Do you have friends? Exactly three friends, to be specific, who are all clamoring for a crunchy Euro experience while peppering in mechanics like hidden roles, blind trading, and a little app assisted gaming? Also, is the state of your eternal salvation… malleable?
Well, my satanic little hellspawn—Deal with the Devil, a worker placement, social deduction game for exactly 4 players that runs about 2-2.5 hours by Matúš Kotry and published by Czech Games Edition—might just be for you. Or maybe it’s not, but if the premise has you intrigued, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Each player takes on a secret role, either one of two mortals, a cultist, or the Devil. Outwardly, everyone appears to be the ruler of a similar realm, replete with a castle player screen, which doubles as a player board. Everyone is just trying to make their kingdom the best little kingdom out there. Of course, not all is as it seems. The mortals are indeed trying to build the most impressive city while staying in the good graces of an ”inquisitive” church, the cultist is trying to do the same while also selling their soul to the Devil, while the Devil is trying to collect as many precious tasty soul chunks as possible while trying not to reveal their true identity. The game is played over five rounds, and the majority of the game plays very much like a standard Euro. You have a Production phase where you gain resources and a Card phase where you draft building cards. Then comes…the Deal phase (insert demonic cackle here).
The Deal phase is what makes this game unlike any other game I’ve played. Each player is given a chest with a sliding lid and a QR code on the bottom at the beginning of the game. This is what dictates that player’s role as well. Mortals are given one (1) complete soul divided into three chunks and ZERO resources. The Cultist has already sold one chunk of his soul, so starts with two soul chunks and a couple of premium resources (which are used to build valuable buildings), and one coin. The Devil starts with a ton of resources and coins, and as the game’s title implies, the Devil is ready to make some deals.
During the Deal phase, each player makes an offer of something for something else, but are limited to what they can offer and ask in return based on their roles. Mortals can offer resources or coins in exchange for more coins; the cultist can offer resources/coins for more coins or for 1 chunk of soul. The Devil can offer resources/coins in exchange for 1 or 2 chunks of soul. One player collects all the chests once the offers have been placed in them, shuffles them up, and then scans the QR codes via the app, which shuffles them around to another player. That player has the option to accept the offer in the chest or pass, no negotiation allowed.
Whether they accept or pass, the chests are then returned for another shuffle and scan, and are passed out again, this time to a different player. If the deal wasn’t accepted the first time, they can accept it, or if it has been accepted, they simply close the chest and hand it back. Once again, chests are shuffled and scanned, and now they return to their owners.
After this potential “infusion of wealth and resources,” an Actions phase occurs where players decide how to use their 2-4 action discs (using resources to build buildings, hiring courtiers, or using existing buildings for their special abilities) and play out the effects of one event card, an Interest phase where interest is accrued for any loans taken out, and a Reputation phase where the player most loyally doing the church’s bidding receives a reward, while the most iconoclastic player receiving a penalty.
In rounds 2 and 3, there is a Witchhunt phase where players can accuse another player of not owning the entirety of their soul. Additionally, in rounds 3 and 5 there is the all-important Inquisition phase, where the church really opens your closet and demands to see all your skeletons. During this phase, the Devil gets to reveal just how much soul they’ve acquired, which can potentially unlock additional inquisitors to terrorize the mortals, who must show their chunks of soul to ward of these vicious zealots, or simply pay some of them off (what’s a game that features the church without a few corrupt church officials?). After the 5th round’s final Inquisition phase, points are tallied for buildings, achievements, resources, and soul chunks (for the Devil).
I’ll be honest, I was initially scared off by this game. A friend and fellow game reviewer had recently condemned it to a fiery pit of damnation, but something didn’t sit quite right with me. The little winged fiend on my shoulder urged me on. “Go on, try it, you might like it.” The theme was incredibly appealing to me. So I requested the game for review and, to continue along with the totally hamfisted references/dad jokes I’ve been making thus far, I was plunged into purgatory while I waited for someone… anyone, who would play this game with me.
The player count is exactly four, so not only do you need to find 3 willing players, you need to find 3 players committing to a potentially 3 hour experience with the rules teach, which is no picnic. Explaining elements that are unorthodox like the Deals phase or the Inquisition phase is not an easy task. The Paul Grogan Gaming Rules! video is like 37 minutes long, and that guy talks fast, so expect the teach to take a solid 40 minutes your first time.
That said, once we got going, this game was really quite interesting and engaging. There’s nothing quite like the excitement you feel when you get another player’s chest in the Deals phase and peak inside. Will there be a run-of-the-mill offer from a mortal that’s fine but nothing to write home about? Or will there be something that’s worth giving up a piece of your everlasting soul? And which of these other players is actually the Devil? Is it the player that somehow managed to build more buildings than anyone else, or is that simply another mortal who is incredibly cavalier with how they’ll spend eternity? The theme sings, and playing it reinforced the reason I picked the game to review. The Devil relishes gaining souls, while the players really are presented with this quandary of “should I sell my soul, and if so, how much should I sell it for?”
The components are phenomenal. From the player screens that hide your resources, money, and soul chunks and double as player boards, to the central board and its rotating resource wheel, to the inquisition board, to the illustrations of the despicable inquisitors, to the colorful event cards, every element of art and piece of cardboard is meticulously thought through and crafted. The way the small achievements unlock production boons and the large achievements get displayed on your castle ramparts is ingenious, and the chests that are used to make the deals might be my favorite game component of the year. And did I mention there’s an app? The app integrates seamlessly into the game. Its primary use is to distribute the chests during the Deals and Inquisition phases, but it also helps keep track of which phase it is and what phase is coming next. It doesn’t offer any spooky music or ram through some overwrought voiceover explaining what’s going on, it’s just a utilitarian app that does exactly what it needs to do and is very user friendly.
I more or less hinted at the misses for the game already. The player count and the buy-in from the players makes this more of an appointment gaming experience than a “let’s bust this out on game night” sort of thing. Ideally, you’d have people read the rules or watch a rules video prior to playing, which is what we did with our first play. If you can’t do that, expect a teach where you might have to explain a few concepts multiple times. Lastly—and this appears to be consistent with what I’ve heard from others who have played the game—the Devil will have the advantage over your first several plays. It takes time for people to understand the value of a soul (for some, a lifetime!), and that will frequently result in mortals selling their souls for less than they’re worth, or simply being overly spendthrift with their souls, giving the Devil a clear advantage.
Conversely, a mortal who is too miserly with their soul likely won’t win either, because they simply won’t have the resources to compete. The rulebook tries to offer some guidelines as to the value of goods and souls, but in the midst of a game, it’s easy to forget when you’re broke. I could see a meta developing over a series of plays by the same group of players where the Devil wouldn’t have an advantage, but over the few plays I got through for this review, the Devil won each time (though by slimmer margins each time). I don’t think this means the game is broken, I simply think it’s a game that begs for repeat plays by a group that is willing to devote some thought and time to developing that meta and understanding of what the proper exchange rate may be. It’s a delicate dance, but in your first few plays, you’ll likely feel a bit like you have two left feet.
Deal with the Devil is a Euro game that skews towards the heavier end of things, but offers some utterly unique game experiences. A wonderful theme, clever hidden roles, exciting blind trading, and an excellently integrated app make this game a potentially rewarding experience for the right group of exactly 4 players, but the bar for entry is high and time commitment is significant, so results may vary.
Final Score: 3.5 Stars – An impishly interesting heavier hidden role Euro for exactly 4 players that looks gorgeous, rewards repeat plays, but has a high bar for entry.
• Restrictive player count
• Laborious teach
• Devil will have a leg up for your first plays