Deus: A four-sided game review

Deus boxDeus is a civilisation building board/card game that mixes tableau building with a little bit of tactical play on a modular board.

The game is good for two to four players and only takes about an hour with two (up to two with more) which is impressive for a game that does give you that civ-building feel in a package much shorter than normal.

What it doesn’t do is span the generations. You’ll be firmly set in the classical era, building temples and academies while fighting barbarians. There is also limited player interaction in the form of military units, but they’re used to snipe small numbers of victory points and resources rather than take board position. Combat is certainly not essential.

While the quality of Deus’ art and design style are open to debate (see ‘key observations’ below) the card and board stock are good quality and the graphic design is clean (£35-40 seems a fair price). The modular board makes for a slightly different game experience each time, and while the cards are a little limited in terms of variety (I very much hope card expansions beckon) the way you can combo them still makes each game very interesting.

Teaching

Deus cardsMost gamers will soon pick up what’s going on in Deus, but that’s not to say it lacks originality. It uses familiar mechanisms but in ingenious ways, which seems to be at the heart of most of the best recent games. It’s a bit more than a gateway game, but I’d put it in the light-to-medium complexity range.

It’s very much a ‘cards with words’ game, but Deus has an elegance and simplicity that mean most cards only have about 10 words to read – and better still, I’ve had no one so far questioning the meaning of this text. In terms of teaching, it’s joyfully simple.

On your turn you have two choices: play a card to your tableau and matching building to the board (you have to have the correct building type to be able to play the card), or discard some/all of your cards to gain a special action (which is better the more cards you discard) and refill your hand with cards (usually five).

There are six colours of cards, each with its own light theme (boats tend to be good for trade, workshops for resources etc) – when you play a card into your tableau, you do its action. But what Deus really brings to the party is that when you later lay more cards in the same colour you get to do all of their actions, which rewards clever combo building. But you are limited to five cards per colour, so these clever combos don’t last forever.

Deus boardPlacing buildings is also simple in execution: you start from the edge of the board and subsequent placements move out from there (think Terra Mystica, not Small Worlds). You can place multiple of your own pieces in one space, but they must be of different types.

Scoring and resource/money gathering cards tend to reward you for having multiple buildings on the same tile, but spreading out is equally tempting tactically – to block opponents and destroy barbarian villages.

Far from being a booby prize for a bad hand, special actions can be essential and planning them well can win you the game. They are again simple to explain: a player simply discards as many cards as they wish and choose one of these cards to trigger its colour’s special action (taking either extra resources, victory points, money, cards or buildings).

The game ends when either all the barbarian villages are destroyed (done by surrounding them on the map) or all temples are placed (these are special buildings that reward you with end-game victory points).

The four sides

Deus full tableauThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I love a good tableau-builder, as evidenced by 200+ plays of Race for the Galaxy, and after playing Deus once it was an insta-buy. While it lacks the vast range of cards that sets Race apart it makes up for it with the combos and board play – exactly the kind of extra elements San Juan was sadly lacking in.
  • The thinker: There was definitely enough here to have me both strategically and tactically engaged, while the option to discard a bad hand but also benefit soundly from it was a master stroke. However I’m unsure of its potential long term without expansions, as while fine so far I can see strategic options wearing thin over time.
  • The trasher: While it’s no Race, Deus is a solid game I’m happy to play. Much like Race, going military can make for a short tactical game that can surprise people, while who doesn’t like the satisfaction of a smart card combo going off – and then going off again a few more times for good measure?
  • The dabbler: While the game is a bit ‘heads down’ for me, as there’s lots of reading to do and plans to be hatched, I did enjoy my plays. Its simple, bright and colourful with a low barrier to entry, but offers something to the more wizened gamer. I won on my second play against experienced opponents, showing the game isn’t all about ‘best player wins’ – but as its only an hour-ish, you can just go again!

Key observations

Deus colour issueSeveral people have pointed out Deus’ solitary nature, describing it as a heads-down game with little interaction. This is largely fair comment and those looking for player versus player action need not apply. However you do need your head in the game as it doesn’t have a fixed end point – while board position can very much make a difference.

Another fair-ish comment is there’s too high a dependency on getting the right card combos, making the game too random. While I’ve certainly seen people get very lucky with their draws while others have floundered, this is not a long game and can very much be played back-to-back in a session – and its no more a problem than in your average card game. Also, I find the discard action does help mitigate this issue nicely.

Some claim the game is downright ugly, while others have complained about a component error. To clear the latter up, the game comes with brown discs for ‘wood’ while the wood symbol is green on the cards. This is apparently a good thing for the colour blind and for the rest of us its a mild inconvenience. As for the ugliness, I think its harsh. Be your own judge, but if its enough to make you walk away from a very good game then more fool you.

The final point, and in my mind the most serious one, is variability. Interesting that a game accused of being too random is also accused of lacking variable strategies, but there you go. Anyway, I too am concerned that over time the game may get repetitive. I intend to deal with this by not overplaying it, but if you’re someone with a small collection who plays each of their games a lot it may be worth waiting for expansion news – unless this sort of game is right in your ballpark, then I’d say go for it anyway.

Conclusion

Deus tableauDeus is an elegant, streamlined tableau building game that for me fires on all cylinders. It’s the best new game I played in 2014, feeling like a lighter Terra Mystica with added card combo action – which just about ticks all of my favourite boxes.

Having been pretty disappointed with the ‘alien orb’ part of the recent Race for the Galaxy expansion, it’s interesting to see a much better implementation of a board here.

And having got bored fast with San Juan, it’s also nice to see how this extension can add just enough to a simple card game to give it the extra legs it needs to hold my interest.

I’ll be waiting with baited breath for expansion news, but as Deus is already knocking on the door of the BGG top 500 I’m sure it will sell well enough to merit one. Until then I’ll do my best not to play it to death… but just one more game tonight can’t hurt, can it?

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