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Posted on Dec 17, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

A Splendidly Unique Game!  The Mission – Board Game Review

A Splendidly Unique Game! The Mission – Board Game Review

Rick Martin

The Mission –  Early Christianity from the Crucifixion to the Crusades    Board Game Review.  Publisher: White Dog Games   Game Designer: R. Ben Madison   Price $50.00

Passed Inspection:  unique subject matter, fun and challenging, lots of repay value, I learned a lot about Christian history from this game

Failed Basic:   some rules need a little more explanation, map could be larger (fixed by the publisher), needs different victory conditions if you can’t play the main campaign all the way through (partial play victory points based upon what turn you ended on)

            In 2017, I had the pleasure of reviewing R. Ben Madison’s game “The Mound Builders” which was a solo point to point system exploring twenty six hundred years of the Mound Builders culture in North America.  It was an excellent game design and helped me understand the culture of the original people who lived in my state of Ohio.  (http://armchairgeneral.com/explore-north-americas-mound-builders-culture-game-review.htm )  Now Madison turns his attention to 1300 years of Christian history from the crucifixion of Christ to the Crusades in “The Mission” which is published by White Dog Games.   It is my pleasure to say that “The Mission” is another excellent game design!

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The game comes in a slim box with beautifully evocative artwork by Jonathan Carnehl.

Box Cover

The components include:

GAME COMPONENTS

22″ x 17″ Game Map

176 5-8″ Double-Sided Counters and Markers

16-Page Full Color Rule Book

1 Counter Tray Card

1 Acts Track Card

1 Sequence of Play Reference Card

1 Double-Side Set Up Sheet

You’ll need to provide your own six sided dice – 2 of them to be exact.

Components
counters

Per White Dog’s website:

The Mission is a “grand strategy” solitaire game by Ben Madison (Gorbachev, N, The White Tribe, The First Jihad, and more)  covering almost 1,300 years of Christian history. While the secular world of empires and politics plays out around you, your apostles and missionaries spread the faith, translating the Bible and converting areas of the map to Christianity. Each turn covers several decades. The flow of play teaches players about the expansion and doctrinal battles of early Christianity while you build institutions like universities, hospitals, and monasteries to educate, heal, and inspire the societies you touch.

     Internally, heresies and schisms in the Church will try to thwart your plans while external forces threaten you. Pressing against you are barbarian hordes, some of which you may convert. And when the armies of Islam arrive, the game changes from one of missionary outreach to one of survival, as Christian communities hunker down under siege during the long Dark Ages. Perhaps you will rise again in a blaze of glory as Christendom finally fights back, using the Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista to recover lost provinces!

            The 16 page rule booklet is expertly written and includes plenty of examples and histories behind many of the rules.  There is also a very informative Designer’s Notes section which adds context to the designer’s experiences which lead him to this design.  I did have some initial difficulty figuring out the set-up and how to properly use the Heresy Counters.  I was also a little confused as the effects of the invading hordes on the player’s pieces and victory points.  I also found that the rules regarding what constitutes whether the Roman Army is completely defeated during combat or merely goes in to the Damaged Box on the map were a little unclear.

            The rules include a full campaign game which takes you from Christ’s crucifixion around 30 AD until 1291 AD as well as a shorter game covering the rise of Islam and the  Crusades from 631 AD to 1291 AD.  For my review play, I played from 30 AD until  511 AD (Turn 17) and it took  about 5 or 6 hours.  Of course I was learning as I played and also doing some housework.  The one thing I noticed is that when I decided to end the game, I didn’t really have a good feel for the victory points as there was no option to calculate victory for a partial campaign game.    I would have really liked to have some third option of play and a rule for determining victory points for that third option.

            The Mission is a “state of siege” style game in which the map is made up of a series of tracks which converge on a central point and you are threatened by real or abstract forces coming towards the central point.  In this game your central point is Jerusalem with a strong second point being Rome.  You’ll want to try and defend both while trying to spread Christianity outwards from Jerusalem and, eventually, Rome.  At the same time, you are trying to prevent and/or heal schisms which can develop from different viewpoints or practices in early Christianity.  The game is actually broken up in to several periods which each play out a little differently.

An Empire Being Threatened

            If you play a complete campaign there are 28 turns in the game.  If you play the Rise of Islam game there are 8 turns.  There are multiple turns in an “age”.  The “ages” include the Apostolic Age (turns 1 and 2 30 AD to 90 AD), the Pax Romana (Turns 3 to 9 91 AD to 300 AD), the Age of Constantine (turns 10 to 14 301 AD to 450 AD) – this is when Christianity becomes officially sanctioned by the Roman Empire, the Fall of Rome (turns 15 to 20, 451 AD to 630 AD), the Rise of Islam (turns 21 to 24, 631 AD to 750 AD), Early Middle Ages (turns 25 to 27, 751 AD to 1094 AD) and The Crusades (turn 28, 1095 AD to 1291 AD).

            There are various actions you can perform each turn by spending Solidi which are the gold coins of the late Roman Empire.  You spend Solidi to move units around, to perform actions such as translating the Bible in to languages other than Greek, to try and convert people to Christianity, to influence the Roman Army to move, etc.

            During the Apostolic Age your primary goal as Jewish followers of the teachings of Christ to the areas around Jerusalem.  Initially you start by trying to convert other Jewish people to join your sect of Judaism by taking actions with the apostles (Peter, Paul, Jude, Mark, Thomas and Barnabas).  In my review play, my first move was to send Peter to Rome to spread the good word but when he got there he was promptly martyred.  But his mission wasn’t a total failure as a man heard his preaching and stole his bones to venerate them as holy artifacts!  That man eventually became the first Bishop in Rome!    In the ensuing years, all the apostles died but their preaching spread the teachings of Christ and eventually even converted the Emperor Constantine to this new religion.  The apostles’ bones become much sought after relics which, if you posses them, can help give you more actions during a turn.

Peter was Martyred in Rome

            This feels very much like a game of counter-insurgency where initially you are the insurgents then you become the dominant power trying to keep your power base intact faced with external and internal threats.  The threats may not be of a military nature but can come from competing philosophies which threaten the status quos.  An interesting element of game play in The Mission is that even external threats like plagues can create opportunities to build hospitals which then spread the favorable impression of Christianity.

            As the ages progress, you gain control over the Armies of Rome and when the Western Empire falls, you get the European Knights to defend the land.

            During the Age of Constantine, the Council of Nicaea splits the Christian religion in to the Catholic and Orthodox faiths and later the Council of Arles formalizes the Donatist Schism.

Schism

            During the Fall of Rome, it really becomes a “state of siege” style game as the Saxons, Bulgars, Khazars, Turks, Himyar Clans and Vandals besiege you from all sides.   They begin moving down the tracks using the game’s artificial intelligence to threaten “civilization”.  You can move Rome’s Army as well as other units to help mitigate the threats.

            So how is the game’s artificial intelligence?  Each turn you draw a Wafer counter from a cup.  On one side is how many Solidi you get for the turn. Also there may  be an  indicator that a plague or some other event has happened or a series of commands showing what your enemies are doing.  This works extremely well for giving you opposition which can threaten your ‘mission’.  You initially start with only silver Solidi in the cup but as the ages pass, you then are instructed to add gold Solidi in to the cup.  The gold Solidi make things much more challenging and dangerous.

The Heart of the Game’s AI

            There are almost as many options in this game as are in GMT’s wonderful Navajo Wars solo game (also reviewed at Armchair General).  Each action that you perform or fail at has a subtle influence on other events and on the factions and enemies you will encounter.  Some events that you will encounter are the rise of heretical emperors in the Eastern Empire, the rise of tyrant rulers who may try and feed your people to the lions, heretical popes and their followers, jihads and many other challenges.

            Aside for building hospitals, universities and monasteries, you can also translate the Bible in to various languages to try and gain followers in other regions.  You can also enlist the help of famous theologians to help solve problems and reduce the Dark Ages track because if the Dark Ages Track reaches the 7 box, civilization comes crashing down and you lose the game.

Translating the Bible

            The game is not just about the clash of beliefs but also about the clash of swords.  The army of Rome and other forces will combat in extremely abstract battles.  You must drive the hordes back so that they don’t crush your movement but combat is still a side act as the main focus of the game is on a clash of ideas and philosophies.

            If you couldn’t already tell from my review, there are lots of moving parts in this game and tons of replay-ability based upon these moving parts.  It’s very easy to lose a campaign when something you did a few turns ago begins to catch up to you.

            Madison’s copious designer’s notes really teach you the history of the early Christian church and the cultures it was interacting with.  I must say that I learned more from this game in one afternoon than in years of casual reading about the time period covered. 

            My criticisms of the game are few.  I found the 11” x 17” map that came in my copy of the game to be a little too small for stacking multiple counters in one area.  The publishers have solved this by issuing a larger map in new copies of the game and making the larger map available to purchase on their website.  The game is now being shipped with a 22” x 17” map instead of the 11” x 17” map.

            As I stated earlier, I found the victory conditions to be a little too strictly based upon either completing the whole campaign or upon the Rise of Islam scenario.  I had to stop my game around 3/4th in to the full campaign.  There was no real way to gauge my victory points at that point.  It seemed like an unfulfilling end to the game.  I would love to see a graduated victory point chart released to resolve this issue.  Sometimes you just have to pack things up even if the game isn’t finished.  Real life intrusions and such.

            None the less, these few complaints can’t tarnish this original and extremely engrossing game that gets my vote for the most refreshing and innovative game concept of 2020!

Detailed Info on the Turn Track
Game Board Late 500s

Armchair General Rating: 97 %

Solitaire Rating: 5 (1 to 5 with 1 being Unsuitable for Solo Play and 5 being Perfect for Solo Play)

About the Author

A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer. He designed the games Tiger Leader, The Tiger Leader Expansion and Sherman Leader for DVG and the solo system for Forsage Game’s Age of Dogfights.  In addition, Rick can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!

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