It's me, the fabulous
Author’s Note: As with all my reviews I don’t summarize gameplay, components, or rules. My take is that you can download rulebooks and go to product pages and get all that information if you need it.
There’s a scene in the movie Glory – about the first regiment of African-American soldiers that fought for the North in the American Civil War - that I would like to discuss. It’s a scene where a private (with the appropriately godly name of Jupiter) demonstrates his superb musket reloading technique. Jupiter’s fellow soldiers cheer him on as he demonstrates his quick, smooth, and efficient reload of his weapon to his commander, Colonel Shaw. He’s the best in the regiment. But Shaw remains unmoved. “Do it again,” he asks, and as Jupiter attempts to reload his musket Shaw draws his service revolver and fires it into the air, inches from Jupiter’s head. Jupiter is clearly rattled – his hands shake as he attempts to continue the process. Once again, Shaw fires his gun into the air. The retort makes Jupiter drop his powder and waste precious seconds fumbling with his ammunition. Shaw continues interposing with gunshots, and Jupiter continues to bumble along, a wreck, totally destroyed by the din. The men watch in silence.
It’s a great scene in a great movie, but I bring it up because it dramatically illustrates the effect of disruption and time constraints on routine actions. Stuff that would normally be only mildly engaging and relatively straightforward becomes very tense and (since this is a board game and not a life-or-death rifle reload) ultimately exciting, rewarding, and fun when mastered in a pressure cooker where plans can be disrupted in real time. 4 Gods has very typical, Euro elements – build a world by laying tiles, claim regions of the world by placing workers (here called Prophets). But in the base game there are no turns. As fast as you can lay the tile is the pace of the game, and this applies to your opponent as well. Falling prey to analysis paralysis means that your opponent is afforded a golden opportunity to pull ahead and advance their strategy.
By turning a normal sedate tile-layer-and-worker-placement engine into a real-time scramble for map position – and making the entire thing score quickly and play out in around 25 to 30 minutes – designer Christoph Bollinger has once again melded very Euro game mechanics with a very Ameritrash feel. The more players you get, the more frantic, complicated, and interactive the game becomes. 2 players feels much more sedate and hearkens to a sort of real-time Carcasonne. But – no surprise – when you bring all 4 Gods to the table, with all of them being able to act at once, it gets wild.
The gameplay itself feels deceptively lightweight and you’ll get through a rules explanation in about 3 minutes. Then the fun begins...about halfway through your first game. Because, as my friends and I discovered, you’ll be completely overwhelmed by 2 – 5 hands darting over the playfield laying tiles as fast as they can while you fret and scan the board and try to figure out the criteria for a good play. Not much fun at first, I’m afraid.
Of course, within a few minutes of that first game your brain will start adapting to the situation and you’ll start seeing patterns emerging. And at this point you’ll probably realize that despite the lighter rules this game has a lot of analytical crunch. You’ll have to keep track of the following:
1) Your strategy (based on your God)
2) Opponent strategy (based on their God, and what they are doing on the board)
3) Which god has the biggest area on the board
4) Which god has the most areas on the board
5) In the early game: When to choose a God? And which one, based on the state of the board?
6) Good candidate locations for Legendary cities
7) What tiles are in the discard tracks (they’re double-sided btw, you are allowed to flip them pretty much whenever)
I'm probably missing a couple. And you’ll have to do it in real-time (unless you play the 30 second turn variant…more on this later).
It can be a bit of a juggling act. I can assure you that at various points in a 4-player match, areas of the board will get away from you. You’ll stop paying attention to that upper right corner while you work on your perfect forest…then look over and realize that your opponent managed to meld his mountains with that half-formed peninsula from earlier and now has a decent lead building. Argh! If only you had noticed!
Of course, you’ll also have times where you’re clearly working on some big gob o’ points and nobody is the wiser. You’ll be laying tile after tile down thinking am I getting away with this? The answer is yes. Yes you are. Right until the moment that somebody flips down a tile that essentially cuts your land mass in two. Thanks, Steve.
This is a game that rewards splitting your focus and attention. Is it better to split the big ocean that the merfolk player is trying to build? Or will that give her the most kingdoms on the board, and help her? Should you instead work on your own kingdom? Put a pre-emptive Prophet on the tile you just laid – it looks like it might develop into something good? Should you try to muscle in on the prairies that your opponent is building? Spoil the big mountain range with prophets? (A few words on prophets: unlike Carcasonne, playing a prophet to claim terrain is not permanent – you can move it off later – and each prophet in a kingdom reduces its value. So hotly contested kingdoms can become spoiled by multiple players trying to take a bite, and then just as quickly become a valuable resource when those same prophets have literally moved on to greener pastures) And while you’re considering all this, the other players keep on motoring along, the map gradually filling in before your eyes.
And if you’re thinking to yourself “sounds fun but I really don’t want to play a tile-laying game that’s a continuous mile-a-minute screwjob” well, it’s not like that all the time. What happens is that the game starts slower and then ramps up really fast at the beginning, where there are lots of matches and areas to work (in a phase I like to call the “land rush”), and then gradually slows down as the board comes into focus, the areas of terrain become more defined, matches become harder to make, and you get some breathing room to actually take stock of the situation and work through more strategic moves, rather than reactionary ones. Playing 3- or (especially) 2-player also reduces the variables and tempo of tile-laying and thus reduces the pressure. So if you never want to play the occasional roller-coaster that is the 4 player mode, don’t. Stick with the 2 player mode. You’ll get a much calmer game.
As mentioned, you can also play a 30 second turn mode but I haven’t tried it and I honestly wouldn’t bother unless you absolutely needed it to help ease a newer player into the game by reducing some of the initial paralysis during the land rush at the intro. It mitigates the game’s biggest strength – the cramped, continual feeling that you should be making moves now, NOW, NOW! There’s also a couple of additional “modes” included in the game, including pre-selecting your god by random chance, in secret (and only reveal at the end of the game). Maybe after a couple dozen plays this will provide some needed variety. Right now, I don’t care about them at all.
Because right now my attention is completely riveted by those aforementioned opponent hands that hover, move, and put down the most damnable tiles in the most damnable places. I’m scanning their discard row…ah ha! That’s a good one for me. Another to block that split they’re working on. And a prophet to mess with their ocean. And at the end, when the tiles have been laid and a beautiful new unique world created, the score is tallied and the game goes to the player who can balance good strategy and effective moves with spoiler opportunities and gut instinct.
And it sets up, plays, and scores within 30 minutes! Not bad at all. For a decently quick, elegant, pretty, easy-to-setup game with depth and strategy, I recommend 4 Gods.
Big congratulations on the title of your thread, we could almost have put that as a title in the back of the box. Very clever
Me like it