Some time in the last month, I don’t remember the day, I decided that I don’t like Euro-style games anymore. Though the fuse on my growing board game obsession was lit by a college-years encounter with Puerto Rico, a lovely nasty German knot of a game, I had yet to find another Euro I could love.
The reasons are legion, and I can name four:
- I don’t want to play solitaire with cute wooden game pieces and ugly cardboard tiles while my wife plays a very slightly different game of solitaire with the same pieces and tiles thirty inches away, the two of us seated together seemingly by coincidence.
- Nor do I enjoy the fact that when my turn finally comes, it only means I have the opportunity to do some random mix of small, dull math and unfathomable long-term planning while everyone watches, silently judging me for my innumeracy, compelling me with their eye-lasers to move quickly because they are bored bored bored. (They’re bored because it’s not yet their turn to have this mildly unpleasant experience, and also because they are playing a Euro, which is to say that they are already having this mildly unpleasant experience, but they believe it will get better on their turn, which it will not.)
- Good games are mostly about making tough decisions. It feels like with Euros the choices mostly come down to producing a cheap good/resource easily or an expensive good/resource at the cost of more effort and risk. (Usually you want to do a bit of both.)
- Nor do I actually ever want to earn “victory points.” They’re stupid and lame and I hate them. Why not call them “incentive tokens” or “numeral biscuits” ?
Perhaps the worst part of the genre is its fundamental dishonesty. Though dedicated Euro gamers have a reputation for being conflict averse, most Euros are relentlessly competitive; it’s just that the competition takes the form of a race (“Who can get the most points the fastest!”) rather than direct attacks (“Who can kill the other guy’s pieces!”). Euros protect their fans’ delicate sensibilities by catering to human loss aversion: though there is no substantive difference between Player A gaining two victory points (she’s up by two units) and Player A stealing one coin from Player B (she’s up by one unit, her opponent is down by one), the latter scenario feels much worse to most people. Often I would rather Player A simply stole my gold coin or killed my dude. It feels more true.
That being said, last week I bought Deus, a middleweight Euro about the relentless pursuit of victory nuggets, and I am here to tell you I love it.
The game’s structure is simple and beautiful. You are trying to build a civilization on a continent composed of regions that come in six colors. So are your friends; the game seats up to four. The board is modular, so its arrangement is partially random and the size is always appropriate to the number of players. You start out with ten little wooden buildings in your color, two each of five kinds. You also have five random cards. To place one of your buildings on the board, you have to play a card of the same type: if you want to place a production building (i.e., a little farm) on a swamp region, for instance, you might play a brickyard.
When you play a card, it becomes a permanent part of your tableau. You pay for the matching little wooden building, place it, and then use the card’s power. Maybe it says that you can use one production building in one swamp to produce one brick of clay. Cool.
So then maybe on another turn you place a maritime building (a cute little boat) on a water region, and maybe on another turn you place a civic building (a cute little house) next to your brickyard in that original swamp region, and maybe on another turn you place another production building, this time a sawmill, on a forest region. Here’s the crucial thing: you place this new building card on top of the previous production building card, the one that built your brickyard in the swamp. You line these cards up so that you can see all the text on the bottoms of both. Then you use the brickyard card’s power to produce a brick. Then you use the lumber yard’s power to produce one lumber.
Next time you place a production building, you’ll use all three powers, and so on, always in the same order, from the oldest card to the newest. The same is true of every category of building: the civic buildings, the maritime, the scientific, the military. Every time you play a new building, you use the power of each previous building in that category.
The only other thing you can do in this game–the only action you can take other than placing a building — is sacrifice some or all of your cards to a god. Different gods give different rewards, but no matter who you sacrifice to, you get to fill your hand back up to five cards, and you get at least one wooden building; apart from using certain building powers, this is the only way you ever fill your hand or get more buildings.
There’s a catch: you can’t sacrifice your cards to a god unless you have at least one card that matches their color and type. (You can also use a purple temple card, which are effectively “wild.”) This means that you will constantly find yourself in the position of 1) desperately wanting to play a yellow card, 2) being out of the little wooden buildings that match that card, and so 3) sacrificing the card you so desperately wanted to play in order to get the matching building, all in hopes that you will later get another yellow card you love.
The beauty of Deus is that this simple system of rules, when combined with the particular powers that appear on the cards, makes every little decision in the game interesting and important to the long-term health of your civilization. For instance, there are cards that give you one victory cookie for each region with three of your buildings. That could be huge! You want it to happen as often as possible. This suggests that you should place the building as soon as you can–especially because holding onto cards for several turns in Deus can be extremely expensive in terms of opportunity cost. And yet if you place the card too soon, you won’t get anything for it: if you don’t have multiple buildings in the same regions, you won’t benefit from the card.
The game challenges you to correctly judge not only what cards will work best, but how they’ll work best together, what sequence you should place them in, where you should arrange your little wooden buildings to maximize their output, and–we haven’t even gotten to this bit yet — how best to place them so as to screw your opponents.
The arrangement of your buildings on the board matters not only in terms of their relationships to each other, but in terms of their relationships to your opponents’ buildings. One way to get victory points is to surround barbarian villages. Every module of the board has one of these on it, and they each have their own value determined by their location. Surrounding these isn’t enough, however: you also need a military building (or rather, a little wooden dude) adjacent to the village. The player who accomplishes this first gets the points from the village. The cards that let you place military buildings also tend to have powers that let them move them around, stealing gold and victory points wherever they go. It’s important that you try to manage and block in your opponents, though less because you want to screw them (you do, but this will only get you so far) and more because you don’t want to let them screw you.
Deus does so many things right that it’s difficult to get worked up about its flaws, but I will name them. For one, most people find the game a bit ugly. I honestly have no idea why. Apart from a couple of poor color decisions, I think it’s lovely. There’s a problem where the card art implies the lumber tokens will be green when really they’re brown, but this isn’t at all difficult to keep straight. The colors of the cards can also be a little hard to tell apart at first, especially when the game’s text insists the pink military cards are red. (They aren’t. They’re pink.)
There’s just so much to love here. Most Euros drive me batty because they so strongly emphasize strategy (i.e., long-term planning and fiddly math) over tactics (short-term problem-solving). If I ever managed to play a good, heavy Euro more than twice, I might learn to love this, because it can certainly boost depth and replay value, but your first time playing a strategy-oriented Euro is usually at least a little bit completely humiliating. Because your options are limited by the luck of the draw, Deus is much more tactical: you play the cards you’re dealt, or, at worst, you discard them all and try again. I’ve heard people complain that unlucky draws can place victory completely beyond reach, and that’s certainly possible, but if you’re playing smartly, I doubt that it could happen often.
Because you always have a manageable number of options and only ever do one thing at a time, the game moves briskly, and new players have a fair chance to make a decent showing. There’s plenty of direct interaction in jostling for control of the board, and even when you’re not directly interacting with your friends in the game, you’ll enjoy watching the card combos they build and congratulating them on smart plays.
There’s a lovely arc as well–in your early turns you feel lucky to earn one resource token or a couple coins, but as your civilization gears up, you find yourself earning huge chunks of money, pulling victory wafers, and producing heaps of goods as you build exciting combos and discover new synergies between your cards.
Yes, victory points are still deeply lame, and even when I’m playing Deus I can’t say I honestly want them, but it turns out that Euros aren’t done with me yet. I really do admire this one. There’s got to be at least one more out there that has my number.