Deep Vents is certainly the bluest game of the year. Or is it the purplest game?
Coming as a surprise from Ryan Laukat and T. Alex Davis, Deep Vents plunges into territory I haven’t yet seen explored in cardboard. Can you guess the setting? Nope, not bay fishing. Nor is it about oil rigging. Rather, Deep Vents is about creating a flourishing ecosystem around a deep vent. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
Right off the bat, Deep Vents gets a whole lot of things right. Everybody begins with a deep vent of their own, complete with its own self-sustaining supply of archaea. Over the following eight rounds, those archaea will become something of a fixation. They represent almost everything important: hit points and victory points, currency for buying new tiles, power meters for using those tiles to their greatest effect. Their appearance and movement generates an ecosystem of its own, shifting from one place to another, blossoming in vents and smokers, being consumed by foragers or predators, eventually breaking free into your pool only to be released by untimely incursions from neighboring vents. Some games know exactly how to leverage their bits, and Deep Vents succeeds at making me invested in a dwindling supply of purple cubes and hexagonal cylinders.
The tiles, of course, are the flashier part, although they principally exist to enable the various ways you’ll generate and move your archaea. A turn is a simple thing, opening with the purchase of a single tile from the market. Skipping undesirable tiles is as easy as spending an archaeon for each tile — a technique used to great effect in Laukat’s Eight-Minute Empire series. Unlike Eight-Minute Empire, however, your supply of archaea is not so painfully finite, making it possible (if not desirable) to skip as often as you like. At that point, your purchase is slotted next to another of your tiles and then everything you own activates in sequence.
This straightforward concept blows a few bubbles your way. For one thing, considerations of adjacency and activation soon press to the fore. Every tile has some function, but depending on your arrangement any given tile might be worthless or your most prized addition. Giant Tube Worms create archaea from adjacent heat and rock, but if you’ve already crowded your starting vent they might only have the castoff nutrients from some Porous Rock. Gulper Eels consume the produce of neighboring hexes, Giant Squids chase schools of bioluminescent fish, and Glowing Medusae benefit from how densely populated your opponents’ vents are.
Each of the twenty available tile types also packs its own trigger. You see, rather than taking any archaea you produce straight into your hand, all those cubes are currently trapped atop their attendant hexes. Once you reach certain thresholds, you can spend archaea to unleash, well, all sorts of things. Attacks, naturally, of varying types, all of which affect every opponent at once. Shells, which can be spent to block a portion of somebody else’s attack. Even the rare “devastation,” which flips a tile onto its back courtesy of a Bull Cachalot beating up a Colossal Squid or an Undersea Volcano belching brimstone.
There’s a nice diversity on display, and it only gets more interesting as you begin combining tiles. Clustering Yeti Crabs and Scaly-Foot Snails around vents to generate archaea, then feeding off them with Gulper Eels to trigger periodic assaults on rival vents, or keeping an Isopod Swarm around to benefit from the rare devastation, or establishing synergies between Goblin Sharks and Lanternfish and Vampire Squids — there are loads of ways to get ahead, and many of them require some incisive thinking. Taking a weak tile from the market can sink your plans, but so can spending archaea willy-nilly.
This is because archaea are also how you win the game. Cubes in your hand are worth a point apiece, but those same cubes only provide a measly half-point while stuck on a tile. In the midst of making attacks and crafting shells, it’s therefore useful to build in a few exit strategies for shuffling archaea out of the vent and into open water. This is easier said than done, in part because attacks constantly deplete your banked archaea — and may even drive you to extinction if you take too many debt tokens to replenish a bottomed-out supply. Spend on powerful synergies too often at your peril. It’s often better to occasionally claim something you can only use marginally. Bonus if it comes pre-populated with a few archaea cubes.
For the most part, these considerations make Deep Vents into a pleasantly acrimonious experience. Pleasant, because the synergies you can cobble together are both tidy and diverse, and allow for plenty of minor a-ha! moments where you’ll discover the perfect tile for fitting into a particular gap. Acrimonious, because attacks are unrelenting and unforgiving, making it entirely possible to wrap up the game with fewer archaea than you started with. And an experience, because, well, Deep Vents is also somewhat messy.
The iconography is the primary offender. Like many of Laukat’s games, his icons are as pronounced as the rest of his illustrations. Here, on such compact tiles, this isn’t exactly a positive. They’re crowded, a blend of icons for growing and icons for triggering growth and other icons for triggering triggers, including those special abilities that only appear on a single tile. This diversity of abilities and synergies is a tremendous part of the game’s appeal, but also tends to send everybody scurrying to the hex guide to both make purchases and resolve their tiles.
Speaking of special abilities, there are plenty that don’t seem to matter all that often. Devastation in particular is a fantastic idea. As I wrote earlier, devastated tiles are flipped onto their reverse side. That reverse side might show a new icon, the remaining biomatter or glowing heat left over from whatever inhabited that spot before. That’s cool! But such eruptions or extinctions are rare. There are only a couple ways to trigger these climactic events, and they’re both expensive and easily avoided by your rivals, especially after they’ve played through once or twice. For a game that’s otherwise willing to inflict egregious harm to your final score, this squeamishness is a letdown.
The result is minor Laukat, but that doesn’t mean Deep Vents is without its charms. Leaving aside the vivid setting — which shouldn’t rightly be left aside, since Laukat’s illustrations have always been one of the draws of his designs — there’s a rewarding core here. Every pick in the market, every skipped pick, matters. Every tile placement matters. Every attack matters. The game lasts only eight rounds, providing just enough time to spring a few traps, rake in a few handfuls of archaea, and get out. That willingness to conclude is admirable. For all its interlocking pieces and shameless attacks, perhaps the best detail is how measured it all seems, metering out each element and then having the dignity to wrap up before anything grows bloated.
I’d call it sharp, but the better word seems to be incisive. This beast’s teeth may be tiny, but they’re also sharp. Provided you can catalog what they’re all for, anyway.
A complimentary copy was provided.