Category Archives: Acts of the Evangelists


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.

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.


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!