine which player gets to use the card and which player gets stuck using only two cards this turn. The battle happens in the following fashion.
The start player must flip one of their seals (neutral or personal) like they were flipping a coin. The value that is showing after the flip represents the influence that the player has brought to the conflict. Then the second player flips a seal of their choice in an effort to bring more influence to the conflict than the previous player did. Once a player has used their personal seal, they may not bring any more influence to the conflict. The players take turns flipping seals until one of the following happens: one player gives up or runs out of seals without being able to bring more force to bear than their opponent. In the case of a tie, the player who holds the start player marker will win the duel.
The winner of the duel will lose all of the neutral seals that were used in the duel. The losing player will lose all but one of the neutral seals used in the duel and must remove their character marker from the contested card. All returned seals are placed onto the bottom of the neutral seal stack that was set aside at the beginning of the game.
Resolving advantage cards:
The starting player will resolve their cards first followed by the second player. There are various types of cards that do different things. When resolving these cards, the players will determine which order they get resolved in. These advantage cards are roughly divided into several different types – cards that provide resources, cards that can convert resources (each basic resource has an upgraded version as in the photo below), cards that gain you money or extra seals, and “people” cards that can only be used by a certain color (more on these in a moment).
Recall how I mentioned earlier that the rulebook leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to utilizing the same vocabulary all throughout the game? Well, these “people” cards are what I was speaking of specifically. The rulebook refers to them as “personal benefit cards” but the cards refer to them as “people cards”. Specifically, these are the cards that cause the most grief:
These cards were poorly translated and a critical word was left out of the translation and that’s really where the source of the grief comes from. As the wording on the cards stands now, it would seem to imply that not only are there blue or red “person” cards, but that there are also neutral person cards and this invariably leads to arguments about which of the neutral cards on the table these two cards are referring to.
The cards SHOULD read “Use a neutral card or a blue/red ‘person’ card in a row or column with any character marker on it…”. That addition of the word “card” after the word “neutral” makes a huge difference and I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you of this flaw ahead of time. So, now you’re aware. Also, you might have noticed the mention of “1x cards” in the image above. These are neutral cards that can be used immediately or held onto for future use. They are the only type of card in the game that can be held onto in this fashion.
After both players have resolved their cards, only then do they remove their seals from the cards.
At the beginning of the game, each player will have set up their three building cards side by side like this:
You will notice that along the bottom of each card are three resource images. These represent the resources that must be spent to construct the particular portion of the building that is depicted on the card. In order to add resources to a card, it will cost the player gold. The more resources they add at the same time, the more gold it will cost them to do so. Additionally, a player may only add resources to a single card in a turn, but they may have multiple construction projects going on at the same time as in the image below:
Once the turn is completed, the cards are removed and nine new cards are flipped over to form a new grid, then a new turn begins. This continues until the A deck is used up. Then the B deck is run through in the same fashion. Any 1x cards from the A deck that any players have not used at this point are shuffled back into the A deck and the A deck gets run through again. When that’s finished, any 1x cards from the B deck that have not been used are shuffled back into the B deck and the B deck gets run through a second time. Each time a new deck is introduced, it constitutes the beginning of a new ‘round’. Thus, the game is comprised of four rounds in total.
End Game and Winning
The game ends in one of two ways:
One player manages to complete all three sections of their building in which case they win immediately. The fourth round ends with neither player having completed all three sections of their building. In this case, the player who has completed the most sections overall wins.
Honestly, the only reason I picked up this game when I found it in the bookstore was because it said Stefan Feld on the box and I am a massive Stefan Feld fan. If it hadn’t been for that, I probably would have not given the game a second thought. Even though the artwork for this game is really, really good (Michael Menzel has done an excellent job here) it does very little to convey what the game is actually about at a glance. I suspect that you’d have to be either a fan of the book series or a fan of this game’s big box alter ego “The Pillars of the Earth”. Since I am unfamiliar with either of those, the box top did not really do a great job of drawing me in and I nearly passed this up. Thank goodness for Stefan Feld’s name on the box!
I am not going to mince a lot of words here. I love this game. From start to finish, Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel plays like a well oiled machine and the tension and excitement constantly ratchet up as each round passes and you draw closer to the end of the game. It’s a really fun game full of interesting choices and constant player interaction. Most of the meat of the game takes place in the card selection phase. There’s a lot of calculation that goes into deciding which cards to choose because, if you’re the first player, each choice that you make will invariably dictate which options your opponent has to choose from. Sometimes you’ll be in a position where choosing the worst options would be of better benefit to you than choosing the best ones simply due to the options that this will force your opponent to have to select from. You just never know what’s going to come up in the card tableau and this makes for an interesting and engaging game every single time. Even selecting which seals to flip for conflict resolution can lead to some interesting strategic decisions. Every time I demoed this game at a recent convention here in Nashville, this was the game that everyone got excited about. It’s just a heck of a lot of fun.
That isn’t to say that everything is perfect here. The card wording issues that I brought up earlier definitely sullied my first few experiences with the game and I certainly hope that those wording issues are addressed in future releases (assuming there are any). Thank goodness for the forums on Boardgamegeek. Without those to clear things up, I’d still be scratching my head and arguing about them.
The other thing that is aggravating about this game is also arguably the most interesting thing about the game – the flipping of the seals. While it’s a neat mechanic, it’s very awkward. I am terrible at flipping and flicking things. Just ask anyone that’s ever played a dexterity game with me. I put way too much force behind things and they go flying everywhere. As such, my seal flipping invariably ends up with me having to pick seals up off of the floor or nearly taking my opponent’s head off. I am terrible at it and I wish there were some other method of resolving the conflict that arises during the card selection phase.
Those things, however, do not dissuade me. For its few flaws, Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel is one of the best two-player games that I have ever had the pleasure of playing. It’s also probably my second or third favorite Stefan Feld game ranking up there on my list with Macao and The Castles of Burgundy. It’s a very well-designed game and I’m very glad that I stumbled across it. I definitely recommend giving it a try!
What do you think about The Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel? Give us your opinions about what you like and/or dislike about the game in the comments below!
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