In a typical tableau game, each player builds up a tableau at his end of the table. These games are often dismissively called “multiplayer solitaire”, which conveniently ignores that there’s usually some sort of interaction going on, even if it’s just competing for limited resources or racing to hit a score threshold. But one of the best ways to force interaction — in any kind of game — is to throw players together on a map. This is the approach Deus takes, where you build a tableau at your end of the table, but you also represent each card in the tableau with a little building on a map. Eventually, like it or not, you’ll rub elbows with the other players.
After the jump, this land is your land, this land is my land.
The player interaction in Deus is considerable for a tableau game, but it can still be minimal. There are a few cards/buildings that steal resources, but this is mostly a game about competing for available space, which isn’t terribly different from competing for, say, the limited reed supply in Agricola. Except that a map is inherently more interesting than a white wooden disk.
What Deus really brings to the table is gameplay tension between clustering your buildings together in little urban centers or spreading them out across the map. Are you a New York or are you a Los Angeles? Similarly, on your tableau, that same tension exists between specializing in one type of building or diversifying among multiple types. Are you a civic civilization or a maritime civilization? Or are you trying to cover all your bases? On a couple of levels, Deus is about balancing the competing demands of focus and breadth.
Your choice on the map determines how you’ll earn victory points. Players who spread out and build some military units — these are different from other “buildings” because they can move around, whereas buildings, naturally, stay put — will eventually earn victory points for conquering barbarian villages. A barbarian village is really just a pile of victory points on a hex. When it’s surrounded by inhabited hexes, whoever has the most military units hemming it in gets to take the victory points. Plunder, I suppose.
But players who keep to themselves and cluster buildings into cities will more often get victory points from temples. Temples are expensive buildings with unique victory point rewards at the end of the game. Part of the interaction among players is watching what temples other players are building and therefore what their strategies will be for earning victory points. But there isn’t a lot of opportunity for blocking, so here again, we’re looking at a game with minimal interaction.
As for the tableau that represents your civilization, Deus has a simple way of managing special abilities for buildings. Every building is built by playing a card from your hand into a colored column on your tableau representing a type of building. The military is red, science buildings are yellow, production buildings are green, and so on. This moment of building is the only time you resolve the special ability on the building’s card. But the twist is that you get to resolve the special abilities for all the buildings in that column, working your way from the bottom up.
So as you build your tableau, you’re constructing a sequence of themed special abilities. These aren’t just scoring pieces, as is the case in a lot of tableau games. These are active verbs, and they’re all calling for you to activate them again. Deus starts out modestly, but by the time the game is over, some of the turns are spectacular chain reactions.
The temptation to focus on one color and therefore rush more quickly to these spectacular turns is tempered by the scoring. Temples require one building of each color, so you’ll find that earning victory points will often mean — dang it! — you’re going to have to “waste” a turn building a boring brown civic building instead of firing off your awesome column of red military actions. This again is the fundamental gameplay dynamic in Deus: focus vs. breadth.
The theming is pretty light, and at times almost non-existent. Production buildings, for instance, are sometimes just called “production buildings”. The various temples with their unique victory point awards — which have been decisive in almost all the games I’ve played — are just called “temples”. Good luck sussing out the thematic explanation for many of the building abilities. There’s a tidy gameplay unity among the buildings of a given color, but as for why a school does what it does but a university does what it does? Who knows.
The name Deus implies a focus on religions, but the god branding feels like an afterthought. You have a hand of cards, and on your turn, you either play one card to your tableau or sacrifice one or more cards to a specific god, which earns you resources based on which god you chose. But why does Mars, the god of war, grant you free buildings? Don’t ask. Deus doesn’t hold up at that level. It’s got a very Euro emphasis on gameplay first, narrative later.
By the way, the option to discard cards for resources and then redraw is fantastic for how it lets you reboot your hand at any time. One of the best things about Deus is that unlike many tableau games, there are no dead ends. You might fall behind, but you will never be stuck. Given enough time, you will always build a thriving civilization. The trick is to do it before the game ends and to do it more efficiently than the other players. Deus is not the least bit punishing and because every players always does only one thing on his turn, it proceeds at a satisfyingly snappy pace.
Aesthetically, Deus leans towards the garish side. The nondescript card art won’t make any impressions on you, but the weird terrain tiles will. Instead of admitting they’re composed of hexes, these tiles pretend they’re composed of circles. Brightly colored circles. They look like tiles for a pre-schooler’s playroom. This makes for some of the most unsightly maps you’ll ever conquer. It’s more of a kaleidoscope than a landscape. Furthermore, somewhere between the process of designing the game and printing the components, Deus lost sight of its mandate to match resource colors with terrain colors. Most of the resources fit into a neatly color-coded scheme, but then you get to green forests that produce brown discs. Yeah, I get that lumber is brown. But Deus ruins an otherwise consistent set of icons and colors, presumably because it’s worried players will assume the green resource is emeralds, lettuce, or goblin hides.
Found new cities and construct buildings in order to exploit natural resources, establish trade routes. Set out to conquer barbarian villages, or increase your scientific knowledge. Don't forget to maintain good standing with the gods! Pay tribute by making offerings to them and by building fabulous temples.