YA GOTTA BELIEVE!
CREDO by CHRIS V. GIDLOW
358 1 1/2" x 2" cards, 6 8 1/2" x 5 1/2" displays, 1 8-page rule book, 1 8-page historical background booklet. Chaosium Inc., 950-A 56th Street, Oakland, CA 94608. $14.95.
Reviewed by JULI THOMPSON
As popular as religion is, board games on religion have never quite approached the all-encompassing level of acceptance that their subject has. Remember Avalon Hill's Journey's of St.Paul? Not exactly another Squad Leader, was it. About the only "historical" game to deal with a major religious issue was SPI's A Mighty Fortress, although there the religious issues were more of a backdrop to the main events at hand: war and persecution.
Therefore, when I heard about Credo, Chaosium's Arcana-of-the-Decade game on the Council of Nicea, the 4th century conclave that decided in what direction western Christianity was going to go, I was intrigued and excited. The Council of Nicea is unfamiliar to most people, even to those who regularly recite its eponymous Creed. (Well, sort of. What's usually called the Nicene Creed is actually the Niceo-Chalcedon Creed as amended by the Pope somewhat later, a point which still divides the Orthodox and Western Churches.). It was familiar enough to Chris Gidlow, who saw in it one of those exciting and chaotic events that would make a wonderful game. Athanasius against Arius, each lobbying for support among the bishops. Constantine striving for political tranquility after a lifetime of war and battle (… and what about that vision, anyway?). Heretics, pole-sitters, transubstantiation specialists, the possibilities seemed endless, and the fact that practically no one would know what the Hell (another issue) it was all about didn't seem to faze him in the least.
That said, when Credo arrived on my doorstep I was somewhat taken aback. I had been expecting a boxed game with a board, not an unreasonable expectation for a game billed by Chaosium as a "New Boardgame." There was no box… and no board. Just a plastic bag and a small stack of paper. As I cut apart the player displays and punched out the cards, I thought of all those Call of Cthulhu games, with their nice boxes and mysterious letters from old friends. I can't escape the impression that the whole thing could have used one last look from an impartial observer. For example, the rules booklet clearly states that the Article Cards and the Event Cards are white. They aren't; they are bright gold. The front states that this is a game for 2-5 players. Why are there only 4 Church Displays? Is the Office Deck marked on the layout guide the same as the Church Deck referred to in the rules? Apparently so. Why does the layout guide show the Two Tables of the Law with the Hebrew alphabet printed on them? It's nicely done, vaguely religious and totally inappropriate. Why not the Chi-Pho that Constantine saw? [Ed. Actually, it is not the Law; it is the menu, supplied by the Caterer.] And the cards. There are two decks of over 200 cards that start separately and end up being shuffled together. The cards are tiny, approximately 1 1/2" x 2" and made out of (not) heavy (enough) paper. They are far too small and much too fragile to shuffle well. As this is a card game, larger and more substantial cards would have been a big help.
I put the whole thing down to cash flow problems and resolutely decided to ignore the adiaphora (theological term meaning unimportant peripheral stuff) [Ed. I don't want to hear any more complaints about MY use of indecipherable terms] and stick to the substance of the game.
Once you've adjusted to the physical disappointment, the game proceeds rather smoothly. Each player receives a certain number of Church cards. Some of these are "flock," marked with the number of parishioners they represent, usually from 5000 to 1,000,000! Some are Bishops or Patriarchs, marked with the number of votes they can cast in the council, while others represent various secular imperial authorities, such as the Emperor (Eastern - very important - and Western, guest appearance by), the Empress (Eastern only), and various Prefects. The latter can vote at the council, exile bishops (thereby reducing your voting block), and also allow them to return from exile.
Each player also receives Article cards, representing the various doctrines up for adoption, which they place on their Church Display in three levels of importance.
Play proceeds as players draw both Event and Article cards from the pile. The Event cards, which players soon learn (after some initial confusion arising from the fact that the rules, like the "doctrine" they are simulating, explain little) are historically accurate, even (maybe especially) when they sound off the wall. And some of them are truly remarkable, producing such events as having your key Bishop exiled to the silver mines in Sardinia for scandalous behavior, only (different card) to have him recalled when the Emperor's concubine intercedes. Knowing the Byzantines, she probably caused the whole thing in the first place. There are the time-honored "Plague" cards, plus a host of Proselytize cards which enable you to grab opponents' Bishops or flock. Also thrown in are some neat Civil Wars, a few heterodoxical books that show up to everyone's inconvenience, and one that cancels an entire council when someone's troops show up. Our favorite, though, was the "Mutilation" event, wherein the Patriach of Rome is attacked by thugs, who gouge out his eyes and cut off his tongue… for one turn only. The next turn this poor unfortunate returns to play, intact, his communicative organs having been restored by a miracle. Ya gotta believe.
Event cards can be played immediately (some must be) or saved for later, when they can be played at any time, even during someone else's turn. Knowing which Event Cards to hold onto, and when to use them., is the heart of the game, and, for the most part, the only gaming "strategy" in heavy use. Article cards may either be discarded or added to the player's Church Display.
If the player draws the appropriate Event card or holds the Emperor, he or she can call a council at the end of the turn … wherein the fun starts. The council is the most intense part of the game, and anyone who has read Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" will understand just how intense - and comic - one of these conclaves can truly be. During the conclave, players can play whatever cards they want, in the order that they are able to shout out what they wish to do. Intense bargaining for votes takes place, with players holding back the particularly vicious events for retribution. There are 10 articles in the Nicene Creed, and each one is considered in turn, one article per council. If your Church Display contains an article that is accepted, you win that council. If your numbered article - and there are lots of different doctrines for each numbered article, so the chances of simply being in the right place at the right time are slim - was not accepted, you lose. Winners get more Church Cards and votes, losers lose Church Cards and votes. After this, the emperor gets to randomly persecute one loser. The game is over when the Creed has been completed, one player gets eleven million flock, or one player controls 117 votes on the council, none of which are easy.
The most common response from people hearing about the game (after,"You've got to be kidding!" or "The What?") was "I want to be Athanasius!" [Ed. I wanted to be the Caterer.] That leads to the most disappointing aspect of the game. Nobody gets to "be" Athanasius [Ed. a gaming blow from which only the truly agnostic may recover]. The Event cards are historically accurate, and the Article cards represent actual heterodox views (the name of the heresy is noted on each card). But there is no real sense of faction, of one controlling ideology competing with another. Because of the random distribution of cards, there cannot be. The Council of Nicea was a showdown between Athanasius and Arius, with the control of the official religion of the western world at stake. Our best source for the Council, Eusebius of Cesarea, was perilously close to the losing side, and his writings show his mad scramble to protect himself. This was life or death, serious stuff.This game does not reflect that level of factional desperation.
On the other hand, Credo is loads of fun. The rules are clearly written and easy to follow. On the other hand, unless you are well versed in this area, what your "objective" is is not succinctly stated … or even referred to obliquely. It is revealed by simply playing a few turns out, though. The play is fast-paced and exciting. Most of it is historically accurate, and the councils do reflect the rather rough and tumble nature of imperial-religious politics in the early years of Christianity. And, despite the rather arcane nature of the subject, if Credo had some half-decent components it could be as big a winner as Athanasius.
Graphic Presentation: Barely OK. .
Playability: High. Initial confusion is cleared up quickly in simple system that leads to fast and furious play.
Replayability: Also high. The random nature of the card distribution guarantees that no two games will ever be the same.
Creativity: Mixed. The game system isn't particularly creative, but the topic, and the way it is handled, is.
Historicity: Mixed. The impressive bibliography and the Event cards show that someone did a lot of period research. But, in an important way, it misses the entire point of the council. Whatever, you'll learn a lot of obscure facts.
Comparisons: None that I know of, in terms of subject. Less structured than most military card games.
Overall: Despite some drawbacks, Highly Recommended for everyone, including non-gamers and non-believers.