Jon Shafer, lead designer of Sid Meier’s Civilization V, has finally unwrapped his new project: At the Gates, a turn-based strategy game vaguely similar to Civilization and funded on Kickstarter. The short promotion video is best described as “endearingly amateurish.” Scroll down to the detailed description and gameplay sample, those give a much better idea of what the game is actually about. There’s a lot to like:
As the name hints, At the Gates uses the rare and intriguing setting of late Roman antiquity, optionally on random maps. Even better, you don’t play as the Romans but as one of several invading tribes. So while you start out small and build up an empire as usual, you won’t have the usual empty world around you but rather the two still-powerful halves of the decaying Roman Empire to contend with.
Some notable gameplay mechanics derive from this setting. Since you’re playing migrant barbarians your home towns are actually mobile, and you’ll move them up behind your advancing army. You’ll have to keep moving, too, as looted or depleted resource sites cease production. Since only the Romans possess advanced technologies you’ll acquire those from either capturing Roman cities or doing quests for Romans, not from accumulating research beakers.
As in good wargames, supply plays a crucial role. Your mobile home town, camps or ships project a supply radius; outside that your troops must live off the land, or else consume their limited provisions. That becomes necessary during the infertile season of winter. Troops that have run out of supplies quickly weaken and become useless. Wars and sieges are realistically won by depriving the enemy of supplies.
Seasonal changes are important in other respects, too. Farms stop producing food during frost or drought, and at one turn per month there’s plenty of time for your tribe to simply starve. Conversely, giving food to other tribes is a great way to make friends. Rivers freeze over in winter, making them passable; but they can also flood the surrounding land in spring.
The game is single-player and Windows only which is reasonable for a first release, and also promises we’ll get a decent AI. The one concern I have is about visuals. At the Gate uses a realistic art style that brutally exposes the game’s low budget and makes the minimum price of $30 (or $25 via Kickstarter) seem excessive. Some part of the Kickstarter funding will go towards improving the looks, but I think a more abstract style similar to Unity of Command would have been a better choice. The backers don’t seem to mind, though – after the first day, funding has already reached half of the $40,000 goal.
For more information, you can find Jon himself discussing the game in two articles, Announcing At the Gates and Features in At the Gates, as well as two podcasts, The Game Design Round Table and Three Moves Ahead. The announcement was also widely covered elsewhere, e.g. by Rob Zacny at Gamespy, Tim Edwards at PCGamesN, and Sophie Prell at Penny Arcade. The most remarkable article was Russ Pitt’s They Could be Heroes, an amusing and sympathetic portrait of the three founding members of Conifer Games. Make sure to mouse over the pictures!