Musical Stakes

It was hard not to title this review "Take My Breath Away." Another candidate was "The Schleitheim Shuffle," but that seemed too niche.

I’ve been playing a game about Anabaptist martyrs getting burned at the stake. I’m resisting the urge to call John Ratigan’s Martyr: Bloody Theater 1528 “metal,” although it practically begs for the descriptor. The gilt artwork, paused somewhere between reverential and an iconoclast’s pasticcio. Its sole resource, your stolen final breaths. A transparent disc indicating the Holy Spirit, drifting among onlookers. Even the sweetish wood smoke smell of the Game Crafter’s laser cutter, like some theme park’s attempt at “four-dee” entertainment, slathered so thick with verisimilitude that it kicks down the sauna door on bad taste.

What is this thing? And why does it remind me, more than anything, of a prayer spoken in an unfamiliar tongue, clumsy and unaware and maybe even vaguely offensive, but so earnest that it demands a clemency of its own?

Don't worry. Soon they'll untie themselves, move to another spot, and settle back into position.

Four martyrs at their stakes.

Imagine being burned at the stake for a belief. Something for which you have an ironclad conviction. The belief itself doesn’t have to be religious, although it can be. Your fate is sealed; there will be no escape, nobody riding to your rescue, no cords slipping away, no handspringing to safety. A throng has gathered to watch you die. Some are jeering, but there are a few seekers among the crowd who might still be persuaded. You open your mouth to say, to speak, to sing — what? Maybe a line from a hymn. From a song. Something familiar. Something everybody would understand deep in their belly. When you open your mouth, smoke scratching your throat, the words aren’t beautiful. But they’re clear enough to understand. You can see the wetness on somebody’s face. You’ve touched a soul.

And then the guy chained to the stake beside you belches out the hymn’s next line. A line which, incidentally, has nothing to do with your intended message. The spell is broken. The moment passes. The flames lick higher.

That’s Martyr: Bloody Theater 1528 in a nutshell. With a dwindling supply of cubes — your final breaths — you intend to persuade as many people as possible to your personal heterodoxy. The first major hurdle (apart from the bonfire) is that each player has their own hidden articles of faith. Where one martyr might decry church authority and the doctrine of just war, another might hope to throw down the swearing of oaths and the state-controlled church. Oddly, there isn’t a doctrine of infant baptism to denounce. Maybe you’re all unified on that point. Either way, it’s a sublime inconvenience that not everybody at the stake is in agreement about the finer points of doctrine they’re being killed over.

More heft than a breath.

They’re action markers, but calling them “breaths” gives them real heft.

There are plenty of gamey terms and phrases for what this accomplishes. “Shared incentives” is foremost among them. For a game about being martyred for your beliefs, at its best Martyr revels in getting your fellow Christians to do your dirty holy work for you. The process isn’t easy to describe, largely because it’s quirky even in action, but the gist is that you’re offering prayers to select which three articles of faith you hope to promote, singing hymns to touch the hearts of particular onlookers, and delivering sermons to tweak the turn order. Or, ideally, sitting back and hoping somebody else takes the actions you want.

Put these together and you’re presented with a scoring system that has to be seen to be believed. Praying functions like a wager: you select not only which article of faith to pursue, but also how many tiles of its type you believe will be scored either in support or condemnation of it. These don’t only have to be claimed by you personally, generating some not-insignificant tension between claiming these issues first for lots of up-front points, or later once you’ve gleaned some details how many martyrs will be pursuing each article. For example, wagering that a particular issue will be roundly condemned, and then only claiming a single tile for it, can still be worth quite a few points. Meanwhile, those aforementioned tiles can only be claimed if you played the proper intention card at the start of the turn and the last sung line of a hymn matches it and the Holy Spirit can reach a corresponding tile during the resolution phase—

Look. There are a few takeaways here. The first is that Martyr isn’t the sort of game that leans into easy characterization, including when it comes to gameplay. Although there are only three actions, their interactions are interwoven in interesting, unexpected, and, yes, oblique ways.

That said, players need to understand these interactions before they can really get down to the business of manipulating the game to their advantage. Snubbing another player of their chance to earn a convert is often as easy as singing the next line of a hymn. Despite the ease of such an act, this isn’t always a winning move. The first time we played, Martyr was entirely about blocking. “O praise Him! Alleluia!” one of us would cry, only for Brother Dirk to belch out, “Thou fire so masterful and bright, that givest man both warmth and light!” Thou spoilst the moment, Brother Dirk. It was only with time that it became something more. Blocking, sure, but blocking plus long-term resource conservation, some mild cooperation, and just a hint of soft-pedaling to prevent an arms race of verses. Be firm in your faith but don’t be a bitch about it, as one churchgoing friend once opined.

I am "reflecting."

How devoted are you to your cause? Mark here.

This process gradually shifts from confusing to interesting, but always remains a distraction. So much so that it often comes across as unintentionally humorous. Whether it’s one martyr belting out a hymn to distract from another martyr’s plea, the Holy Spirit flitting into a corner to prevent it from touching another soul this round, or martyrs playing musical stakes to finesse their turn order, Martyr has a habit of getting in its own way, both as a plaything and as an examination of its protagonists’ last breaths.

It’s easy to misconstrue earnestness for parody, is what I’m saying, even for someone comfortable with the idea of games as worship. Games, after all, have primordial roots in worship, tracing all the way back to the divining powers of dice and cards and canes, a god’s favor uncovered through the upsetting of chance. Representing religious history is a more recent phenomenon, but not, I suspect, one as far removed from that older playful worship as we might think. For all its clumsiness and its cumbersome scoring, there’s a core of reverence beneath Martyr’s exterior, only partially unearthed during the game’s less rambunctious moments. An entire section of the crowd moved to song by the martyrs. Everything going calmly and quietly right despite the best efforts of chance and disruption. In these stillnesses, the game’s protagonists are no longer slapstick playthings jostling for position. They become emblematic of all those who have given their lives for an ideal. Snap your fingers — or shift the turn order — and the moment is gone. But that’s always the case with such things.

But take care to position the Holy Spirit such that it will not touch too many.

Touching hearts in the crowd.

Martyr: Bloody Theater 1528 is a strange beast. It’s more of a game than you might think, in both the best and worst senses. Fascinating on the one hand, overburdened on the other, and stuffed with admiration for its characters, the hymn it sings is both raspy and easy on the ears at the same time.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on September 20, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Metal.

  2. There’s like no chance I’ll ever find this game since I live in a world of exclusively used games but this is definitely the closest I’ve come to spending more than $25 on a game in a long time.

  1. Pingback: Best Week 2021! Reject Orthodoxy! | SPACE-BIFF!

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