alt title: Howdy, Pilgrim

My favorite thing about Nick Case’s Pilgrim is how it seems to be winking at you. That’s saying a lot, given how many things it does well, but there it is: this is a game about a topic that could have been unbearably dry, yet it carries itself with a sparkle of irreverence that calls to mind the games of Alf Seegert.

The topic in question is a ring of abbeys in 14th-century England. Students of history will immediately recognize the period. Set anything in the 14th century and there’s a good chance the tone will hover somewhere between dismal and outright mortal crisis. There’s a plague on, and a war, and indulgences, and ecclesiastical abuses, and all the other things you were probably taught about in school as being symptoms of the wider Middle Ages.

Doing things. Abusing the ecclesiarchy.

Going places.

Pilgrim is not about those things. Instead, it’s a jaunty — as jaunty as a heavy eurogame can get, anyway — portrayal of social and physical mobility in a century when the old ways were proving especially moldy. The inciting event is the declining health of the local cardinal. With his final journey only a few short months away, the local abbots and abbesses have descended into a competition to prove themselves the most pious, and therefore succeed the old man when his time swings round.

Like Seegert’s fraudulent sin-pardoners in The Road to Canterbury, Case’s protagonists are self-interested to a fault. Or, perhaps, to their own acquittal. Their mutual pursuit of false piety is accomplished by getting around to the activities they should have been undertaking all along: building and maintaining pilgrim roads, managing the abbey’s business, and tending to the poor. They’re doing good works, if only by accident, and should a few impoverished peasants become the beneficiaries of these holy people’s groveling for position, who’s to complain?

It helps, too, that Pilgrim is about mobility in more than concept. At three distinct levels, the idea is etched into the very bones of its ossuary.

The biggest, or at least the most zoomed out, is the game’s use of mancala to represent the labors of your abbey. Mancala has always been about motion and even migration, and Case puts the system to good use here, formalizing its wheel of actions as tasks like production, ordination, construction, and so forth. Crucially, these are tied directly to the map. Your acolytes begin in the city, travel out to the countryside to fulfill their duties, and return with their completed orders. Their means of travel are two intersecting rivers that give them access to the wheel from different directions. This being the Middle Ages, there’s no traveling upstream. This places certain actions within easy reach and others at more of a remove. Even tougher for your overworked holy men, the strength of any given action depends on whether you hold a majority of acolytes there. In other words, the journeymen who engineer your roads and haul your taxes are desperately backlogged, and only respond to the abbey that pesters them the most efficiently.

Is this a staged photo, or did I simply manage to run my abbey so efficiently that I ran out of grain, stone, and cash? ... It's a staged photo.

Managing the abbey.

One circuit of the mancala at a time, your abbey’s works begin to take shape. Resources and coins are gathered, specialists are assigned, and eventually pilgrim trails and merchant roads begin to sprout from the city. This is the portion of the game some have referenced when they mention a kinship to the 18xx series, with roads soon impeding other routes, being upgraded to allow crossovers and switchbacks, and gradually cluttering up entire segments of the countryside. The comparison is a thin one — Pilgrim is never as wild as 18xx, nor as punitive, nor, obviously, aware of the existence of company stocks or planned bankruptcies.

But there is a vital comparison at play, and not only because those noodling routes call to mind 18xx’s tracks. Namely, Pilgrim is entirely content to allow players to fall behind. The game’s greatest source of points derives from its pilgrim trails, deliberately winding routes that stop at multiple shrines, each dutifully staffed by one of your acolytes, until it finally arrives at a far-flung pilgrimage site. No small amount of effort goes into the construction of these trails, each step planned meticulously, right down to the spacing of your shrines, the complete distance to the final destination, and potential turnoffs to block rival routes along the way.

At the same time, these present serious drains on your resources. Roads and shrines are expensive to build, and it would be a serious medieval faux pas to arrive at the pilgrimage site without a generous quantity of silver lining the sleeves of your habit. It’s even harder to staff your trails, especially in the early game before you’ve employed sufficient manpower to fill all those sandals. There’s also a very real risk of neglecting your abbey’s economic needs. In fact, it’s all but necessary that your first order of business should be to construct a merchant road. This enables a small income per turn. Small, but also enough that you won’t have to spend quite as much time squeezing the peasants for grain and stone.

At every step, Pilgrim is happy to let you fail. This is the source of its greatest heft. It’s possible to optimize well enough that you’ll never have to claim a single pity tithe. It’s also possible to find yourself short-staffed and unable to build a majority anywhere on the mancala. Resorting to charity sure feels awkward when you’re the one who’s supposed to be passing out the feast-day hens. It probably doesn’t help that there are so many ways to find yourself tripping. There are alms to give so that you can send a representative to the cardinal. There are structures to build, not only because they’ll let you break the usual rules of how the mancala system works, but also because other players will now be forced to pay you in order to break those same rules. There are specialists to assign, only these also eat into your limited manpower. Like many of its modern euro peers, Pilgrim isn’t difficult because any of its individual systems are hard to parse. It’s difficult because you’re asked to evaluate all those systems in tandem.

Except in the NW quadrant, which is apparently a very boring region. Blean, I take it.

Late-game routes can be quite interesting.

To be clear, Pilgrim’s combination of systems comes across as deliberate rather than jumbled. That’s more than I can say for plenty of eurogames. Rather than existing in parallel isolation, everything fits together with millstone smoothness. That goes for the players as well. The whole thing is defiantly interactive: your strength on the mancala wheel, your share of the routes on the map, even the way the game encourages you to market your abilities to the rest of the table. Persuading everybody to pay to use your fleet of ships or pray in the chapel where God really hears you is a surefire way to spend less time harvesting grain and more time focusing on the important stuff. Like engraving your own coinage to finish that attention-grabbing pilgrimage.

I mentioned earlier that Pilgrim is all about mobility. I’ve always appreciated a game that can literalize its topic on the table, bringing it to life as more than a distant “theme,” but as a fully rounded setting complete with actual thematic import. Playing Pilgrim, there’s a glimpse into a world on the move. Acolytes going about their business, pilgrimages and reliquaries generating an early form of tourism, and even the class mobility of serfs entering the clergy because there’s simply too much work to do and not enough hands doing it. Europe in the 14th century was a desperate time, but it was also a lively time, remaking itself with a reformer’s zeal. Pilgrim captures that zeitgeist. What begins as a nearly empty map concludes as a patchwork of trails and shrines. Drafty abbeys have become bustling centers of commerce and attention. Even the city has been given a second chance at life.

Every meeple from henceforth must show its sandaled piggies or be considered second place to Pilgrim's frocked acolytes.

Aw, check out those peeking piggies.

This isn’t to discount the remainder of what Pilgrim does so well. Its take on mancala is especially welcome, integrating it into the map in a way that feels both wholly natural and true to the system. Its contests feel good because they build on a firm foundation, asking players to consider the spacing and quantities of their acolytes and then make the best move available in the moment. If the pace should be somewhat deliberate — well, not every game needs to land in that firecracker 90-minute window. Sometimes it feels good to spend two or three hours building something.

And what a thing Pilgrim asks you to build. The first inklings of a new order, that’s what. When all is said and done, one gets the sense that you’re on the cusp of something great and transformative. Squint and you can see the Renaissance on the horizon.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on April 11, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Hey! This article title confused me because Mike Hutton who designed 1860 and 1862 (seminal 18xx titles) also has a game in design called PilgrimS (plural)


  2. Always appreciate your insightful reviews, and especially keen on this one as it is one of the few I’ve kickstarted and who’s progress I’ve followed along the way. As I dip my toes into the 18xx world, also wondering if this necessarily need be enjoyed at full player count, or if 2p game may offer satisfaction?

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