Lost save files, innovative tooltips, and other thoughts on Jon Shafer’s At the Gates

Source: Conifer Games
Source: Conifer Games /

The handful of days I’ve had with At the Gates haven’t been enough to fully assess its balance and longevity, but they have spurred some thoughts about this new take on the 4X genre.

When a 7-year project comes to an end, I imagine there’s a huge dose of trepidation and relief. Jon Shafer has been open about his struggles after the conclusion of his design role on Civilization V. A battle with ADHD, prescription drugs, misery, and burn out.

Shafer says he spent months just refactoring code, moving lines around, and that the strange structure still shows in the code of At the Gates today. At a certain point, though, you just have to put your work out into the world. He admits that the game is still buggy and lacking some features, but that it’s fun, and, importantly, available.

He’s not wrong. After a disastrous start the first time around, I was on my second game of AtG and excited to see where it led me. I installed the latest update, only to find that the movement was completely broken. In this form, it was impossible to perform even the basic tasks that let my settlement survive.

Some retrospective investigation reveals that AtG’s saves are bafflingly stored in the same folder as the main binaries and that uninstalling completely wipes them from your hard drive.

I rebooted, tried a new game, verified the files, but no luck. To eliminate any doubt, I reinstalled the game, but that turned out a massive mistake. The issue persisted, and my saves were gone. Some retrospective investigation reveals that AtG’s saves are bafflingly stored in the same folder as the main binaries and that uninstalling completely wipes them from your hard drive.

Eventually, Shafer’s small studio, Conifer Games, rolled the build back. It wouldn’t be the only bug I encountered, though there was nothing game-breaking from there on out. There are clearly bumps in the road for At the Gates, annoying ones, but they’re tempered somewhat by moments of brilliance.

At the Gate's map in winter
Source: Conifer Games /

For the uninitiated, AtG takes much from the existing 4X genre, but it’s also looking to cover new ground. It will draw obvious comparisons to Civilization, but they’re not really apt. In the early game, it borrows a lot from titles like Don’t Starve, and, consistently, it’s more about people management than city building.

Starting as a tribe of three clans, it’s your job to manage the influx of people to your settlement. As well as getting enough food to survive (no easy feat), you must ensure your people are happy. That means catering clans professions to their traits and desires. You probably don’t want a leper in permanent residence, but sometimes there are more urgent matters to tend to.

It’s this mechanic, combined with largely finite resources, that keeps At the Gates almost constantly in flux. Your people are nomadic, but eventually, you’ll need to settle down and carve out a place for yourself.

In this way, the game forces you to address immediate needs but also think long-term about your impact. Later, you’ll be able to build structures and permanently farm tiles, but that won’t be possible if you exhaust them in the early game.

At the Gates’ tooltip system is undoubtedly the best I’ve seen.

After so many hours of just waiting for the turn to tick over in Civ, it’s refreshing. Mechanically, AtG ties in dynamic weather, economics, varying rivals tribes, and random events to keep you on your toes.

Naturally, there’s a lot to think about, but that leads to what could be the crowning glory of the game. At the Gates’ tooltip system is undoubtedly the best I’ve seen. In my pre-release build, there was no dedicated tutorial, yet I never felt entirely out of my depth.

Credit: Conifer Games
Credit: Conifer Games /

Every tile, character, and profession in AtG has a tooltip. Within those tooltips, there are more tooltips, leading you down a rabbit hole until you fully grasp the consequences of your decision. There’s no trawling through the wiki or waiting for an encyclopedia to load. They’re tied right into the UI and appear instantly. I can only imagine how many hours I’d save with such easy insight in other titles

The result is a game that’s fairly easy to access, yet tests your forward thinking and always encourages you to build your own strategy. There’s no optimal way to play every campaign because it depends entirely on your surroundings and clan members. I just couldn’t stop myself hitting ‘Next Turn’ and executing the next step of my plan.

Unfortunately, things began to slow down a little for in the mid to late game. An early source of coal got some stone bricks under my belt, which I could then use to build permanent farms, mines, and animal pastures. I had a stable food supply, was swimming in gold, and all the infrastructure to produce enough iron or steel for an army.

Unlike the rest of the game, it was simply a case of clicking next turn and waiting for recruits to join me. None of my rivals had thought to challenge me for the entirety of my campaign, and the occasional bandit attack was easy enough to fend off with only a couple spearmen.

At the Gates' mid-game map
Credit: Conifer Games /

The challenge had petered out, then, but I found myself with few ways to wield my power. You can’t take rival cities in At the Gates, only subdue them by permanently leaving a warrior on their tile. Doing so didn’t produce any huge benefit, given their lack of aggression, and pillaging the cities provided an amount of food and gold that was basically insignificant.

Fulfilling the victory condition wasn’t satisfying, either. Winning the game means sending five clans off the map to Rome to train as legions. They cost 10 steel armor and weapons each, but that wasn’t really an issue for me. After 24 turns of spamming next, they come back, only to be sent off screen again for another 24 turns until they take over the army.

AtG is designed to be asymmetrical in its difficulty, but when things are on the easy side, it can become a bit of a slog.

It was a lackluster end to an otherwise captivating experience, and I don’t yet have the context to say if it’s typical. All told the game took 10-15 hours. Maybe I was just lucky with my starting resources, had particularly nice neighbors, or I’m actually good at a game for once (unlikely).

Ultimately, though, I don’t think winning via UI boxes is particularly satisfying. You can also win by capturing west or east Rome, but I’d yet to even encounter the city, so I’m unable to comment on that. AtG is designed to be asymmetrical in its difficulty, but when things are on the easy side, it can become a bit of a slog.

More hours will also be needed to determine the game’s replayability. It has ten different tribes, unlocked by alliance or conquering, each with a unique passive. In terms of profession/research trees, they’re identical, though, and Shafer admits the game is balanced with the first civilization in mind.

The whole experience has left me conflicted. At the Gates uses its beautifully melancholic soundtrack sparingly, has a soft, pleasing art-style, and manages to perfectly balance complexity and usability. It has the hallmarks of a great game, but I’m just not sure if it will hold up long-term. I’m excited to continue my journey with it, but unsure if extra hours will reveal its strengths or its flaws.

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You can expect a full review when I’ve uncovered the breadth of the game. A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this preview.