We recently went to Gen Con, North America’s largest tabletop-game convention, where we set out on a quest to find board games that resonate with the life, message, or values of Jesus. To be completely honest, we think that most tabletop games mesh with the values of Jesus in the sense that they bring people together. This year’s Gen Con was the biggest in the convention’s fifty-year history. It was also incredibly diverse. In truth, this list should probably just be called “Gamechurch’s Favorite Games of Gen Con 50.” In our defense, however, we are convinced that the following games are special and that, given the opportunity to play them, Jesus would happily gather around the table with his disciples to roll their dice.
This is part one of three of our Gen Con 50 coverage. In part one we focus on beautiful and restful games. Part two focuses on games that are honest about history and human nature and part three focuses on games that bring us together and train us to communicate better.
Most tabletop games create feelings of tension and anxiety, and while this is completely appropriate, sometimes it’s nice to play something that is intentionally restful.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. – John 14:27
Conflict is inherent to every board game. Some board games are known for creating more relational stress than others (Catan, Monopoly, and Diplomacy come to mind) but on the whole it’s a healthy anxiety, one that fuels competitiveness and problem solving. After all, it’s hard to have a competition without the tension between winning and losing. But after a few days of being constantly on my feet in a noisy, crowded expo hall, Petrichor was a welcome change of pace. You play as clouds, gathering raindrops, merging with other clouds, then dropping rain on the earth below to water your fields. Everything about this game was peaceful, from the soft colors and gentle artwork, to the theme of falling rain, which is literally life-giving and restorative. I’ve played another of co-designer David Chircop’s contemplative games, …and then, we held hands…, and with Petrichor he provides yet another game that encourages players to slow down and embrace a more meditative gaming experience.
When I was a little girl and my grandmother babysat me, she and I would often watch The Joy of Painting on PBS. I have fond memories of Bob’s soothing voice and his upbeat attitude, and I know that many people in my generation share this nostalgia. Still, it may be a bit surprising to know that more than twenty years after his show stopped airing, a game titled Bob Ross: Art of Chill sold out in thirty minutes on the first day of Gen Con. And in 2015, 5.6 million people signed on for a Twitch marathon stream of all 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting.
In a world filled with unrest, Bob Ross has become a cultural hero, and this year at Gen Con, amidst themes of war, disease, survival, and unbridled free-market capitalism, it’s telling that gamers chose to also take time out for “happy accidents” and “happy little trees.” His specific brand of “chill” still speaks to Americans today as we struggle to make sense of the growing tensions globally and in our own country.
As co-author of a good world (Gen 1; Col. 1:16), we assume Jesus values aesthetics. Tabletop games, as a medium, are known for stellar artwork that adds value to their experience. These games were some of our favorite examples of this.
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” – Revelation 21:5
One of the titles Jesus used when referring to himself is “Light of the World” (Jn. 8:12) and early patrons of Gothic architecture were quite literally inspired by this in their use of intricate and large stained-glass windows to beautify buildings with light and color. In Sagrada, a game inspired by a real basilica in Barcelona, Spain, your goal is to craft the best stained-glass window you can. You do this by rolling and drafting translucent dice of various colors and placing them on a grid in various combinations to score points. It’s basically “Sudoku dice”, and what drew me to Sagrada was this combination of this puzzle-solving, dice placement (a mechanic that is tactilely satisfying for me), and the joyful use of bright colors in all its components. Each of the four player boards depicts a different section of window from the actual Sagrada Família, and the die colors are all various hues that appear in these windows. Sagrada is a tribute to the inherent value of aesthetics.
Through a mixture of dice placement and card-playing mechanics, Unearth has each player leading a tribe of “Delvers,” represented by five colored dice that the player uses to explore forests, deserts, islands, mountains, and caverns in search of ancient relics and lost wonders. Jesse Riggles’ artwork is equal parts soothing and mystical and provides players incentive enough to engage its mechanics. It’s a game about recovering beauty in a world that so often fails to appreciate it. What Unearth tasks us with very much aligns with the kind of kingdom Jesus came to establish. A bird’s eye view of the four Gospels and the Jewish prophets upon which they are built reveals that Jesus’ mission was not to beam us up to a glorious otherworldly existence but to work through us to redeem and renew our world. Humanity’s eternal future is not just a celestial church service where we eternally sing God’s praises, but a toil-free garden where where we work and enjoy its fruits (Isa. 2:4; 65:21-22).
Unearth really is a pleasant and welcoming game whose mechanics mirror its aesthetic. Even when the dice don’t land your way, Unearth provides multiple strategies for players to employ in light of those rolls, and every strategy gives the player opportunities make beautiful things.
Honorable Mention: Photosynthesis
Photosynthesis is another carefully crafted game where the theme and the mechanics are married beautifully. In a world that only gives lip service to protecting the environment, Photosynthesis is a lovely abstract strategy game that asks us to slow down and celebrate the simple process by which plant life is cultivated.