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Tacky Christian Games: Where the theme gets in the way of the game

Ender Wiggins
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I'm a Christian. So I'm going to like any game with a Christian theme, right? Wrong.

(Disclaimer: This article is primarily going to be of interest to Christians, and I know that there are many of you here on the site who are interested in the kinds of questions raised by it. You're welcome to participate in this particular discussion if you're not a Christian, but I'd respectfully request that we keep closely on topic, because this is not the place to initiate RSP debates, but only to discuss the particular issue of evaluating Christian themed games from a Christian perspective. So please ensure that the discussion remains positive and respectful.)

The problem with many Christian games

Most of us are well aware that there’s an unfortunate and all too frequent reality that applies to many games which have a Biblical or Christian theme, and that's mediocre game-play. In other words, despite a thick coat of Christian paint, you can't hide the fact that there's a very poor gaming engine underneath. While such games might prove appealing from a pedagogical standpoint, they are frequently so substandard in terms of gameplay that they prove too painful to be worth playing. Apparently some publishers seem to think that Christians will love anything that's overtly Christian in flavour, independent of whether it's actually a good product when judged purely on its merits as a game, and it seems that there's more than enough consumers willing to take a punt on such a product too. Granted, most of the folks who frequent aren't going to be fooled that easily, because what we look for in a game is a solid gaming experience, and we're well aware that while the theme might enhance the nurturing of such an experience, a good theme alone does not a good game make. But aside from Christian remakes of Catan (The Settlers of Canaan) and Carcassonne (The Ark of the Covenant), how many Biblically themed games that are actually outstanding games in their own right can you think of? I think I've made my point.

A second problem that afflicts many Biblically themed games is that in an effort to provide a theme that's going to be attractive to people who take the Bible seriously, the well-intended game goes overboard in handling the theme to the point that it trivializes the divine revelation of the Bible. Any attempt to incorporate Christian themes does come with many pitfalls, because there is always the potential to mishandle Biblical truth or deal with it inappropriately. An example of this is the Redemption CGG, which in my estimation suffers this fate. While Redemption CCG's effort to bring Biblical characters and events to life on playing cards is in itself laudable, this has the very real potential to trivialize the Bible, and in some instance even to create theological problems (see my review where I make a case for this, and also a further article in which shortcomings in the graphic design are identified). In some instances the theme even has the potential to break down, or worse, to become disrespectful, a problem that can be compounded by the artwork. As a result, sometimes the "Bible edition" of a popular game doesn't end up adding anything positive to the original game, but sadly only serves to make it worse.

The solution for Christian games

General principles

So what's the solution? Well to begin with, to have any enduring value, a Christian game should first and foremost be a good game. In other words, before we start talking about the paint, let's make sure that the engine is a good one. Let's not compromise quality just because we like the paint colour.

Secondly, if a game is going to have a Biblical theme, it should handle it carefully and respectfully. Anyone who considers the Bible to be the Word of God will surely agree that its content is weighty, and this leaves little room for cheesy ways in handling serious truths, or for trivializing divine instruction. It's not impossible, but it sure takes a lot of wisdom to do it right.

A case example

An excellent and recent example of a game that does get this right is the new worker placement game from Philip duBarry and Minion Games, Kingdom of Solomon. It's themed around - surprise, surprise - King Solomon and his kingdom in ancient Israel. Players are governors during Solomon's reign, responsible for overseeing some of his building and expansion efforts, by collecting resources and constructing buildings, including the beautiful Solomonic temple. This is a theme that will feel like an exciting novelty to most of us, because it's a radical departure from the standard fare we've come to see, where some themes seem beaten to death at this point - go talk to Tom Vasel if you want examples. All this makes Kingdom of Solomon stand out by virtue of its theme, not just among worker placement games in particular, but among euros in general, and this historical flavour rightly gives it immediate appeal especially to Jews and Christians.

But while the theme is one solidly rooted in Biblical history, and skillfully woven into the game-play, the game doesn’t make the mistake of becoming tacky, preachy or trying to convey a religious message by means of cheesy mechanics, or at the cost of excellence in the game design. For me personally, my Christian convictions will naturally enhance my appreciation for this particular theme and this particular game, but it needs to be recognized that Kingdom of Solomon is first and foremost a good game, strong enough to stand on its own merits and compete with the rest as a game. Let's face it, being a Christian doesn't mean I'm going to like other hobbies just because you give them a Christian coat of paint. Similarly, I like the gaming hobby because I like games, so if you expect me to enjoy a Christian themed game, it needs to be a good game first of all. Fortunately, Kingdom of Solomon really is, in view of the particularly interesting ways it works with the worker placement mechanic. The good news is that while the theme does bring aspects of the Biblical narrative to life in a respectful way, it doesn't at all compromise quality of game-play.

All this means that Kingdom of Solomon is a fully independent and well designed worker placement game that has the maturity and quality to stand on its own two legs, without needing to rely on the theme as a supporting crutch. Granted, it just happens to have a solid Biblical theme, although it's not one that is so over the top that it will send those who are unfamiliar with the Bible running and screaming. But it sure is refreshing to discover a Biblically themed game that is a satisfying, medium weight euro, and that can go the distance on its merits as a game. A game of this sort has real potential to get some mileage in the Christian market, and in my opinion deserves to make its mark there, but the good news is that its appeal should stretch well beyond that. For this accomplishment the efforts of designer Philip duBarry are ones that Christian gamers like myself should applaud, support and encourage. I've just posted a review of Kingdom of Solomon, and I highly recommend you check this game out:

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Successfully bringing the excellence of Caylus-style worker placement to Bible times

A deeper solution for Christian gamers

But there is another solution for Christian gamers on a quest for good games, one which is independent of finding a good game with a solid Biblical theme, although efforts to produce such games are certainly welcome and deserve to be applauded. And that's to come to the realization that for the most part the elements that make gaming a positive activity for Christian families and groups usually have little to do with the theme. Certainly there might be games that have to be excluded from play by virtue of their objectionable theme or artwork alone. Similarly there might be games that particularly commend themselves for play by virtue of a particularly positive theme - as was the case with Kingdom of Solomon. But for the most part a Christian approach to games is about the spirit in which it is played, the lessons that are learned from it, and the place that it has in one's life - and that includes demanding high standards from the game-play as well.

Perhaps this could be considered a "redeemed" approach to boardgames, when they are played to God's glory and for our neighbour's good, and when they are enjoyed as a gift from God, and none of this especially demands having a Christian theme. This approach gives room for coming to a positive assessment of and enjoyment of boardgames that more importantly meet the criteria of being quality products on the level of design and components as well, and not merely theme. For me and my family, this redemption of boardgames will be more successful when playing something tried and true like Catan than a game that's overtly Christian but where the gameplay disappoints.

Fortunately this means that Christians have many options when it comes to selecting good games. There are many wholesome games to choose from that don't necessarily have a Christian theme, but give families the opportunity to have an enjoyable gaming session together, and offer good quality gameplay. Sure, Christian gamers will like a good Christian game. But in the end what we really like is a good game - any good game - that we can play as Christians. Now please excuse me, I'm off to go play another game of Kingdom of Solomon, followed by a rousing game of London.

Join the discussion: What's your take on Christian themed games, and what has been your experience with them? Can you think of other examples of Biblically themed games that also pass the test of being quality game designs in their own right?
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