Thursday, February 04, 2016

Acts of the Apostles Cooperative Boardgame

Crete offers plenty of missionary opportunity
We sat down in the GSLC Studio (aka, the pastor's office) today and play-tested Commissioned by Chara Games.  Our team of apostles already want to play the game again. Contrary to my expectations (I do not typically have high expectations for religious games of any kind), the game mechanisms match the game thematic closely. Commissioned is challenging, intriguing, and fun.

Here's how it works. The board has two sides. In early games, your goal is expansion of Christianity to the cities around the Mediterranean. Later games flip the board over, and you play on Orbis Terrarum, A Roman map of the world by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (20 A.D.).

This is a co-operative board game similar to Pandemic or Sentinels of the Multiverse. All players are working together to achieve the game objective. In our first play through, we played the original Acts of the Apostles. The goal is simple: establish a church in every city, and collect all 27 books of the New Testament.

A theme appendix
Each player plays one of the apostles. I was Paul. Donna was Andrew. Cari was Peter. The board also includes evangelists, and church member pieces. Like Pandemic, each apostle has a specific power that they contribute to game-play. Great games match the mechanics to the theme. Andrew adds new church members. Paul breaks down barriers to mission expansion. Peter is a deck-builder, able to purchase power cards.

Each phase includes the following steps. First, like the deck-building mechanics of Star Realms, players take their base deck and add cards from the Faith card stacks. They can only purchase new cards from the points of cards in hand, so sacrifices must be made during the pray phase in order to purchase more powerful cards during the mature phase.

During the live phase, whoever currently holds the elder staff draws a trials card, invites everyone to pray, shares resources that emerge through prayer, makes fellowship or mission moves on the map, then grows the churches.

Game play continues to the left, repeating this live-action phase, then purchasing more Faith cards to increase the capacity of the draw deck. Then all players arm themselves with new cards, and repeat.

Trials are all challenges for the players similar to the villain or environment move in Sentinels, or challenge actions in other co-op games like Pandemic or Lord of the Rings.

The game includes a theme appendix which explains the historical context for each trial. Examples: Church fed to lions, Nero's rage, Mount Vesuvius erupts, Gnostic heresy.

Prayer is the power up or power move. Each player has a specific power, and then cards added to their deck expand their repertoire. This includes cards adding books to the New Testament, plus higher power cards with miraculous superpower elements. Examples: Carried by the Spirit, Jailhouse Earthquake, Jerusalem Council, Divine Pruning.

This aspect of the game feels comparable to other historical games like Twilight Struggle, and compares favorably.

In the move phase, the elder can move church members, apostles, and evangelists in fellowship moves from one neighboring city to another, or they can send missionary teams out to establish churches in new cities currently without a church.

Churches with more than four members automatically grow members each round. The strategy lies in growing fast enough and spreading strategically while the trials reduce the number of churches and church members each round.

If the light of a specific church is completely snuffed out, it is extinguished, and can never be re-established. If five churches are extinguished, the players lose.

Having just sent a mission team to Caesarea
As I have mentioned, those familiar with board games and co-op games will find parallels to some of the most popular games on the market, especially Pandemic, Twilight Struggle, and Sentinels of the Multiverse. But the game also includes some resource building elements similar to Agricola (artistically, the art of Commissioned is closest to the Gric), Ticket to Ride, or Carcassonne.

But I do not mention all these games to indicate that this game feels derivative. It does not. It's very creative, and stands on its own. It is in league with some of the most popular games out there, and I recommend it highly.

As we were playing, our group kept deepening our understanding of how complicated and difficult it must have been for the nascent Christian church to expand and multiply. Not only that, but we found ourselves identifying with the special powers and limitations of each apostle.

I have two tests for religious games if they are to transcend the weaknesses of religious art.

First, they need to be focused on the play itself, not the message. Game play comes first. This game is strategically challenging, and literally, as soon as we finished, we all agreed we wanted to play again (especially adding the rule in subsequent games that expects a die roll before the live round, deciding whether the players can speak to one another during the sharing and decision-making time).

In an online forum I recently had a chance to dialogue with the game-designers, and they said their primary goal was focused on this, to make the game itself strategically challenging with a compelling narrative.

Second, the game can't tell you what to think. It needs to provide a play space in which to consider options. More sandbox than classroom. Commissioned succeeded in this area as well, because all three of us, even while learning the basic rules of the game, were already imagining strategic scenarios for future rounds.

Finally, this game beats the "I'm a professional" sniff test. I use this test a lot. In television, newspaper articles, and more, I wait to see if the report, or the script-writer, has a sense of religion from the inside, especially a sense of the theology or praxis involved.

Many newspaper articles fail this test. Television almost always fails it.

Commissioned does not. The game "gets" what the apostles were up to in their missionary expansion, and the trials illustrate both the external and internal challenges the early church encountered. One of the most intriguing aspects of the game is the dial players can set on the trials. The apostles can play at the disciples or martyrs play level. Essentially, this sets the difficulty level. But it also illustrates how differences in theology, group cohesion, and geopolitical considerations, all impacted how the church grew.

By the end of the game, players are not convinced that it is a miracle that the church grew, but they do have insight into how complex all the conditions needed to be for it to flourish.

Cari says,

"As to your question about personal or theological discoveries made during the game- not that you have to use these at all- just as an answer to a really good prompt...I found one of the most interesting aspects was the "pray" phase...I really found it fascinating that we would withhold our best "prayers" in order to hold out for something better...The metaphor in that move is something I find really interesting...

I loved that we equated our "super power" to the actual gifting of the particular apostle and I found it refreshing that theology aligns. I also thought it was cool that the characters we played aligned with our own tendencies as faith builders. Not only can I not wait to play again and especially to explore the different narratives offered, I'd love to see what my kids think of it and what they gain from it as well."

Commissioned, like many board games, started out as a Kickstarter project:

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