My qualifications for writing this series are (1) that I am a board game nerd, (2) that I’m willing to play anything once, and (3) I’m a Professional Religious Person, specifically an Episcopal Priest. Just to be clear, I’m not using this as a back-door into trying to convert anyone—that’s not my job. I’m fascinated by games in general and this question David put to me: “Are there any good religious games?”
My immediate and uncharitable thought was, “Not bloody likely.” There are 11 pages of ostensibly religious-themed games on BGG. Some seem only tangentially related, and most after the first page or so look, with a knee-jerk assessment, Not Good. But then I remembered A Game for Good Christians, which is essentially Apples to Apples but with Bible verses and a heathy dose of snark and spice and is just delicious. Everyone should learn Biblical literacy from this game and this game only. I’ve mentioned Zen Tiles Solo before which is simple and beautiful. Hollandspiel’s Nicaea looks fascinating, plus there’s ancient games like Senet depicting movement through the afterlife. Famously, Jews play Dreidel at Hannukah—is it actually good or just tradition?
But to fully address the question one must first define what a “religious game” is. And that’s not easy. Most of the games on that 11-page list have an obvious religious theme–Settlers of Canaan, anyone? BGG users have also added the “religion” tag to games that have a religious element (perhaps the ubiquitous Monk Track?) but are really about something much different and, thus, I don’t think I’d call them Religious Games. What about games like Cathedral which are essentially abstract with a thin religious skin?
It’s like sandwiches (bear with me here). I define sandwiches as: “filling protected from your hands by some form of bread, typically but not exclusively layered”. Therefore, a grilled cheese is obviously a sandwich, and I’d argue a quesadilla is also a sandwich. I’d go so far as to say an egg roll is at least sandwich-adjacent and that pizza is an open-faced sandwich.
I will be similarly expansive about what constitutes a religious game. Some games very much aren’t religious but the edges of the set will be fuzzy as I don’t believe it’s a binary distinction. A religious game is one whose theme is primarily but not exclusively exploring the practice, history, or theology of any religion or spiritual tradition. Thus Nuns on the Run is a religious game as is Tzolk’in, Pipeline is not, and any Star Wars based game with Jedi prominently featured is in the nonbinary space because my friend Skaught very much experiences the Jedi code as his religion.
Now, are they good? The problem is, so many religious-themed things are just, well, lame. Now, that may be specific to the Christian-themed merchandise and here in the US, cultural Christianity is the water we swim in. I’m hoping to dive into other religions’ cringe-worthy merch and I’d love to hear in the comments about your own spiritual tradition’s lame games. In the US, when something is labeled Christian fiction or a Christian film, you’re pretty much guaranteed a sanitized, overly sweet and simple, probably theologically-questionable time. You’re likely to be “educated” about something in a heavy-handed fashion and, some percent of the time, treated to some racist or patriarchal BS. Am I too hard on my people? I don’t think so. The goal, as I understand it, is to be uplifting and avoid evil thoughts or themes, but scripture and tradition are not clean and simple, they’re R-rated—because our lives are R-rated. I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere (shameless self-promotion for the books I’ve written for a real publisher), but my point is this: so much of what’s deemed “Christian” or “religious” entertainment or even politics in the US is ultimately preachy and boring. Is the same true for other religions’ gaming merchandise? Are there more than a handful that are actually good? Let’s find out together!
In college, my theatre history professor had us write reviews of plays based around two questions: what are they trying to do? And did they succeed? Only after we answered those questions could we voice our opinion about whether or not we liked the plays personally. I suggest that a religious game is good when (1) it succeeds in what it’s trying to do, whatever that is, (2) it explores its theme complexly and appropriately for its weight, and (3) it is joyous. Why joyous? Years ago, when I was bemoaning the commercialism of Christmas saying, “It’s not Christmas yet, it’s Advent!”, my husband said, “You know, when you say that, you’re shaming us so we can’t enjoy the season. It’s a turn-off.” Reader, he was right. Consumerism is a cancer, yes, but celebrating and anticipating a fun event? That’s kind of the whole point of that season. And joy is a huge part of pretty much every spiritual tradition as well as gaming, even if “joy” to some people means number-crunching or bearing witness to historical pain. Religious games may fall into the same trap that educational ones do, that is, they’re solely educational and not actually any fun. The designers can get so caught up in their own earnestness and miss out on the joy.
Additionally, a religious-themed game is good to the extent that it comforts the players and/or exhorts them to a higher good. I’m aware this is a bit nebulous and definitely subjective, but it strikes me that these are inherent in our spiritual traditions—the need for comfort in an unpredictable world and the courage to respond thoughtfully and compassionately to the world. We’re talking bonus points here, not part of the base score.
Friends, what do you think of this framework? Will it serve? And are there games you’d particularly like to read about? Let us know in the comments below.