Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Problem With Mormon Games

I’m an adventure gamer.

Yes, I can admit that. I have long ago embraced my “inner geek”.

In my youth, and even into my advanced age, I’ve played all kinds of “brainiac” games. Whatever you want to call them. I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, and a whole bunch of other RPG’s, I’ve done Warhammer Fantasy and 40k, and whole bunch of other miniatures games. Yes, I play with “toy soldiers”. That’s what the song is about. I’ve done Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Magic-The Gathering collectible card games. I was never too deep into video or computer gaming, though. I always kinda liked the interaction with other people.

At various times in my life different kinds of games came and went in phases. As a teen and twenty-something, I was way into RPG’s, with a little bit of strategy on the side. In my thirties, I was more of a miniatures strategy gamer, mostly sci-fi. I loved painting the figures, making the terrain and the buildings, and playing the games. Lately, as the discretionary time in my life dwindles to almost nothing, I appreciate a quick MTG card game with my friends at lunch, or a YGO duel with my 8-year old.

One thing I miss, though, is being able to play games that express or reflect my faith.

That’s a fancy way of saying, “There are no good Mormon games.” Or at least, very few.

Basically, as I’ve been in stores and out on the web searching, I’ve discovered that there are three types of Mormon games:

1. Trivia. The “Celestial Pursuit” stuff. Either card-based, or board-based or whatever, you answer questions about the gospel to win. These are cool because they’re truly gospel-based. To win, you have to know your stuff. If you play it enough, you can learn a lot. My problem? I’ve never really been a big fan of trivia games. I’ll play them, but there’s no strategy involved, ya know? You just answer the questions.

2. Knockoffs. I also call these the “Face” games, because what someone does is find a game that lots of people like, and then they slap a Mormon “face” on it. This is like the “The Settlers of Zarahemla” (The Settlers of Catan), or “Book of Mormon Battles” (a War variant). There was also a Mormon version of “Uno” once, but I can’t remember the name of it. I thought that was funny, because Uno itself is just a knockoff of the traditional “Crazy 8’s” card game.

3. Then there are a number of general family games, made by Mormons and Mormon-marketing companies, but which don’t have any gospel-specific themes.

I’ll also acknowledge that there are a few games that don’t fit into any of these categories, but the majority do.

There really aren’t any good original “adventure” games with gospel themes. I remember a game, a long time ago, when I was in Seminary. We were studying the Book of Mormon that year, and as a part of the materials packets, there was a strategy wargame based on the Nephite-Lamanite wars. Our teacher, knowing that I was into those kind of games, gave me the game and the rules, and let me and a friend teach it to the class. It was pretty fun, a very basic game, and it had a lot of the common mechanics and principles that most wargames of the day had. It had paper map playing boards, marked off in hexagons, cardboard counters representing the armies. Pretty cool. Still, in the end, I’d include it with the “knockoff” category, because it was so similar to most of the board-based wargames we were playing at the time. The only real difference was that the counters said “Lamanite” and “Nephite” on them, and there was a “Zarehemla” on the map.

In the years that I’ve been longing for a good gospel-based adventure game, I’ve tried to make a few. Along the way, I’ve started to discover why there isn’t many of them. There are some problems with many of the Mormon games out there, and there are some inherent difficulties with designing one.


1. Making the game relate to the Gospel. One big problem that a lot of the knockoff games have is that they begin as non-gospel games. As a result, the game plays just as well without the gospel elements. In B of M Battles, for example, it didn’t take long for my son to realize that the important part of the cards was the numbers. The Book of Mormon names on the cards had no effect on the way the game was played, so they got ignored.

2. Poor playtesting. Many of the games I’ve played are made up and marketed, but I suspect aren’t playtested enough. There are some pretty clumsy elements that I’ve encountered. I guess the assumption is that if the original game works, the version with the Mormon face on it should work as well, but if variant rules are introduced, or a different cardset is used, it can change the outcome of the game.

3. Some games actually teach the wrong principle. The Mormon version of Uno, for example, rewards those who actively “dig a pit for their neighbor”.

4. Someone has to win. And defining the winner can get really tricky, because if someone wins, then someone else loses. That’s not always a bad thing, but in the long run, God really wants everyone in the Celestial Kingdom, doesn’t he? The Gospel isn’t a competition. But games, pretty much by definition, have to be. So it can be a real challenge to set up a fun, challenging, and exciting situation, without defining “winners” and “losers”. In the seminary wargame, for example, it was a battle, so it was pretty easy to define a winner. If you destroyed your enemy, you won! But, that set up another challenge…

5. Someone has to play the bad guy. In the seminary game, one player was the Nephites, and another was the Lamanites. Games are basically about conflict. You play against an opponent. That’s pretty easy to set up in a Gospel game, because the Gospel is all about good vs evil. But that also means that if you’re good, your opponent has to be evil. And if he’s the evil player, what if he discovers just how much fun it is being evil. And what is he learning if he’s actively looking for ways for evil to win the game?

6. It’s tough to quantify “spirituality” and “the power of God”. In most adventure games, there are elements of the game that need to be represented by numbers. Hit points, attack and defense strengths. Intelligence, Dexterity, all of the ability scores of the RPG’s. How do you assign a number that represents spirituality? Or faith? On the battlefield, the 2000 stripling warriors had lots of faith. The power of God protected them. So, how many attack and defense points should they have?

7. A minuscule market. The Mormon market is, simply put, small. And the market for Mormon adventure games is even smaller. That’s a fact. Accept it!

So, out of all this comes: A good Mormon game would be something fun, that’s quick to play, and relatively easy to learn. It would relate directly to the Gospel in it’s play, and not have a “good guy” player and a “bad guy” player.

That’s not easy to do. I know, because I’ve tried a few times. I tried a B of M-based RPG, and CCG, too. Lately I’ve been working on a new CCG that’s more abstract, with cards drawn directly from the scriptures. When I get a prototype of that done, I’d love to have some playtesters…

In the meantime, thanks for letting me put down some thoughts and comments on an interesting part of Mormon pop culture.

MRKH
Mark Hansen
http://markhansenmusic.com

5 comments:

  1. Hey Mark,

    Interesting stuff. While I share your desire to find games that have elements of our faith in them, I'm not sure they have to be expressly "Mormon" in nature. I guess what I really mean is there doesn't have to be a name-to-name recognition like with the games you mentioned. Games that subtly stress moral choices may be an easier task. One of the things that got me thinking about this is an essay by Tracy Hickman.
    http://www.trhickman.com/essay.html
    Yes, he's the Tracy Hickman of D&D and Dragonlance fame. It turns out that he's LDS. Very interesting article. I highly reccomend it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I haven't really gotten into RPGs or card games, but I have always wanted to. My brother plays D&D a lot.

    I think you are right that it's difficult to create a game specific to the LDS Genre and still teach moral principles. A D&D game that has moral choices as well as other choices would be difficult to do right.

    I had known that Tracy Hickman was LDS, I think it's great to have active people from the church in all industries. I will have to read the essay.

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  3. Mark,
    I ran across your blog while looking for... what else? Mormon games! My desire is for someone to use an Age of Empires type format to create a Nephite vs. Lamanite scenario. I think I would enjoy recreating some famous Book of Mormon battles on a game like that. (I thought about just using "Age of Kings", but there are not quite enough compatible characters or races). I'm not really great at computer stuff, so I guess I just have to wait until someone who is can create it.

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  4. What about a Mormon game that was co-op? That would elminate the "bad guy" scenario...

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  5. I think a cooperative game would be awesome! That would remove the need for someone to play the bad guy. It would also help promote working together to solve problems, definitely something that fits within the gospel.

    This is what I am always working on, fun, original LDS-themed games that promote family time and help people learn more about the gospel, even if indirectly. If you would like to be a part of that kind of thing, then check out my site: www.mormongamedesign.blogspot.com, and let your voice be heard.

    Thanks Mark for sharing your thoughts and insights.
    Mike

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