As a gamer with a Christian background and a resulting interest in religion, I’m always on the lookout for games with real-world religions as their focus. But this is a challenging enterprise for several reasons. First of all, most games tend to be aimed at a primarily secular audience, with spiritual elements being presented with a fantastical nature (which is reasonably done for the purpose of avoiding controversy). Second, many games dealing with religion come across as somewhat preachy, and I’m about games that can appeal to a wide audience, and that are not limited to members of the religion or religions being presented. Third, and most unfortunately, I have found that these games are often very shoddily designed, relying more on their religious theme to sell product (again, among gamers of the faith) than on truly sound gameplay. I find that such halfhearted attempts by designers do more to insult the object of their faith than to honor it.
Soul of the Empire, a strategic board game by Chara Games that is nearing the end of its Kickstarter campaign, may be a rare exception, as it approaches the early days of the Christian church and its conflict with other powers of that period through the lens of history, representing each faction as its people would have viewed themselves rather than promoting or denouncing any particular narrative. Opening at the time of Nero’s ascension to Roman emperorship, this asymmetric two- to four-player game puts players in control of Rome itself, the Jews who seek freedom from Roman rule, the small but growing Christian church that is slowly spreading its faith throughout the Roman Empire, and an alliance of Germanic Tribes, Goths, and Parthians known collectively as the Coalition, who are intent on resisting Rome’s expansion into their lands.
The goal of Soul of the Empire is to be the first player to reach seven points’ worth of fulfilled objectives. During the game, each player works to claim and fulfill objectives listed on a series of face-up cards revealed from an objective deck, in order to score points for their faction. Each objective card presents different requirements depending on the faction that claims it, and each faction’s unique Power Decks emphasize its distinct playstyle: Rome uses its superior resources and combat strength to overwhelm and subjugate the other factions, while the Christians must disperse their people far and wide to spread the Gospel message, with a tenacity belying their small numbers. The Jewish faction is about gaining independence through focused area control and optimizing the actions available to them. Finally, the Coalition is about aggressively seizing territory and disrupting the other factions’ claimed objectives. If you like messing with your opponents’ plans, they’re the faction for you. While the primary goal is to score objective points, each faction has a unique alternate win condition that figures into its main identity: Rome wins by capturing 25 opposing units, the Jews win by reclaiming all of Judea, and so forth. At its core, each faction determines its actions via a simple Yahtzee-like dice-rolling mechanic, so that while each plays differently, players will not need to relearn the game each time they try a new faction—a problem sometimes associated with asymmetric games.
The game runs in a stated playtime of two hours, and from my perspective as an experienced gamer, the rules are moderately complex. However, this is a deeply thematic game, and I have found that the complexity hurdle can be lessened somewhat if the players are able to associate the mechanics with what is being represented thematically, so in that respect, it could be easier for fans of Roman history to pick up quickly. The other obstacle facing this game is, of course, the controversial nature of it being a religion-inspired game, but in the likelihood that those of you still reading this aren’t turned off by that, I recommend taking a look at the campaign. I am eager to see this game succeed, and hopefully reach some of its stretch goals as well.