The Quest for the Perfect Game - Reviews to Extract the Essence of Games by Nicholas Hjelmberg
Deus - A better Settlers? (Published 10 February 2015)
Don't get me wrong - Settlers was my gateway to Eurogames and although this classic game seldom finds its way to my table anymore, I never turn down an opportunity to play it. Settlers has several fun and intriguing elements to like, such as a fight for resources and interactive trade. Nevertheless, Settlers also has its disadvantages that might turn off some people:
Static board - once a player builds a settlement or a road, it remains there for the rest of the game.
Randomness in resource production - if the dice are against you, there is not much you can do about it.
Limited decisions - with the dice deciding your resources, you're left with deciding whether to spend them on building settlements or roads.
Runaway leader problem - if a player gets a good start, he or she will be difficult to stop since most die rolls will make the rich richer.
So why compare a dice-based economy game like Settlers with a card-based tactical game like Deus? The reason is that in Deus, I recognize many of the elements in Settlers but with an attempt to improve them. This is most likely not how Sébastien Dujardin designed Deus but I kind of feel that if I were to rework Settlers, I would have made similar attempts (if I had had Sébastien's skills that is).
Let's look at the gameplay step by step and assess how well the elements have been implemented, starting with what happens on the gameboard.
The game on the board
The gameboards of Settlers and Deus are fairly similar. They are both composed of hexagonal tiles, each tile is associated with a resource, and production buildings can be placed on them (or, in the case of Settlers, on the intersection of them). This allows for many different starting positions and increases the replayability. The major difference is that in Deus, the players start from an edge tile and work their way inwards, whereas in Setters, the players start from settlements placed at start and work their way outwards. Still, claiming a territory is equally important in both games and the players must constantly choose between developing existing tiles and expanding to new tiles.
So which game offers the best game board interaction? The empty gameboard of Deus makes the territory claiming phase lasts a bit longer and I enjoy the feeling of slowly building a large and connected kingdom. Also, since there are no "good" or "bad" spots in Deus, each player must constantly assess which resources other players are interested in when deciding if and where to expand. The dispersed settlements of Settlers on the other hand allow for more interactions as there are likely to be more areas where players border each other. Also, it opens up different strategic opportunities as players may decide whether to connect their settlements or develop strong "islands".
Once buildings are placed, they remain there in both Deus and Settlers. This makes the games static compared to for example Tigris & Euphrates, where kingdoms rise and fall throughout the game. On the other hand, both games are about well planned expansions so I'm not sure that a city destruction mechanism would fit, particularly not since both games are exemplary short.
Both games also have barbarians in common. However, in this respect I'm not that happy with either of them. The barbarians in Deus are rather lame as they just sit in their tiles and wait to be surrounded so that they can hand over their victory points. They do offer a competive element as players race to either surround them with the most armies or stealing victory points from them but barbarians in for example Advanced Civilization are much more memorable. Settlers' robber, on the other hand, is almost too disruptive. Dice and player decisions decide if and where he moves so there is really not much you can do to defend against him. It's a powerful take that mechanism that may be used against a leader but since it comes at the expense of lost control I've never learnt to appreaciate him.
So far, there's a draw between those two fine games so let's move on to the gameplay outside the gameboard.
The game outside the board
Both games rely on an economy system where you produce resources to build buildings that will let you produce even more resources. My and many other players' main issue with Settlers' way of implementing this is its randomness in resource production. This is also where we find the main difference between Deus and Settlers. Instead of dice, each player has a hand of cards that he or she plays from. I'm usually not fond of cards either but the way Deus makes use of them is really brilliant. Do you need a specific resource? Don't wait for the right die, play a production card. Do you need more buildings or cards? Play a scientific card. Do you need more money? Play a maritime card or a civil card. Do you want to attack somebody? Play a military card. The result of each played card is dependent on the gameboard position, creating a natural link between those two elements. A production card, for example, will make a production building produce the resource associated with the tile it stands on.
But it doesn't end there. Each played card is placed on the player board. Next time you play a card, you will earn not only that card's benefits but also that of all other played cards of the same color. This allows you to build a powerful engine that you control much more than the dice-dependent settlements of Settlers. Some may argue that cards are random as well and there are many stories about players losing because they never got that specific card. That is indeed true but you I'd argue that you have more control of a hand of cards that you can choose from than from a die that is rolled once. Also, if you base your entire strategy on one specific card color when there are five of them, you can't really expect to win more than one out of five games, can you?
In addition, you always have the opportunity to sacrifice them by discarding them and get new ones. This shouldn't be considered as a fix against a broken mechanism because a sacrifice also earns a specific divine reward based on one of the discarded card of your choice. A sacrificed production card, for example, will earn you one resource for each resource card sacrificed (whether a production card or not). This can be a very powerful option indeed! So when is it best to play a card and when is it best to discard it? There is no answer, it all depends on the game and on your strategy, just like it should be in a good game!
I admit that I may be too positive about this card mechanism since this is the first time I've seen it and I'm happy to be enlightened about other games with similar mechanisms. Nevertheless, this is really what raises Deus from an ordinary game to a good game. Not only does it deal with the randomness problem of Settlers but it also adds a wide range of decisions. Expand or develop on the gameboard? Play cards for short term gains or for building a powerful engine? Play cards to earn resources, buildings, cards, money, victory points or to attack other players? Or sacrifice to the Gods and enjoy their favors? So many exciting paths to enter!
I still have to play more games to learn more about the variation and potential runaway leader problems. Do you have enough control of your destiny or is your fate in the hands of the Gods... sorry, the cards? Will you be able to choose and change your strategy or will there always be "optimal" paths depending on the cards on your hand? Will you be able to stop a runaway leader or will the games feel determined halfway through? Those are questions I still need to seek an answer to.
There are also concerns about the components that I share with other reviewers. Some love the colorful tiles while some hate them. To me, they simply don't make sense as they don't convey the feeling of expanding and developing a new world the way that the much older Settlers does. Also, they don't match the ancient style of the cards (which I like much better). The cardboard player tables are not very good-locking and some of the symbols on them are hard to see, at least in the version I played. The wooden components are of good quality but not all of them feel adequate for the buildings they are supposed to represent. What do cylinders and scientific buildings have in common, to take an example? Are they supposed to symbolize observatories? And why, why, why did you make all resources the same color as the circles on the cards EXCEPT wood that you made brown instead of green? Nothing of this is enough to deter me from playing the game but they are all unnecessary obstacles to an otherwise fine game and may have contributed to the (unfairly?) low BGG rating.
So to conclude, is Deus a better game than Settlers? Given that I have played way more games of Settlers than Deus, I can't give a fair judgement as of yet. However, I'm more than willing to play many more games of Deus to learn this and this review is my humble attempt to convince more players to give Deus a chance.
The Quest for the Perfect Game is an endeavour to play a variety of games
and review them to extract the essence of each game. What you typically will
find in the reviews include:
What does the game want to be?
How does the player perceive the game?
What does the game do well and why?
What does the game do less well and why?
Is it fun?
What you typically will NOT find in the reviews include:
A detailed explanation of the rules.
An assessment of art, miniatures etc. with no impact on gameplay.
Unfounded statements like "dripping with theme" and "tons of replayability".
Unless stated otherwise, all the reviews are independent
and not preceded by any contacts with the game's stakeholders.
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