Everybody’s heard of Carcassonne, right? No, not the French city, smart-ass. The board game. That’s all we talk about here. Catch up.
Anyway, it’s perfectly pleasant. Put down some tiles, build some roads and castles, maybe there’s the occasional chapel. When you put down your little meeple guys, they earn points from all those cheerful little features of geography. Now imagine that but in real-time, everyone rushing to put tiles down, fumbling over themselves to fill in an open space, while still coming up with a coherent strategy. It sounds like madness, yeah?
Well, sure, it is a bit bonkers. But since this is a game from Christophe Boelinger, creator of Archipelago, it somehow works like a charm.
Under most circumstances I might tell you a little bit about 4 Gods itself. About the fact that you’re playing as, well, four gods, and that you’re creating a world together, though you also want to be the best at it. The god-god, maybe.
But instead of going through all that stuff, I want to talk about the fact that 4 Gods is all about resource management, and two of its three resources are nearly unique in the world of boardgaming.
Wonderfully, the most visible resource is also the least vital, despite being the way you score points. See all those little robed guys hanging around that world up there? Those are your god’s prophets, and we’ll get back to them in more depth later. Seriously, they’re the boring part.
The other two resources are much more interesting. First up is your hands. Yep, your hands. You can look at them right now, most likely, hopefully — please don’t be offended if you don’t have two hands, that really can’t be considered my fault — all those fingers wiggling on command. In 4 Gods, your most important resource is your two hands. Or your 2 Hands, rather. This is because each hand is allowed to hold one tile, each of them double-sided and featuring the fields, forests, seas, and mountains that make up a living breathing world. You can hold two tiles in your two hands, turning them this way and that until you find a place to slot them. And once you have both hands free — the tiles placed on the map or banked along the side of the board for anyone to use — only then can you grab the draw-bag and pull new tiles out.
Or maybe the other resource is more important: attention. As I mentioned above, this is a real-time game, no turns or pauses of any kind, at least not if you ditch the boring timed-turns variant that Boelinger included as a concession to those of us who are easily frightened by loud noises and sudden movements. But back to attention: once 4 Gods gets going, the map spreading inwards and the free tiles piling up, the ability to quickly assess each tile’s potential placement becomes vital. This isn’t to say that 4 Gods is a blitzer of a game. Quite the contrary, it’s common to have lulls in the action, usually when everyone feels like they’ve painted themselves into a corner. It’s one of the more deliberate real-time games out there, in fact. But a sharp eye for all those tiles everybody else has passed on is going to be a big help in coming out on top.
Now, if the entire game was about nothing other than making a mass of land look tidy, it wouldn’t be much of a game, and that’s where those prophets come in. Whenever you place a tile, you’re allowed to set a prophet on one of its terrain types. When the game wraps up, having the most prophets on any particular clump of terrain is going to score a whole bunch of points. The bigger the clump, the greater the dividends.
However, this isn’t entirely straightforward, because each of the four gods also corresponds with one of the terrain types. When the map is complete (or the bag is empty, or everyone just gives up and agrees to jump into scoring — no really, exhaustion is actually one of the possible end-game triggers), your god can also pick up a fat chunk of bonus points for owning the biggest landmass and/or having the most landmasses of their type. This means you’re trying to have both a humongous sprawl of your chosen terrain somewhere, while also trying to muscle in on your rivals’ territory every so often. It’s a clever dichotomy that will probably be lost maybe 80% of the time thanks to the frantic fumbling most of its players will be engaging in.
The real trick, however, is that you don’t start with a god. Instead, each of them is up for grabs at the outset, and you’re free to select one whenever you like. From that moment forward, that god and their prophets are yours — but before making such a momentous decision, you’re free to tinker with the map and wait to see what’s shaping up to be the richest real estate. Then again, waiting too long means you aren’t placing prophets, not to mention that your rivals might nab the best gods before you get around to so much as a single oblation.
Without a god’s prophets, you also cannot place cities, the circular pieces you can see in some of the pictures. Cities are worth a goodly number of points, but they also represent a significant gamble. If another player comes along and finds a piece that fits where you’ve built your city, it’s bye-bye Babel. Now those points belong to the city’s destroyer, and the prophet you’d sent to preach the word to that city is tossed out of the game. And trust me, that’s a big deal, because prophets are perhaps your most important resource.
If this sounds like a bit of a hot mess, you’re pretty much right. This is a game that loves to toss distractions your way, from wrestling for control of the draw-bag to realizing that one of your rivals has quietly been assembling a forest paradise without interruption for the last nine minutes. It isn’t complicated or anything like that, but for such a brisk game it can also be a demanding one, requiring darting eyes and plucky fingers and a willingness to self-police each placed tile. Even the turn-based mode is broken into short 30-second segments, meaning there isn’t enough time to formulate anything other than a rudimentary strategy. In either case, its hurried nature contrasts sharply with the need to plan so many things — your expansion, hindering your rivals’ expansion, which god to use, when to place a city, how to destroy a city. There’s much to do but no time in which to do it, or even consider it.
And yet, I’m not sure all this sloppiness really matters. I’ve always been a big fan of real-time games, their effect on my blood pressure be damned, and the hectic messiness of 4 Gods is a big part of its bed-headed charm. It excels at being Carcassonne gone wild, a quick-fire contest of wits that can come down to how little you did, with watchful players often rewarded over the ones who placed the most tiles.
Not for everyone, in short. But for me? Absolutely.