Pillars of the Earth Review

A game that I break out every few months is Pillars of the Earth.

In Pillars of the Earth, the king is attempting to build his temple and each player takes on the role of an architect who is trying to gain favor with the king by contributing to his building project. Each turn, 2 craftsmen cards will be set out along with 6 production cards. Every player starts with 11 workers (if I remember correctly), and they take turns taking either craftsmen or production cards and using gold and workers (respectively) to pay the cost for the cards taken. After this, each of the players has a certain number of "master builders" which are randomly drawn out of a bag. Starting at 7 gold, a master builder is drawn, and that player has the option of either placing him immediately at the current cost (starting at 7 and going down with each builder drawn) or passing and placing his builder once they have all been pulled from the bag. Once all of the master builders have been placed, the different spaces on the board activate - first a random event occurs, then all of the players production and master builders take effect. Finally, the players use the craftsmen that they have acquired to turn their produced goods into victory points. This lasts for six rounds and then the temple is completed - at which point the player who has gained the most favor from the king is declared the winner.

The first thing that I love about Pillars of the Earth is the master builder mechanic. I really enjoy the fact that the first person who has his piece drawn has the benefit of placing his master builder first, but at a very hefty price. If a player intends to regularly place master builders early, they must ensure that they have a steady source of gold production (which often comes at the cost of fame production). I also enjoy the fact that a scheming player can gauge whether he should place his master builders immediately or try to tempt his opponents into placing theirs and try to get them to spend most of their money. Overall, this mechanic works very well as it forces players to balance having the first option of placing a builder against the cost to do so.

The next thing that I like (and dislike) about Pillars of the Earth is how the craftsmen work. You start the game with 3 basic craftsmen, and throughout the game you can gain better craftsmen (through purchasing them or by placing your master builder next to them). Craftsmen are used to convert resources into victory points and/or gold, but each craftsman can only be used a certain number of times per round.  Each round, 4 new craftsmen become available - and these 4 are all better than the craftsmen from the previous round. In addition, everyone is only allowed to keep 5 craftsmen at a time. This means that you will not gain more than a few turns (at best) from most of your craftsmen; and this is something that you must keep in mind while paying the sometimes steep price of gold and/or master builders to acquire the new craftsman. I like this mechanic, but it can also be frustrating during the course of the game (as you feel sad to see your precious craftsmen which you have enjoyed employing have to be let go).

Though I really enjoy the previous mechanics, there are some notable cons. First, I don't ever really feel "productive" in the game. Whereas in a game like Stone Age or Caylus one turn seems to build on the next, and towards the end of the game, if you have done really well, you can have incredibly productive turns, I don't get this feeling here. I think a lot of this feeling is related to how quickly you lose craftsmen. There are actually some ways in which you can plan ahead and have one turn impact another - gain extra resources that you will need, or gain "privilege" cards which can give you either one-time or game long benefits, but I still really didn't feel like I ever "got the ball rolling" in Pillars. Another aspect of this may have been the sheer brevity of the game only lasting 6 turns. I can't really put my finger on it, but I know that I normally leave the game thinking that I hadn't made progress.

The other con that I have with Pillars of the Earth is that the options for the Master Builders seemed to be limited. When I really think critically on this topic, I realize that the number of options is fairly comparable to some of the games I mentioned above, but I think the difference in Pillars was that there often seemed not to be enough "good" options. Some examples of the options available were to get 1-2 victory points (which is good, but goes back to one turn not really helping the next), safety from the random event (but the event is not necessarily bad and if it is good, you only get 1 resource), and not paying taxes (nice, but if you have plenty of money, its not especially crucial). With as awesome as the placement mechanic is in the game, I wish that there were tons of good options so that the decision of whether to spend the money and, if so, which of the helpful options to use felt more crucial.

Overall, I give Pillars of the Earth a 7.5/10. The pros that I named definitely outweigh the cons in my mind, and so I plan on keeping my copy of the game. However, the cons are what keep me from playing it more than every few months.

Pillars of the Earth on Noble Knight Games (about $40)
Pillars of the Earth on Funagain Games (about $40)
Pillars of the Earth on Amazon (about $40)


  1. Nice review, Josh (as always). My opinion of Pillars has swung drastically from one pole to the other the longer that I've played it, and right now, I like it quite a bit.

    I don't know how many times you've played it so far, but knowing the upcoming craftsmen lets you do a lot more planning ahead (and holding resources), which does a lot to answer your complaint about not building from turn to turn. It was also one of the things that helped turn my opinion of the game around.

    And the expansion also does a lot to even out the game. There are a few other spots to place your workers (which helps with another of your complaints) and adds a little something to mitigate some of the luck with the Master Builder draw (which was one of my main complaints). It also adds in extra Craftsmen for each turn, which helps keep the game fresh after several plays (once you know the craftsmen so well that your strategies start to get stagnant). I would not, however, necessarily play the game with 5 or 6 players (despite what the expansion says), because I imagine that it would probably wear out its welcome pretty badly with the extra time involved.

  2. I honestly don't know how many times I've played it... I know it was at least 3, but there's often quite a wait in between. Every time I play it, it's good enough to keep, but not quite good enough for me to immediately want to play it again... I do have the expansion, though, and I'm hoping to get to try it out sometime.

  3. I think some of your comments make sense, but all things considered, it evens out really well. The point about not having many good choices is dealt with by the mechanics of having to pay if you want to place earlier. Also, the change starting player option is something I've never seen before and I use it often.

    In our gaming group, Pillars is one of the most commonly played. We found the more we played it, the better we understood it, and the more we felt we could control our success.

    We have the expansion but don't usually have 5+ players. However, we include all of the craftsmen and event cards from the expansion which might improve the game too.