A Column of Fire
The setting is Europe in the time of Elizabeth I. In England, France, Spain and the Netherlands, Catholics and Protestants compete for power and influence. In this politically unstable environment, resourceful operatives and courageous secret agents plot to secure power for their rulers. The balance of power shifts back and forth amidst foiled assassinations, successful rebellions, and futile invasions. And not infrequently, those who sympathize with the weak are expelled from the country. The real enemies, then as now, are not the rival religions. The true battle pits those who believe in tolerance and compromise against the tyrants who would impose their ideas on everyone else — no matter what the cost. Who will best exploit the changing power conditions in Europe to win the game?
Area Control / Area Influence
Designer: Michael Rieneck
Artist: Michael Menzel
Category: Dice, Novel-based, Religious, Renaissance
Price: $34.50 Amazon
A Column of Fire is an adaptation of the third novel in Ken Follett’s “Kingsbridge” series following The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. A Column of Fire is designed by Michael Rieneck, who also designed The Pillars of the Earth, Cuba, Around the World in 80 Days, Witch of Salem and more.
Thames and Kosmos is a science kit and board games publisher, with KOSMOS being the branch specifically for board gaming. KOSMOS has long published many games, including Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert, Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, and the original printing of The Settlers of Catan. More recently, KOSMOS has published a number of children’s and puzzle games, including Harry Hopper, Dimension, Kerala, Ubongo, and many more. In addition, KOSMOS publishes a number of hobby/strategy titles, including Imhotep, Legends of Andor, Tumult Royale, Kahuna, Lost Cities, and more.
A Column of Fire takes place thematically in a time not so different from our own when religious authority was used to control the populace and motivate politically. Historically and thematically accurate, A Column of Fire features revolts, religious flip-flopping, and distrust. A game like this should likely spark good conversations on differences in belief structures and when following Jesus becomes lip service and self-serving.
I’m not by any means an all-knowing source on Christian history, but I have read a book or two that skims the surface of the violent and rotten past Christianity has represented at times. The cause of Christ is the only worthy pursuit in my life, but unsurprisingly, mankind (including myself) has a way of making all things terrible.
A Column of Fire feels less a game to me and more an exercise in remembrance of things that have passed. Perhaps to some extent, a warning of the way things are, and could be in the future.
In A Column of Fire, players represent merchants who look to sell the appropriate goods to one of four countries. Along the way, they’ll hire folks from these countries, and keep them under employment until their time is up (represented by the selected die value). Players will establish shops in these countries, receive protection from events, gather bonuses, and select actions on a rotating track.
The most critical mechanic of the game revolves around players examining the present pace of history and determining which countries will favor which side of the religious conflict: Protestantism or Catholicism. Yes, players must hedge their bets and follow suit in the countries they possess shops, lest they lose their ability to sell goods in those places due to religious revolutions. The most successful players will hire the right people to help them mitigate their dice, and most specifically, their religion die. Each round, dice used to hire people will tick down one value, meaning once they hit zero, people are no longer underneath you. In the case of the religion die, each player must choose to stay in his current religion, or switch to the other side.
The player who can successfully switch his religion at the right time, manage his workers, select the right actions, and amass 50 victory points first will win the game.
One person in my gaming group disagreed with me, but I find A Column of Fire extremely thematic to a fault (we’ll come back to this later). Having played this game after just finishing an overview of Christian history, this became clear to me. Historically, the church in the book of Acts was established on firm foundation. The people existed to follow Christ and serve each other (Acts 2) despite their many shortcomings (1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians), yet Christ was exemplified and followed in the midst of suffering (Philippians).
As the years passed by, Christians were persecuted in Rome, burned, tortured for sport, etc. They weren’t the sole martyrs of their time, but eventually leaders discovered that controlling and selfishly harnessing the life-changing sway of religion over people’s lives could mean power. This led to nations gathering under banners of religion and many sects. I would argue that true Christians who followed Jesus Christ existed, but had to purge heresy, and reveal false teachings as they became popular. Meanwhile, Catholics may have seemed easy to vilify, but even those under the banner of Protestantism would commit horrific acts which are opposite the heart of Christ.
While there were points in history that benefited one particular side of the coin, to summarize either entity as one party vs. the other, would be simplifying the situation. There was far too much volatility and way too many differences between religious parties over the course of history to do so. That said, A Column of Fire is exceptional with conveying the wishy washy nature of mainstream religion in this time period.
If players want to capitalize on their score and win the game, they must be on the “right” side of history when revolts take place. Revolts progress as players hire characters with their dice. Each character is either neutral, Protestant, or Catholic, and as they are hired, place a religion stone onto the corresponding country. If players have shops present in a country when a revolt takes place, and they aren’t in the majority religion (determined by the majority color of stones in the country) they lose their shop, and the other “correct” players gain points and can continue to sell in that region. It’s tense and extremely interesting because even though a player is currently Catholic, he might choose to hire multiple Protestants around the board, simply because he can begin to predict when revolts will take place, and his religion die will be zeroing out a few turns from now. I care little for sticking with a particular side of religion, and would much rather take advantage of the more successful and less controversial flip of the coin in history.
To this point, we found shipping goods to be a strong asset to a player’s points, but other routes to victory were even stronger. Simply having a shop present and being in the majority religion was more efficient than focusing simply on trade. When moving around the action track, players can choose actions to add or remove religion stones to countries, or even just take a few victory points. Players can also draft characters that can increase your die value or gain points for you. It turned out that being a merchant was secondhand to controlling people and power.
To me, this doesn’t necessarily mean exploring other routes to victory is viable, but instead the theme trumps gameplay. In some ways, the game feels like a social deduction game, where players are wracking their brains, figuring out which players will flip at the right time. I found reasonable success solely focusing on trading, but fell massively to my friend who focused only on characters that granted victory points. It’s tedious to gather resources for trading on the action track when you can hire characters who produce them. This ended up a waste of my time as I sat on many duplicate resources, and could only sell 1-2 of them in succession.
I wonder if there is far more nuance than I’ve seen in the game, but it caused me to dwell far more on thematics than the game itself. I guess that’s a win?
As a race title, I’m recognizing I prefer climatic endings. A Column of Fire mostly just ends. Players don’t have big majority point scores or anything like that. Whoever did the best over the course of the game is pretty obvious, and I never ended up scratching my head at the winner. Perhaps if you are into race games, this might be up your alley, but to me it felt more predictable than anything else.
If you are looking for a fascinating thematic game based on history (extremely specific scenario, I know), this might be for you. I’d love to try Pillars of the Earth at some point, as I’d love to see a similar theme with a game design I know will be excellent and replayable. A Column of Fire wasn’t an incredible experience, but I’ll label it unique.
A review copy of A Column of Fire was provided by KOSMOS.
+ Great artwork and production quality
+ Every action matters, leading to always meaningful decision making
+ Strong thematically
- Shipping goods seems a forefront of the design, but can be subverted by other methods
- Falling behind will result in losing, which kills the tension
- Luck of the draw to some extent