In one sense, True Messiah is the poster boy for why Kickstarter exists. It was funded independently of any major publisher, it’s a little oddball, it stands well beyond the usual circles, and happens to be designed by a newcomer with some digital game design experience but no name in tabletop. A passion project, in other words, and one that likely wouldn’t have been birthed without crowdfunding. This is the very reason Kickstarter was lauded as a platform in the first place.
In another sense, however, it’s also a poster boy for why crowdfunded passion projects that stand well beyond the usual circles aren’t always everything they’re cracked up to be.
Here’s the pitch. Buckle up.
In the near future, somebody invents the Belief Engine, which transmutes — you guessed it — belief into reality. Exactly like it says on the box. Never mind that this is exactly the sort of scientific conjecture that would immediately have the luddites passing out hammers, and for good reason. Before long the world is wrecked by competing beliefs whizz-banging all over the place, a handful of charismatic messiahs squabble over the ashes, and everybody else is brainwashed into adhering to an even mix of real magic and watery televangelism.
It’s a great setting, in other words. Idiosyncratic but recognizable. Dense but not belabored. Bleak but also bleak. And it sets up a world that’s appropriately brutal, one where the average Thursday likely consists of torching a temple, summoning a monstrous avatar, and passing a collection plate. A universal church even a millennial can dig.
But it isn’t long before True Messiah makes one wonder: what’s the function of a setting at all? Some cool illustrations? Justification for why you’re warring over a charred ball of dust? Or is it something more? Is it to provide a context for your actions, perhaps? To inform what you’re doing and why, to bind mechanisms to keywords and keywords to automatic reflexive thought, to spark the imagination and even, perhaps, offer some sort of thematic statement?
In order to talk about why True Messiah doesn’t accomplish any of that, let’s open with magic.
This is a deck-builder, but not like the deck-builders you may have played before. It exists in a middle ground between, say, a pure deck-builder like Shards of Infinity, which is nothing but deck, and a hybrid game by Martin Wallace like A Study in Emerald, Mythotopia, or A Handful of Stars, where your actions are enabled and informed by a deck but played out on a map.
Here deck-building is something you get up to every so often. When you feel like it. When the market phase rolls around, and you’ve bothered to collect coins to wager, and you actually want any of the spells currently being auctioned. And your deck isn’t full of the stuff you’ll do on your turn, like raising or moving armies or starting scuffles or fundraising. Every card is a magic spell, insofar that you can call faith-based healing that actually heals because of faith “magic.” Pray hard enough — by flipping your temple-going believers onto their knees — and ding! Like a microwave announcing your flatbread pizza is lukewarm and soggy, suddenly a pious benefactor has donated to your coffers, or an enemy army has been smitten by lightning, or rival zealots lose their faith and become piddly nonbelievers.
Three things stand out about this system. The first is that it’s perfectly functional. Spells stack between players, letting you preempt an attack with a defensive spell, only to have it disrupted by another spell in response. As long as you have followers squatting in a temple, you have the currency to do something outlandish, even when it isn’t your turn. Sounds good, right? That’s what we call off-turn engagement!
Except the second thing is that these cards are generally underwhelming. Not that there aren’t some real winners in there. A pilgrimage teleports an army rather than crawling them across the dirt! Disillusionment annihilates a messiah’s ranks! Divine judgment transforms nonbelievers into burnt temples! The problem is that these cards are the exception rather than the rule, the amazing atom bombs that stand in contrast to the basic ground-pounders, with hardly any artillery making up the middle. Of course, not every deck-builder needs to provide fireworks at every turn. A Few Acres of Snow and Hands in the Sea, for example, both stuffed their decks with administrative duties alongside their canoes and elephants. But even in these cases the cards were essential decision points, things to be managed or winnowed. They elicited a response, even if that response was deliberate frustration or delay. Never a shrug.
That’s the third thing. Because these powers are neither thrilling nor integrated directly into what you’ll do on your turn, they feel weirdly divorced from the business of marching armies and constructing temples. They’re something periodically tinkered with, little movement or defense or battle bonuses, rather than indispensable tools kept always at hand.
This sense of detachment creeps into the higher-level gameplay as well. Each turn, you move six units up to two spaces, except when your messiah is out and about, in which case you’re permitted to move nine units. If your messiah calls in sick and stays at a holy site, you recruit two new followers, or one new follower for every temple with at least two followers on it. And you build temples when you have four followers in an empty space, but not if one of them has been demoted to nonbeliever status, and there’s nothing to stop you from lining the edge of the map with temples rather than spreading them out.
Is your head spinning? At every turn, True Messiah provides a possibility, then robs it of easy meaning by counterpointing it with an exception. Consider the victory conditions. If an opponent’s messiah dies, you win. That’s great! It’s concise and approachable. Your messiah is your toughest combat unit and the source of all your spells, but also vulnerable across multiple skirmishes. Where he trods, so trod death and destruction, but little by little the fray will take its toll. Straightforward stakes.
But recall that I mentioned victory conditions, plural. You also win if a rival — any rival — drops below four followers, or loses their holy city, or owns fewer than eight cards in their hand, deck, and discard. Taken on their own, any of these individual conditions would suffice. In some cases they’re even apt, like the way an overly curated deck might open itself to disruption and therefore failure. When added together, the game feels fiddly and weightless, as though victory is more about plinking at an opponent’s most overlooked digit rather than exploiting a weakness. Worse, when playing with more than two messiahs the game suffers from a terrible case of A Third Party Wins By Swooping In When Someone Is Weakened.
There are other problems, from the carved-in-granite turn order to the disappointing combat, but expounding on them isn’t necessary. Rather, the point is that True Messiah is an unfortunate reminder that not every passion project results in a fascinating artifact of talent and creativity. It’s easy to see how this might have shaped into something more coherent given some careful development, resulting in solid deck-building hybrid instead of a cotillage of mismatched and exception-riddled systems.
Sometimes a passion project results in something truly incredible. Sadly, that wasn’t the case with True Messiah.