I am a giant nerd. I write for a board game blog, so this should not be news to you. While the areas of my nerdy interests are many and varied, one that has been with me since I was small is trivia. I watched Jeopardy with my grandmother regularly (she had a crush on Alex Trebek). My family played Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition all the time; my idea of relaxation after I had my wisdom teeth out was for my mother to read me questions from that game. I was on quick-recall teams all through my junior high and high school years. Once, I answered every single question correctly in the handout round of a bar trivia night—theme: Superhero Comics. My husband is the comics nerd in our household, and he was so proud when I brought it home to hang on the fridge.
I love trivia, probably because I desire stability and the easy certainty of having the right answer to something small which makes the vast and painful world seem less vast and painful. Does that feel too vulnerable to share here? It’s the truth: finding something we can control or know completely brings comfort, it’s a coping mechanism. Trivia games are lightweight and offer players a certain ease, whether we get the answers right or not.
Thus, we will begin our examination of religious games and their relative merits with two Bible trivia games and one Bible-trivia-adjacent game:
You may recall from my introductory post about this series, my working definition of a religious game is “one whose theme is primarily but not exclusively exploring the practice, history, or theology of any religion or spiritual tradition.” Bible “Trivia” involves questions about the contents of the Jewish and Christian Bibles based unambiguously and unashamedly on the runaway hit of two years earlier Trivial Pursuit. Intelligent Design vs. Evolution also has players answering questions about the Bible and faith, this time leading and inaccurate questions about the “science” of Intelligent Design. A Game for Good Christians is essentially Apples to Apples with Biblical references but make it snarky. Each of these games is based somewhere in the Christian religious tradition and so fit our working definition with no problem. (Do they fit in the Jewish tradition? No, not really. It seems that games with the word Bible in them are almost exclusively from the Christian perspective, even though there is overlap.)
But are they any good? Before, I suggested “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.” I also offered bonus points for comforting the players in a vast and painful world and/or exhorting them to a higher good. Let’s see how each stacks up:
Bible “Trivia” is trying to cash in on the sweet, sweet Trivial Pursuit money of the early 80s. The cards are set up almost identically with questions on one side, answers on the other, organized into categories, though they’re printed in light-blue ink that reminds one forcefully of mimeographed worksheets. The board is reminiscent of the original: rainbows arc across each side of the board, one for each player, who need to progress up the bands of color, answering a question for each color/category. Once they have made this journey three times—symbolic, yes, but not elegant game design—they answer one final question represented by the enormous white cross in the center of each of their rainbows. Rather than the charming pie pieces and player markers on offer in Trivial Pursuit, which I expect required a lot of careful planning and machining, Bible “Trivia” uses knobby, Sorry!-like player markers and tiny, light-weight poker chips. Even for the time, the production quality is not impressive.
Bible “Trivia” doesn’t explicitly say it’s a teaching or evangelism tool, but the back of the box includes the lines “fully referenced and scripturally sound, based on the King James Version of the Bible,” and that the designer has “taught classes in Bible prophecy for two years” with no credentials listed for his expertise. This language suggests that it was created by well-meaning Christians who wanted to ride the wave of interest that Trivial Pursuit began and get the common people into Christianity via gaming. It’s likely that the game appealed primarily to people already in the Church as a fun way to wile away an evening and learn a thing or two rather than to bring people to Christ. An additional wrinkle is that a surprising number of the questions have incorrect answers. To be fair, it’s been over 30 years since I last played it, but I recall clearly my father (who is also a priest) being grumpy that some of the answers were wrong.
Bible “Trivia” succeeds at being Bible trivia. It is a lightweight game and as such, explores its theme purely on the surface. Add to that the mistakes, the less-than-ideal component quality, and the earnestness, and I cannot truly say it is a joy to play, neither can I say it is miserable. I suspect that there are devout Christians out there for whom this game is reassuring or a wholesome, good time, but for me, it’s ok. Firmly ok. Five giant-white crosses out of ten.
I cannot say the same for Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. At all. (I didn’t have a photo of it so I just asked David to take a picture of the vastly-superior Evolution: the beginning instead.) IDvE is transparently biased in favor of the pseudoscience Intelligent Design, evangelical Christianity’s answer to not being able to teach Creationism in public schools. This game was co-designed by actor Kirk Cameron, legendary for his turn to evangelicalism and doubling down on Biblical literalism. Who knew he dabbled in the art of board game design as well? This game, according to the back of the box, “is more than a game—it is an educational expose of perhaps the greatest hoax ever pulled over the eyes of secular humanity.” So, it’s clearly setting out to convince players of the error of their ways. Does it succeed? In a word, no. In many more words, check out this amazing review from the National Center for Science Education. (Full disclosure: while I have not played IDvE, I have seen numerous photos, read the rules, and read a number of the questions.) IDvE is condescending, poorly-researched, badly-written and -edited, and frequently takes the scientists it quotes out of context. It would be laughable if the folks who design this sort of thing didn’t also have the ears of people in the highest levels of our government.
The game itself has a roll-and-move path on the outside edge of the board and cards to collect that either bless or punish. It is simplistic at every possible level and the only joy I can imagine it bringing is to advocates Intelligent Design, before they try and fail to get anyone else to play it. Weirdly, IDvE wins a bonus point because those very advocates are likely to be comforted by its certainty and exhorted to convince others of this narrow understanding of God. Is it religious? Yes. Is it good? Absolutely not. But for a small segment of the populace, it does what it says on the tin. So, one Red-Letter Bible out of ten?
Finally, A Game for Good Christians is, spoilers, a delight. Biblically-accurate, educational in a fun way, low-pressure, and snarky. AGfGC, similarly to Bible “Trivia”, is riding the Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity wave, and succeeds where the latter does not because it’s actually fun. I have put this game in front of atheists, Jews, Christians, and Hindus and to a person they loved it. Every game, over and over, someone demands through laughter, “Oh my God, is that really in there?” and then we get to tell the story of King David and the dowry of 100 foreskins or whatever. (As I was taking a photo of some of the cards, a student read one over my shoulder and said out loud, “what?!”) The people love it because it’s fascinating and unforced. Each answer card in the generous deck includes a Biblical citation, so players can check the accuracy for themselves.
AGfGC sets out to be an entertaining and enlightening romp and entirely succeeds. It’s not weighed down by a need to be wholesome or even to fit into a particular reading of scripture, unless being sarcastic is a theology? The side of the box says, “Will God send me to hell for playing this game?…of all the things you’ve done, do you really think this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?” I would not, however, recommend this game for people who take their Bible seriously enough that poking fun at the stories or asking awkward questions would be verboten.
While it’s not strictly-speaking a trivia game, the conversations the cards bring up are more engaging and educational and, as Malcom Gladwell says, sticky. A Game for Good Christians is light, interesting, joyous, and encourages players to share it with other people, if for no other reason than Christianity has a well-earned reputation for being overly-serious and strict. Ten Biblically-Accurate Angels out of ten.
This article is a bit long, particularly as it’s about lightweight trivia games. These are meant as exemplars of the many, many more out there, and I think this sets us up for a first hypothesis: games that intend to convince the player of something tend to be worse than games that play in the space. Additionally, and obviously, biased and incorrect information about real-world matters makes a game less respectable and less enjoyable. Immediately, I can think of games that undercut these hypotheses: Freedom! The Underground Railroad and Train, off the top of my head, intend to convince the players of something and, by all accounts, do so powerfully. There are lots of party games about lying and manipulation that are great fun.
How do you resonate with those hypotheses? Have you played any of these games? What did you make of them? Have you played trivia games based in other religions that were any good? Leave us a comment below about them or share your favorite bit of Bible trivia!