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.
Games that Teach Us How to Talk to One Another
Its no secret that 2017 hasn’t been a great year. In fact, it’s been a pretty troubling year marked by massive amounts of groupthink and people talking past one another. In light of this we think Jesus would probably want you to try one of these games that force you to learn how to communicate better with others. In so doing, you might just find yourself actively acknowledging the humanity of someone who sees the world differently than you do.
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. – Mark 12:31
At first you can only speak with a finger mustache but as you fall deeper into madness, you can only talk to other people who also have finger mustaches. The problem of course is that other players don’t realize the nature of your madness and thus fail to don their own finger mustaches in order to communicate freely with you. Mountains of Madness, based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness, is a fully cooperative game by Rob Daviau where players must work together to fly to the top of a mysterious mountain in the arctic circle.
The goal is to reach the summit and escape with more treasure than injuries, but the higher you go the madder you and your teammates will become. This happens as players incur increasingly debilitating “Madness” cards which affect their ability to communicate when working together to overcome challenges in real time. There is no quarterbacking in Mountains of Madness because every player is crucial to overcoming challenges and every players’ madness uniquely hinders their ability to communicate how much they can help the team. Like Jesus who always seemed to listen to and notice the pains of the people around Him, Mountains of Madness is a game about paying close attention to the people around us so that we might help and serve each other better.
Magic Maze is a dungeon crawl game with a twist. Your adventurers have had their equipment stolen, so before they can go fight evil, they must first rob their local shopping mall to re-equip themselves. Rather than controlling individual characters, all players control all four heroes, but only in certain directions. One player is responsible for all movements north, for instance, while another is the only player who can move pawns up and down escalators. That’s challenging enough, but because this is a heist, this must all be accomplished silently. In fact, no communication of any sort is allowed beyond meaningful glares and tapping a large red pawn in front of your teammates to say “I see an action you need to take!” Not even pointing or other hand-gestures are permitted.
There are a few squares on the randomly-built map that allow for brief moments of communication, and finding these becomes crucial to reconvening and mapping out a strategy going forward. Even then, the conversation must be brief, because time is still running out. Did I mention this is all timed?
Each time I play Magic Maze with a new group of players, I see a similar progression. Initially, players are frustrated by the subversion of normal movement mechanics and are confused about how to progress. They also grow quickly annoyed at their inability to communicate. People will eventually break the rules and resort to pointing, gesturing, or using the red pawn to frantically tap on the specific crucial action they need their teammate to take (in most games players will have multiple actions they’re responsible for). But by the second or third time through the game, teams start to gel as players become more confident, rely less on normal means of communication, and learn to wait patiently as their teammates scan the board for the next move they need to make. Magic Maze teaches teams of players how to cooperate when their ability to discuss their goal is severely limited, and how to be patient with one another when things don’t go as planned.
“Hobbit, eight” is literally a clue that was given in a game of Codenames I played once. For those of you not familiar with the game, this means that eight words on the board could be tied to the word hobbit in some way. With the original Codenames, clues that cover more words rather than fewer are rewarded because it means you’re that much closer to making all your guesses before the other team has a chance. But larger clues also mean larger potential for miscommunication. With an eight-word clue, you’re probably making some risky stretches.
In Codenames Duet, the new two-player version, there is no other team: you and your teammate are working cooperatively to uncover the codenames of fifteen secret agents in your organization. Each of you has information that will help the other, as well as limited information about which words are “assassins” that will result in your defeat when guessed. Instead of racing against another team, you’re racing against an in-game timer: you have nine turns to succeed before “sudden death” mode kicks in. The timer will tick down whether you choose to give one-word clues or eight-word clues. Do the math: nine turns and fifteen words means you don’t have enough time to give safe one-word clues for each word on the board. Two-word clues might be enough if you and your partner are in sync.
The most challenging part of Codenames Duet is that when it’s your turn to serve as clue-giver, there isn’t a team of people discussing their reasoning with one another. If you want to use this information to improve your future clues, each of you needs to intentionally reason to yourself out loud, which for some of us might come naturally, but for others requires practice. This feedback—or at the least some post-game debriefing to ask, “What were you thinking?”—is my favorite part of the game, as it gives me insight into the particular ways that my friends think, and over time helps us to become Codenames masters together.