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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.

1.  Who or what does the player represent in the game’s world? The more concrete, the better.  “One of the counselors to King David”, or “a monk” are concrete and specific.  Some games only vaguely articulate who the player is supposed to represent (civilization-building games, which typically span large periods of time, are especially prone to this), and others muddy the player representation by conferring on the player abilities that he wouldn’t have in the story (e.g. Tikal, in which players, in the process of “exploring” the jungle, can place terrain tiles anywhere they choose — an ability explorers would surely love to have in real life!)

For Christian games, there are a few considerations here.  The first is a clear line in the sand that we’ve chosen to draw — no player will ever represent the role of God or of Jesus in any of our games, period, full stop.  Probably, no one will ever play the role of the devil, although the reason is more pragmatic:  even though you might be able to find someone who’s willing to do that, it’s unlikely that every group could consistently find someone to do so.  Lesser “bad guys” are a grayer area; some games (like a WWII board game, e.g.) require someone to play the role of the “bad guy” for the game to work.  In our game about Moses, someone has to be Pharaoh.  I’ll be interested to see what roles people in our audience are and aren’t comfortable being assigned in a game. A second and more subtle consideration is that the player representation can’t strain the plausibility of the story.  Necessarily, a game about a Bible story is assuming a certain degree of counterfactuality — it’s allowing for the possibility that “things could have happened differently”.  But there are boundaries to this — to insert multiple characters where the source material really only had one, for example, would weaken the theme.  A game where each player represents a 1st century preacher trying to be the “true Messiah” is just too unfaithful to the actual story to work (not to mention it violates the consideration above).  And without intending any disrespect towards Two by Two, which presumably just works fine as a game, as a simulation, having multiple Noahs doesn’t really fit the story very well.

And that’s actually a good lesson to keep in mind about these “rules” — they’re really just guidelines, and gameplay should always trump thematic purity — we’re making games, not reenactments.  But the better we can adhere to these guidelines, the better the theming will be.

2.  What is the player’s goal? Not just the obvious “to accumulate the most victory points!”, but in thematic terms, what is the person or entity trying to achieve in the story?  And then, how do you translate that into a concrete goal for players in a game?  Other than “last man standing” games like Risk, there are more or less two predominant means of quantifying victory:  “Race games”, where the first player to achieve some goal is the winner, and “victory point games”, where there are typically several methods of receiving VPs, which can be thought of as incremental steps towards overall victory.  Again, a concrete goal that flows organically from the motivation of the person or entity in the story is highly preferable.  So, “winning the most converts” or “contributing the most to the building of the temple” are concrete and lend themselves well to discretization for victory points.  (And I’ll note that, depending on the story, the goals don’t have to all be the same for all of the players)  However, there are some issues with possible goals that come in further downstream.

A good goal also assists the aforementioned issue of “counterfactuality” – if Pharaoh, hypothetically speaking, could have “won”, what would that have looked like?  What was he trying to achieve?  This is important for achieving one of the most important qualities of a good game (richly-themed or not), replayability.  A good game needs to be playable many times with the possibility of different outcomes, and if the player’s goal is one that can be achieved in more than one way, the game will hold up over more plays.


3.  What is the source of tension? In game-mechanical terms, tension conveys not simply the sense of “excitement”, but the literal sense of “pulling” — a source of tension is a factor that pulls you in multiple directions, and your decision as a player will identify which direction you will take.  Classic sources of tension can include resource management (“I have lots of things that I want to do but only enough resources to do a few of them”), scarcity (“there isn’t enough of [a resource?  lucrative spaces on the board? etc] to go around, and I need to secure my share of it”), risk/reward (and its little brother, “press your luck”), etc.

In thematic terms, the source of tension flows from the obstacle that the player in the story experiences as he tries to accomplish his goal.  So, the obstacle leads to the source of tension which in turn leads to the interesting decision.  A well-themed game needs to find a game-mechanical source of tension that feels comparable to the tension in the story.

For example, perhaps a game about the Apostle Paul has in view the obstacle “travel” – travel was time-consuming and difficult in the ancient world.  Perhaps tension comes from the mode of travel; sea travel is fast but risky, land travel is safer but slow, so Paul must choose which mode to use to complete each journey.  This could be reflected well with a game mechanic that emphasizes “risk/reward” tension, whereas a mechanic built around “resource management” may not evoke this aspect of the theme as well.

4.  Mechanics Thematically speaking, the best game mechanics are those that present the player with decisions that reflect those that the person that he represents in the story would face.  This is closely related to the issue of tension, mentioned above, but even when a good source of tension is identified, different mechanical implementations may be available and not all may be a good fit.

Take our example of Paul above; assume we want a mechanic that reflects the reality that sea travel was risky.  Perhaps one way we could realize this would be to allow players to play “shipwreck” cards on another player while he’s on a naval voyage, if they have one.  Another way might be to force a player on a sea voyage to roll a “shipwreck” die to see if he wrecks.  Of these, the latter makes more sense thematically; the idea of another apostle being able to adversely influence another apostle isn’t really a good fit given the player representation; the players are apostles, and the apostles didn’t really have that power!

Moreover, it’s a bad fit with the spirit of the story.  Not only did apostles not wreck one another at sea, they wouldn’t want to do that.  Clearly, then, there are some mechanisms that probably aren’t a good fit for a Christian game, because they promote behaviors that aren’t conducive to the message of the game.  “Take that!” mechanics, like the shipwreck card mechanic, are an example of something that wouldn’t fit in many possible themes.  Another example comes from deal-making games like Diplomacy or Intrigue, which can often involve players breaking deals, lying, or back-stabbing other players.  Now, don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t play games like these, but rather, that in a game that’s explicitly about a Christian story, does back-stabbing each other really have a place?


5. The influence of the Divine Obviously, many of the Biblical and extra-biblical stories we’ll use as source material have as a central element the influence of God, either directly (through miraculous intervention) or indirectly (through providence).  How do you incorporate this into a game, and can you do it without being at best irreverent and at worst blasphemous?  We’ve already said that we can’t have a player playing the role of God, but are there other things we should steer clear of? Again, though the game is the thing, there are some solutions that might appear attractive but that should be avoided or appropriated with great reluctance, because they could send the wrong message.  For example, a “divine hand” mechanic whereby the actions of God are determined by a die roll or by a card flip could be perceived to suggest that God acts capriciously.  Alternatively, a mechanic where VP rewards are provided for some “good” action seems at first glance to be right on-message, but in fact, this directly contradicts the message of Christianity, which is that none of us can merit God’s favor with our goodness alone.

To me, the better approach seems to be to rely on mechanics where God bestows capability on the players, but not VPs, and/or where the players can fall out of favor with God due to “bad” actions, thus weakening them in some way.  Although this gets to the next point…

6. The risk of trivializing the story.  This is a very important consideration that is not unique to Christian games.  Many games rely on “chrome theming”, in which the game’s mechanics don’t really have anything to do with the game’s theme, but the visual elements, the names given to the game components, and/or “flavor text” on the cards may try to give the appearance of a theme.  A fine example of this is the excellent game Lost Cities, an archaeology-themed game featuring beautiful artwork of various explorations.  But really, although it’s a brilliant hand-management/risk-management card game, the mechanics have relatively little to do with exploration; the theming is mostly conveyed by the artwork.  Of course, chrome-theming in a game about archaeology is no big deal, but in a game that is supposed to be a richly-themed adaptation of a Christian story, I claim that this is much harder to endorse.

But chrome-theming can be extremely subtle.  For example, imagine a game, previously mentioned, about “converting people to Christianity”; maybe the player has “witness” tokens that they use to share the gospel with a prospective convert, maybe they have “prayer” tokens that they can spend on that prospective convert’s behalf, and if they spend enough of these tokens, the person converts and the player gets a point.  Pretty thematic stuff, right?  Well, no!  This approach, I claim, would trivialize the intangible aspect of the conversion process, in which the person must decide for himself to follow Christ.  Certainly believers should preach to and pray for people, but it’s not a mechanical transaction that takes these actions as an input and produces converts as an output, and building a game mechanic around such a transactional view diminishes the theming.  Or imagine a “prayer” mechanic, where a player plays a “pray” card to enlist Divine help with some action.  Does this potentially trivialize the way prayer “works”, by reducing it to a purely mechanical transaction?

Related to this, and expanding on the previous point, we have to be careful about having “good” actions and “bad” actions, even if the game rewards the “good” actions and “punishes” bad actions.  The goal for a player in a game is to pursue victory under the rules of the game; I don’t subscribe to the view that a game is a microcosm of real life.  In that sense, a player isn’t really being “good” or “bad”, he’s just taking actions that are allowed by the game.  Now I’m all for games where actions can have negative consequences (for example, in a civilization-building game I’ve designed, taking certain actions increases your empire’s Unrest, which rachets up your costs to do other actions).  And I don’t claim it can’t be done; for example, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects has a system where you can voluntarily take on “corruption” to get an in-game advantage at the risk of possibly forfeiting the game.  I just contend that we can’t present players with game-mechanical choices and pretend that they’re the same thing as moral choices.  In a game, everything that’s permitted under the rules is morally permissible.  Err…at least I think so.

And having said that, I could see a semi-satirical game entitled “The Devil Made Me Do It!” where players are forced by the game into taking “bad” actions and must then scramble to clean up after the consequences of those actions…

I hope this has been a helpful look at possible ways to approach themed-game design for Christian games.  Many of the considerations (especially the first 4) apply more broadly to any well-themed game.  I’d like to walk through a “worked example”, but since this is so long, I’ll save it for a follow-up entry.