When it comes to board games, one of the few things I enjoy more than arranging tableaus is arranging tableaus that matter.
What on Earth do I mean by that, you ask? Basically, that you should play Deus.
The idea at the heart of Deus is simple. On your turn, you get to use a single card in one of two ways. We’ll talk about the second way a little later on, because for most of the game you’ll just pay the card’s cost and add it to your display.
However, this is where Deus stops being simple. Or rather, it’s still simple, but this is where it starts being tricky too. See, each card is associated with a type of structure, production or science or civics. There are armies, still considered structures even though there are ways to move them, and boats that sit on the water. When you build a card, you add its associated structure to the map, usually on the same space or adjacent to something you’ve built before, and then you take its card action. For example, if you purchased a Brickyard, you would place a production building and then take the Brickyard’s card action — which in this case, would give you one clay for every structure on a single swamp under your control.
Not too bad, right? Well, here’s where it gets even trickier. Leaving aside the fact that everyone is competing for the same limited territories, sending sticky-fingered colonies of buildings across the map to block your expansion, you also need to keep in mind that adding a new card to your display activates every card of its type. So if that Brickyard was your first production building, that’s all you’d get. But if it was your second or third or — hold your breath — your fourth… then you’ve just pulled off a mega-move that’s going to leave everyone at the table saying words like “cheap” and “bullshit.”
If nothing else, this gives Deus a tangible sense of capital-p Progress. Where early turns might give you the occasional sheaf of wheat or moving a single army to a more advantageous location, later turns will see a well-oiled engine stockpiling a grain monopoly in a single move or bouncing an army between barbarian settlements to hoover up their caches of victory points.
What begins by looking like a passive Catan-alike, at least for those folks who see Catan whenever primary colors and hexagons appear in the same space, ends up being deliciously confrontational. While you can’t directly assault your opponents — say, by torching their structures — many of the best ways to earn points require you to get out there and block off the choicest tracts of land. Want to pull off a powerful chained move? Then you’ll need more than a single swamp or forest. Does claiming the victory points hidden in those barbarian settlements sound good? Then you’ll need to get armies in position when they’re finally surrounded by player pieces. It’s even possible to lock up the market, taking possession of a resource and forcing everyone else to spend their precious gold to make up the difference.
However, it isn’t always easy to build enough of a single structure to trigger one of those massive combos. Leaving aside the luck of the draw, you only have a limited stock of each building at the outset of the game. And making matters even more difficult, your hand doesn’t naturally replenish unless you completely deplete it, and not every card is going to mesh with your overall goals. What’s a prospective king to do?
As with Battlestar Galactica and whenever I come down with food poisoning, the solution is to appease the gods.
See, rather than adding a card to your display, you can offer them to Deus’s vague pantheon of deities. The first time you do this, discarding all those tantalizing opportunities, it will feel like a skipped turn. Later, once you see its potential, it becomes one of the best moves you can take, and you’ll want to intersperse your expansion with carefully-timed lulls to get rid of the cards you don’t need. In exchange (and depending on which cards you get rid of), the gods give back resources and money, sometimes victory points, and crucially, new buildings to fuel your growth. It’s one of the best ways to get the stuff you need, and the more cards you sacrifice the more you get. It’s a rare instance where skipping your turn for lack of options is the exact opposite of skipping your turn.
These offerings even mitigate quite a bit of the game’s luck factor. You replenish your hand whenever an offering is made, and the right type of offering (science!) replenishes your hand and then some, giving you even more options to choose from. It will still be too random for some, but what Deus is doing here is giving itself a healthy dose of hand management. There are lots of ways to earn points, so it’s up to you to decide which cards to use, which to sacrifice to the gods, and which to hold. The trickiest decisions often revolve around temple cards, structures that yield loads of points at the end of the game but require an entire row of other structures to build and act as “wild cards” when you offer them to the gods. The right temple, held until the correct moment and accompanied by clever expansion, can easily mean the difference between victory and defeat, whereas a foolishly-erected temple will end up blocking better options later on.
I’m struggling to think of anything negative to say about Deus. The setting is flimsy, I suppose, but as a perfectly-assembled engine-building game, it shines.
Oh, I guess it’s a bit of an eyesore, though once enough of my eyeballs’ photoreceptor cells died and put an end to the migraines, I stopped minding. I’m still not sure why the wood tokens are brown while their card symbol is green, or why the manual has to curl at the edge to fit into the box, but those are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things.
Overall, Deus is a fabulous synthesis of ideas and genres, combining tableau building, hand management, and territory-grubbing into one hell of a crunchy package. I absolutely recommend it.