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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.