Ken Follet's A COLUMN of FIRE published by Kosmos (UK Thames & Kosmos)
A 2-4 player, 90 minute game by Michael Rieneck, based in the area of the Kingsbridge Cathedral.
Third in the Ken Follet Kingsbridge series following The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End
A COLUMN of FIRE is another of the games that suffered the delay of us not being able to play it with more than two players due to Covid. I have always been dedicated to giving a fair and honest critique based on playing the games and sharing my opinion. This means that I need to play with a minimum of two or three others and not only playing with two players; in my view unless you play with a full or near full complement you do not always see the game at its best.
You can currently find it on for £26.00 free postage on ebay But the average price is around £36.00.
I often play most games once or twice as a 2-player to help me understand the rules. With the break in lockdown, I have been able to play A COLUMN of FIRE several times with three or four players, and from those games the conclusion drawn is that we enjoy it a lot, and that for most of us it is probably the more enjoyable of the three games in the series; it's game-play seems to be more fluent.
So having announced our (okay not everyone agreed with me, one dissenting voice voted for The Pillars of the Earth) conclusion this early in the review, I should explain how I arrived at this opinion....
First off, and as expected, the components are of the true high quality that we take for granted with games published by Kosmos. Included are cards that shuffle easily, and tiles that are created strong to stand regular play. There are also basic wooden pieces for score and in-game markers - discs, crosses and houses - a good solid folding map-board, and a set of 24 dice that are in six different colours which are handed out as sets of one of each colour. Kosmos means quality!
The dice, well one (two?) of them are a bit of a bugbear to the game for me. For whatever reason two of the colours chosen by the producers are a Purple die and a Brown die (the other colours being Black, White, Blue and Orange) which under regular home lighting look exactly the same. This is awkward because the Purple die has a significant useage. Look at my photo with the dice and you can see Black, Brown, Blue, Purple, White and Orange but which is the Purple and which are the Brown?
While I am nit-picking, the object of the game is to score the highest number of Victory Points and the front page of the rules states that *"The game ends as soon as a player reaches 50 victory points on the victory point track". It then goes on to say that "The player who is furthest ahead on the track by the end of the game wins the game." this to me sounds like it should actually say 'at the end of the round' or perhaps 'when all players have had an equal number of turns'. *This is explained deeper into the rules.
That concludes the captious comments made simply as proof of of us actually playing the game and reading the rules.
The game play works on simple mechanics that each player has to follow every Round. The players are dealt a Religion card which deems them to begin play as either Protestant or Catholic. In 3 or 4 player games the Religion cards are shuffled and randomly dealt to the players, but in 2-player games both players cannot begin with the same religion and so only one of each Catholic and Protestant card are used. Players can change and should their Religious option during play as their strategy dictates and as the rules/cards/time allows.
Religion plays an important part in this game, but it is included in such a manner that it should not upset anyone who is deeply religious. Changing back and forth from Catholic to Protestant is a calculated manner of scoring VPs according to which is more advantageous to you at the time.
The game map shows four countries; England, France, Spain and the Netherlands, on which nation specific card decks are shuffled and placed. These decks contain only characters and events associated with their country and are always separately shuffled, never shuffled together. Each character card displays a Religious or Neutral symbol onto which a similarly coloured piece is placed when the card is upturned. When a character card is taken by a player the Religious symbol is placed in one of the four spaces above the city and a new card is flipped. If it is an event it occurs, if it is a character a Religious piece is placed on it. Eventually the Religious spaces fill and a Religious Conflict is declared.
Each country trades in 2 goods/resources and will pay either 4 coins or 2 coins for them with no fluctuation. For examples: Antwerp, then of the Netherlands, will buy Wine Barrels for 4 coins and Books for 2 coins. Paris, France, will buy Books for 4 coins and Ore for 2 coins. Countries will only purchase from a player who owns a Trading House in that country. You can place a Trading House in a City by hiring the character on top of its deck.
You always take the Trading House that has the same number of the die you claim the card with, but if that space is occupied the previous occupier is bounced down one space, possibly even out of the City. When the city's Religion is declared any player who isn't of the 'new' Religion loses their Trading House. It is important to note that if there is a tie for majority in a Religious Conflict then no conflict occurs.
For the start of the game the top card of each of these countries begins face up. When an event card is flipped to be top card the event occurs and the next character card takes its place. When a character card is turned over it will show a Religious symbol in Beige (Neutral), Burgundy/Purple, (Catholic) or Gray (Protestant). First player remains the same throughout the entire and play continues clockwise. As each character comes into play its Religion is known.
There are four Loch Leven cards, one of which is randomly drawn per player at the game start. These cards determine if you start out Catholic or Protestant and what bonus resource you receive.
There are six Trading House Sites and four Religion spaces above each deck. The latter fill up with Religious symbols placed by the players. If a Majority Religion of the space is declared once it is full, the players who are of that majority Religion, and have Trading Houses in the country, gain VPs in accordance to the value of site their Trading House is situated on and those not from the Majority Religion lose their Trading House from the Country and gain nothing.
The Dice: These are used for several actions but mainly for obtaining characters from the country of the same colour as the die and for showing how long the card they placed are on remains active. The Purple die is wild - it can be used in place of any other coloured die, and the Black die is the Religion die and has different numbering by way of an extra '3' and no number '6'. This die tells you how long you will remain in your current Religion; all remaining dice are used for hiring/drawing character cards. You roll all of your dice at the beginning of your turn and when you choose a character you place one of your dice on it, each round this die is turned and its value (ie time of use) decreases.
Played over several Rounds, each Round being two halves of a year, the players have a reference card that displays the actions for each 6 months. The first half of the year is pretty much a non-event. Each player in order executes all of their first half actions and then the other players, in clockwise order, do likewise. First half actions include turning the dice over and reducing their value by one point.
Then the reference card is flipped over and the second half of the year, and your turn, begins. Now all free dice are rolled (free dice being those not already on character cards etc). The dice are of the colours of the Countries, thus by selecting a character card from the board, taking it and putting it in front of you with the correct colour die on it, you can now take advantage of the ability/ies of that character/any character you currently control.
The second half of the year is in two parts. The first as told above and the second is moving your marker on the quadrant track and carrying out the actions of the space you land on. There are a few ways you can determine which space that is, although one of your remaining dice must be used; no die remaining, no movement; no movement, no action/activating (you cannot start, and then end on the same space, so no just standing still).
Use the quadrant by selecting the die to move your marker to the best advantage position even if that means you are sacrificing your opportunity to obtain the character associated with that die; weigh up the odds and check all possibilities before using each die. Dice on character cards in your employ are not rolled again until they become free.
Overall this is an excellent addition to the Ken Follet books-based games by Kosmos. It has fun, good mechanics, great components, strategies, options and a simple but good market resource system. In my opinion this is a definite YES game for anyone who enjoys being asked to think and not just act or react.