Jon Shafer’s At the Gates Review

Disclaimer: I’ve already written a review of this game on my old personal site. However, I’ve decided to revisit Jon Shafer’s At the Gates after roughly six months of patches and version changes to see how it holds up. This review hasn’t changed much, except to add relevant version 1.2 information.

After roughly six years of development, Jon Shafer finally reached the finish line for his Kickstarted At the Gates on January 22nd of this year.

There were times during that process that I honestly believed this game would never reach a state anywhere close to resembling “complete”. Hell, there were times where I actively campaigned against Jon on Twitter and on his own forums, vocalizing my great displeasure at a game that was seemingly abandoned.

I have since apologized to Jon directly for that. I can get a bit overzealous sometimes. I’m sure you’re not surprised.

However, here I am, writing a review of what is now Version 1.2 of At the Gates and I’m pretty happy to be doing so. I didn’t Kickstart At the Gates, but I did buy into it shortly after its Kickstarter campaign ended through Jon’s website because I believed in Jon, his pedigree, and his vision for this game.

One of At the Gate’s Early Kickstarter Screenshots
Version 1.2 and Still Improving

There’s a lot to like here and a lot that still needs work. Despite promises from Jon himself to continue working on the game, we need to look at it as it stands today.

What Works

The Rogue-Like, Player Vs. Environment Element:

Make no mistake about it, At the Gates is a game about surviving. You’ll lead a minor Germanic tribe that’s practically unable to do anything at the start of the game and eventually shape them (hopefully) to become strong enough to take on the Roman Empire. I mean, sure, they’re on their way out, but the Romans are still a significant force.

Surviving isn’t easy, either. Not only do you have to worry about feeding your clans, but you’ll also need to fend off bandit tribes, other minor Germanic tribes, and uniquely: mother nature.

The game features life-like seasonal changes, which causes the issues you’d expect. The Winter months become increasingly difficult to survive through, as snow hinders movement, supply lines, and most importantly, food production. While rain in the warmer months can actually cause areas to flood and become completely unusable.

Those issues, coupled with the need to constantly feed your tribe through finding and exploiting food resources and to increase their cultural capabilities through finding and exploiting resources such as iron, wood, stone, and more make the game much more difficult than your average 4X. There is a lot to keep track of and a lot that your tribe will need if it’s to succeed in surviving and ultimately overthrowing the Romans.

Map generation can be your friend or your enemy, as the location of those resources matter a great deal. Surprisingly, however, the more difficult starts are just as fun to overcome as the “easier” starts are to take advantage of, but it largely depends on how much you enjoy a challenge.

Suffice to say, you likely won’t be winning your first game, or maybe even your first five, but once you start to learn how to overcome the odds stacked against you, there is a rewarding sense of accomplishment that I really enjoyed. It just may not be for everybody…

The Clans:

A huge part of At the Gates’ personality comes through its clan system. You begin the game with 3 clans, each of them unique in their look and trait assignment. Sometimes you’re lucky to welcome a clan that perfectly suits your needs, one that is particularly proficient at gathering (food, bee’s honey, etc) or another that identifies resources in half the time others would take.

While at the same time, you might be met with a sullen clan that’s prone to feuding with other clans that share the same tile as they do, which only causes problems down the line. Worse yet, that same sullen clan might be incredibly good at producing tools, so you have to consider their marked usefulness in making tools with their likelihood in creating issues with other clans.

These situations often force the player to consider various aspects of your clans’ personalities that very few other games do. If you’re familiar with Crusader Kings 2 or King of Dragon Pass, then you’ll understand a bit about how this system works (but it’s not quite as deep as either of those games).

It’s usually fun – or at least interesting – to problem solve in this way. When the eventual feuds DO occur, you’re forced to take sides or watch both clans become disgruntled and inefficient. In taking sides, you punish one of the clans, which causes a semi-permanent decrease in their mood and proficiency and its strips them of their profession and progression. Meanwhile, the opposite clan is made happy, thus increasing their proficiency and loyalty.

It’s a balancing act that provokes thought and consideration and I like it.

The Profession System:

While initially a bit overwhelming, especially going into this game blindly, the profession system is a unique take on the traditional research tree. At the beginning of the game, you’ll have only a few very broad paths to choose from, but eventually, you’ll be forced to choose from a variety of professions that will provide an increased capability to your tribe.

Your choices will largely depend on what your given focus is at any moment, but you’ll also need to consider how those choices will affect your tribe in 10, 20, or 30 turns. Do you research the archer in order to defend yourself against those encroaching bandits or take that farmer upgrade to increase food output before you starve?

Either way you’re probably wrong, but both will eventually benefit your fledgling empire. It’s in these professions and progression through them that your tribe becomes a group capable of eventually building stone structures that never degrade or Men-At-Arms that will swiftly take out all but the strongest of bandits.

It takes balance, knowledge, and a bit of luck, but it’s incredibly satisfying to make it to the end-game as a rather powerful pseudo-medieval kingdom that is ready to take on the Romans once and for all.

The Tooltip System:

I have zero doubt that the tooltip system developed by Jon for At the Gates will be emulated or outright copied in future games. It’s simply brilliant. Being able to quickly obtain pertinent information on a variety of topics simply by following pseudo-hyperlinks in the tooltips is extremely helpful.

Tooltips inside of tooltips inside of tooltips inside of tooltips…

The Economy:

Paired with the profession system, the economy, and its structure really form an interesting game where almost every turn matters. Hell, an early tooltip reminds you not to let your clans sit idly, as it’s incredibly important to train them and begin manufacturing, foraging, digging, or collecting something.

Because you’ll need to collect wood to build structures, that will allow you to collect iron, that will allow you to build tools and weapons, that will allow you to upgrade your units and much more. You’ll also need that stone so that your stone cutters can create stone blocks and your farmers can finally create permanent plantations, instead of the transient wood structures that degrade over time.

The caravan received an overhaul for 1.2, which makes it much easier to navigate.

It’s a system of supply and its use that really keeps the game engaging. When you finally get a mine on that stone resource or you get a mine on that salt deposit, you feel a sense of accomplishment and excitement for your new capabilities.

A Classic: Colonization

It’s a system rarely seen in 4X games and one reminiscent of one of my favorite 4X games of all time, Colonization (1994). I wish more 4X games had this amount of detail in their resource/economy and supply chain systems.

Version 1.1 saw this system really refined and Jon took the time needed to make the economy even more important to an At the Gates playthrough. So much so that my first game back led to my people starving in the first 40 turns. More so than ever, planning for each of your clans and ensuring that they’re all put to work is essential.

The Art Style:

Admittedly, there are some minor inconsistencies with the art (almost like some of it was done by someone else, but it’s hard to notice usually), but the art is a great stylistic choice for this game (or any game), as the watercolor-like aesthetic is timeless in a lot of ways. A game like Endless Legend, while beautiful, won’t really age as well as a game with a hand-drawn look to it like At the Gates.

Hell, the game has looked pretty much the same for the past 5 years or so and still looks good today, so that supports my point, methinks.

While the game looks mostly great, things like the Roman cities don’t quite look like the rest of the game…

Art style is subjective, though, and I’m sure that it won’t be for everyone. I, however, am glad that Conifer Games chose this art direction and I hope to see the minor inconsistencies shored up and brought up to the way the rest of the game looks (they’re hard to find, but they’re there).

Version 1.2’s Clan Management Screen:

Jon added a long-awaited clan management screen to the game and it’s very helpful for a variety of reasons. First, it’s an easy way to keep track of the myriad of tribes you’ll end up with in a full game of At the Gates. In addition, it’s a great reference for you to ensure that everyone is being fully utilized at a quick glance.

It’s a bit ugly, but it gets the job done

The UI for At the Gates feels dated and getting to the screen should be made easier with a shortcut and I should be able to sort by field, but I’m just glad to have it for now and hope that the UI gets more love in the future.

What Doesn’t Work

Diplomacy, Or Lack Thereof:

I’ve never actually played a 4X game with less diplomatic options than At the Gates. That’s not because 4X games with less diplomatic options don’t exist, but rather it’s that I don’t enjoy 4X games with little or non-existent diplomatic discourse (aside from a couple notable exceptions).

The fact that I’ve enjoyed myself with At the Gates despite the bare bones diplomatic mechanics is a testament to the rest of the game, but I can’t help but frequently consider how much better this game would be with some diplomacy professions, some diplomatic tension, or even just some basic diplomatic options at all.

Those are your only “options” and most of those never return after your initial encounter

Instead, you’re left with very little to do other than say hello, offer a tribute, and declare war. That’s the extent of diplomatic affairs among all the other Germanic tribes and the all-important Romans. What’s worse, in my humble opinion, is that some pretty deep and exciting diplomatic ideas were expressed by Jon in one of his Kickstarter updates, but were never implemented.

It’s a let down, for sure, but it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the game for the most part. I have no doubts in my mind, however, that the game would be markedly better with a rich diplomatic system, so it basically needs to happen one way or another.

Signs of a Rushed Production:

Mind you, I get that this game took SEVEN years to develop, but Jon took quite a long hiatus during that time frame. He’s talked about it at length here in a blog post, but nevertheless, there was a long period of time where the game simply wasn’t being worked on.

When he finally came back to it, he has clearly done a lot to get this game ready for release. However, there are many aspects of the game that have obviously not been completed or were left as a shell of what they could be in the hopes of just releasing the game as soon as possible.

Take, for instance, the religion system. There are no tooltips about what any of them do or change about your tribe. Or the diplomacy system that I spoke about above. Or quality-of-life features like a clans manager. There are still some minor UI quibbles, with minor UI bugs and some normal programming bugs, too.

There are just a lot of little things that make it pretty clear to me that the game wasn’t given the amount of time it deserved to be fully polished. Jon needed more time, I think.

Those descriptions are super blurry. Easy fix, I’m sure, but they’re still there.

Or how about the fact that the AI is basically non-existent…

Yeah, let’s talk about that.

The AI:

I understand that the basic structure of this game is meant to mostly be about surviving the harsh wilds and learning how to balance progression with simply being able to exist, but the AI for both the other Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire is basically brain-dead.

The other tribes do not expand. They do not compete for the same resources that you do. They simply exist for you to eventually declare war on (because allying them currently is literally impossible) and overwhelm with superior armies.

The above picture shows the Alemanni being occupied after a single buffed archer was able to wipe out their small army

The Romans declared war on me, too, in the same game pictured above. They never moved their armies on me, though. They would have likely crushed me, but instead, I was given plenty of time to build Men-at-Arms and keep my northern border defended from their potential invasion (hint: it never happened).

What eventually happened is that I was able to start picking off the Romans with very little in the way of retaliation. The once-mighty Romans felt like they had no idea how to defend themselves or their land. Sure, they had some very powerful units that required a great deal of manpower to overcome, but it became a numbers game, not a tactics or strategy game.

I would love to see the other AI members spread out, fight for the same resources that I’m after, and to basically add to the drama of what the Player Vs. Environment (PvE) tension already delivers.

It’s a rather unfortunate situation that detracts from an otherwise pretty damn good game. I’ll say this again, as it bears repeating: it speaks to the rest of the game that these moderately significant weaknesses don’t keep At the Gates from being fun.

Final Thoughts

At the Gates‘ rogue-like element of only unlocking other tribes once you’ve conquered them or convinced them to ally with you keeps me coming back. The map generation and my desire to overcome the particular odds presented by each of those maps keeps me coming back. The supply chain and economy system keep me coming back. Those clans and their unique personalities and character traits keep me coming back.

When it’s all said and done, though, the biggest disappointment I feel right now is knowing how great this game could have been with more time, maybe a bigger budget, and maybe a slightly bigger team. It can still become the classic that it has the potential to be, but it’s not quite the classic that I wanted it to be. Yet.

It does break new ground with its PvE gameplay and its rogue-like elements. It is an entirely unique experience in the 4X world. But it’s just shy of being a game that I can unequivocally recommend because of the state that it’s in right now. Despite that, it’s a game that I can recommend to some, if not most, especially those that yearn for something new in the 4X realm and especially to those of you that remember and enjoyed the classic Colonization, as it has a lot of similarities to that gem.

I hope Jon continues to improve At the Gates as his first two major patches have brought a better-balanced economy and important quality of life improvements to the game. As he’s stated that his next focus will be on the Romans and then diplomacy, I have hope that my biggest quibbles with this game will be addressed.

The Romans, for all of their “power”, are just…boring.

Even when it takes a step or two forward, it manages to take a step backwards, too. Though 1.2 adds some much-needed quality of life additions, the turn times have crept back up and I’ve had some crashes again, something that I had stopped seeing as frequently after version 1.1 was released. Let’s just hope that Jon continues to plug away at the game and sees his road map all the way through. Until then, however, At the Gates isn’t for everyone.

It may be a while before I can recommend it universally, too, as Jon’s update pace is a bit slow, understandably. It’s been over six months and we’ve only seen two patches. We’ll be sure to revisit it later this year or early next year to see where the planned patches have taken it.

TL;DR: Jon has tried something new to mixed effect. At the Gates distinguishes itself by creating an interesting economic system in a rogue-like affair, but the UI, lack of diplomacy, and missing systems will leave players wanting. Until those issues are addressed, At the Gates is a game that I’d only recommend to those that need something new in the 4X space that are willing to look past some glaring issues.

You might like this game if:

  • You want something different in the 4X space that is challenging and unique
  • You liked the original Colonization and enjoy managing units and their professions
  • You prefer a player vs. environment challenge, rather than player vs. other players

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You want to play against other players
  • You need diplomacy in your 4X games
  • You hate bugs, UI shortcomings, missing systems, or rogue-like gameplay

OUR REVIEW POLICY

Rob played 55+ hours of At the Gates on his Windows 10 custom PC, with an i7-3770, GTX 2060 with 6MB VRAM, 16 GB DDR3 RAM, 512GB SSD, and a 1440p Asus Monitor

For some further help with your decision, please check out this short Let’s eXplore series I did on my old channel. It will help you understand the game mechanics, despite the gameplay shown being a few builds behind the current one:

We’d like to hear from you:

6 thoughts on “Jon Shafer’s At the Gates Review

  1. Something new and interested in feedback. The colors coincide with the effect they have on gameplay:

    Blue: A significant system or mechanic that helps the game succeed without question
    Green: A system or mechanic that strengthens the game and makes it better
    Yellow: A system that either improved or detracted from the reviewer’s experience, but is likely subjective
    Orange: A system that mostly doesn’t work, but could with some patchwork
    Red: A system in dire need of patching or an overhaul

    This review is meant as a test to see how we can better adapt our review styling to 4X AND strategy games. Please let us/me know how it could be improved or what else you’d like to see. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for the review Rob. Amazing and detailed job, as usual. I trust no other place for my strategy reviews,

    I did vote “Caution”, though, as I am not sure how I can possibly trust a game with such a poor AI to challenge me beyond the initial 50-100 hours when the gameplay it is still about learning and exploring the options.

    I understand you specifically warn us to go with ease, because that the game is enjoyable despite these problems. But I honestly doubt it will remain enjoyable past the learning threshold.

    Like

  3. I didn’t play the game so I can’t comment on that, but I like the color system. It definitely needs to be explained properly, but I think it’s a very good format to have in the reviews.

    Like

  4. At this time I avoided playing because also it was “released” it was communicated in kickstarter that it wasn’t working as intended yet.
    That the survival and clan growing aspects are working well might make me give the game a try.

    PS: I like the colored subheadings. They are especially helpful while time is spare and thus reading the tl;dr; part first and then digging into some parts of the review.

    Like

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