Somewhere underneath the dudes-on-a-map genre lurks an even more specific subgenre, the dudes-on-a-map-beseech-the-gods-for-aid genre. For short, the “god-botherer.” You know the type. Cyclades, Kemet, Blood Rage, Rising Sun. They’re an excuse for ordinary plastic molds to genuflect and summon something far greater. Those little dudes are going about their business when — blammo — here comes a table-trembling hulk of sculpted muscle and claw. The elder plastic.
At first glance, John Clowdus’s Mezo is another god-botherer. It has dudes. It has gods. It has the appropriate gap of scale between said dudes and said gods. But because Mezo was designed by John Clowdus, his first-ever title that isn’t a Small Box Game, it’s anything but a ripoff or an homage or just another god-botherer. If anything, it’s probably best described as “three or four bidding games at the same time.”
Before we dig into the nitty-gritty, let’s talk about what I mean by that statement.
Like Blood Rage, Kemet, or really any god-botherer, Mezo plays out as a series of regional clashes. Unlike those games, Mezo isn’t interested in gradually ramping up. It fights dirty. It flings a handful of sand into the eyes of the expectation that it will do anything as paltry as ramp up or leave somebody out of a fight. Rather than building to a crescendo, Mezo is all crescendo all the time. This isn’t to say it doesn’t contain escalating stakes or quiet moments or conflicts you don’t feel much investment in. It’s just that every clash is another opportunity to mess with the state of the table. To pull ahead, even if you didn’t have any units present in the region being fought over when the battle began.
It goes like this. At the end of each conflict, you tally up everybody’s strength in the indicated region. Warriors and shamans, your customary dudes and ladydudes, are worth one strength each. Same goes for glyphs, cardboard tokens that are easily overlooked because they’re lying flat rather than standing up. A chieftain is worth two strength at least, and maybe more if you’ve invested some oomph into them. Your god — your sole elder plastic, for you will never gain another — might also be worth some strength, or not. Everything is tallied and the strongest player wins a bunch of points based on that region’s altar. Some regions are worth more, others less, and some are worth more or less depending on circumstances like how many warriors you have, which era this battle is being fought in, and whether you’re permitted to add a layer to a pyramid.
Fairly ordinary, right? Except that’s only the first part of the resolution. There are two more standards to judge. First, the player with the most shamans in the contested region gets to place one of them on the immortal calendar. This activates a special ability, like building a pyramid (points!), saving souls from Xibalba (reinforcements!), or gaining devotion (powering up your magic and also points!). The same also happens on the heroic codex with warriors, doling out another heaping of rewards like building a glyph, springing a soul straight from Xibalba into another battle, or striking down a pesky enemy. Only then is the fight complete.
There’s a reason I’m starting with the end. Battle resolution is naturally crucial to the game’s procedures — it’s what you’re striving toward with every placement, after all — but it’s also the heart and soul of everything that’s refreshing about Mezo. And I mean that more directly than usual; this is a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s often as stale as the packets of desiccant that prevent the components from warping. Because sometimes the true winner of a fight isn’t the tribe that strictly won. Sometimes the winner is the tribe that moved their pieces into a better position, or nabbed those calendar and codex spots, or slipped a couple pyramid levels into the region before slipping away. By allowing such latitude, Clowdus does something clever with Mezo. He makes it so that raw strength is only one virtue among many. This pantheon has a special place for brutes, but also hallowed pedestals for snakes and tricksters and builders.
Clowdus’s roots are also on full display, most commonly through his familiarity with restriction. Small games are inherently restricted by format and footprint alike, and ask their players to accomplish a lot with very little. In Mezo, this is performed via each god’s slender deck of six cards. The first is their ability. Whenever an effect lets you “call” your god, you pick it up and slam it onto one of the vertices in between regions, where its ability will add or remove units, build structures or destroy them, or whatever else your chosen god does when it manifests in the mortal realm.
This is important. Of course it is. Your god affects every region it touches, so picking the proper vertex is a big decision, both lending their aid and blocking other gods from lending theirs. But this is still a relatively muted thing alongside your god’s other five cards. These are for action selection, and in proper small-game fashion you can only pick one per fight, with selected cards disappearing until the next era. Each depicts three possibilities, ranging from construction to deployment (whether from Xibalba or your reserves) to outright aggression. Depending on the battle, some are obviously useful while others require more finesse. There’s always an option to appease the wrathful god, activating special tiles that appear at the outset of each era in exchange for a sacrifice in manpower. Meanwhile, of those three possibilities, you’ll only activate two unless you offer another, more specific sacrifice.
In other words, each card represents a small decision that has a rippling effect, both right now and in the battles you’ll wage later. Even trickier, certain cards are more about preparation than domination. Every god’s cards have the same five titles, but they’re archetypes rather than duplicates. Legacy cards are for building pyramids and glyphs, but some gods also use them to destroy structures or resurrect the dead. Vengeance tends to get bloody, but how directly depends on the god doing the exsanguinating. Fervor cards grow more powerful with your level of accumulated devotion, Tasks are useful for generating said devotion, and Edicts are deeply conditional but often transformative when played at the right moment.
Within that template, there’s significant wiggle room. The beauty, though, is that rather than overloading its players with abilities the way Kemet did, these are bite-sized nuggets of activity. Instead of loading the burden of remembering all your god’s abilities onto your back, nearly everything is conveniently written onto the cards themselves. Nearly everything. There are tribal abilities that unlock with every passing era, although they’re mercifully limited and identical between all players.
What this permits is, again, a result of Mezo’s lineage: a whole lot with very little. Progressing through one clash after another, each its own miniature series of wagers nested within other wagers, and eking out as many points as possible within each, is largely a crimson delight. Even minor alterations can result in big swings: the removal of a glyph, one shaman replaced with another, a god forcefully expelled to another battlefield. Tricksters may pull out the rug only to find themselves slugged in the face. Brutes may over-invest only to discover the battle no longer matters.
This isn’t to say the entire thing is perfect. There are nitpicks aplenty, from a few bookkeeping tokens that really should have been twice the size to the question of whether these gods are actually all that balanced. For a game that’s otherwise quite readable, the flat glyphs are a strangely camouflaged component that would have been better served by colorful cubes. By far the biggest issue is the game’s length. There’s a sweet spot for titles of this sort, a span of attention that really shouldn’t be lapsed, and it hovers at approximately forty minutes beneath Mezo’s actual playtime. With three players it isn’t an issue, but with four or, heaven forbid, five, its duration translates into… well, not downtime. There’s no such thing in Mezo. Everybody is involved in every battle, including the ones they don’t directly have a stake in. But fatigue? Exhaustion? The sensation that the game lingers one era too long? Absolutely. That goes double for a game that’s so unrepentantly confrontational. After an hour, it would be rude to bluster over a lost piece in a key battle. After two, even some sturdier souls may fracture.
This shouldn’t be surprising. It’s the logical conclusion of John Clowdus’s design tendencies developed to their most extreme, both for better and for worse. Take a game like Omen: A Reign of War. Every piece has an undeniable gravity, an identity, moments of potency and instances of fallibility. Mezo succeeds in that same measure, staffing its pantheon with gods that require no flavor text because they behave exactly as they should. But then take Omen and expand its aggression, its punitive nature, its reversals and frustrations into a two-hour marathon rather than a twenty-minute duel. To some degree that’s an exaggeration; Mezo isn’t so harsh, and provides plenty of avenues for recovery. But it’s an apt comparison in that it’s unremitting in its deluge of scrambling failures and barely-won concessions. You will gain ground, but every inch must be dragged from the stiffened fingers of your rivals. It’s a savage delight, but also an exhausting one.
At the same time, that’s one more element to appreciate about Mezo. It defies the formula set by other god-botherers, but it also manages to fulfill their promise more wholly. Despite their action-heavy premises, Kemet and Inis are filled with fights that only include some of their actors. For all its posturing, even Blood Rage is more about drafting the right cards than muscle-bound Norsemen axing each other through the skull. By contrast, Mezo is all violence — and all trickery, and all positioning, and all laying the proper cornerstones — all the time. It refuses to relent because in a war of the gods there would be no restraint, no half-measures, no instances when the underworld would not be brimming with the souls of the fearful.
In other words, Mezo may be an exhausting delight, but it’s also a savage one. Now that he’s returned to smaller boxes, it’s possible that Clowdus will never again work within such a large format. But I’m glad he conducted this experiment, if only to demonstrate why his work is better represented in miniature — and how it can be so cleverly, if imperfectly, replicated when embiggened.
A complimentary copy was provided.