The Synoptic Solution

A member of my group mentioned that this looked like a game of telephone. And, well, pretty much.

I’ve been pondering the idea of game design as devotion. In the centuries leading up to the Renaissance, so much European and Near Eastern art and entertainment was principally religious, drawing on shared stories, imagery, and even, one hopes, depth of feeling. Could the same be true of a board game? We have yet to realize the extent of what cardboard might express, although the medium seems better suited to models than emotions. There are, however, exceptions. Ben Madison’s awe at the sweep of Christian history in The Mission. Amabel Holland’s short-tempered but sanguine Nicaea.

And now, Jeff Warrender’s depiction of the composition of the gospels in The Acts of Evangelists. It would be a mistake to dismiss this one out of hand.

Boats! They're pretty important.

Across the Mediterranean world.

You may be familiar with the Synoptic Problem. There are four canonical gospels about the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth. Three of these — the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke — have such similar structures, so many parallel passages, and yet enough differences that their relationship has been the topic of much debate. There are countless questions. Were they written by eyewitnesses, secondary amanuenses, or later compilers after some period of oral transmission? Which gospel was written first, was it used as a source for the others, or did each gospel build successively on those that came before? Were there other sources, now lost to time? Why are they written in Koine Greek rather than Aramaic, who transcribed them, and what might have been lost in translation? How do they relate to the non-synoptic Gospel of John, let alone non-canonical sources such as Thomas, Peter, and the Didache? The Synoptic Problem looms large in the study of early Christianity, and although modern scholars favor one interpretation over the others, nearly all are quick to admit that all we have are informed guesses.

To the terror of my craven academic heart, Warrender opens The Acts of Evangelists with a definite perspective. Players are cast as chroniclers traveling across the Eastern Mediterranean to gather traditions about the life and doings of Jesus, interview eyewitnesses who knew him firsthand, and compose gospels that will then be transmitted as written record. It’s a setup that makes my hair stand on end, full of certitude and capped off with a bibliography that indicates a particular understanding of the topic. There’s a reason there are two entirely separate fields of New Testament Studies, one theological and the other historical, which only rarely intersect, and then only to dunk on the other before hurriedly retreating to their own enclaves. It isn’t that we disagree. It’s that we can’t figure out how to communicate at all when our first proposition is so markedly different.

There’s a parable from Jain and Hindu tradition that’s been appropriated for explaining the Synoptic Problem. A group of blind men fall into a pit with an elephant. Groping about, one feels the elephant’s trunk and declares it a snake. Another feels an ear and wonders why a pit would be adorned with a fan. A leg becomes the trunk of a palm tree, the tail a rope, the side a wall, the tusk a spear. Each blind man perceives only a portion of the whole. Meanwhile, the elephant’s day has been ruined by some very handsy humans.

In the earliest telling of the parable, the blind men are so sure of their own interpretation that they soon decide the others must be lying and begin to fight. As a cautionary tale, the message is straightforward: your perceptions are limited and your certainty is ill-founded. More recently, some have given the story a different meaning. So what if the gospel authors seem to have been writing about divergent Jesuses? Although they portrayed him differently, that doesn’t mean they didn’t portray him accurately, if only in part. As easy as snapping your fingers, the parable’s meaning is inverted. Where the original telling begs for epistemic humility, the second rewards the very certitude it’s meant to guard against. Don’t worry about contradictions, it says. Those are mere perceptions. Your perception, that very particular interpretation of who Jesus was, what form his divinity or humanity took, what he taught and stood for — that’s all accurate.

Going into The Acts of the Evangelists, I couldn’t help but be wary. Coming from a “heretical” Christian tradition and working in a field that favors the historical Jesus over the divine Son of God, it’s hard not to adopt a defensive posture. Once, I attended a community festival where the prizes included tracts that denounced my religion and secular education. That’s a twofer! Another time, a pastor locked me in his church, showed me pictures of bodies writhing in fiery torment, and threatened to keep me there until I confessed the true Jesus. A few hours later, he got bored and kicked me out. As a boy, my complaints of abuse were covered up because my bishop claimed that God had told him my abuser had a good heart and didn’t deserve to be punished. That rascal.

So, yes, I confess my shortcoming. I don’t like certitude. I despise it. If I could, I would fill every soul with as much introspection and doubt as I feel on a daily basis, and the world would become doubly anxious and a hundred times more peaceable. May God, if there is a God, forgive my presumption, my certainty, that there is no stain or sin worse than certitude.

But here’s the marvelous thing. There are a thousand topics Jeff Warrender and I would disagree on. The Acts of the Evangelists opens with such a definite perspective that my gut reaction was to assume it would crowd out any other potentiality. Instead, bit by bit, it becomes a magnificent work of historiographic examination. More than that, it becomes a spark of an unfamiliar hope.

As someone who Knows My Bible, these sequences sometimes produce hilarious moments. Unfortunately, not everybody shares my amusement.

Creating our own synopsis of events.

There’s plenty to say about The Acts of the Evangelists on a mechanical level. What’s most interesting about it, though, is how it shapes the game’s perspective on history-making.

Take the game’s action system. On your turn, you’re given three cylinders to spend on actions. There are a few options to choose from. Since this is the ancient world, travel is laborious and often reliant on the availability of nearby ships. You can always spend a cylinder to travel two spaces. If there’s a ship nearby, feel free to hop aboard and travel two more. You can also spend a second cylinder to leap to any space on the map. At the same time, other players can “follow” your action by giving you a disc, letting them move a single space. Both of these capabilities are repeated across all available actions.

This creates two subtle economies. The first is all about managing those action cylinders. Since you only have three, every decision is made under pressure. Since any action can be upgraded with an additional cylinder, that pressure becomes almost unbearable. You’re compelled to make hard decisions early and often. Meanwhile, there’s a second economy between players, forged through the exchange of those follower discs. When somebody undertakes an action — investigating a local tradition, for example — you can give them a disc to duplicate the story they penned into their gospel. It isn’t long before these discs are the topic of some apprehension. Should you spend a disc now, or hold out in case somebody interviews your favorite eyewitness? Every turn that opens with you holding a disc feels like a missed opportunity to piggyback on a fellow player’s actions. Or, in Geoff’s case, when you begin a turn holding four of them. Nobody claimed the gospel authors couldn’t harbor some resentment for one another.

These systems are clever, but what really interests me is how sharply they evoke the sense that you’re a historian scrambling to write… well, that part isn’t as obvious as it might first seem. A history or a biography, sure, but a history or biography full of its own assumptions and biases. When the game begins, you’re given a “theme.” Echoing the canonical gospels, these are differing perspectives on the identity of Jesus. Was he the perfect human? The Jewish messiah? The Son of God? Or was he merely a wise teacher or suffering servant of humanity? Because this falls a few inches short of Dan’s Dream Game, there are no options for “mortal apocalyptic rabbi who wanted Gentiles to live the Noahide Covenant,” “anti-Roman insurrectionist,” and “liberation theologian,” but that’s totally fine. Already there’s an assumption taking place, and it’s the sort of assumption that Biblical literalists are always struggling to reconcile. It’s also an assumption that’s central to historiography. Everyone is biased. Everyone wants something. When you read a history, you’re really reading two histories: the history as written, and the history of the author.

Warrender’s keen commentary doesn’t stop there. Every tradition comes with its own details. Eyewitnesses, yes, but also motifs and a place in the overall chronology of Jesus’ life. These can be used to create “literary devices,” various scoring goals that you gauge and adapt during play. For example, you might focus on creating chiasms, a narrative structure of inverted phrases. These require you to align your motifs via palindrome, going from A to B to B to A. Instead, maybe you’re more interested in inclusios and emphases; in the former case, that means placing the same author in “clumps” to indicate direct quotations, while the latter means peppering repeating motifs throughout your text. There’s also chronology to consider. Not that chronology is always easy when you’re focused on literary style. Theologians and historians have long questioned why Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is one of the final events in the Synoptic Gospels but one of the earliest in the Gospel of John. Some have attempted to harmonize these discrepancies by arguing that Jesus was so into overturning the tables of moneychangers that he undertook the same endeavor twice. The argument made by The Acts of the Evangelists is less credulous: different stories are written to fulfill different considerations.

These considerations even extend to the material. As soon as a tradition is penned into your gospel, it’s “stuck.” Because you’re writing on papyrus rather than parchment, your writing materials are too expensive to replace but too flimsy to erase. However, you can engage in the time-honored tradition of slicing a page out of your codex and moving it somewhere else — or flipping it upside-down to fix an error of chronology or spacing. This creates a unique method for rearranging the order of your gospel. All at once, it’s interesting as a game system, a stark limitation that forces tough decisions, and a historical commentary on how various mediums shape the stories they transmit.

Or the temporal. While your gospel is eventually evaluated on its themes and literary devices, a tremendous sum of points is also awarded for the legwork that went into its initial stages. As you record traditions, you’re tasked with interviewing the eyewitnesses who first uttered them. However, each interview requires you to draw a cube from a bag to determine whether the eyewitness is alive or deceased. Over time, your sources dwindle. In game terms, this presses you to interview your subjects long before you’re fully prepared. Interviews earn more points for stories already in your gospel, but dead interviewees yield fewer points thanks to the less accurate retellings of their surviving associates. It’s a slender and tenuous span of time between gathering these oral traditions and clarifying them with their tellers, a limitation historians know all too well.

In previous articles, I’ve mentioned how Cole Wehrle’s Oath is one of the most explicit board game portrayals of historiography. That’s thanks to the way Oath regards history not only as something that happened, but as a story that’s negotiated between parties, an exchange of values, discourses, inclusions, and omissions. The Acts of the Evangelists duplicates that same feat on a more literal level, not to mention on a scale that’s limited to a single play rather than strung out across a handful of them. At its core, this is a set collection game. But there are no easy sets to collect, no straightforward colors or numbers to cobble together. Instead, history is something you navigate through peaks and troughs. You’ll make compromises. You’ll abandon one literary device for another, include a particular tradition out of affection rather than necessity, sacrifice chronology for clarity of style, or even decide your chosen telling is a huge mess and instead focus on cramming motifs into every spare sentence. As a process, it makes for both enthralling gameplay and a crystallization of how stories and identities are transmitted through time.

Even, of course, how its own identity is transmitted.

Oh math!

Gospels are rated by quite a few criteria. Expect math.

Here’s what I mean.

Between 2005 and 2006, I lived among the Crow Nation of Montana, also known as the Absaroka, where I served as a Mormon missionary. On my very first assignment, only a few days from home, I met a Crow gentleman and member of the local congregation who introduced himself as a “Lamanite.”

If you don’t know the backstory behind that title, it requires some explanation. The Book of Mormon, the scripture unique to Mormonism, ostensibly gives the history of a family of Jews who fled Jerusalem immediately prior to the Babylonian Captivity. This family builds a boat, travels across the ocean, and washes up on the shores of the Americas, where they split into two groups. The Nephites, named after the righteous Nephi, are light-skinned and righteous. The Lamanites, named for Nephi’s wicked brothers, are cursed with dark skin for their wickedness. Over the course of many centuries, these two groups clash, sometimes violently and other times by debating matters of 19th-century Protestant doctrine. Eventually the Lamanites wipe out the Nephites. This progresses exactly as foretold in one of Nephi’s visions, in which he witnesses the destruction of his people, the coming of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, the founding of the United States, and the scattering (but preservation) of the Lamanites. According to the bulk of Mormon interpretation and teaching across the better part of two centuries, these Lamanites were the direct ancestors of the American Indians. Because of the Indians’ inherited sins, the thinking goes, they deserve everything that happened to them. The lands taken out from under them. The wars. The genocides. The reservations.

Shocked, I asked this man why he thought he was a Lamanite. Wasn’t it enough to be Absaroka? His people had their own history. Did he really feel a connection to the repugnant racial beliefs and hereditary sins of the Book of Mormon? One week into a two-year mission, and already I was having some serious misgivings.

Our mission contact, a Crow man himself, took me aside for a scolding. “We believe we’re Lamanites because it explains what’s happened to our people,” he said. “Why we’re here. Why we’ve lost everything. We’re good Lamanites. You want to take that from us, too?”

I didn’t bring it up again.

Teaching the history of a world religion is a testy proposition. Every sentence feels spring-loaded. Explaining something as benign as the Synoptic Problem can sound like an attack when it clashes with the recipient’s assumptions. Sometimes the wall between theologians and historians seems too tall to summit.

With The Acts of the Evangelists, Jeff Warrender gives expression to that very problem. By asking its players to not only craft a history filled with difficult tradeoffs, but also front-loading them with a thesis, it reveals how history and identity are the same, malleable and unshakeable and brittle at once. How the stories we tell ourselves are not examples of the past reaching out to touch us, but the product of us shaping the past on our own terms, through our own lenses, bearing the weight of our own hopes and needs. While I have no conclusive opinion on the divinity of Jesus, I find him one of those rare remarkable figures in whom everybody sees some mirror image of themself. A businessman friend of mine sees a steward, a leader, a firm hand. My father, a surgeon, sees a healer who regards holy days as never more holy than when they’re broken to serve. I see a man who can’t help but be angry at injustice, who speaks quickly when upset, who rages at his own inadequacies and at the inadequacies of those who should know better. Also, he’s probably balding.

This is true, too, of these games that are so devotional in nature. In Ben Madison’s The Mission, I see the Mormon converted to the Episcopalian Church because he witnessed the arrogance of his secure faith tradition dwarfed by the Hagia Sophia. In Amabel Holland’s Nicaea, I see someone grappling with a church whose defining characteristic is failing to live up to its own glossy recounting of events. In The Acts of the Evangelists, I see the desire to wrestle with tangled historiography rather than settle for less demanding narratives. I see an act of devotion that veers into what many would call heretical, and is all the richer for it.

I know I'm not being "critical" about this game, in the negative sense. The thing is, I don't think it's the kind of game that demands that sort of discussion. What makes it interesting is what it does well. But I guarantee *someone* is going to be put out that I didn't lambast the wrinkles in the map or something.

Evangelists can be quite slow at higher counts.

I’m undoubtedly reading my own perception into it, right down to the selection of gospel tidbits that have been included in the game versus those that were left out. Why the wedding at Cana but not the Samaritan woman at the well? Why both miracles of the loaves but no woes of the Pharisees? So it goes. This is, after all, a history of me as much as it is a history of the game I’m trying to describe. That’s history for you.

But that paradox is almost perfectly encapsulated by the game itself. Despite some sluggish turns, tricky scoring goals, and the advanced sums of the endgame, it’s refreshing to play a game that revels in the craft of history as much as I do. As playthings go, this is an ambitious and peculiar little box, far more compelling than its size or duration would indicate. And maybe, just maybe, it will help illustrate the limitations and possibilities of writing history — right down to the warts and fingerprints.

(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 March 8, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Loved this. Once again, your review fascinates me about a game I didn’t know I needed to try.

    I was amused to see how much we envision this Jesus character in similar ways, which may say more about us than about him, as you say. But it’s still comforting to find a brother in uncertainty. While I may not know who he really was, the stories they tell me make me want to be like him.

  2. Christian van Someren

    Fascinating analysis.

  3. Great piece, Dan, and it sounds like a fascinating game. Would love to hear you talk to the designer on your show if that’s a possibility.

  4. Great, great work. Thanks for this. And now I have something else to add to the ‘trade for’ list…

  5. Great review. Sounds like a very interesting game.

  6. I still must have somewhere a Book of Mormon, gifted to me by a pretty blonde mormon at university. We both tried to get to a very different kind of missionary position, but it ended as a draw. I never thought I would see the day when I would take the theological thoughts of a Mormon seriously. But you, Dan, are so erudite and eloquent, that I listen and learn. Thank you for that.This game, however, is not something I could bring to the table, as I am playing mostly with heathens. There are a lot of Christians who take the 2000 years of Chinese whispers which is the bible as their horoscope for the day. This game could challenge that, but the fundamentalists are too far gone. Europe dumped its religious extremists for centuries on the American shores. Now it is a place where you can get away with creationism and fundamentalism is trying to come back. Depressing.

  7. Nothing to add, beyond I’m so glad this game and review exist. Extremely well written and thought provoking.

    • Also, from the header image it looks like people are depicted somewhat accurately, which is nice considering the amount of times Jesus and co are depicted as white Europeans.

      • I’d like to give full credit to the illustrator, Rebecca Good, who came up with the cover concept and then executed it very effectively. I suggested but one change: that a couple of the eyewitnesses in the illustration should be female, in particular because the texts present Jesus’ female followers as the first witnesses to the Resurrection. I was also pleased that she used appropriate skin tones for the people, all of whom would have been Middle Eastern. Attention to detail is a valuable skill.

        Deeper in the weeds: an interesting question we grappled with was whether the women should have head coverings. A quick bit of searching led me to conclude that we don’t know conclusively whether head coverings were normative in (all) Jesus communities in this day, indeed because it’s not clear how the Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish cultural norms interacted in this regard. So we split the difference and went with one covered, one not.

  8. adorablerocket

    Amazing review!

    Our fam got this on the table on Ash Wednesday and it was a surprisingly satisfying – both as a game and as an act of awareness/attention. Devotion, not in the typical sense, but let’s call it that in the broader ‘mindful joy’ kinda way…

    In our faith, the idea that the Gospels come with human bias and agenda is hardly heretical, but it’s lovely to get it out in such a tangible way with the kiddos because it’s one thing to read, it’s another to do. Usually you only get this kind of insight into the systems of history in wargames, so I thought this was lovely~

    Now I need to track down The Mission…

    • Thanks for reading! And yes, I echo that sentiment. It’s quite nice being able to play an approachable game that still manages to delve into the particulars behind something like authorship. I love wargames, but the barrier to entry is so darned high.

  9. This game is aimed at a particular audience: you have to be either a Christian or someone interested in historical literature, and someone who likes puzzley euro mechanics. If you’re in that camp, however, this game is an excellent choice for either casual OR thinky play.

  10. Well, according to the shroud of Turin, Jesus was definitely not balding.

    I hope you find your faith again. There is nothing more important.

    I’m to pray for you, whether you want me to or not.

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