Nicaea, Now I Don’t
Ecumenical councils aren’t exactly the topic everybody stays awake for, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Council of Nicaea. Flush with success after unifying the Roman Empire, the Emperor Constantine had made himself the patron of Christianity, a major turnaround after the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian only a decade earlier. But Constantine’s fledgling religious program faced one major problem: rumblings of controversy in Alexandria over the nature of Christ. To avert potential embarrassment — or worse, schism — Constantine convened his council in 325 CE, leading to the first sweeping statement of orthodoxy in Christian canon.
That’s the part you probably know. Less publicized is the base political nature of the outcome, all those long-held and supposedly sincere doctrinal positions wilting in the face of the Council’s pronouncements. Although the attending bishops began almost evenly split, in the end only three out of three hundred refused to side with the majority and retain their privileges and positions. A miracle, perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe, ambition and cowardice played as much a role as they always do.
So begins Amabel Holland’s Nicaea, an irreverent, boisterous, and gleefully blasphemous assault on the entire concept of orthodoxy. Expect some ruffled feathers and you won’t be disappointed.
Before we dishevel any hens, let’s talk a little bit about how Nicaea works.
I want you to picture an argument printed on cards, divided into separate stacks for the two sides debating it. Take, for example, the computation of Easter. This was one of the Council’s major talking points, split between those who wanted to continue the tradition of following the Jewish calendar by attaching Easter to the lunar month of Nisan, and those who hoped to use a more Western computus — a task made more complicated when they claimed that their dog had devoured the notes for when the movable feast would actually occur. Thankfully, none of this will be on the test. Instead, each side of the debate is divided between A and B. When should Easter happen? A: According to the Jewish calendar. B: According to the secret calendar that’s totally real, we promise.
This extends to each of five major issues. In every case, there are two stacks, A and B. Right at the beginning, everybody receives a card from the top of one of those stacks. You, as one of the bishops invited to Nicaea, have a particular issue in mind. Maybe you really like dating Easter according to the Jewish calendar. Maybe you believe that the Son and the Father are co-equal in the grand cosmological scheme of things. Maybe you feel that homoousios is a better word than homoiousios. Whatever the topic, you’re placed on one side, and your task is to pursue that issue to its completion.
There are a few ways to score points in Nicaea, but the most productive method is by being on the winning side of arguments. Note that I didn’t say you need to win arguments. Standing in the right spot once you know which direction the wind is blowing is good enough. As soon as the fourth card for either side of an argument is purchased, it becomes law. Every bishop who holds a card for that argument draws a victory point token. (Or a victory point wafer?) Anyone holding a card for the opposing side gets nothing.
Oh, there’s more to it than that. There are cards to be purchased, and influence tokens to accrue or spend, and there’s plenty of room for spluttering in outrage when somebody decides to join the opposite side of an argument you’ve invested in dearly. But for the most part, everything in Nicaea is about landing yourself on the right side of winning arguments.
Which is why it’s such a plucked feather to discover that neither side matters.
I mean, they matter for victory. That’s true. But there’s no doctrinal value behind any of them. The only advantage is that one side lands you with the majority while the other leaves you out in the cold. Was the Son created by the Father? Were they co-eternal, the Son not made but begotten? Pffft. Doesn’t matter. They’re all highfalutin’ words anyway. Sure, you might have an opinion. Yeah, you might prefer one argument over the other. But that isn’t why you’re here. You’re here because the big guy, Emperor Constantine himself, is merging the apparatus of church and state. Those basilicas demand occupancy. Might as well be you.
Instead of focusing on airy theology, Nicaea has greater immediacy: the personalities sitting around the table. Like many of Holland’s previous games, there are invisible chains binding everybody together, especially when you’d rather go your separate ways. Take, for example, what happens when one of your fellow bishops successfully maneuvers himself onto the winning side of an argument. Should you side with that bishop on the next issue? Maybe. Or, hear me out, maybe you should join the opposition. It might be cheaper, for one thing. Joining the losing side usually is. For another, with the right nudges, the right cards, the right spluttering, maybe you’ll bring some previously spurned bishops in on the scheme. Maybe you’ll swing the argument in your favor. Maybe you’ll force him to sign his name to the latest article of confession. Maybe, in game terms, you’ll earn an extra victory point token while your former ally earns zip.
The result is a cat’s cradle of intersecting allegiances. It’s common to find yourself bound to a rival on one issue while you feud with them over another. It could even be described as similar to Holland’s train-and-stocks games or the enticing interpersonal tangle of Westphalia, although Nicaea is more flexible in every regard, from significantly simpler rules to some wiggle room with the player count. Rather than forcing foes into bed the way Westphalia did, Nicaea provides an elegant toolbox and expects players to pay attention to where everyone stands in relation to one another. One big example is how cards can be played to a rival’s tableau. At first this seems extraneous. Then it becomes a bargaining chip. Only later, as you realize the player in last place can amass enough influence to propel the church and the empire into schism and steal victory, it becomes a way to keep that player bobbing above the surface of total defeat. It calls to mind Mark Herman’s excellent Churchill, brimming with diplomatic possibilities for the game’s underdogs — sans the twenty-five bullet points during scoring.
In fact, with some squinting, Nicaea is refreshingly unburdened. Familiar, even. Arguments are shares of stock. Bishop and canon cards are investments. Influence changes hands according to predictable, if manipulable, methods. Holland’s catalog features games of all stripes, so this shouldn’t be taken as too reductive, but Nicaea leans more toward the slick and elegant side of her oeuvre than the exception-filled simulationist end. The game hurries to get out of the way, putting the focus squarely on everybody’s squabbling for position.
Undoubtedly, some will regard this focus on base politicking as unseemly. Many Christian churches recite the Nicene Creed as solemnly as scripture; most denominations regard it as decisive. “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” By depicting that Creed’s formulation as selfishly bureaucratic rather than divinely inspired, Holland is questioning nothing less than the formulation of Trinity.
That wicked streak runs through the whole game. Very little escapes unskewered. Self-castration, usurious clergy, “asshat” schismatics, Constantine dropping by at inconvenient moments, the image of Arius shitting himself to death in the privy — dirty jokes rub shoulders with holy contempt, eyebrows caught somewhere between waggling suggestively and rolling skyward. Tying it all together is a sort of disbelieving exasperation, as if to cry, “This is the part you think is sacred?”
Where does that leave us? Cackling in agreement? Retiring to our fainting couches? Gazing in remote pity on this wayward soul? As someone with my own knotty relationship with orthodoxy and propriety, my reflex travels the gamut. By some estimations I’m something of a heretic myself, as are we all. Which is perhaps why I’m glad for any invitation to question the assumptions about why we do the things we do.
Hear me out. Christians are taught to emulate Jesus. There are any number of identities for doing so. Jesus as teacher. Jesus as healer. Jesus as missionary. Jesus as martyr. Less often do we consider his other roles. The iconoclast. The blasphemer. The one who demanded constant, radical self-examination. When Paul, writing years after the Crucifixion, called the church the “body of Christ,” he left an image with obvious applications. A body needs a head, and eyes, and a mouth. Hands for doing work. Legs for carrying it to distant places. In our haste to listen to the head and the hands and the feet, we sometimes forget the less apparent organs. The body also needs a belly that aches when something poor has been ingested. Lungs for absorbing fresh air. A heart that throbs when the body does wrong. Skin that prickles both with fear and pleasure, with anticipation of the new and the coziness of the old. Whichever organ is responsible for our boldness and conscience and, yes, the blasphemous impulse that snorts derisively and asks, “This is the part we think is sacred?” The gallbladder, maybe.
Jokes aside, it’s Nicaea’s willingness to portray the Council’s declarations as a product of convenience, each argument as suitable as the next, that makes it so dangerous. On one occasion, Holland described it as a raspberry blown in the direction of orthodoxy. It’s more than that. More and less. As a plaything, it’s a gallivanting contest of benevolent overtures and shrewd whispers and false smiles, a masterwork of intersecting interests and fluctuating alliances. As a statement of heterodoxy, it’s an illuminated question mark, demanding more of our theological reasoning than “because I said so.”
Put those together and I suspect Nicaea might be one of Amabel Holland’s most piercing examinations yet. This is a game about faith that refuses to touch the divine, about canon grounded in expediency over principle, about flawed human beings so familiar that they’re barely worthy of their gilt toilet-seat nimbuses. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me it’s the grubbier perspective that leaves the mirror of history a little clearer than it was before.
A complimentary copy was provided.