Category Archives: Acts of the Disciples


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…

Disciples: Design Baseline

Since this blog will track the progress of games we’re working on, it seemed like a good idea to provide a baseline for each game, since few of them are starting truly from scratch.  Disciples is the oldest game of the bunch, so it seems like the best one to start with.

I’ve been working on Disciples, or “The Acts of the Disciples”, for quite a few years, and it’s one of three games that I’ve designed that I consider truly complete (the others being a whimsical card game called “Santa’s Reindeer” and a heavy civ-building game called “The Sands of Time“).  It’s been under development since about 2003.

The players take on the role of Jesus’ disciples.  The game board shows 6 cities in 1st century Palestine, and the game’s action revolves around “Deed cards”, each of which is associated with one of the cities, and represents a need that the players can meet (and each is based on an event from one of the Gospel accounts).  Each Deed card is associated with one of four action categories, and each category has a cost track that indicates how many cards a player must pay to perform a Deed in that category.

A player’s turn consists of acquiring action cards, traveling to a different city, paying action cards to meet the conditions of a Deed card, or asking Jesus to perform a Deed (which resets the corresponding Action cost track.  After that, Jesus moves toward the town that has the most remaining Deed cards.

What motivates a player to want to pursue one Deed over another?  There are several considerations.  When a player performs a Deed, he receives a point from the Deed, plus an additional point if Jesus is in the same city, plus an additional point if one or more additional players in the same city (and each of them receives a point as well).  Additionally, each player has 2 secret “goal” cards, which provide additional points at game’s end if the players’ deeds meet some particular condition.

The Deeds also incur consequences on one or more of the “political tracks”, which reflect the reaction of the Jews, Pharisees, and Rome, to the actions of the Disciples.  The Rome track is one of the game clocks — when it reaches its end, the game ends.  However, the Pharisees track acts as another game clock of sorts — it reflects the number of VPs the player who holds the “Judas” goal card will receive if he elects to end the game.

Yes, this means that Disciples has a “traitor” mechanic, which unfortunately has become quite common in cooperative games over the last few years (although of course, Disciples is not a cooperative game).  In Disciples, the traitor functions a bit differently — he isn’t trying to subvert the group’s mission, nor is he forced to act as the traitor — choosing to end the game and take the payout is entirely volitional.  But as the Pharisees track clicks up high and higher, the possibility of a big VP payout should seem increasingly tempting to the player, and this is exactly what the mechanic is trying to simulate.

Disciples has been tested extensively, and the goals are reasonably well balanced, as is the traitor relative to the other players.  Because it’s been some time since I last played it, I’m hoping to approach it as a developer instead of as a designer, and look for ways to simplify, reduce clutter, and make the game more approachable and playable for new players and, particularly, new or less experienced gamers.  Although Disciples is a medium-weight game, there might be aspects of the game that are still somewhat too confusing for non-gamers; hopefully playtests with a broader audience will help me to find out!

The beginning…

Welcome to Belltower Games’ design blog.  I’ll use this blog to document progress on games that we are designing or developing for possible release by Belltower Games.  For posts about Belltower’s publishing progress, check out the Belltower Historical Society.

I’ll separate the posts by game, so if there are only a couple of games that you’re actually interested in following, you can use the Categories at the right.  I’m sorry to say that I don’t know how to tailor the RSS feeds to where you can selectively subscribe to just a single category; if that’s possible and something you’d like me to do, let me know and I’ll look into it.

A couple of things we will try very hard not to do:

  • No teaser posts:  We won’t ever say, “I came up with an awesome mechanic, sorry, can’t tell you about it, you’ll just have to wait until it hits the store shelves!”  If it’s worth talking about enough to mention it, we’ll disclose details; most of the details, anyway.
  • No discussion of games under consideration:  Games submitted to Belltower are kept under strictest confidence.  We won’t say anything about games we’re evaluating for possible publication until a contract has been signed.
  • Post just to post:  The posts on this blog will appear when there’s progress, and won’t be on a particular schedule.  I hope that enough will be happening that there will be a steady stream of information flowing out through the blog, but every post will communicate something that we hope will be of interest.
  • No biographical stuff:  No details about where I’m going on vacation or which of my children has a cold or anything like that — this blog is just about games, period!

As of now, there are several games we’re working on internally.  The first three are part of a planned trilogy about the earliest days of the church, and are called The Acts of the Disciples, The Acts of the Apostles, and The Acts of the Evangelists.  The fourth is a 2p game called Moses and Pharaoh.  The fifth is a possible two-game project based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  The sixth is a game about the abolition of the British slave trade, called “Amazing Grace” as a working title.

For each game, I’ve created a hub page providing some basic information, and for each, I’ll provide a baseline post to show the design stage at which it’s entering the process at Belltower.  Stay tuned!