Nicaea, Now I Don’t

In which my perspective surprises absolutely nobody, because Mormons are famously Nicene heretics.

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.

Arius. Secundus. Theonas. The three who would not sign. Lest we forget.

Cards! On offer!

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.

Well. Sorta.

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.

Yes, there are duplicates, although they play a part in-game.

Arguments, personalities, and canons.

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.

Gotta come up with a new way to express what's already been expressed.

Over time, it becomes tougher to invest in any given argument.

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.

Endgame scoring is its own form of communion.

Accumulating scoring wafers for successful arguments.

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.


(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 29, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Amabel is a joker and subtle wild card in the deck of designers dealing these days. Bravo!

    • There are a handful of designers doing really insightful, incisive work, and I’ve never been happier to explore what they have to offer. (You’re among them, Brian, although I’d be loathe to turn your appearance here into an opportunity to talk about how much I appreciate your perspective.)

  2. There was a game called Credo that is based on the same theme – is this a straight up ‘remastering’ or a different game?

    • Totally different games.

      (Although good find on Credo — wow, what a throwback. Also, not a very good game.)

    • Looks like very different mechanisms, with the emphasis on the scheming between bishops, but the same subject matter.

      I, too, had fun with Credo back in the day – especially the end when everybody stood and recited the Creed we’d ended up with: “I believe in many gods, including Jesus Christ…”

  3. Your pun game is on target this week! Keep it up.

  4. It would be one one of those games which I will buy but I don’t think group to play. Still just for thought provoking perspective it would be valuable to buy it. I assume it would be publish closer to December as I still don’t see it in the catalog of Hollandspiel.

  5. Great review. Looks like a great game on a lot of fronts. How similar would you say this plays to King’s Dilemma?

  6. If there is an audience for this game, there might be still hope for christianity. I’d love to try it, but definitely lack the people who would play with me.

  7. adorablerocket

    Great review (long time reader, first time commenter)!

    Since you redirected the convo from BGG to here, I’ve been waiting to say I am not certain where on the spectrum of blasphemous heresy to necessary evil (felix culpa) I would put the game central conceit : that there is no fixed right answer to the four debated propositions of the council.

    The question I am pondering is fundamentally is it even practical to make a game that is *about* the base human influences these Bishops were subject to, and *also* to take an objective position on the questions being debated?

    If we posit Arianism as wrong from the start, then why would there be any deliberation among players? They have no real stake in the worldly outcomes of power or exile, and they know precisely what is the ‘right’ outcome.

    One could imagine a game pitting team ‘orthodox’ vs team ‘heretic’, but it’s not clear that the argument of the ‘game *dynamics*’ become any stronger in having an opinion label on arbitrary teams. Most WWII games do not successfully include an ‘argument’ about the badness of the Nazis. While Nazis are explicitly labeled, they are often ‘just a side’ in a way that causes many potential players to (understandably) feel put off precisely because there is no system argument. Further, such an approach might lose the fluidity which considers each sub point of doctrine as distinct and worthy of debate (which to my perspective would both do less justice to the history and the ‘theology matters’ argument).

    Another approach I could imagine is secretly choosing the ‘correct’ orthodox position randomly at game start, and then adding mechanisms to ‘research’ or seek ‘divine inspiration’, etc. Once again, I wonder whether such a focus would undermine the argument that the base human considerations were real and in force, and instead serve only to reinforce the gloss that Amabel has said she intends to challenge?

    Of course game designers are infinitely creative and I have no doubt someone can discern a path to include both. However it’s worth considering the medium of game as a constraint, and I am less certain that some designer could include both, and also do so with the compactness, streamlined play, and focus that Nicaea seems to have.

    Now while this seems like a full throated defense of a game I haven’t played, I will confess I am approaching it with bated breath as well.


  9. I’m trying to decide how two different audience will receive this game.

    For educated Christians that have a clear understanding of the materials presented, each question posed presumably has a “correct” answer, as in the decision actually made at the council 1700 years ago. I’d be curious to know how this would affect play, and frankly if it would pose as a blocker to some of their intellectual engagement.

    For non-Christians, I’d be curious to know if the theme essentially serves as a thick layer of bland frosting covering the cake underneath. The pretty pictures and philosophical BS presented don’t add value, resulting in a heavily adorned abstract game. Does the comedic value crash and burn if you’re not of a Judeo-Christian heritage?

    For those of us who remain in the middle I can see an opportunity for some pretty solid moments of British humor. It’s always fun to “punch up” at the uptighties in the major Christian organizations/businesses, but this game could suffer the same fate as Cards Against Humanity where once the initial shock value has hit you find yourself moving to the structural aspects only for your enjoyment. So be it, few games get played forever.

    I’m just curious what share of the general audience is going to be in on this game, and curious regarding when and how you can pull this one out. Could be entertaining as hell to be sitting at the table next to it at a convention.

    • I am an educated Christian from the Reformed / liturgical tradition (so who therefore has quite some respect for the creeds and Church fathers / Church history) and from that perspective I frankly don’t see the theming or its presentation (at least what you’ve shown of it / how Amabel has described it) as troublesome or an obstacle-to-enjoyment in any respect.

      I certainly know people who would consider it highly problematic, but I think you’ll find that many “educated Christians” who take a serious view of / interest in major theological debates / councils in the history of the church are quite aware of the human elements and don’t take a wool-over-the-eyes approach even while we generally hold to beliefs such as divine provenance / guidance of the universal church and its theological decision-making. I am admittedly a little bit further outside the orthodox pale than most on this issue, but apart from megachurch weirdos and neckbeard armchair theologians who like to own the atheists on Facebook, I think most people who know something about theology and such realize just how human of a pursuit it is.

      I would happily pull this out with most people I know who have seriously studied theology (including my wife who is a seminary grad, and other seminary grads I have known, all of whom take great interest in heterodoxy). There might be a bit of a generational issue, and I probably would hesitate to offer it up if I were to play with any of the senior pastors of churches I have attended.

      I have to stress again I am probably a bit out in left field as far as your “typicaly” Evangelical-leaning / orthodoxy-leaning Christian goes, but I want to equally stress that people like me exist and are not an insignificant part of “educated Christians”.

      • I appreciate the feedback. I presume you haven’t played, but with a crowd of people similar to yourself, knowing the end of the movie won’t affect your experience significantly? I appreciate it’s just a game, and if you have the card that pushes you left instead of right you’re going to go with it. But I’d be curious to know if there would be a home-field advantage effect.

        As for referring to “educated Christians” I should probably clarify. There’s a middle ground where people are well versed in the . . . not dogma . . . I’m trying to find the right word . . . the official party line on the sorts of questions that this game puts on the table. I have a friend that forbade his daughter to date a boy because he came from a branch that didn’t have the same view on transubstantiation. He’s educated, but he still sees these as settled law, clearly defined cases. He looks at them from within, not from without. So although he is well read on the subject matters he’s rigid in his perspective. With those individuals in particular I think a card having a “correct” answer could be more problematic, could detract from the game.

        Granted, 325 is one heck of a long time ago so the decisions presented pre-date most of the schism-initiating questions that have resulted in such a broad array of faiths. So perhaps more of these issues are clearly defined cases than I’m anticipating.

    • In general, there are two ways in which Christians respond to heterodoxy / heresy (especially when encountered in a historical context):

      1) “This is a lie from the pit of hell and if you believe this you can’t be saved.”

      2) “Wow, that is an interesting take! What is/was their textual support and how does this impact their understanding of the covenant?”

    • With respect to the first audience (intellectually engaged Christian types), my hunch is that the game will arouse little consternation. To the extent that the game is “edgy”, well, that audience has seen enough through the years not to be scandalized by an edgy take on theology at this point. The Jesus Seminar, Templeton, Spong, Rob Bell, etc. And for intellectually engaged believers who are also gamers, well, it’s a game, of course the game can come to a different outcome than what happened historically, just like a WWII game can end with a Nazi victory, so, again, probably no big deal, maybe.

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