The open sea is the great unknown that people run towards in search of adventure. Sailors know every port without calling any of them home. Deep Blue is quite similar, in that it is an endlessly intriguing game to look at, but doesn‘t quite connect with its target audiences.
Being a Days of Wonder game, Deep Blue is visually stunning and immediately pulls you in. A lavishly detailed board houses the shipwreck tiles which you get to explore as divers. You do that to recover expensive treasure from below. The profit of which you get to hoard in your plastic treasure chest, that is positively devoid of any actual function. To recover treasure you boldly stick your hand into the game‘s black felt bag, blindly pull out a colored stone and hope you get some victory points for it. You‘re hoping to stay clear of blue and black stones, as too many of those, will lead to a premature end to your diving excursion. Should that happen, you can kiss your coveted victory points goodbye. If you‘ve kept somewhat up to date will recent releases, you will be reminded of Quacks of Quedlinburg. But Deep Blue is noticeably different.
For one thing, Deep Blue wants to present you with more depth to its game. Large parts of the design exist primarily to give you small tactical advantages to leverage against your opponents. Most obviously, new crew members that you pay for with cards from your hand. These divers, sailors and marine enthusiasts come with beautiful and highly diverse illustrations. Some allow you to sail your ships faster, in the hopes of being the first if not only party at the dive. Others bravely oppose the dangers under the sea and let you ignore a blue or a black stone. Yet others let you score victory points while your crew is diving, regardless of whether you had to abort the mission or not. This interplay of various elements has its charms and you want to play it smart to make the most of it. Unfortunately, tactically-minded players will likely find themselves disappointed by the large random factor that is blindly pulling things out of a bag.
Particularly efficient play allows you to save actions by hurrying to other players‘ dives and scoring points as a hanger-on. This, though, robs you of an important source of tension in Deep Blue. Instead of pushing your own luck, by repeatedly thrusting your hand into the bag and hoping to get gold, silver or even jewels out of it, you watch others do it, and occasionally play cards to score points. What starts off as a distant cousin to Quacks suddenly turns into bingo.
This tension might lead to a lot of laughter and bonhomie at a less competitive gaming table. But among ambitious strategists drawing stones becomes a source of frustration as carefully planned decisions feel pointless and worthless in light of a bad draw. Deep Blue lacks the flexibility to allow for clever play to adjust the relation between tactics and luck to your liking.
Fortunately the game works even without delving into the tactical and strategic options that open up through prudent card purchases and clever positioning of your ships. The gambling thrill that accompanies going on a dive is something that co-designer Daniel Skjold Pedersens successfully tapped into before with Gold Fever. But in Deep Blue this light-hearted idea runs aground, because the game commits quite possibly the biggest sin for a game aiming for mass appeal: it is too slow.
Deep Blue is not a long game, it just feels like one. Each round you‘re given four different actions to choose from. Three of them are quickly resolved. But it‘s only the diving action that feels like you‘re actively participating in the game. The rest, while easy to deal with, are also unavoidable. Drawing cards back into your hand or buying a new crew member feels like you‘re skipping your turn. The flow of the game repeatedly comes to a halt before slowly picking up steam again. A particularly profitable dive tends to result in you having emptied your hand of all point-scoring cards. The following turns then consist of drawing them back into your hand – three per turn – until you feel ready to score some points again. Yes, the action doesn‘t take more than a second or two. Yes, the newly gained options have a tangible effect. But those are often so soft and low key, that Deep Blue rarely manages to hold the attention, that its presentation grabs. Ships only travel short distances. Each new crew member in your hand, tends to cost you two cards on average, that you need to get back again. Play never quite flows towards a conclusion, but instead sputters its way towards the end.
The lavish and attractive presentation saves Deep Blue from being banned from the gaming table. There‘s a desire to give the game chance after chance, in the hopes that this time it will be quick, tense and gratifying. In practice, Deep Blue is too long-winded to keep excitement levels up throughout, and too random to feel like you’re rewarded for well-considered plays.