When I first became a Christian in high school – whoa, 16 years ago now – one of the more difficult struggles I found myself in was assimilating into the media of evangelical culture. Overcoming stereotypes from the misinformed (like how playing Dungeons & Dragons is a one-way ticket to hell) was a battle I still have to fight every day. And the impression I got back then was that while Christians were happy to have their own “Christian version” of everything, most of it, well, sucked. I didn’t use to be a metalhead, but I found that somehow that was the only genre where Christians were on par or ahead of their secular counterparts, probably because most fundamentalists thought screaming into a microphone meant you were devil spawn anyway. (Don’t get me started on movies…)
While the mere concept of Christians insisting their own separate versions of everything has its own problems, it has its own unique considerations within board games. Certainly eras of early Christendom have been represented in roundabout ways, through games about the Roman empire, for example. Typically, this is representation has been negative or roughly neutral, which is not altogether strange for today’s society. Yet the stories of both the Old Testament and the early Church are, if nothing else, rich in narrative, and have a lot of potential as board game themes. We’ve seen a surge in this idea recently, moving from tacky Bible editions of Apples to Apples to serious considerations of these themes, with games like Kings of Israel from Funhill Games and now Commissioned from Chara Games. We’re arriving at a chance to do something for Christian games and media that music certainly couldn’t do in the 1990s or 2000s: to be engaging, inviting, authentic, and actually good.
Perhaps because of my own many disappointments in the realm of Christian media, I came in expecting very little from Commissioned, but hoping for quite a lot. Designed by Patrick Lysaght, Commissioned is a cooperative deckbuilding game (somewhat similar to the Legendary series) that has players taking on the roles of apostles of the early church, spreading the Gospel outward from Jerusalem, overcoming various difficulties along the way. Can it accomplish a seemingly impossible task? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: The game is played on a board consisting of a large map of the area surrounding Jerusalem in the time of Acts. While cubes, meeples, and pawns are constantly moving on the board, there are also several different decks involved in the cardplay. All of the pieces (especially the large, helpful player boards) are of fine quality, though I think the artwork is a bit drab. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be evocative of the theme or if it was a budget thing, but I’d love for the game’s hopeful approach to the theme illustrated colorfully by someone like Vincent Dutrait (Discoveries) or Xavier Collette (Dixit Journey). Other than the “seriousness” of the art (which may appeal to some!), the game’s components are very nicely done, and the $45 MSRP is more than reasonable.
Accessibility: It’s easy to see that a lot of effort went into this rulebook, as well as the how to play video. I read the rules, but the other players who had watched the video ahead of time were consistently more “on top of things” than I was, so take that for what it’s worth. We had the occasional rules question, but I found that the game was very careful with wordings and definitions of in-game objects, which was really helpful. The game’s deckbuilding concept could be new to some who are buying the game based on the theme, and the way that the turn “order” works takes a little getting used to. Those are not major complaints, however. I wouldn’t quite call this a gateway game and I would think non-gamers buying this could use a teacher, but any experienced gaming group will have zero trouble learning this one.
Depth: My one concern with this game is that it may become somewhat repetitive. On one hand, there are a variety of ways that the game sets up variability – you can do a different scenario; the decks to buy from are randomized; you can play as different apostles each time. On the other hand, the Trial deck is the same from game to game (other than choice of difficulty mode), and the ways that you interact with the board are somewhat basic. It’s entirely possible that I’m making something out of nothing, though – we’ve played a couple times, but I haven’t exhausted every scenario and our games did have different challenges. Much like other deckbuilders, I would love for this game to be boosted by a variety of expansions. Until then, I feel confident that the game will keep your interest for a good long while, but I’m not sure that the system is varied enough to keep you playing indefinitely.
Theme: This game has taken delicate care of its thematic integration, and the result is noteworthy. Most importantly, the challenges faced by the Apostles are interesting, but “nameless” – there are no particularly villainous bad guys like in Legendary, and I think that’s for the best. This game is more about the church figuring out its own struggles and becoming the beacon of good news that it should be, and that’s a wonderful angle to take. There is a small trade-off in that the “nameless” challenges can for that reason feel generic at times, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off. Everything else just clicks, and presents Christianity as it should be, not as how many often perceive it today.
Fun: I enjoyed Commissioned quite a bit. It didn’t skyrocket to the top of my want-to-play pile, but it’s a game I’d be happy to sit down and play with anyone who’s interested. I expect it will be a great tool in teaching both Christians and non-Christians about the history and message of the early church, and I believe it does so in an authentic way. You can tell the designers were inspired to make a good game about their faith and not to just sell something because it said “Christian” on it. I suspect that if expansions are ever made, I’ll be very excited to come back to this one.
Commissioned is a solid game, and more importantly, a turning point, at least in board games, for the authenticity of “Christian” media. If you’re interested in the history of the early church, or just enjoy cooperative games or deckbuilding games, Commissioned is worth a look.
4 out of 5