One of the great things about the board gaming hobby is the variety of themes in which the games take on. One theme in particular that is underrepresented in that of biblical themes. Sadly, there are a number of biblical themed games out there that are quite unappealing due to bad design or thematic gameplay that is more academic and non-engaging to those who lack biblical knowledge. Fortunately, over the past couple of years a few games have surfaced that carry a strong biblical theme, but are engaging and appealing to those both inside and outside of a faith-based community.
Commissioned, designed by Patrick and Katherine Lysaght, is a cooperative game for 2-6 players set in the times of the early Christian Church. Players take on the roles of the early Christian Apostles and must work together to grow the church, collect books of the New Testament and overcome many trials that come about trying to squash the church and its growth. Even with this strong Christian theme, players do not need to know anything about Christianity to play the game.
The game covers the first 150 years of Church History and has 5 scenarios to play with a focus on building and spreading the early Church as well as writing the New Testament of the Bible. It is based on the events in the Book of the Bible called The Acts of the Apostles. The main mechanics in the game are deck building, cooperative play, area control, and set collection. There are a good number of components in the game, both cardboard tokens, and wooden pawns, cubes, and an elder token. The game has a 2-sided board with different locations based on the time in history as well as the missions that the Apostles were on. There are player boards, representing some of the early Church Apostles, each with their own special abilities that will be present in that Apostle’s faith deck. There are a number of faith cards, 6 starting cards for each Apostle, and then cards that have varying costs of faith, the currency used in this game, that will be available to be purchased throughout the game. There is also a trial deck that has 2 difficulty levels: Disciple and Martyr that will present challenges to the players.
At the start of the game, choose from one of the 5 scenario cards. On the reverse side of the cards is a bit of historical information in which the scenario is built around. Setup the game according to the scenario card as well as the rules in the rulebook.
Each player will choose an Apostle, take the player board, pawn, and starting cards.
One player is selected to be the Elder, and that player takes the Elder Staff and eight-sided die.
Once gameplay starts, each round has 3 phases: ARM, LIVE, and MATURE. During the ARM phase, players will draw cards from their faith deck into their hands. If a player cannot completely fill his or her hand, they will shuffle their discard pile and draw from there. During the LIVE Phase, this is where most of the action will take place. The LIVE phase is repeated a number of times depending on the number of players. The first thing that happens is the elder draws a Trial Card and resolves its effects. This is typically bad things that happen, usually loss of church members, imprisoned Apostles or missionaries, removal of Word cards from the New Testament Canon, or extinguishing the Church from certain areas. There are also stops that come out that restrict movement and growth.
Once the Trial card has been resolved, things get interesting. Each player PRAYS, meaning he or she secretly selects two Faith cards from their hand and places them face down on their Apostle board. The elder then rolls the eight-sided die called the message die and resolves its effect. Depending on the result, things can be ok where players can discuss with the elder about potential actions, to not being able to talk during the action portion of the phase, and sometimes even worse with no communication and stops coming out or even loss of Church members or missionaries. Once the PRAY action is done, players move to SHARE, turning the “prayed” cards face up.
The elder then chooses 2 cards from all of the cards revealed to use. The effects of the cards used are applied to the area where the elder’s Apostle pawn is located. After SHARING, the elder MOVES pieces between locations on the board. This is how the Church spreads.
Finally, after MOVING, the Church GROWS by placing new church members from the bread area of the board into regions that have 3 or more population. If there is a Grow Stop in a region, that area cannot grow. The elder token is then passed to the player to the left.
In the third phase of the game, players MATURE. They will use their 2 remaining cards in their had to purchase new faith cards. The sum of the faith total to use is added up from each card based upon the number in the footprint. If a player only buys one card, the player draws 2 cards from that deck, looks at them, chooses 1 and places the other on the bottom of the deck.Purchased cards go in the discard pile next to your Apostle board.
Play will continue until the scenario victory conditions are met, 5 Churches are extinguished, or the last Trial card is drawn and that round carried out. If the victory conditions are not met, the players lose.
One of the very thematic elements of the game is the extinguishing of Churches. In the upper left of the board is a set of 5 candles, representing 5 Churches. This is based upon the 7 golden lampstands in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. If there ever is an area that had church members and it then empties, whether by choice or by trial, one of the candles is extinguished. Place an extinguish token on the matching candle.
This adds tension to the game as you can see if hope is fading.
Commissioned itself makes for a wonderful table presence. The artwork is gorgeous, especially the game board itself. Using the map orientation by the Romans, as well as thematic Christian elements on the board with the 5 candles representing the 5 Churches based on the seven golden lampstands in the Book of Revelation and the bread and wine which are used in Communion. The game pawns are simple and functional. I really admire the matching artwork on the extinguished flame tokens. The player boards are of thick stock and the cards are well made. One minor complaint is that the game lacks a reference card for the different symbols that are on the cards and so the first number of plays, referencing the rule book will be necessary.
Gameplay is outstanding in Commissioned. The game fights against you with the trial cards and having 2 difficulty levels adds to the replayability. The deck building is solid in the game, and I like the way players can add to the New Testament Canon by sacrificing that card from their deck. The elder is responsible for making a final decision each round, but each player contributes with the cards they have “prayed.” I think this is a great way to incorporate a cooperative mechanic. This game does something I have not seen before in a co-op game that certainly deals with Alpha player issues and that is the messenger die. I really like that if conditions are not right, there is no talking. This certainly represents the challenge of persecution to the early Church builders. Without any input from the others, the elder is faces with going at it alone with the decision-making in the game and I think that this makes the game really shine. With 5 different scenarios, each game will play out differently. The game comes with a Theme Appendix that has Scripture references and explains the historical background of what was going on during the period of this game.
Looking at this game from a family perspective, Commissioned really hits a lot of buttons for me. Being a Christian, I appreciate the presence of this game in the marketplace. I think the game is tastefully done and even non-Christian players can enjoy it. I love the artwork and presentation of the game, making it appeal to a broad audience. But, the game is missional in the content that is presented. The Theme Appendix offers both historical and biblical references and information that players can choose to use for their own knowledge and growth. In addition, the gameplay itself represents a real feel of the challenges of the early Church. For a richer understanding of what happened during this time, read the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. Find a version that you can easily read as the Bible has many translations. In some ways I compare this feeling to what Freedom: The Underground Railroad presents. Another point is that this game does a great job of presenting a Christian-themed game that I would actually want to play. Like I said in my opening comments, many biblical themed games are more of Bible trivia and are bland in play. Third, this game can be played as a family and many discussions can occur during this game, including historical and faith-based discussions. I also see this game being used by Church groups, both youth groups (Jr. High and High School) and adult groups as part of a faith-building activity.
I feel this game is worthy of a place in many game libraries. Theme aside, the game is excellent in design and flow. It has simple rules and a play time that fits many people’s preferences for how long they want to spend in front of one game. This is one of the better cooperative games that have been released, being on par with a game like Pandemic, but doing something to deal with alpha player syndrome. Theme specific, I feel the designers have been commissioned to spread Christianity in the board gaming hobby with their game Commissioned. They presented a Christian theme in a way that is not abrasive and respectful to an audience who may have different faith perspectives. However, the way the game comes across, there is plenty of room for God to do His work in the hearts of those who play this game. I hope to see more good stuff from the Lysaghts.