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Civ5 Designer Jon Shafer on Kickstarter for 4X At the Gates

By on February 6th, 2013 12:54 pm

Jon Shafer's At the Gates | Historical turn-based 4X strategy game

You may know Jon Shafer, he’s the designer of Sid Meier’s Civilization 5 and he also helped design Stardock’s fantasy 4X title Fallen Enchantress. A few months ago, Shafer has apparently gone indie, founded his own development studio (Conifer Games) and announced his first game project, which he’s on Kickstarter for at the moment, called At the Gates, a historical turn-based 4X strategy game for the PC.

At the Gates takes place during the fall of the Roman Empire. The idea is that you lead a small Barbarian tribe, fight the decaying Romans and establish a new order. This is an Empire Building game, and a 4X game. So, expect to explore the surroundings, develop your economy, manage resources, progress, negotiate with your opponents or beat them in battle.

Jon says that he and his “very small team” have been working on the game for a while now, and that they have a playable prototype ready. You can watch 15 minutes of gameplay in the video below.

Jon asks for $40,000 to help kickstart his vision for what he calls “a new chapter on the 4X genre”. He says that the game (he hopes) will be entirely funded through Kickstarter, however no stretch goals have been set yet, but most probably will in the next few days.

We’ll be keeping an eye on At the Gates, as while it’s not a sci-fi themed game, but a historic game, it seems to be quite promising. I already spotted some things that I really liked, like the need to adapt to seasons, a very clean interface, a somewhat complex resource management system, some interesting ideas on diplomacy also. Interesting stuff. Jon set At The Gate’s release date to June 2014. You can pre-order a copy for $25 ($5 off final price).

Jon Shafer’s At the Gates – First 15 minutes of gameplay

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  1. Ermdog says:

    Looks just like Battle for Wesnoth.

  2. Kordanor says:

    Watched the trailer video and the 15 minutes of gameplay but I am not sold at all.

    I think they make the mistake of not highlighting the unique features that much, which can be seen in the 15 minute gameplay video (namely supply system and the dynamic nature of the game by changing ressources over time and seasons)

    While the game seems to have nice game mechanics it somewhat seems to lack “being huge”. I mean the cool thing about 4X games is that you feel like you can play them for ages, you have tons to explore, to build, to discover via science. It’s somehwat like what I didn’t like about Civ 5 compared to Civ 4 – it’s cut to the core “elements” a bit like a card or board game. This isn’t bad itself but it changes the attraction and the audience.
    And I wouldn’t really call it 4x due to that though it might scratch of of the Xes. Schaefer actually does call it Empire Builder though and the 4X is from spacesector.
    Being more of a board game and less of a 4X is also supported by the setting – which probably wouldn’t work in a “real” 4X game as it lacks options to expand on. The trait/perk system looks more like a small deck of cards instead of a tree we are used from another game.

    Personally I love 4X games and don’t like this “board game” attempt. I also don’t like the setting and for me I don’t feel any “hook” in this game which tells me “you need to play this”. But of course everyone’s taste is different.

    However I don’t think that 25$ as a minimum price for the Game, especially for kickstarter, is a good choice. A 20$ retail price and a 15$ kickstarter price (at most) would have been a better choice in my humble opinion.
    From what is presented in the video, am investment of 25$ is quite harsh, considering that much bigger games with higher production value cost even less than that on kickstarter. From the 19 Games I backed so far on Kickstarter only one (Elite) has an entry price as expensive as this one.

    • Adam Solo says:

      The 4X is not from SpaceSector. It was announced by Jon himself on his blog.

      • Kordanor says:

        Nevermind then. It’s not mentioned on Kickstarter though if I haven’t missed it. But yeah, that means it’s indeed designed by having 4X in mind as it seems which imho also means that they missed their goal harder than I thought.

        • Adam Solo says:

          I also found it strange that he didn’t mention 4X once in his Kickstarter page. At first I thought that probably it wouldn’t be a 4X after all, although it looked like one. But Jon’s announcement post on his blog clarified that, he does have 4X in mind. Did he thought people wouldn’t recognize what 4X means? Probably he thought Empire Building would sound better. I dunno.

  3. James Mathe says:

    I agree, not overly compelling and a high entry price. I’ll wait.

  4. Eno says:

    Jon Shafer was the lead dev of the civ 5 that released extremely buggy and with an AI incapable of playing its own game. He then cut and run on the customers leaving the mess for someone else to clean up while hes laid low hoping we’d all forget.

    Hes got heuvos asking for donations. If we were talknig cars hed be a sleaze in violation of the lemon law. Sadly the game industry has no standards and no accountability.

    • Adam Solo says:

      “He then cut and run on the customers leaving the mess for someone else to clean up”

      Do you know the facts or are you just speculating? For all we know he may have quit, been fired or simply ended his contract. He was then hired by Stardock to work on Fallen Enchantress. You don’t hire people to fix a problematic project unless they’re good. In theory at least.

      Civ5 had problems, many of which were only solved with the Gods&Kings expansion and a massive patch after that. But I wouldn’t say Jon is strictly the one to blame for bugs or other development/testing issues.

      If we want to judge him, or his work, we should do so by pointing out Civ5 design decisions that you don’t like and think should have been made better and why.

      • Eno says:

        I know he was lead developer prior to release, made quite a bit of public claims prior to release about the game that turned out to be untrue, and then shortly after the game released was no longer lead dev. Regardless of why he left, he virtually dissipated into Stardocks bossom leaving angry customer in the lurch. At fault or not he had a responsibility to customers he still to this day hasnt honored. He hasnt done anything since besides get showboated by his media buddies. Suggesting he was a major player in Fallen Enchantress is just not honest. He wrote one scenario chain..which I believe I read someone where Brad felt was a waste of time because their stats show no one plays them.

      • a_Wizard says:

        He might have run or might not. But as a Lead Designer you have a good share of responsibility for your game and frankly Civ V was in a really bad shape on release. And we shouldn’t forget that the publisher isn’t some small studio who just doesn’t know better but a multimillion dollar company.

        I’m a huge fan of Civ III and IV. I could never get comfortable with V, it got better with G&K.
        Honestly I think at least half of the design decisions led in the wrong direction. To go into detail here would go beyond scope but I think along the lines of all the Civ IV fanatics :)
        To his defense though Civ IV had a good share of problems at release too and a lot of people complained about the changes from III to IV.

        In the end Jon Shafer definitely isn’t a name I trust anymore.
        Especially not with that price tag^^

        PS: I preordered Civ V anyway, but as (I guess) Eno I really got excited about the game watching some of his interviews and felt betrayed after release.

        • Adam Solo says:

          Civ fanatics always buy Civ games, sooner or later. I’ve played all, some were in really bad shape when they came out. Civ3 had serious issues, even assets completely missing. Civ4 also had many problems and got only glorified with BTS in my opinion (remarkable expansion) and Civ5 we know the story better because it’s fresh and only got in good shape with G&K and even then only with the last fall massive patch.

          What I’m trying to say is that CivN will always be worse than CivN-1 on release, but after the 1st or 2nd expansion it always gets better than CivN-1 last expansion. This has been the pattern. But tradition can be broken of course. In my opinion Civ5:G&K today is as good or better than Civ4:BTS was. So, sue me :) There will always be people who disagree and I respect that, from one civ fanatic to another.

          Firaxis has been reliable but with the price of sometimes taking years to fix their games. But they don’t do 10 mediocre games, they do only 1 or 2, but the ones they do are worth 20 from other companies, IMHO. The fact that I love turn-based strategy games has probably something to do with that ;)

        • Kordanor says:

          Recently gave G&K a try – but I heavily object calling it better than Civ4 with BTS. Civ5 still does not even have Multiplayer Mod Support. No wonder why the “big” mods are still developed for Civ4 instead of 5, not to mention that the performance and limitations of Civ5 are still horrible.

        • Adam Solo says:

          Well, I guess you have a point there. I have to say that my analysis however is focused on the single player experience. And the performance got much better with the massive fall patch by the way. Before, I couldn’t play Huge maps and Large maps were laggy. Now, large maps run very smoothly.

  5. Keith Turner says:

    At The Gates is doing quite well on Kickstarter.

    Jon did a lot of things right with his campaign. Whether or not his particular vision appeals to you, it is quite clear what his vision for the game is. He also provided not only a verbal description, but a visual one, complete with a playable prototype that he narrated across nearly 15 minutes of play.

    It reminded me a little of another series from Longbow Games called Hegemony. They are currently working on a Roman era game called Hegemony Rome: The Rise of Caesar. They focus more on warfare, supply lines, and tactics then on standard city building. Their games are real time rather than turn based though, and 3D vs 2D. I think the fact that the supply/provision system is such a big part of At the Gates is what reminds me of it. It’s a series I felt like I should have loved, but have a hard time getting into. Perhaps the Roman version will finally pull me in.

    • sly ostinato says:

      Nice! Someone else that knows about Hegemony Gold by Longbow. Just let me say that I was very skeptical with that game and boy…was I wrong. It sucked me in so bad, I can’t begin to count how many weeks of my life I lost on that game. And I still play it now as I haven’t completed all of the campaigns yet. One of the compelling things about the game is the studio that created it – Longbow Games, out of Canada. This is an indie studio that truly embraces what it means to be indie. Allow me to explain. I wasn’t interested in downloading the game as I wanted a hard copy of it on DVD for safe keeping. (Yeah, I still prefer actually OWNING games I pay for and not renting them on some corporate server) I called Longbox, explained that wish and it was easy. They told me to send them a DVD, after I paid for it, of course, and that they would burn it and send it back to me. I was, and continue to be, very impressed with Longbow. Why? They are truly pro-gamer. No DRM junk for them as they don’t feel the need to partner with a company that forces you to do third-party installs and be at their mercy. When Hegemony Rome comes out, I will be contacting them again to buy it and get that new game as well. Why? Companies that accommodate the customer impress me the most, and they will continue to have my patronage.

      • Keith Turner says:

        I’m anxious to see how Hegemony Rome ends up turning out. As I mentioned, I tried to get into their prior titles, but for some reason they just didn’t grab me even though I felt like they should have. They do seem like a good group of individuals who are really passionate about the product they are producing. I hope their vision for Rome is able to line up with my desires, as it is an era I am certainly interested in. They are going to have to make sure they stake out their own little niche, as Total War Rome II is on the horizon and AGEOD and Paradox both have grand strategy/wargame titles in that setting.

    • Gary says:

      Keith Turner said: “At The Gates is doing quite well on Kickstarter.”

      Ya, it’s less than $2500 to the goal with 27 days to go :)

  6. Gunnergoz says:

    I see that Jon right off accurately describes the game as an “empire builder” which is what it seems closest to in spirit and function, certainly more so than a “4X.” I like what I see so far, too: it will be interesting to play a tribe, rather than Romans for once. I look forward to this one.

  7. Kordanor says:

    Two things I’d like to add here:
    1. Just saw that the game won’t have multiplayer. That alone is a reason for me not to buy it. Not because I play only multiplayer but because I see multiplayer as the “final” challenge. To get better just “for myself” isn’t very tempting to me in these games.

    2. There is an hour long podcast over on three moves ahead, where Schaefer is a regular guest and where he talks about this game. Hadn’t time to listen to it yet, but for those interested I recommend this podcast as 3MA Podcasts are always great to listen to:

  8. Towerbooks3192 says:

    Looks like wesnoth but looks are deceiving (take advance wars on the GBA for example).

    Looks interesting. I think I will start finding this “Kickstarter” thing everyone is talking about.

  9. Smoking Robot says:

    So it’s CIV only no nuclear submarines, tanks, etc?

    Fine by me. I’m eager to play a Civ type game that focuses on one (or at least fewer) era’s.

  10. JD says:

    For those of you who think this is like Civ a small summery:

    You cannot found cities. But you can make settlements permament by creating walls around them.

    You cannot build roads, to connect your settlements or improve the areas around you as far as it is stated.

    Units are affected by supply, which in turn is affected by seasonal changes, the evolving map as Shafer states. This is directly taken from a game called Unity of Command, which is actually very cool (I play this game a lot).

    The game will have stacking units as we saw in the 15 min video. Oh god back to stacking barbarians again….

    You do not research ‘tech’ via a tech tree (present since the first Civ) rather you can obtain certain romanization perks to advance your tech when you steal them or trade them with Romans, who ultimatly are your enemies. Which lead to the last big difference:

    One way to win the game. The goal is to capture on of the two roman empires capitals an claim it for your own. That is the goal of the game, as in win the game.

    This is a strategy game with a single goal focused on actual strategy and tatics set in a specific era of history.

    Different then Civ, but still a 4x formula. hope this helps for you folks.

    • Adam Solo says:

      Great summary, thanks a lot! I wasn’t aware of how research/tech worked and the details about the cities, not founding them, etc, which makes sense for barbarian tribes.

      • JD says:

        I’ve read like a dozen articles on his game. Although Shafer has admitted that he has not yet fully worked everything out, so we will have to wait and see.

    • Towerbooks3192 says:

      Please tell me the AI is unity of command’s level? That AI pulled a big one on me. I thought I had it surrounded and end up being in a very worst situation just after its first turn.

      Thanks for the great summary. Will have a look at how this turns out

      • JD says:

        @Towerbooks3192, it’s a late reply, so I hope you read this.

        Unity of Command has a very specific AI especially created for the gameplay mechanics. The Three Moves Ahead podcast had a show with the developer of UoC not long ago, it was show nr 205 (

        Let’s hope that Shafer and his team can create a similar ‘smart’ AI.

  11. Edward Ryan says:

    Now I know that graphics aren’t everything but this really looks bad and will not help with Immersion at all, this looks like a game from the Stone-age of computers…..bad :(.

    • Kordanor says:

      I don’t think it looks that bad. In addition to that it’s a prototype, so lots of stuff, like animations is missing.

      As I said before, I am not sold by the project, but I don’t see the graphics as a problem.

    • Smoking Robot says:

      Graphics are usually the last thing done in a turn based game. This looks better than alpha versions of CIV. That’s just part of the process. ‘Playable first’, then graphics. Makes sense.

  12. Zero says:

    I loved this video. It looks like a really well-designed game and I’m really interested in it. Jon Shafer is a great designer.

  13. Serge says:

    Civ 5 designer is not quite a stellar recommendation. Video is not very impressive – I din’t see extensive roads network and interesting logistics (foraging, supply routes) which is what I would want from Rome game. No tactical legion combat is not a plus either. So my expetcations are not high for that project.

  14. Gary says:

    Jon Shafer has written about what he learned from developing Civ 5, and how what he learned will help At The Gates. It can be found at

    Near the end he says: “However, by now it should be obvious that ATG is in no way Civ 5, but instead stands on its own as a unique and innovative new member of the 4X family!”

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