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No idol imitation – Deus Review

Some games innovate, some polish and refine, while others gather in ideas and mechanisms from other games and combine them in a way that, at best, presents something fresh and innovative but, at worst, acts like a jumbled mess of cogs and wheels. Deus by designer Sébastien Dujardin falls firmly into that last category, of gathering and combining, a mixture of area control, tableau construction, resource collection and conversion with a dab of set collection and a sniff of civilisation building thrown in for good measure.  There may well be a couple of other ideas in there as well, but those are the ones that spring most immediately to mind.  Crucially, though, is Deus something fresh and innovative, or is it just a jumbled mess?

Deus Board Game

The box makes its statement proudly.

Big box game?  Bigger than necessary!

First things first, the box for Deus is at least twice as large as it needs to be.  With the tokens pre-punched and the rules on a smaller booklet there should be no reason why this could not take up at most half of its current space on a collector’s shelves, so if that is an issue for you then take note.  It is almost at the Fantasy Flight level of wastefulness, and even at half its current size would easily hold the base game and the expansion I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Deus Board Game

A fair amount of wasted space inside, even as haphazardly stored as this.

In terms of the bits and pieces themselves, I have seen some grumbles about the component quality of Deus but have to say that the modular board is pleasantly thick, certainly hefty enough not to be at risk of immediate damage, and the tokens are also chunky and built to last.  The quality of the cards is not quite as impressive, but there is nothing there to suggest that they will not last, and if you are of the mindset that a worn game is a loved game then it will not bother you in any case.  Some of the colours have also been tweaked since the first printing, so the various tokens, representing different buildings and temples, match their associated colour coding on the cards.  When the board is set up it tiptoes just on the right side of garish – think bold and uncompromising in terms of colour choices and you should be right there – and the only design choice to baffle me slightly is that the victory point tokens show their value on just the one side, something I could understand if they needed to be placed or drawn at random, but which makes picking the right values mid-game just a little more fiddly than it needs to be.

Deus Board Game

Different land areas perform different functions.

Modular boards?  Different every time!

Deus’ central board differs in size and format from game to game, smaller with two players and at its largest with four, and slotting together the gently curved hexes in one of the designs depicted in the rules or in any other arrangement promises genuine replayability and a new challenge each time the game is set up.  The different colours on the hexes represent maritime, production, scientific, civil and military areas, and also contain Barbarian villages which can be invaded for points and provide one of the conditions to end the game.  Players take their own board, some buildings and resources and draw five cards to begin the game, a simple and easy setup.

Deus Board Game

Variant setups make for serious longevity.

Deus is one of those games that provides straightforward choices that can lead to difficult decisions, making it easy to teach but difficult to master.  Players take turns either to construct a building or make an offering to the gods…and that’s it, but the catch is that from that simple binary choice the game fans out in a progressively more involving manner.

Activating cards?  Do it in an orderly fashion!

Constructing a building is achieved in simple fashion.  A player needs to have an available building of that type, pays the cost, places a card of the same colour into their tableau and places the building on the board.  There are some restrictions about adjacency and placement (for example, you need to start on the edge of the board, and maritime units have to go on a sea region…obviously), but there is nothing to bother even novice players.  The catch is that the card a player adds to their tableau has a certain ability and this activates at the end of their turn, along with all their other placed cards of the same type.

Deus Board Game

Cards are activated in order from the bottom upwards.

Deus’s special tweak is that not only does only one category of cards activate in the tableau when a building is constructed, but they activate – here’s the gnarly bit – strictly in the order in which they have been placed.  If a player gets this right it means that they can harvest resources early in a turn to use later in that same turn, or move an army and then do some invading for points, but if it is done wrongly then it can become a frustrating and tangled mess.  As with so many tableau builders, though, this all sounds easy in principle but is more difficult to pull off in practice as only once the game is under way does a particular route emerge tentatively from the haze of choices.

Barbarians and temples!  Points and prizes!

Deus also allows its players to build temples in the same way, but only when their civilisation is sufficiently balanced, and this prevents runaway temple building and allows them to function as a second condition for ending the game.  Temples will generate bonuses for the players who control them during the final scoring, so they are precious commodities and need to be used wisely.

Deus Board Game

This Barbarian village is about to fall.

Should a Barbarian village become surrounded in a turn and there be at least one army among those units then it is invaded and the points it contains go to the player with the greatest military strength.  Once the last Barbarian village falls to invaders then the end of the game is triggered in the same way as if the final temple had been placed, the round is played through to its end and each player gets one final turn.

Making an offering to the gods is the way Deus permits its players to discard and redraw, but the topmost card discarded also triggers a special bonus ability and allows for the acquisition of new buildings into a player’s supply.  Some of these abilities will provide victory points, others will provide resources, and so on.  Again, it is easy to understand in a short space of time.

Dynamic and changing!  A new twist on old ideas!

One of the more pleasant aspects of Deus is that it is a dynamic and changing game, but not obsessively or overwhelmingly so.  If a player builds up their military strength they can go invading across the board and even attack their opponents, but very gentle restrictions curtail them in the lightest of fashions.  In this way the control of areas can change through the game, and a player can seek to control different resources in order to make the most of their tableau.  Whereas in something like trusty old Catan (yes, we still play it, yes, we still enjoy it) a laid piece stays where it is, here, more like Small World, there is just enough going on to keep the board active.  At times I even felt that I had tricked my other players into playing the lightest of war games with me, one that we were all enjoying.

Deus Board Game

The board is bold and colourful.

Deus’s activation of cards in a specific order also provides a challenge to players that treads the fine line between being engrossing and frustrating – it provides a genuine frisson of excitement, but playing a card too early that needs to be triggered by another to realise its full potential will provide for game-long gnashing of teeth.

I would have to include the graphic design of Deus as one of its strong points as well.  The icons are simple to understand and the various card powers are explained in text as well as images.  The colours are bold and daring, just on the right side of uncomfortable (for me, at least) and the rule book, while not entirely perfect, is a lesson in how to lay out a game’s requirements and exceptions clearly and with useful illustrations.

Deus Board Game

Iconography is clear and intuitive.

Not all great!  Can be a draw bore!

However, it is not all roses and soft-focus dreaminess.  Making an offering to the gods turns out to be both a strength and a weakness, and the game can sometimes fall apart for a short while as players fish through the deck to try to get something useful into their hands that will trigger their previous cards in the most devastating way.  It is not a game-breaker by any means, but it happens probably a little too often, especially in the later phases of the game as the board becomes more crowded and difficult to navigate.

Deus Board Game

Text and icons make each card’s use clear – stack them well for maximum effect.

Overall, though, despite that minor matter, Deus does a pretty impressive job.  As with many games where cards interact with each other more and more as the game goes on, Deus becomes progressively more complicated and tangled (and therefore slower) as the game reaches its latter stages, so that the easy play of the opening turns gives way to a more cerebral approach in the late game as players work out how to harvest the most points from their empires.  By the final turn, after the end of the game has been triggered, it comes down to a considered point grab in that last push for victory.

The sum of its parts?  Or something more?

Deus has proven to be an interesting experience for me, not a game I would classify as great, but certainly a game to sit proudly in the “very good” category.  It is one of those games that tweaks existing mechanisms in its own novel way, but it does so in a manner that produces something that is simple to grasp but that becomes progressively more involved and satisfying as it goes on.

Deus Board Game

Resource tokens continue the bold and colourful theme.

It borrows with success from a number of other games, some of which I have mentioned here, but rarely in a way that feels lazily derivative.  Instead you might nod and grin as you recognise those little tweaks that first drew you to other games, but combined here in a way that feels new and refreshing.  This also brings the advantage of making Deus feel very much part of the crowd, even from a first play.  It does not go for bold originality but still manages to feel fresh and new.

Is Deus godlike? Or a fallen idol?

All these qualities place Deus firmly in the category of games that can be played every so often but still be picked up and relearned in very short order, offering a satisfying level of play, along the lines of Quadropolis (reviewed here) or Via Nebula (reviewed here).  Like them, it is worth exploring if you enjoy the games from which it borrows, but it stands up well on its own merits and is a solid and robust piece of design.  The modular board means that it presents different challenges from game to game, and while it probably does not contain enough in the base box to keep it fresh over a multitude of plays, I have still enjoyed it very much.

In any case, concerns about longevity may already have been resolved as, nestling next to Deus on my review shelf, is a copy of Deus: Egypt, but you will have to check back in the near future to read what this particular scribe thinks of that reinterpretation of the Deus world.  For the base box alone, though, I am happy to give Deus a solid thumbs up – it will not revolutionise your gaming world, but it will give you and your fellow gamers an interesting and involving experience, whether gaming newbie or more experienced player.  Sometimes I vacillate over what mark to give a game, but Deus has made it easy for me – a solid 8 out of 10.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.