I Hope They Call Me on The Mission
In my very first course after changing my major to history, my midterm paper came back with a scrawled note in purple ink: “Good writing, good argumentation, but too polemical.”
Too polemical. I’ve been waiting to drop that one on some unsuspecting victim ever since. You could even say it’s one of the reasons I was so eager to write about Ben Madison’s solo game The Mission, which charts the history of Christianity over its first thousand years. “From the Crucifixion to the Crusades,” as its subtitle goes. Sounds polemical to me! Brace yourself, Ben Madison, for thou art—
Medium polemical? Somewhat polemical? Acceptably polemical? Certainly not polemical enough for “too” polemical. If any “too” should be deployed, The Mission is too preoccupied with being playable. A difficult charge to make stick in court. If it please your honor, The Mission is guilty of being too good to be polemical. First-degree playable, second-degree polemical. And here I’d expected those to be the other way around.
Let me show you what I mean, although we’ll hit pause on the polemic until later.
Having played a few of Ben Madison’s games, settling in for The Mission brought certain expectations. Twenty minutes punching and sorting chits, ten to get everything ordered on the plexiglass, and an hour digging through the rulebook to brute-force everything into comprehension, and then, only then, making that first tentative move, rulebook flipped through often enough to imprint rudimentary dog-ears. The tracks and event icons of Nubia, the yet-unknown policies of The White Tribe, the exceptions and interlocking political connotations of The First Jihad. Unless you know what you’re doing, you don’t sit down expecting to play one of Madison’s wargames to completion all at once.
The Mission is an exception. Its earliest moments are blissfully unburdened. Perhaps that’s appropriate, considering how the Acts Track announces that Jesus has recently been resurrected. Or perhaps it’s awkward, considering the command that your protagonists go into the world to spread the gospel. Maybe it’s both. Either way, the map draws the eye to Jerusalem, where a stack of orange markers represent six apostles and James the brother of Jesus. Nearby, each of the game’s six lanes displays potential converts, most of them Jewish, but also women, slaves, martyrs, ascetics, and the occasional scholars and physicians. Your task is simple. Along these lanes, apostles travel from Jerusalem into the wider world, where tiles can be converted with a die roll. Upon being visited by an apostle, empty spaces reveal a new tile. Every so often you’ll run into a rival or friendly cult.
This process is straightforward but not without risk, presented as a series of push-your-luck flashpoints. To give the most common example, moving an apostle normally requires payment in solidi, the game’s currency. But money is tight, so it’s possible to take that whole “carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes” thing literally. An apostle can move for free, but his mission is attended by a roll — and I’m talking about dice here, not Zechariah’s flying scroll. In this case, the dice might kill your apostle outright. Worse, the farther he gets from home, the more liable he is to be martyred. This doesn’t shut down that lane entirely. Any dead apostle is immediately replaced by a bishop. But because bishops lack the direct witness of their predecessor, they aren’t as willing to embrace martyrdom. In other words, no more free missions in that region.
This might make the world seem threatening, even hostile. In these early stages, nothing could be further from the truth. The Roman Empire looms large, but its efforts at oppression only spur greater conversion. Persia looms not-as-large, but its policy of religious toleration lends secure haven to the spread of Christianity. Sometimes there’s a plague, but nothing prompts supplication for invisible protection like the ravages of an invisible disease. The outcome of all this opportunity is twofold, acting both on the table and at a more thematic level. First, the rules are so compact that play is both easy and rewarding. You can hardly go half a minute without something good happening. Second, the world is presented as fertile ground to be sowed and harvested. Whether flipping tiles from tan to green or preaching to pagans, it’s easy to catch some glimpse of the energy felt by early followers of the Way.
In fact, it’s implied that the momentum of your own movement is pretty much your only opposition. In the second of his surviving letters to Corinth, Paul of Tarsus wrote sarcastically about “super-apostles,” rival preachers who taught a different take on early Christianity. In The Mission, this competition is represented by heresy tiles. These block conversion and, far worse, can de-convert your new adherents. Before long, the task of any would-be shepherd switches from spreading the word to pruning the word — and soon after that, to safeguarding it, whether by prayer or the sword.
More on that in a moment. For now, it’s useful to note that like the rest of Madison’s games there are procedures that demand adherence. Two separate event phases begin each turn, each with its own decisions and historical inflictions. Turns are later concluded by bookkeeping, lest an apostasy or unspent solidus slip through the cracks. Certain events require multiple references, such as theologians, who arrive via the Acts Track but influence only the particular domains printed on another sheet. Overall, however, these procedures aren’t nearly as catechismal in volume as, say, The First Jihad, a fact that owes no small debt to how The Mission walks its players through increasingly complex threats to Christianity.
The way these threats unfold is possibly the most interesting stage-by-stage telescoping of systems and rules since SpaceCorp, although in this case there’s no need for multiple game boards or periodic resets. The Apostolic Age fades as the apostles die and are replaced by bishops, less effective than their predecessors but also permanent fixtures on the board. Speaking of fixtures, popes and other oversees also appear, investing Christianity with nervous centers but also leaving it prone to schisms. These far-reaching heresies demand attention, whether patient conversion or under the heel of an oppressive Christian Rome. For a while this is the norm, but even this state of affairs is eventually challenged. At around the game’s midpoint, barbarian hordes begin to spill from the map’s frontiers. Now you’re on the back foot, and The Mission begins to reflect its States of Siege heritage, pushing you back the way you came. Hordes whittle at Christian political control and often undermine spiritual matters as well, prompting eras of persecution. Hopefully you have enough solidi on hand to keep those far-flung branches faithful. That or enough Bible translations to give the Word some hardiness.
The high point arrives with the appearance of Islam. Jerusalem, the birthplace of Christianity itself, is converted and begins to launch jihads along the same vector as your original missionary efforts. This period is fraught, effectively pressing its Christian communities between a holy rock and a hard place. Every lane risks compression, pagans closing in from beyond your borders and Umayyads conquering from within. Some lanes may be preserved, whether by mass conversion of barbarians, military might, careful investments, or treaty. Elsewhere, fig trees are cursed and wither. Eventually the jihads wane due to the internal politics of the caliphate, allowing a brief period of recovery before the game ends with the Crusades — and your final score.
Surviving the game’s twenty-seven generations isn’t difficult. For one thing, the sole condition that can bring the game to an unfortunate early conclusion is entirely within your control to regulate. For another, The Mission is played for points rather than outright victory or defeat. Not that its best outcomes are much of a stretch. If anything, the game’s finish is more of a whimper than a bang. Which is why it’s important that the journey is almost perfect.
If I were to narrow it into categories, there are a few reasons The Mission works so well.
The first is its toolbox. More than most States of Siege-alikes, here there’s room to tinker. Funneling enemies into lanes helps focus a game’s view of history, but also tends to portray that history with the elasticity of a yo-yo rather than as a dynamic, ever-fluctuating contest of cultural imperatives. An enemy army moves forward two spaces, I push them back one, they move forward but bump into my defenders, and so forth. Madison has experimented with this formula in the past, most recently in The First Jihad, which modeled overlapping political and religious zones of control despite being confined to lanes. That groundwork is both streamlined and given its more elegant expression here.
What’s really important, though, is how Madison offers an entire inventory of means for accomplishing your aims. Nearly every problem has multiple solutions. At one point, you might face a decision between resolving a schism through Roman crackdown or by gradually (and expensively) setting up religious communities to bring the wayward sheep back into the fold. Other watersheds might see you contemplating whether to launch a military liberation of an occupied land or preserve Christian traditions through careful investments, Bible translations, or prayers. Yes, prayers. While “thoughts and prayers” may have become a social media punchline, The Mission recognizes the value of even intangible social pressures. Meanwhile, barbarian hordes must be met with spears or conversion, or even surrender if the cost of maintaining a region seems too high, while infrastructure such as hospitals and monasteries can have far-reaching consequences.
This isn’t to say all solutions are equal. Instead, they’re suited to different challenges, and even to different degrees of the same challenge. Where States of Siege games tend to see me whistling through multiple turns as the game’s first responder rather than its protagonist, The Mission provides a moveable feast of possibilities. Even better that it gradually presents those possibilities over multiple courses.
This is aided by the game’s good humor. The Mission doesn’t set out to make a laughingstock of Christianity or Christendom, but it carries enough self-awareness to occasionally give it a poke in the ribs. Whether it’s calling upon you to begin the game with a little prayer for worldly luck, explaining the cap on your treasury as simony, or, best of all, having bishops flee in holy terror whenever they reveal a community of women, there’s enough of a wink behind each design decision that its more polemical stances lose much of their sting.
Polemical. There’s that word again. No more putting it off.
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, let’s acknowledge how badly The Mission could have gone wrong. We don’t need religion to reduce our opponents to horrors, but the weight of divine authority behind pronouncements of human worth should leave us wary. My own faith tradition is woefully unapologetic in this regard, too often shaping human history as a narrative arrow that points to a tiny group of religious innovators on the American frontier while casting aside the broader context that enabled and sheltered their innovations. The same goes for our theoretical version of The Mission. It’s easy to imagine a version where Islam is a lurching bogeyman that never ceases its assaults on Christendom. Easy, too, to imagine its pagans as less tolerant and more rapacious. Or Persia as a writhing Babylon rather than a protective cradle. Or Christianity as unfailingly right, never resorting to unjustified action, never at odds with itself.
Or as utterly white.
Madison makes judgement calls aplenty in his assessment of Christianity. Often these are rendered indisputable by historical outcome. Like a Parable of the Sower in reverse, the soil is judged good or rocky long before the farmer’s handful of seeds has been scattered. Which heresies are abominable and which are quirky but acceptable schismatic traditions. Which counsels and theologians produced viable work. Which of the game’s six lanes are more likely to prosper or wither. It’s natural to reckon that what happened centuries ago must have been the right or inevitable occurrence. After all, we’re still here, and surely something pretty has grown from all that fertilizer. This is common when we think about history as a sequence of events leading ever upward, let alone how we model it in a board game, even one as sandboxy as The Mission. Still, with so many omissions, one wonders about the details that were rounded out. Which were necessarily compressed? And which didn’t prove worthy of the designer’s attention?
Other times, the question is more metatextual, calling back to Madison’s broader canon. The Mission squares its narrative around Christianity, but the protagonists of Madison’s game about the rise of Islam are, well, everybody but Islam. I’ve wondered aloud about Islamo-anxiety in Madison’s oeuvre before. The Mission provides no easy answers on that front, presenting Islam as an aggressor but one with nuances and tolerances of their own. At any rate, belligerence isn’t unique to the game’s foes. Here even Christianity is defined by its struggle to survive. Madison’s endnotes contemplate the question posed by Jesus to his disciples: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find anyone on the earth who has faith?” To hear The Mission answer its author’s central question, it has something to do with beating all comers, not necessarily preserving some kernel of meaning. Do ends justify means? I’ve heard it argued that Jesus didn’t think so. The Mission makes me wonder what Madison’s answer would be.
All of that said, it’s impossible for me to not regard these questions with some measure of generosity. Firstly because the game’s approach to its subject matter is so affectionate, so direct, that its aims are unmistakable. And secondly because the perspective Madison offers is so encompassing. The Mission is a polemical portrayal of Christianity, but it circumscribes a far wider slice than usual. This is not American Protestantism’s oft-scrubbed portrait, with its white-skinned and blue-eyed Jesus. This is the Christianity that began as a Jewish sect and captured hearts and imaginations in every compass direction, not only westward through the Mediterranean. This is the Christianity that places adherents of color alongside the white, not as footnotes or subordinates, but as equals. This is the Christianity that’s bigger than any one group, and a little weird, and a little displaced from time, and often in friction with its intentions. For all of Madison’s affection, it’s earthy.
Somewhat polemical, then. But certainly not too polemical. Not so polemical that it undermines The Mission as a tremendous elaboration of the States of Siege system and as a synopsis of one thousand years of what-ifs. All the better that it’s Madison’s sharpest design by far, and ties together its disparate traditions and heresies into a single digestible bite. Plenty of historical games capture a moment. Few succeed so totally at representing the vital essence of a religion’s longue durée.
A complimentary copy was provided.