Acts

I was stuck for quite a while on Evangelists; I struggled with a good way to handle events, such that (a) the game lasts about the same number of turns per player regardless of player count (for 1-5 players) and (b) the number of events per “round” is about the same. As discussed in the last post, the solution, which seems to work reasonably well, is to have you pay cubes of various colors to trigger actions, and these go into a cup; then at turn’s end you draw X cubes (X increases as more and more witnesses die off, so the game accelerates), and add each to a track matching its own color. When a track of a given color has as many cubes as the player count, an event triggers.

I’ve also started revisiting Disciples to see if some of these same concepts could be implemented there in a useful way. My primary concern with Disciples has always been that there are many things that you have to do after you complete an action: score points, give other players points, adjust the cost tracks, adjust the political tracks, pay cards, see if you’ve triggered an event. I don’t know how much the cubes simplify this, but my latest thought is that instead of adjusting the tracks, the cards instruct you to add cubes to the city you’ve just acted in, and when Jesus comes to that city, all of those cubes are added to the tracks, and this may trigger some Events. Will have to try it out to see.

These ideas have also indirectly fueled some progress on Acts; I’ve designed this game twice and have never been happy with either design, so it’s been hanging in limbo as a game that I hoped would exist but couldn’t see a clear path to making. The ideas that undergird Evangelists are due largely to the scholarly work of Richard Bauckham and Richard Burridge; and it occurred to me that I should similarly try to locate Acts in a somewhat more historically-informed understanding of the Greco-Roman world and the process by which the church grew in that world. A good source is the work of Rodney Stark, who has written a number of highly accessible books about this. Stark posits an “attachment” model of religious growth, whereby movements grow by people within the movement attracting people in their social circle outside of the movement. He argues that those to whom “the soil has already been prepared” would be more likely to respond favorably to invitations of this sort. So, he conjectures that churches would have been more likely to have taken hold in large cities, in maritime cities, in cities with a Hellenistic Jewish population, in cities that had a presence of proto-monotheistic cults like Isis and Cybele, and so on. And, the data shows that cities fitting these characteristics had churches earlier than those that did not.

This can be incorporated into a game mechanism in a straightforward way. I believe the game will work in this way: each city will have a size, between 1-4. A city’s size reflects the number of “building” cards that will be deployed to that city during setup. Buildings come in 5 types, each having a corresponding color.

Each city then receives a number of cubes, depending on its size, its location (coastal?), and on whether it has certain buildings. These cubes represent the “affinity” of that city to attract followers of the Jesus movement. Cubes come in two colors, white represent “apostolic” and black representing “heterodox” beliefs. So, for example, a city having a Temple of Cybele receives a black cube – it is more likely to attract followers, because the cult of Cybele had monotheistic overtones that might make Christianity seem appealing to at least some of its devotees; but at the same time, of course the actual beliefs of the cult are not ones that the apostles would recognize as being within the bounds of the Jesus movement. The players can, by their actions, add cubes to try to improve the “affinity” of the city, but the starting cubes give you the initial “topography”.

Each building has a different associated “event”; at the end of your turn, you draw a cube, and if it matches the color of one of the buildings in that city, it’s added to that building, essentially “priming” it; the second time that color is drawn in the city the event triggers and something bad happens. You can spend turn actions removing event cubes before they trigger, but of course you also need to spend time removing heterodox beliefs, inculcating apostolic beliefs, and adding new members.

You’ll also choose to “invest” in some cities, and your score at the end will be the number of members in the cities you’ve invested in. Members are tracked on a track that is built from the building cards in each city, meaning that a bigger city has more potential members than a smaller city – but of course, there is also a greater likelihood that events will trigger there. Same thing with two or more players investing in the same city: greater chance of more actions being taken there to increase the member count, but also more events will be drawn there collectively.

The encouraging thing about this is that I feel for the first time that there’s really a viable path for all three games in this “Acts trilogy” to exist. At the same time, unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that my original vision of a linked trio of games, in which some aspects of the game state persist across all three games, is just not viable. The visions of the separate games have diverged too much, and it’s more important to develop a game with an eye towards making it excellent than with an eye towards achieving some external goal – it just doesn’t work to constrain the development process that way. It was a cool idea,though…


Evangelists again

I’ve been working on-again off again on Evangelists and on another game, and Evangelists has been in “off-again” mode for a while. The fundamental mechanism of building and arranging a Gospel seems basically sound, but I’ve been really stuck on a satisfying Event system and a way to make this scale for different player counts. Basically, the Events represent “bad stuff that happens”, an abstraction of the persecutions of Nero which are more or less going on concurrently with the process that the game captures. Mechanically, the Events (now) control the game length: one of the Events is “one of the eyewitnesses dies”, and when all witnesses have died the game ends. But there’s a related effect whereby it is the players, poking around and asking about this Jesus figure, that attracts attention from Rome and hastens the persecution that results in the death of the eyewitnesses. (Of course there’s also the possibility in real life that many simply died from old age, but that’s lumped in with the persecution mechanism now).

So, we need events that come out often enough that all of the eyewitnesses die before too many turns have elapsed, but we also need players to have some direct or indirect influence on when the events trigger, but we also need the rate at which events occur to be independent of the player count.

The solution I’ve come up with is different than the original vision of the game but doesn’t seem to have added to the complexity of the game, although it does add a bit of fiddliness. Basically, you now get four actions per turn — move, gain a tradition card, interview a witness, take a city’s action; each type of action is represented by a particular color of cube, so at the start of your turn you receive one cube of each color, and as you execute your actions you throw the associated cubes into a cup. Then, at the end of your turn, you pull three cubes from the cup and distribute them to “event tracks” of corresponding colors. Each “event track” has a (randomly chosen) event card associated with it, and when the track pegs, the event triggers.

Now all of this manipulation of cubes would seem to be quite fiddly but in practice, so far it actually seems to streamline things quite a bit compared to similar action point allowance games I’ve played: when you want to take an action of type X, you just spend a cube in that color; no need to remember whether you already took your X action or not. And at turn’s end, you just draw cubes and resolve them. I’ve used a similar system in a different game and I like the way it delays the “bureaucratic” stuff (resolve the consequences of your actions) until the end of the turn. And it seems to hold promise for keeping the timing of everything correct across all player counts.


Evangelists playtest

[Editorial note: Things have been quiet here for quite a while; I’m not altogether sure whether Belltower will exist at some point as a company, but work has continued on some of the internal designs that might have been Belltower games — so, I’ll plan to continue to post updates and such from that perspective, whether or not Belltower (or anyone, for that matter) ends up publishing the games at some point.]

Evangelists finally had its first playtest at Spielbany last weekend, and the results were really encouraging. The players enjoyed playing, and most importantly, the game played to completion without imploding, which is rare (for me) on a first playtest.

The game is all about compiling a Gospel. You start the game with two page cards, each of which has two slots into which you’ll place “tradition cards”. These pages, and others you add, are kept in a row, and while you can re-arrange pages, you can’t switch the tradition cards on an individual page, so there’s some planning required (more on this below).

The turn mechanism is simple: on your turn, you either move and then take up to 3 actions in a city, or vice versa. There are three actions you can take in a city: examine the city’s 3 “tradition cards” (i.e. stories that the community of believers in that city preserved about Jesus’ life and saying and doings) and add one to a blank slot on a page in your Gospel; interview an eyewitness (add cubes to tradition cards in your Gospel that were witnessed by that witness); and, take the city’s special action (draw some cards, or teleport to anywhere on the board, or add/rearrange pages to your gospel, or claim a scoring card).

If you took 2 or 3 actions, you increase the region’s “die adjustment track” by 1 or 2 spaces, respectively, then you can pay “region” cards matching the region you’re in, and roll the die, adding to the result (a) the number of cards you played and (b) the number on the “die adjustment track”. You compare that total to the current overall turn number, and your result is lower, it triggers an event. The playtesters suggested several ways to simplify this considerably, but one key problem we didn’t really solve was the “tragedy of the commons” effect — the event cards affect the overall game state, which affects everyone, so there’s not much benefit to an individual player to pay region cards to try to avoid an event, so therefore, pretty much, no one did.

I may have a solution: each player is given a “bonus” card, which they can use any one time during their turn to take an additional action or extend their movement. But, if they fail the event roll at then end of the turn, the bonus card is de-activated for the next turn. So, your decision to try to avert an event is influenced to some degree by your perceived need for some additional flexibility on the next turn. And of course, there’s the key question of whether it makes planning too open, giving rise to analysis problems.

We also found overall that the scoring isn’t quite balanced. You get points based on the number of eyewitness cubes you accumulated, the “literary devices” your gospel used (based on the scoring cards that you drew), and the number of tradition cards that matched your theme. But presently, the first of these accounts for about 50-60% of the player’s score. I think it should be more like 40-45%. The game is about talking to eyewitnesses, and using your limited number of turns efficiently to do so, but the literary device scoring should also be a bit more important. ie it should be hard to score well with a really aesthetically pleasing literary account that has poor eyewitness support, but it should also be hard to score without giving any consideration to producing a nice literary account.

There isn’t too much direct player interaction, although the moves that everyone else makes do affect you, but not in a competitive way, necessarily. I guess that’s fitting for the theme, and one advantage is that there’s probably no reason you couldn’t play the game solo.


Tips for Playtesters

I’ve seen plenty of posts over the years about “how to playtest your game”, but relatively few on “how to be a good playtester”, so I thought I’d post some thoughts about this subject.  I am probably the last person who should write this, because I violate almost all of the items below on a regular basis.  But having been a part of Spielbany for a number of years now, and having benefited from having many great playtesters try my own games, I think this list of suggestions may be helpful.

 

  1. While the game is running, write down, rather than vocalize, your comments and suggestions.    This has two benefits.  It keeps the game on track, preventing it from getting bogged down by a lengthy discussion about this rule or that system.  And, it gives the designer something tangible to take away from the session, in case his mind or note-taking is inadequate to fully keep up with the discussion.
  2. Be constructive.  Very few games are completely hopeless.  Be sure to tell the designer whatever good points the game had, because even if the game is awful and needs to be scrapped, there may be good mechanisms or good ideas that the designer could port over to another game.
  3. Be honest.  On the other hand, don’t sugar-coat negative feedback.  Be honest about the things that aren’t working, and say them, as politely but as directly as possible.
  4. Be specific.  Too many testers simply say “that was interesting.  What are we playing next?”  Try to give concrete examples of aspects of the game that worked well or aspects that you found problematic.  Saying “I didn’t like the auction mechanic” is vague; saying “I didn’t like how the once-around structure of the auction forced me to guess what later players were likely to bid” is specific and helpful.
  5. Emphasize your experience as a player.  Avoid talking about your aesthetic appreciation for the clever blend of mechanisms, or the really original theme he came up with (or at least, talk about these things only briefly).  Comment instead on your visceral reaction to the game.  The reality is that for a game to grab a publisher and the game-buying public, it has to make a strong impression.  Avoid using vague and bland words like “fun” or “interesting”.  Don’t exaggerate (“that was completely exhilarating!”), but talk about how the downtime between turns caused your attention to drift from the game, or how losing that battle in the 4th turn due to a bad die roll was frustrating, or how the decision to buy or sell that stock share was agonizing.  Don’t tell the designer the game was “good”, or that you had “fun” — was the game merely “pleasant”, or was it “a nail-biter”, or was it “hilarious”, or something else?  Try to communicate the level of enthusiasm (or lack thereof) the game produced in you, and be specific (see point 4) about the elements of the game that contributed to that experience.  Anything that got in the way of a high level of enjoyment may be superfluous or counter-productive, so the designer should look to remove these elements, in favor of the ones that produced a favorable reaction.
  6. Describe areas of confusion.  In-progress games can be rough, and as the game changes, the designer’s facility with teaching it may be less than with a published game with a fixed ruleset.  But these considerations aside, what about the game made it difficult to learn, and what rules did you find confusing?  At what point did your confusion about those aspects subside (or are you still confused about them even after playing?)?  What about the physical presentation in the game made it easy or hard to play?
  7. Call attention to other similar games.  Designers haven’t played everything, but they need to know about other games with similar themes or similar mechanisms, to ensure that they aren’t recreating something that already exists, and to be aware of other games that may compete for players’ attention, and dollars.  Mention elements that the games share and point out differences.  Resist the temptation to say which game is “better” — saying “your game is way better!” sounds patronizing, even if true, and saying “the published game is better” is unnecessarily discouraging; of course the designer already knows his game still needs more work, so there’s no benefit to him to hearing that he’s not there yet.
  8. Focus on problems, not on solutions.  This sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true:  you are not responsible for fixing the game for the designer.  Tell the designer what isn’t working in the game, and leave it to him to find a solution for it.  (Certainly, if he asks for suggestions about how to fix the problem, you can offer any that you have thought of).
  9. Make suggestions sparingly.  Too often, a playtester provides lots of suggestions for ways that the game could be different, without necessarily making it obviously better.  I am terribly guilty of this.  There is benefit to this sort of brainstorming — it may nudge the designer to think in different ways than he had previously.  But it can also lead to a lot of parallel moves in design and development, and as a designer, games take long enough to develop, and playtester time is sufficiently precious, that you don’t want to meander too much; you want design progress to be unidirectional.  Make your “list of other things you could think about or try” the very last, and least important, thing you say to the designer, or perhaps simply write them down (see point 1) as a bullet pointed list and hand them to the designer, for him to contemplate.
  10. Understand the designer’s goal for the game, and take this into account with your comments.  A designer who is working on a light press-your-luck game may not really benefit from your suggestions for ways to make the game deeper and more strategic.  Ask the designer to lay out his vision for what the game is supposed to be in its final state, and aim your suggestions and feedback along the lines of helping him to achieve that vision, rather than making the game more like your own personal preferences.   Although it’s difficult, a good playtester can hang up his own preferences at the door, and accept and critique the game exclusively on the game’s own terms.

 

 

 

 

 


Talents – a new economic game

There was a discussion in the design forum at BoardGameGeek about designing a game starting with the mechanisms, or a new designer looking for suggestions about how to get started, or something like that.  Anyway, although my general design approach is to start with a theme and think of mechanisms to go with it, as a result of this thread I had the thought to try mashing up a Dutch auction with worker placement, and to see whether a theme could be found that could make sense of this odd combination of mechanisms.  (A Dutch auction is a sort of “reverse auction”, in which the price starts high and gradually comes down until a person stops the bidding and buys the item).  The one I came up with would have made my wife proud — the idea was that players were spending the day hunting for treasures at estate sales and garage sales.  At each sale, several items would be sold via Dutch auction, but the longer you wait for the price to come down at one auction, the less time you’re allowing to go and participate in the other sales.  I think this theme is kind of cute and maybe in some ways better than the one I’m pivoting to.  (And it isn’t really “worker placement” in the strictest sense, as the workers are more like “units of time”; perhaps it’s a bit more like Thebes, with its time track than worker placement).

Separately from this, I had the idea that it would be neat to have a series of games in Belltower’s line based on Jesus’ parables, and the parable of the talents seemed like it had potential for an economic game.  The parable of talents is found in Matthew 25:14-30, and is basically this:  a master gives each of his three servants some of his wealth, and instructs them to buy and sell with it while he is away, to try to maximize his profit upon his return.  Two of the servants double the master’s investment, and the master commends them, but the third buried the talent (a vast sum of money in the ancient world) to avoid any loss, and earns his master’s condemnation.

I’m interested to see whether this auction game could be the economic game about the parable of talents that I was looking for.  And here’s how it would work.  Each player starts with some money, and each turn, a player receives 12 “time tokens”.  There are a series of Dutch auctions; in each, one player presides, and draws and reveals a number of item cards equal to the number of players in the game less 1.  Then he starts the “clock” by placing a pawn at the maximum price, and gradually sliding it down, decreasing the sell price as he goes.  Each time it passes a “chip” icon on the track, all players who wish to stay in must pay one of their time tokens.  At whatever point a player wishes, he may call “stop”, pay the current cost, and take an item.  Then the auction resumes for the other players.  Players then have an opportunity to sell items they’ve collected, with sets of cards of a given worth progressively more the larger the set.  There’s a bit more structure to it than this, but basically, that’s it.  It’s a pretty simple game, that should play pretty quickly.

Design questions that linger include:

Should all of the item cards that will be available for auction each round be visible, or only those from the current auction?

I am inclined to start with only the current auction, to avoid information overload, but being able to see all of the items would help with strategic planning, so it’s something to consider.

Should the money come in the form of cards or plastic coins?

There’s something thematically cool about having actual coins, and actually there are some neat opportunities thematically above and beyond this, so I’ll discuss more about this in a future post.

Does a multi-item Dutch auction actually work?

Your guess is as good as mine!  If not, perhaps the auctions are for several items, or the auctions could each be for a single item, and perhaps instead of collecting sets of items, which have a rigid payout, you could be trying to fulfill “buy orders”, which call for a certain item at a certain price, but these change in value, or new buy orders are dealt out, each turn.

 


In defense of Christian games

In an earlier post I offered my thoughts on how to make a Christian game, but why make one in the first place?

In the discussion forums at my favorite gaming website, www.boardgamegeek.com, one sees from time to time an attempt to identify good Christian-themed strategy board games.  In those discussions, a few things generally happen.  The first is that it’s quickly conceded that probably less than 10 such games exist, maybe even less than 5, depending on how you count.  (And this of course is one of the motivations for Belltower in the first place).  The second is that someone questions why the world needs Christian board games in the first place.  I think the concerns that they typically go on to express are legitimate and worthy of consideration:

  •  Christians exhibit a tendency to go overboard in trying to offer a Christian alternative to everything:  Christian movies, Christian fiction, Christian self-help, Christian death metal, etc.  But “secular” games aren’t intrinsically unpalatable for Christian consumption, so why do we need a genre of games that is specifically Christian?  Why can’t Christians just play non-Christian games?
  •  Unfortunately, many of these Christian alternatives are of inferior quality.  God isn’t glorified by mediocrity.  A terrible song or book or movie isn’t magically made good simply because it mentions Jesus.
  •  Sometimes, attempts to communicate the Christian message through certain creative outlets come across as forced, or as heavy-handed.  Better to tell a riveting story that has Christian overtones than to tell a bad story that has an overt Christian message.  Christian creative expression can come across as “preachy” if not done just right.
  •  It’s too easy for Christians to insulate ourselves and our kids in a Christian bubble, and while this may protect us from some of the corrupting influences of the popular culture, it can also keep us from actively engaging with non-believers.

Now I’m mindful of all of these concerns and receptive to many of them, but this post isn’t about arguing with them or responding to them.  With respect to a response, I’d simply suggest that a truly excellent non-preachy Christian game would avoid most of these concerns, and that’s exactly what Belltower seeks to produce.  But I’d instead like to devote this post to a positive case for Christian games, by showing the benefits that games in general can provide, and showing how these qualities can be used advantageously in Christian games.  My argument is not that we need alternatives to non-Christian games as an acceptable form of entertainment for Christians, but that games have intrinsic benefits that can be highly congruent with the Christian message.

 

 1.  Games communicate story

While most family strategy games don’t exactly tell a story, many good games have commonalities with narratives – structural elements such as arc (i.e. having a beginning, middle, and end), atmospheric elements such as background and place specificity or “local color”, mood elements like tension or surprise, and so on.  Certainly there are limitations, and the analogy breaks down most glaringly at the level of character development.  A novel or film may give the reader perspective into the character’s thoughts and motivations using rhetorical tools that simply aren’t available to a game designer.  However, even here, at its weakest point, the analogy can be salvaged.  A great writer will show rather than tell, and will reveal his characters by watching what they do in a situation, rather than over-utilizing his omniscience to tell us exactly how they feel.  Games, which are all action and no internal monologue, work at this level, and you can detect a narrative emerging as you watch the way that the decisions that an individual player makes will accumulate and coalesce into a strategy.  And this underscores a way in which games offer something that is in some ways better than novels or films:  they make the players themselves the characters in the story, and give them creative control over how the story unfolds.  To be sure, most people don’t role-play when playing a strategy game, but a good game will nevertheless create a shared narrative experience between the players.

 

Additionally, a well-themed game will allow the player a glimpse into the situation of the person/country/whatever that he represents.  It is this ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes that makes a good story resonate – that in the highly particular experience of this one character or one situation, something universal is revealed.  A well-themed game, will, to a certain extent, give you this ability.

 

Christianity is intrinsically a story-driven faith.  The defining element of Christian faith isn’t a set of religious tenets, but a historical event (the Resurrection).  As recounted in the New Testament, Jesus’ disciples didn’t preach about detailed theological precepts, but about an event that was of profound significance and that they themselves had witnessed.  And the faith is still communicated through stories to this day.  I believe that this is not accidental, but is reflective of the reality that we’re hard-wired to learn through narratives, which makes sense of why Jesus communicated so much of His moral teaching through parables, or why Sunday School lessons are about David and Goliath or Ruth or Peter rather than about Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians or the prophetic pronouncements of Joel or Amos.

 

A game that lets you enter the story can help bring the story alive, and even if that only happens in a small way, there’s value to it insofar as it strengthens your ability to connect to the story.  Moreover, some of Belltower’s games may explore subjects that aren’t fundamentally story-based (e.g. a game about archaeology); but the very act of playing a game about the subject hangs a story onto it, increasing the players’ immersion in the subject and perhaps improving the likelihood that they’ll connect with it.

 

2.  Games sharpen the mind by promoting critical thinking 

 

Here is the point where I’d like to be able to cite studies that show that playing games leads to better performance in school, better job placement, better overall mental health, and so forth.  I’m not actually sure if there have been studies that have shown this, but anecdotally, my experience has been that games cultivate critical thinking, and critical thinking is one of few skills that are universally applicable.  There are few endeavors in life where the ability to acquire information, evaluate its reliability, interpret it, and arrive at a logical conclusion, is not beneficial.  And I believe that sharpening the mind’s critical capacity in one enterprise is portable to other areas as well.  For example, learning a complex violin piece unlocks mental pathways that enable expanded capacity for math and science learning.  (Ok, I made that statistic up, but it sounds like something I heard somewhere once).  Games can be an excellent tool for this.  You have to evaluate a complex game state, assess the motivations, intentions, and capabilities of the other players, account for the possible influence of random factors, and make decisions about how best to act in a way that will be most likely to result in a winning outcome.

 

Critical thinking is of vital importance for Christians, and for non-Christians who are interested in evaluating the truth of Christian claims.  The Christian gospels were written 2,000 years ago, in a different language, on papyrus pages that have not survived (though copies of the original manuscripts have), and they present remarkable claims about an individual who lived in a completely different kind of society than many of us have experienced.  Understanding and evaluating these claims requires critical thinking — we have to assess the reliability of the witnesses’ memories, the plausibility of the events recorded, the transmission and preservation of the text (and our ability to recover the original).  And for believers, we need to wrestle with these questions to be able to give a steady defense of the claims about Jesus that we believe to be true and that we have staked our lives on.

 

3.  Games permit structured exploration of counterfactuals

 

One of the most enjoyable elements of story-rich games can be the ability to ask “what if?”.  Surely every teenage boy that has played Axis and Allies has used the game to “what if?” various strategies that the powers might have used, to see whether a different outcome emerges; structurally, the game is built around this very conceit.  And of course, war games as a genre excel at this.  (No, I’m not saying that A&A is a war game in the conventional sense!)  But games with multiple paths to victory give the player space to ask “what if?”, not just with the history, but simply with respect to the previous session.  “My conquest strategy didn’t work last time; what if I focused on a trade strategy this time?”  Good games are built for repeat play, which allows counterfactual elements to be prominent.

 

This mirrors well the development of critical thinking that believers and non-believers alike need to cultivate to engage questions about the Biblical text and the Christian faith.  Questions like “why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”, “why is there evil in the world if God is good and all-powerful?”, “why did Man sin if he was created perfect?”, etc, have confounded people since time immemorial, and at the heart of many such questions are issues of counterfactuality — did it have to be this way, or could things have been different?  Christian games can permit structured exploration of some of these questions in some settings, and can also help identify which questions might be worth considering.

 

As a publisher we have to carefully sift through the counterfactuals that our games explore and exercise good judgment, being mindful not to cause other believers to stumble in their faith, or to go beyond the limits of good taste.  For example, I mentioned previously that our game Disciples has a mechanic where one player takes on the role of Judas, and this player can choose either to end the game by betraying Jesus to the Pharisees, or to instead play and score just as any other player.  Though the question “did Judas HAVE to betray Jesus, or could he have chosen not to?” is one I find interesting, in practice this mechanic might be uncomfortable for some people, and out of sensitivity to that concern, it may be necessary to frame this as a variant rule.  On the other hand, in our game Evangelists, players will travel around compiling eyewitness testimony to aid in their composition of the gospels.  Some believers may also be uncomfortable about this, if they happen to believe that the gospels were dictated verbatim by God to the authors, or that God directed the composition of the gospels (which I also happen to believe) — the game may be perceived as alleging that control rested in the hands of the evangelists.  In this case, I would NOT be willing to change the content of the game, because I think it accurately reflects the process by which the gospels came to be.  If it allows more human agency than the actual process entailed, I think the counterfactual nature of the game is nevertheless useful and important, but it’s crucial to see that the counterfactual being posed (“what if the gospels were completely different in content and emphasis?”) isn’t the *message* of the game; it is, rather, a conceit that makes the game, and its true message (“the gospels were composed through the compilation of eyewitness testimony”), possible.  Because what it pushes back against is the skeptical view that the gospels are works of *fiction*, composed many decades after Jesus’ death by anonymous authors.  The game is, by its very existence, advancing the argument that the gospels were a product of the early Jesus movement, and that the events recounted therein are result of compilation of eyewitness testimony, and not of the output of creative writing.

 

4.  Games provide enrichment or reinforcement of familiar stories/subjects

 

As a family that home-schools, we have greatly appreciated the ability to pull out a game with a subject related to something our children have been learning about.  When they have learned about, say, construction methods in ancient Egypt, playing, say, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, is a nice way to reinforce and expand on the lesson.  It’s great to see the excitement when they recognize the names of people or places or events that they’ve learned about.  You can see the connections that form in their minds, and this is an important part of the learning process.  Games can promote this while also providing an enjoyable experience.  And this is important, because if children (or adults, for that matter) associate learning with drudgery, they’ll be less inclined and less equipped to press on to learn new things; they’ll do the bare minimum that’s required of them, and resent even that little bit of effort.  So enrichment isn’t only educationally useful, it’s also a beneficial way to cultivate a positive view of learning.

 

If, as Christians, we believe that Biblical principles and stories are, of everything that our kids will learn, the ones we most want them to retain, then it’s important to reinforce those lessons in a fun and intellectually engaging way.  That’s why I think Biblical trivia games are somewhat misguided; trivia games don’t really teach you anything, they just confirm what you already know (or don’t know0.  And, it seems to me that being queried on whether you know Romans 8:28 is using basically the same mental process as  the act of memorizing Romans 8:28 uses in the first place.  You can’t achieve total fitness with a workout program that consists exclusively of bicep curls, and I think the mind works this way as well; it learns more effectively when challenged to engage a subject in different ways and from different angles.  So playing a game about, say, the apostle Paul writing letters to the churches scattered throughout the Roman empire, could help flesh out the picture of what kind of documents the epistles are, and why they were written, and why their contents are important.  To be sure, the hard work of repetition must still be put in if one wants to memorize what Romans 8:28 says, but enrichment that leads to an understanding of what might have motivated Paul to communicate to the church in Rome that God works all things together for our good, could help deepen the appreciation of the text, and turn it into something more than an isolated maxim that we can cherry-pick and turn into a “life verse”.(*)

 

(*) Ok, I’ll confess that that’s a little harsh.  My point isn’t to denigrate having a verse that has special resonance for you, but simply to observe that too often we read verses in isolation without acknowledging or appropriating the context of the surrounding passage (to say nothing of the literary and historical context of the text itself), and this leads to a superficial understanding of the verse, which we exacerbate by repeating that verse in cognitive isolation from its context.

 

5.  Games allow us to explore unfamiliar history/settings

 

I believe that one of the reasons students (and yes, adults) often approach learning unenthusiastically may be due to the perception that it is obligatory.  We are more apt to learn when we are motivated to learn about subjects that interest us, than when someone else tells us what we are required to learn about.  But to find subjects that we’re interested in, we have to first have broad exposure to a variety of subjects!  Games are a great tool for this; even thinly themed games can make contact with interesting areas of history, can visit remote parts of the world, can reference interesting works of fiction, and this can provide an impetus to want to explore a game’s subject more deeply with personal study.  And the more we broaden our knowledge about history, foreign cultures, and so on, the more well-rounded and intellectually agile we become.

 

Cultivating a habit of self-motivated study is of crucial importance to Christians.  We can’t adequately nurture our faith by merely attending church on Sunday and listening to the sermon; it’s essential that we take it upon ourselves to constantly strive to study more and know more.  But what should we be studying?  What subjects excite us or interest us?  It is in this area that the vision for Belltower is most strongly articulated.  Certainly all believers are familiar with the famous stories about, e.g., David and Goliath, Moses, Daniel in the lion’s den, and so on.  But there are many areas of Biblical history and church history that are perhaps not as well known to many believers, or subjects of active research (e.g. Biblical archaeology, textual criticism, theology, etc) of which many believers may be completely unaware.  Games that tackle these unfamiliar stories and subjects will, I hope, be a motivation for believers and non-believers alike to seek deeper knowledge.  To facilitate this, my intent is that each game will include, at the end of the rulebook, a section on “where to go next”, with a few brief paragraphs of background information about the game’s subject and a few suggested books that the motivated individual could look up.

 

 

This was a long post, but I hope it has convincingly argued that the beneficial effects that games can have – immersing us in familiar or unfamiliar stories, sharpening our critical thinking, permitting exploration of unfamiliar subjects or interesting questions – are benefits that will help to cultivate a fully actualized Christian life, and for these reasons, the development and publication of Christian games is a worthwhile pursuit.


Evangelists progress

Evangelists (or “Acts of the Evangelists”) is nominally the third game in a trilogy about the first-century Christian church.  The central idea was for the game to explore the composition of the gospels, the first four books of the New Testament (NT).  People might be surprised to learn that, though the gospels have religious content, they aren’t written as religious texts; rather, they have been acknowledged by scholars to have characteristics that are similar to biographies typical of the Greco-Roman world.  I saw in this subject an opportunity to have a game that was both informative and fun.  The problem was that my original concept was probably neither.

How, after all, do you make a game about writing a book?  I decided to focus on the aspect of the process that the evangelists appear to have followed, that of interviewing eyewitnesses about the events that they observed during Jesus’ life and ministry.  (At least two, and possibly all four, of the gospels were written by individuals who were not eyewitnesses to the events that they recount).  But there’s much more than this that went into the composition, and how to incorporate something as mundane as literary techniques in a satisfying game-mechanical way?  And how in gameplay terms to create interest around interviewing witnesses?

I had what I think is a reasonably satisfactory answer to the second question at a pretty early point.  The idea would be that the eyewitnesses are scattered throughout the churches in the major cities of the Roman empire, but the game takes place long after the events of the NT, and the eyewitnesses have started to die off (this was one of the motivations for the composition of the gospels in the first place).  So events would cause witnesses to die, but you don’t really have perfect knowledge of who is still alive and who has died – you have to travel to a city to find out.  Juxtaposed with this is the idea that, assuming the gospels were being written in the mid-60s AD, the persecution of Christians by Nero is happening at about the same time, and the Roman empire is a dangerous place for Christians.  So, the more time you spend in a city poking around and trying to dig up information, the more likely you’ll attract Roman attention; but, you can pay cards to reduce the chances you’ll be noticed – these cards represent the idea that you know the “secret handshake” with the church in that city.

Well and good, but what do the eyewitnesses tell you about?  Here is where an answer I just came up with, I think, helps with both of the two questions raised earlier.  There would be a set of cards representing events from Jesus’ life, and each city has a display containing several such cards, reflecting oral traditions that the church in that city has preserved about Jesus.  Each city also has one “eyewitness”, and each tradition card tells you who witnessed the event.  So you go to Thessolonica and read about Jesus’ baptism, and then you travel to Antioch to interview one of the people that saw it happen.  And the idea is that the more testimony you compile about the event, the more valuable it is.

It was the details of how to compile testimony that had me stuck.  Should it be that the first player to investigate a tradition card gets to take that card into his possession, depriving other players of access to it?  Or should players have a notepad on which to write which tradition cards they looked up?  The best solution seems to simply be to have multiple instances of each tradition card, with the duplicates set off to the side of the board, such that when you go to a city and learn about a tradition, you take the corresponding card and put it in your holdings, and it becomes a part of your gospel.  As you visit eyewitnesses, you place cubes on the card, and the more cubes on the card, the more valuable it is in final scoring.

So you build your “gospel” card by card.  But the gospels weren’t merely biographical reportage; each of them reflects a viewpoint of its author, each exhibits certain literary techniques.  The card-based approach pointed to a way to integrate this literary aspect.  One of the other things you can do during your turn is to take a special action associated with the city you’re in – e.g. take a boat to another city, draw a “secret handshake” card, etc.  And one of those actions can be to enlist the aid of a scribe.  A scribe can let you rearrange the cards in your gospel, and can let you acquire a scoring card, if the arrangement of cards in your gospel conforms to some particular literary device.  For example, one literary device is called an inclusio, in which the first and last mention of a particular character is understood to indicate that the contents in between were attested by eyewitness testimony from that character.  So in game terms, if you have, say, 3 cards from the same witness all together in your gospel, you can take the “inclusio” card and get a few points.

When I stepped back and looked at it, I realized that this simple concept actually fleshes out the game quite a bit.  A game needs a good source of tension – you’re deciding between doing this or that (or some combination of the two.)  In this simple framework, you have the ability to acquire points by getting maximal eyewitness attestation for the traditions that you compile into your gospel (which will be time consuming and therefore probably mean a shorter gospel), OR you can accumulate more traditions and try to arrange them in a way to authorize you to take literary device cards, and get your points that way.

 


How to design a Christian-themed game

Although this is question can be approached more broadly (however unlikely it may be that it would have occurred to anyone to wonder about it), I’ll be confining this post specifically to the games that Belltower will be producing.  This means the emphasis is on themed Euro-style games; abstracts, party games, RPGs, etc., won’t really be in view.

I’ll walk through a series of questions that I customarily ask about a game’s theme, and show how they apply to Christian games specifically. For compactness, I’ll refer to the background or source material on which the game is based as “the story”.  Even though not all game themes are necessarily narrative-based, many of our games will be, so it’s not a terrible simplification.

An important point to keep in mind, and one that I’ll consistently emphasize, is that these considerations reflect my opinion on how to make a game that is well-themed; they aren’t necessarily requirements for a good game.

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Christmas Nativity: Design Baseline

Although I tend more towards designing and playing more “serious” games, it would probably benefit Belltower’s line to have a range of game styles.  My first thought for a lighter game is based loosely on Dirk Henn’s Showmanager, only instead of staging broadway plays, the players are staging Nativity Pageants.  There would be a deck of cards representing the different possible “actors”, and each actor has a rating for how well he/she can fill each role.  The illustrations should be comical, perhaps in the style of Slapshot/Phantoms of the Ice, which used to crack me up as a kid.

In terms of component design, one of the games that’s a hit in our house is Numbers League, in which players assemble superheroes using different “head”, “torso”, and “feet” cards, and the card design is great because any “head” can be connected with any “torso”, etc.  Here, I’m imagining that possibly each player has a mat onto which he places the various cards that he’s assigning to each role, and then there’s a clear plastic overlay that is placed over the mat that adds “costumes” to the illustrations on the cards.

In practical terms, the interest in the gameplay has to come from the process of getting cards into your hand in the first place.  Showmanager used a simple but clever drafting mechanic, whereby there’s a display of available actors, and you pay to draft a card.  The further to the right you draw from, the more the actor costs, and after you draft a card, you slide all the other cards down and add a new card to the right end of the display, so cards become “cheaper” the longer they stay in the display.  This has been emulated in Vinci and Through the Ages, for example, and it works very well.

A different idea I’ve toyed with is to auction off the cards.  Since there are so many roles to fill, individual auctions would drag out, but I came up with a simultaneous way of doing a “once around” auction for a different game, and it worked well there:  each player has a set of 8 “bid” cards, numbered 1-8.  The back of each card has 1, 2, or 3 coins (cards numbered 6-8 have 3 coins, 3-5 have 2 coins, 1-2 have 1 coin).  There would be 8 actors up for bid.  On your turn, you simply place a bid card in a row under one of the actors.  Then, after all players have bid, the bid cards are flipped over and whoever bid the highest (a) gets the card and (b) gets $ in an amount equal to the number of coins that are shown on the bid cards placed on that card.  In this way, you’re trying to get the cards you want, but also mindful of which way you might be throwing money with your low-value cards.  (Bizarrely, at about the same time I worked out this mechanic, a game called Maya came out with a very similar mechanic.)

It might make sense to try variations of this – eg maybe each player has a hand of cards, and must put 1 up for auction each turn, and he gets to keep the coins from the bid cards, so there’s some incentive to putting up a good actor instead of keeping him for yourself.  Or maybe it’s that actors are up for auction in “lots” of 2 or 3, and players get to choose from a lot that they bid on in order.

The mechanic was originally built around a game of archaeology, which had a couple of cool features.  On your turn, you paid one of your bid cards to send an explorer to one of 5 regions, and then recovered as many artifacts as the number of coins on the card, and those artifacts were then auctioned off via the aforementioned procedure, after everyone had had a chance to commission an expedition.  Now that I think about it, maybe that game could be resuscitated as a game of Biblical archaeology.  Hmm…

 


Lord of the Rings: Design Baseline

Both games are in an extremely early design stage.  The War of the Ring game is a little further along – I’ve tested out a combat mechanic, and it works pretty well.  The combat is card-based, with each player amassing, through the “recruitment” mechanics (which are TBD) cards representing individual units; you shuffle your cards together and then flip them one at a time, War-style, evaluating each time which card is the stronger.  There’s more to it than this, and I’ll dedicate a post to describing the combat mechanic in detail.  But basically, the game involves traveling around the board rallying armies to your cause, then throwing them against the opposing sides’ armies to (a) buy time for the Quest to succeed (if you’re Gandalf or Aragorn or Denethor/Boromir), or (b) emerge as the replacement Dark Lord of Middle Earth (if you’re Saruman), or (c) stamp out all happiness in Middle Earth (if you’re Sauron).

The quest game is even rougher, but the core idea I’ve had from the beginning involves the search mechanic.  I think it will be something like Scotland Yard or Fury of Dracula, where Frodo moves in secret and the Nazgul player moves his ringwraiths around to try to force Frodo to put on the ring and reveal his whereabouts (at which point they can try to attack and capture him).  Frodo has a (hidden?) track that reflects his “ring resistance”, and the Nazgul player positions his ringwraiths; then Frodo adds their “pull” – 1 point for each ringwraith in a space adjacent to his current location, and 2 points for each ringwraith in the same space as Frodo – if this exceeds Frodo’s ring resistance, then Frodo puts on the ring and reveals his current position to the Nazgul player.  After that, they can potentially have a battle, possibly using the same card-based resolution that the other game will use.

This sounds ok enough, but the wild card thrown into the game is that a third player plays Gollum; he knows at all times where Frodo is, but must bide his time before striking and trying to recover the ring.  Because of his ability to find Frodo, he may be a useful quarry for the Nazgul player, but because he knows the secret paths that lead through enemy strongholds, he can also be a valuable ally, if a dangerous one, for Frodo.  What I don’t know is whether the Gollum player can also become “Smeagol”, and, through the kindness of Frodo, become united to the Quest, as Gollum apparently did in the books, at least for a time.  I could envision the Frodo playing “Frodo” cards that are weaker but help Gollum/Smeagol, or “Sam” cards, that are more powerful but that harm Gollum/Smeagol, pushing him to “the dark side”.  But I don’t know if the idea of a player’s victory condition changing mid-way through the game, would be too frustrating for that player, particularly if it can bifurcate back and forth (unless the player himself has some control over which way he’s going to go).

Needless to say, there’s lots of work to be done on both games, and throughout, there need to be interface points whereby the two games can interact with each other and even some room for some players to switch from one table to the other.  Some of these ideas are easy to conceive – for example, maybe the Sauron player determines how many Ringwraiths he’ll provide to the Nazgul player for use in the quest and how many he’ll keep for himself for their benefits as leaders of his armies.  Maybe Gandalf can hop between boards, alternately helping the Quest or the armies.  This isn’t actually the hard part – the hard part is having simple and clean mechanics in place for when the games are played in standalone mode, so that the game itself can handle this kind of thing.  So, even if there isn’t a “War of the Ring” game going on at the other table, the Nazgul player still needs to have some variability to his ringwraith quantity each turn, and Frodo needs to sometimes have access to Gandalf and sometimes not.