Religion in Secular Board Games
Religion is highly prevalent in games, because most world religions are inseparable from their accompanying cultures. Thus, if one attempts to include culture in a game, it naturally includes many references to religion as well.
The religious theme and game mechanics are so interwoven in Deliverance that it would be difficult to re-theme, and it is largely due to the way the “lore” creates a unique set of constraints for the game.
Let’s start with an easy one: In the Bible, Angels are good, demons are bad, and Satan is the worst. There is no wiggle room in there for a different interpretation if you plan on using religious lore as a constraint as I do!
But before we get into Deliverance, I’ll illustrate with two very common examples you’ll find in games:
Greek and Norse mythology.
Greek and Norse mythologies were central to the culture of these empires, as the temples of these cultures were often hubs of congregation and core to the identity of a person.
A few popular examples of games that use…
– Mythic Battles: Pantheon
– Lords of Hellas
Common Greek cultural/religious threads: Working to please/honor Greek gods, gods battling for supremacy.
– A Feast For Odin
– Blood Rage
– Raiders of the North Sea
– Champions of Midgard
Common Norse cultural/religious threads: Cultural value of glory in war, working to please/honor Norse gods.
Other examples of popular games that feature religion as a central theme are 7 Wonders, Kemet, Spirit Island, T’zolkin, and many more.
Beyond the more obvious examples, games of all kinds borrow from Greek and Norse mythologies to tell great stories. Dungeon crawlers seem to be first in line in that respect, but there are many popular genres that bask in religious themes to some degree.
Using Religion As a Constraint For Game Design
In board game design, constraints are very important. In fact, I would go as far to say constraints are as important as innovation or creativity in making great games.
One way to constrain is to use a base of lore that people are familiar with to help them understand otherwise complex elements in games.
Religious texts and mythologies are the most well established lore bases in the world, so it is no surprise to see games of all kinds borrowing from them regularly. From stories of angels and demons rooted in the Bible, to Greek gods in Homer’s Illiad, to the many legends of Dragons spread across hundreds of cultures, religion permeates everything that is infused with culture.
Even Tapestry, which the designer has gone on record to say has purposefully built this civilization game to exclude religious themes, still has them. Consider the Futurists, who would probably spear you through before believing they weren’t gifted foresight from their gods.
Any game that expressly includes culture as a central feature (like civilization games), will contain some level of religious themes that are impossible to divorce from the game’s fictional cultures.
Benefits & Challenges of Using Religion As A Theme
The biggest benefit of designing with a religious text as a lore base is that it gives you guidelines for everything. Characters and their accompanying traits (like Michael, the Archangel), famous stories to emulate (Like the fall of Satan), and more are all written for you to draw from!
The biggest challenge of designing with a religious text as the lore base is that you quickly go from fantasy to heresy if you’re not well studied. People begin to judge the game not just on its’ game play merits, but on the correct interpretation of the text (which is a real dumpster fire if you’re ignorant of this). And even when you get it right, you’re still going to have people calling you a cult leader on one side and a false prophet on the other (take it from a guy that regularly hears these insults).
The Common Religious Thread
Religion, though it can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands, is something that people of all cultures understand and can relate, which is why it is so prevalent in board games. I believe that we are hard-wired as human beings to celebrate a greater power and even see God in the things that have been made.
There are two other common threads in ALL of the great games I mentioned above that deal with Religion:
1) They don’t apologize for their use of religion.
2) They don’t attempt to educate the player on religion as part of the game’s core loop, but instead use it as thematic flavor and to better explain the mechanics & goals of the game.
Religion in Deliverance
As the designer of Deliverance, a Christian fantasy dungeon crawler, I am often faced with skepticism from both sides of the aisle — from Christians and non-Christians alike.
Non-Christian gamers are sometimes afraid that Deliverance will put a greater focus on proselytizing players than the game itself (aka – pushing religious beliefs for the purpose of converting players).
Guess what Christian gamers are afraid of? The exact same thing.
When people sit down and play a game, they want to have a fun time. If they are promised fun by a cool looking box cover, only to find out they have been tricked and the core loop of the game focuses on education instead of fun, it leaves a bad taste for the next game of that type. Sadly, Christian games for many years have prioritized education over fun.
Don’t get me wrong — education has its place. Parents that want their kids to learn something, whether math or language or bible verses, look for things like this to supplement their kids’ education.
But (back to Christian games) when you make a game and promise fun, and instead focus on educating your players on the tenets of Christianity, you upset everyone who was looking for fun and got education instead. Few of these gamers tend to see the value of education at the forefront of a game (especially one that promised fun first).
It is an easy argument to make that if you want education on tenets of Christianity (or other religions), there are places to go and books to read that do it better.
So how do I approach Christianity with my clearly Christian product, Deliverance?
I have three tenets to my development of Deliverance, and you have already read the first two:
1) I don’t apologize for my use of religion.
2) I don’t attempt to educate the player on my religion as part of the game’s core loop, but instead use it as thematic flavor and to better explain the mechanics & goals of the game.
3) I don’t take any of the subject matter trivially. I have worked very hard to ensure that the game is theologically sound in every possible way, with over ten thousand hours of research and study, much wise counsel, and hundreds of play tests under my belt (over 550 at the time of this writing).
Deliverance is a game where you play an elite angel from the army of Heaven, and come down to investigate the high amount of demonic activity in the small secluded town of Fallbrook. It is a game of angels and demons, with the saints caught in between. Each round, more Darkness bleeds into the spiritual realm from the physical, threatening to cripple the angels and bolster the demons that stand on your path. You must balance the tension of battling demons in tactical combat with the ever-encroaching Darkness.
It’s Not A Missionary-In-A-Box
I have made a choice to make a product that an Atheist could open and have a great time without feeling proselytized, or a Christian missionary could open and use as an effective tool for sharing their faith.
The key to both cases is in the game’s use is the intent of the user.
Let me level with you guys according to my experiences — I find that some on each extreme end of the religious spectrum get quite offended and angry. Some non-Christians put up immediate walls or speak angry words from the pain of their past experiences. Some misguided Christians demand I repent of my sins or face judgment due to the heresy of mixing Biblical stories with fantasy.
But there is a large group in the middle, on both sides, that are very excited. Non-Christians out there may doubt the accuracy of the Bible, but they would LOVE to slay demons as the legendary Archangel Michael. Many Christians see the more concealed “easter egg” elements, like the angels using “talents and treasure” (aka skills and loot) to grow in power. And almost everyone loves the thematic tie-in of the Bible verses used as clever flavor text on the player’s “Prayer deck.” Beyond all else, those that have engaged in the hundreds of public play tests with myself or my play testers around the US appreciate that the theme is deeply integrated with the mechanics, so much so that it would be very difficult to retheme.
In many senses, the lore of the Bible is one of the richest sources available for fantasy in the entire world. Despite the challenges and noise to the contrary, I have found that there is a real desire to see more of this lore in great games.
Back To Marketing Fundamentals
The biggest mistake in Christian “games” is that they try to convert the player. These aren’t really games — they’re educational tools. And if you try to present an educational tool to a market that doesn’t want to be educated, why would it be shocking that it performed poorly?
Christians that make games need to define their target market. Your target market is the ideal profile of a person that would want your thing! If you make decisions around your target market, you’re going to make a game that goes further with that niche group and does better on the market overall.
My target market are people like me — those that played a ton of secular epic fantasy games, and want to share that same experience with a friend or loved one uncomfortable with such things.
It just so happened that others are out there that are super excited about an Angels vs Demons game that really explores the Biblical lore, too.
If you desire to create a game with religion as a core theme, you will face some backlash. But if you do your research and make a really great game while remaining true to yourself, you will find your market and have nothing to apologize for!