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 two of three of our Gen Con 50 coverage. You can read part one here. In part one we focused 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.
Games About Suffering
Jesus is no stranger to suffering—in fact, He willing embraced a life of suffering and shame to bring great blessing to humanity (Isa. 53:1-3; Mk. 10:45). Like Jesus, the following games examine the problem of human suffering in a way that is honest and affirming of the difficulties faced by those who suffer.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. – Revelation 21:4
Michał Oracz and Jakub Wiśniewski deliberately made a depressing game that most players wouldn’t want to play every weekend due to its emotional weight. While most board games are about conquest or edging others out with ruthless economic engines, This War of Mine: The Board Game is about empathizing with those who suffer due to acts of conquest. The game puts players in control of civilians simply trying to survive a brutal war that has erupted around them: making a living, finding food, and managing their fragile emotional state (literally—this is an explicit mechanic in the game). This War of Mine is an emotional game about human suffering and the complex moral decisions entailed therein.
There is no winning or losing; the endgame is to see how the lives of its characters unfold based on your decisions through the massive storybook included in the game. None of the endings are particularly good; in fact, some are patently awful such as finding that one of your characters committed suicide. Even those that seem good, like surviving and re-entering society, are indelibly stained with the pangs of war through recurring nightmares. This War of Mine is an incarnational game that invites us to intentionally acknowledge the suffering of others.
True religion is to visit the marginalized in their distress (Jas. 1:27). In fact, some of Jesus’ most biting words of judgement were leveled at those who used religion as a means to exploit others (Matt. 23:23-24; 25:41-46). So Affliction: Salem 1692, a worker placement game where players literally participate in a witch hunt, cunningly exposes the motives behind one of the darkest chapters in American church history.
Dan Hundycz, the designer of Affliction, based each of the game’s characters on real, historical people. By researching the events and results of the Salem witch trials, Hundycz was able to create a game experience that both mechanically and thematically illustrates how a powerful system of religious exploitation was established and propagated. Hundycz told us, “each colonist has a special ability designed to reflect her or his part in history.” For instance one character, John Willard, a constable who refused to arrest people accused of witchcraft, has the ability to cast doubt on the accusations of others. Players will find themselves getting caught up in the hunt only to realize the drastic human cost of such actions.
Hunt for the Ring is Ares Games’ second board game based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is an asymmetric hidden-movement game played in two stages: in the first stage, one player takes the role of Frodo, secretly traveling from the Shire to Bree and recording his movement behind a screen. In the second stage, Frodo’s path is dictated by a randomly drawn card (representing the path by which Strider chooses to lead the Ringbearer to Rivendell) and that player takes the additional role of Gandalf, also moving him secretly and occasionally choosing to strategically reveal his location. Up to four other players take the role of the Nazgûl, attempting to thwart Frodo’s quest.
What impressed me about Hunt for the Ring is the designers’ dedication to portraying the tension between despair and hope that is woven all throughout Tolkien’s story. As Roberto Di Meglio of Ares Games told us regarding the game, “Sometimes you feel that you are completely lost but there is always some hope out there that you can grab. . . . something that twists despair into hope, which I think I think is also one of the stronger points of the story. Even in the darkest hour there’s still a chance of hope.”
Games That Don’t Celebrate Colonization
Jesus digs peace (Matt. 5:44), so we figure He would probably appreciate games that illustrate the moral problems inherent in colonization.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. -Isaiah 2:4
Spirit Island is one of two games we demoed at Gen Con that flip the usual colonization theme on its head. In this game, you take the role of elemental spirits working to defend your island against invading colonists. Players use their power as elementals to destroy settlements, chase off invaders with fear, and heal the land.
This stands in stark contrast to one the first Eurogames I ever played (and still one of my favorites), Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, your goal is to develop the island: planting fields, growing crops and selling them for points or money, and constructing buildings in the city of San Juan. It’s a great medium-weight strategy game, but in every gaming group I’ve ever played with there is always an acknowledgement of the subtle racism in the games’ mechanics, as you regularly unload boatfulls of little brown “colonist” tokens to work your fields and fill open jobs.
In Spirit Island, instead of farms, the settlers bring blight. Rather than choosing roles each turn to help grow your commerce and workforce, you choose powers that will drive back or destroy the invading forces. Instead of winning by being the most powerful colonial overseer, you win if you completely chase off the invaders, or lose if a) all the blight tokens enter play, b) all the settler cards have been exhausted, or c) one of your spirits loses all their presence on the map. By reversing familiar Eurogame mechanics, Spirit Island challenges players to rethink the values that are traditionally celebrated in the games we play.
Colonization is a tried-and-true board game mechanic; in fact, in many games the winner is the one who colonizes most thoroughly. Moa subverts this trend by putting players in the shoes of the native people simply trying to stem the advance of those invading their homeland. The decisions you make in Moa are appropriately complex. Players will constantly find themselves second guessing their actions, making last ditch efforts to cut their losses by selling land or choosing to give up fighting for a particular plot. What I love most about Moa is how it constantly illustrates that succeeding in such endeavors is essentially impossible. Like in the stories of the native New Zealanders that the game was inspired by, sometimes you just don’t have the cards (literally—cards represent resources used to stem the tide of those impinging upon your territory).