Friday, 6 April 2007

Thunderdome- PILLARS OF THE EARTH versus WRASSLIN'

Welcome to another edition of.. THUNDERDOME!

Listen on, listen on. This is the truth of it. Fighting leads to banning and banning gets to warring. And that was damn near the death of us all. Look at us now, busted up and everyone talking about hard rain. But we've learned by the dust of them all. FORTRESS: AMERITRASH's learned. Now when games get to fighting, it happens here. And it finishes here. Two games enter, one game leaves. And right now, I've got two games. Two games with boxes full of pieces.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…dying time's here!

It's an old-school ballcracker from Avalon Hill, it's total Ameritrash…it's WRASSLIN'!

The challenger, direct from the Eurogame wasteland of Germany…it's new, it's beautiful, it might as well be called BRIDE OF CAYLUS…it's PILLARS OF THE EARTH!


There's a lot of things that confuse me about the board gaming hobby, such as the popularity of fanny packs amongst gamers, but right now I'm completely dumbstruck as to how a game as derivative, disingenuous, and redundant as the new Michael Rieneck/Stefan Stadtler title PILLARS OF THE EARTH could be so lauded and praised by so many. Of course, it's one of those where the reviewer feels the need to describe the game as being "like" another game or a "lite" version of a previous title so that really ought to tell us something about its idiosyncracy or lack thereof. But seriously folks, if you own and enjoy any three given Eurogames then owning PILLARS OF THE EARTH will be completely redundant with what you already own. I'd bet you could probably make your own copy using pieces from those three games and sketching out the board (which is really little more than a glorified sequence of play chart) on a sheet of notebook paper.

You might be shocked to discover that at the heart of PILLARS OF THE EARTH is a system whereby you exchange resource cubes to make victory points while trying to become more efficient at doing so throughout the game. You win when your victory point marker is ahead of the other players', which will likely be a difference of between 1-5 spaces if everyone follows the rules. Calling this game CAYLUS "lite" just scratches the surface at how derivative it really is- anyone familiar with Euros at all will immediately see some POWER GRID in there too. Unlike VEGAS SHOWDOWN which lifted mechanics and rules wholesale from a handful of easily discernable titles, PILLARS' pilfery is more idiomatic, drawing from the idea of Eurogames as a whole to produce yet another efficiency exercise with very little conflict, low stakes, limited player interaction, almost completely scripted decision points, and practically no sense of drama, excitement, or serious strategy beyond "I have a woodcutter, therefore I should try to get the wood card before another player does."

A typical game of PILLARS is six turns of being spoon-fed two or three decision points each phase with typically one of them being good and the others being useless. Six turns which will see the first five characterized by each player- regardless of successful strategy or complete newbie blundering- scoring almost exactly the same number of points until someone squeaks past at the end. Six turns where even if no one builds anything the damn cathedral still gets built anyway. Six turns where the highlight of the game is the appearance of the outrageously named Otto Blackface, represented rather questionably as a black meeple. Six turns where the pinnacle of player competition and interaction is putting your master builder on a spot someone else wanted. Six turns of pure, unadulterated Eurogame misery. Remind to AVOID games with a "master builder" in them next time, OK?

I fucking hated this game. Likely, more than I hated CAYLUS because at least I could look at that game and see that at least it had some strategic elements and could be at least competitive. Now, I don't expect any game to be completely original or unique but PILLARS features pretty much EVERYTHING bad about Euros and practically none of the good. It's like one of those god awful "Now That's What I call Music" CDs that helpfully recapitulate an entire year's worth of disposable, overplayed pop songs except this time it's just regurgitating Euro design mechanics and elements. Oh, and the theme? Don't be deceived into thinking that wooden cathedral means anything, it's nothing more than a fancy round marker. You played KEYTHEDRAL, right? Even though PILLARS has much better art (it's actually very good) than that pastel nightmare, KEYTHEDRAL is a MUCH better game if you just have to build a cathedral.

But you know what I'd rather do? Wrassle. Yes, not "wrestle" like those naked Greco-Roman men do but wrassle like the Junkyard Dog and the Iron Sheik do. So after our game of PILLARS OF THE EARTH there was only one game in my mind that could erase the terrible taste of passivity and almost completely undynamic gameplay and that was the 1990 Avalon Hill title WRASSLIN'. We wound up doing an 8-player battle royale that I think featured more swear words and trash talk than any game I've ever played. It was absolute madness and I don't even know who won. It was merciless- we're not just talking player elimination, we're talking seven separate instances of player elimination so according to BGG theory we had multiple people to fetch chips and drinks throughout the game. Poor Keith Suderman, father of new twins, was out on the first turn. Once one guy would get a couple of hits on him it wasn’t beat up the leader at all, it was beat up the weak guy. It was like a bizarre social experiment that basically proved three things and they are as follows:

1) Being really loud and telling everyone to attack Damian first works.
2) Darwin was right.
3) WRASSLIN' is a much better game than PILLARS OF THE EARTH.

Now, this is one of those later AH titles that sort of got short shrift even though it had a theme that was hugely popular at the time- a license with WWF or NWA or whatever likely would have helped but instead we have generic wrestlers with names like "Mr. Umpire" and "Manly Mike Adams". But you know what? It's a blast! It's really just a simple take-that card game with some great theme rules…nothing terribly original, but unlike PILLARS OF THE EARTH it at least has a soul- a soul that completely piledrives that piece of Euro piffle into a steel chair. That must really be embarrassing getting piledrived by a soul like that.

In contrast to PILLARS OF THE EARTH though, the game looks fucking awful. The art is probably the worst I've ever seen but it's also hysterical in the most homoerotic way possible. I also find it amusing that the bearded, balding, and blubbery wrestlers look more like gamers than toned, trained athletes. The cardstock is the worst you've ever seen, and the printing is a complete joke- when they mean "four color", they mean "four color". Unlike the rulebook in PILLARS where you can read it and be playing in 15 minutes (5 if you’ve played a Euro before), WRASSLIN' features one of those glorious Don Greenwood-style rulebooks that may have inspired David Lynch to write MULLHOLLAND DRIVE. I'm still not exactly sure how manager interference works, all I know is that he's this crazy looking dude in a vest, striped pants, and a feathered cap. Kind of like a cross between Frank Branham and Robert Crumb.

Now, I do realize that hackles are up at this point since I'm pretty much shitting all over a game that is likely being sainted up there at the Gathering of Friends _as we speak_ while simultaneously praising a game that not only features a theme that might cause highbrow "elegant"-minded gamers to fog up their monocle as the bile rises but also taken as a whole might as well be the Antichrist to the Eurogame ideal. But the point is, WRASSLIN' is a _fun_ game despite its lack of "clever" rules or clockwork mechanics. I was sitting there playing this stupid game- cheering, laughing, and even making substantial strategic choices- and I couldn't believe that just 20 minutes earlier I had been sitting in relative silence, locked in the worst case of Cube Confusion I might ever have experienced and seriously considering abandoning board gaming altogether if derivative Eurogamer porn like PILLARS is considered one of the "better" recent games.

So the winner of this showdown is WRASSLIN'- you can probably pick it up for half the price of PILLARS OF THE EARTH and I'll bet you don't already have a wrasslin' game in your collection (barring those terrible CCGs). It's an easy decision to make- fun over fanciness. Get your friends together, do one-on-ones, tag team, or huge free-for-alls and you'll be in Ameritrash heaven- which come to find out, is a steel cage match.

62 comments:

Mr Skeletor said...

Brilliant.
Some guy keeps bringing Wrasslin to dockers trying to get us to play it, but we end up wriggling our way out of it. Might actually give it a try next time.

Squigherder said...

As it turns out I have an extra copy. In my original copy we write the match results and anything interesting that happens on the back of the wrassler's cards. If they win with their finish move we note that too. I think Ali Mohommad has won with the "Shakedown" more than anybody else has used their move, but the Champ remains undefeated.

The most interesting thing though is......I play it with my wife.

dcorban said...

I wonder what it is like to play a game such as Pillars with you? Do you make the other players miserable or do you suffer in silence?

I do agree that, usually, the label of being a "lite" version of another game is a negative. Caylus is a decent game that is slightly longer than the usual euro and the gameplay is accessible to newbies. I fail to see the need to acquire a lite version of it.

Although, I haven't played or read anything about Pillars, so for all I know, it might be like saying Checkers is "Chess lite".

Jason Lutes said...

Awesome showdown! And enlightening -- that David Lynch is an AH rules aficianado explains a lot. I hope we'll see more installments of Thunderdome in the future!

Anonymous said...

If you know you're going to hate a game before you play it, why the fuck would you bother?

Malloc said...


Anonymous said...

If you know you're going to hate a game before you play it, why the fuck would you bother?



Because some of us are open minded enough to be suprised from time to time.


Wrasslin' is a blast. It was high on the lunchtime game list for a while. We would play 4 player tag team matches and they were always a blast.

I have not played Pillers so I can not comment on it. I think someone in the game group picked it up so I am sure it will turn up on a wed night. I will try it out and keep an open mind, but it being compared to Caylus in anyway is not a good sign for me. I am no fan of that game or even the Sid Sackson game it rips off (Bazaar).

-M

Michael Barnes said...

Do you make the other players miserable or do you suffer in silence?

What makes you think that the other players didn't hate the game as much as I did? Three out of four gave it the thumbs down but itt was one guy's favorite game...so we swapped jokes back and forth the whole time- he ragged on me for liking "adventure" games and suggested that I go play a solitare game of TABOO. It was more fun than the actual game itself.

If you know you're going to hate a game before you play it, why the fuck would you bother?

I give all games an equal chance you tool. If you knew you were going to hate this blog post, than why the fuck would you bother reading it?

I thought PILLARS might be good- the rules looked like they could have some potential even though they were derivative and the game was visually very appealing. Look at MISSION: RED PLANET. Very derivative, completely unoriginal, and it has area control scoring for chrissakes. I should have hated it on paper, but I really liked it.

I wanted to like it- I go into every game wanting to like it...so don't fucking fault me on something you assume based on the reputation the BGG Hivemind bestowed on me- that supposedly I hate all Eurogames. If this was a game I loved, I'd just as soon be on here telling you great it was.

Albert said...

That fight is not balanced

brumeister said...

Quote "and I couldn't believe that just 20 minutes earlier I had been sitting in relative silence, locked in the worst case of Cube Confusion I might ever have experienced"

Too funny - I laughed out loud (for real - my wife asked me what was so funny).
I do like some Euro's (Catan, Shadows over Camelot, Pirates Cove) but the image of Barnes or myself for that matter locked in "Cube confusion" strikes too close to home!
Cube confusion indeed - if I place this cube here, I get 8 points - but Fred gets 6, and Fred would then be in the lead, although George would be well positioned after my 8 point placement to block Fred out with a strategic block of a 5 point red meeple move.
Hmmmmmmm, what to do?
KAAAAABOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!
There goes my head - and I play somewhat randomly from this point on because I don't really care anymore - just want to get the game over with!
Now, where are my dice???

Ken Bradford said...

Thanks for the heads up, Barnes--Pillars LOOKS amazing, I'm quite surprised to hear it's a cube-pushing exercise. I was totally fooled.

Clarissimus said...

Michael Barnes, your work is a pleasure to read. Please keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm done. Never played the game, or anything like that, don't really care. But just a one time salvo that laughing at self-indulgent idiocy is only entertaining for a limited time. Good luck!

Fellonmyhead said...

Actually Michael, you're most wrong about Pillars in that you believe it has been "lauded" by gamers. Quite the opposite is true, in fact; the game has allegedly ridden on the back of the popularity of the book on which it is based.

You're almost as wrong with your pointing out the "derivative, disingenious and redundant" elements of Pillars - because unfortunately Wrasslin' (a game I managed to get shut of two years ago) is as "derivative, disingenious and redundant" as they come.

So comparatively speaking I think your fight was rigged!

Anonymous said...

Keep 'em coming, man..

fun read!

jathomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jathomas said...

Welp, I was in on both Pillars and Wrasslin' and the fight warn't rigged.

First of all, the Wrasslin cards were definitely NOT four color. I counted three. The owner had done a pretty good job coloring in the wrasslers with some art markers, so the Wrasslin cards actually looked BETTER than they would have.

Wrasslin was a really good chaser for Pillars, not because it was a good example of "flash vs. substance", but because it was such a perfect example of "flash vs. player interaction".

Pillars' problem is that it's doing what a lot of Euros do: use a European theme to make WHAT IS ESSENTIALLY FILLING OUT A SPREADSHEET, look like it might be cool and fun. And of course, it's not. The game felt like we were all sitting around the table doing homework. I mean, the homework HAD REALLY GOOD ART, and we did get a good laugh at "Otto Blackface", but yeah, it really is just point advantage calculation. Beautiful art, though.

If Pillars was study hall, then Wrasslin' was definitely recess, and it really did feel like it. All the people who had been trapped in that Pillars game stretched their legs, and joyfully started joking about the different wrasslers, and goofing about the game. The rules took five minutes, and we just started going to town. The whole game is all about player interaction, a lot like Bang! We were doing a lot of throws, and just sort of attacking whoever we liked best, and of course Barnes started doing his crap where he tries to turn everybody against someone. For me, this is the highlight of the game.

In the end, we all laughed and had a real good time.

So yeah, if you're rubbernecking here from the geek to see a bunch of people trash on how Euros suck, and AH rules, I won't lie to you, there's a lot of folks here that are not really enamored with the way a lot of Euros work. They just don't have the temperment for it, and would rather have a more in-your-face brawly game like Wrasslin. (It's like not liking soap operas, and you're talked into watching one once in a while, and surprise! You hate it!) I grant you everything. (I will attest to the fact that Barnes did start out wanting to like the game, because he'd BOUGHT it).

But look, I really do enjoy all but the blandest of Euros, and I hated Pillars. I agree with what was said about it just having a bunch of elements from other Euros. And as a graphic artist I was actually OFFENDED by the lousy artwork in Wrasslin, but you know, I really loved playing it, and found it to be a much more gratifying social experience.

mtlawson said...

Although I knew that Pillars was Caylus-lite, I'd been thinking about trying it out. Unlike Puerto Rico (plantations) and Caylus (Phillip the Fair), the theme in Pillars actually looked interesting. Like Ken said, the game looks awesome, but I guess the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired.

That's as good enough of an exuse anyway, since I had been thinking of getting one of Fire and Axe/Warrior Knights/Runebound instead.

robartin said...

Round...Three. FIGHT!

Pillars of the Earth - not nearly as bad as this review would indicate. It's a slightly bland, utterly balanced, completely inoffensive game about building a church. Not a bad game to play while you're watching some TV. The artwork and components really are top notch, which counts for something with me. Plus I have to give it some bonus points for the Robotron 2084-inspired meeples. Man. I just said meeples. On to the next game.

Wrasslin' - this game is ridiculous. It looks like something you'd get out of a cereal box. But it's fun as hell! We practically started a riot at Mercer University with this game. I'll be picking a copy of this one up.

So yeah, Round Three. Let's just say that The Whammer picked up Otto Blackface and threw him out of the ring...

Ryan Walberg said...

I don't suppose Pillars of the Earth has any of the naughty bits from the novel? I read the novel back when I'd play anything that came out of Germany in preparation for the game, but now I'm no longer interested. If there is a "My God, you've got a hairy one" card, I might have to play it after all.

Michael Barnes said...

Given the subtlety of "Otto Blackface" is that character named "Harry Cockballs"? If so...no, he isn't in the game. Some guy named Richard and I think some lumberjack named Carl are though.

Naughty bits? Have a look at those masterbuilders...

BGG migrant said...

Excellent review. You helped me understand the game and make a decision as to whether to pursue it or not given my tastes.

Nice to hear an honest review.

Friendless said...

*sigh* Can't we ban him from here as well. Oh, I've got a better idea - I can unsubscribe!

Shellhead said...

Two games enter, one game leaves.

This is killing me that I apparently missed out on a wave of Ameritrash games from AH in the early 90's. I think I was wasting my time and money on tabletop role-playing back then. Gah!

Mr Skeletor said...

Sorry to see you go Friendless. Take care!

Fellonmyhead said...

Shellhead:
I think I was wasting my time and money on tabletop role-playing back then. Gah!

Stick around; it won't be long before that's classed as "Ameristrash" too (if it isn't already), then your time won't have been wasted.

TheRankO said...

Great post -- informative and entertaining.

Also, I'm glad to see that you're still producing and updating your micro-reviews on that other game site.

Michael Barnes said...

Yeah, I gotta break that habit...no need to contribute content where I'm not wanted! :-(

TheRankO said...

Yes, please -- stop! Start a new website or something. ;-) Personally, it's one of the few reasons I go there. Well...that and to watch Skeletor wage his one-man war.

Michael Barnes said...

Be patient, my friend...soon there'll be a place where Mr. Skeletor is hailed as a king instead of lambasted as an uncouth rabble-rouser.

Michael Barnes said...

I mean, other than Snake Mountain, of course...

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