Our staff members are constantly reminding each other that Geeks Under Grace is, above all, a ministry. We see the Biblical connections to movies we watch and video games we play, and we remember that the truth is written on all hearts (Romans 1:20). We write about these things not only because we love them, but because we know we can witness to others to share that love.
But what about board games? Most of them don’t have the kind of narrative you find in a movie or cinematic video game. There’s no parallel to draw to our redemption story. In our Tabletop section we certainly strive to make useful content warnings, but can’t we do more than that? Patrick Lysaght thinks so, and that’s why he and his wife Katherine started Chara Games. Their company is uniquely focused on publishing games that have Christian themes. They just kicked things off with their cooperative deck building game Commissioned, with two more games in the pipes. A huge thanks to Patrick for taking the time to talk with us about the intersection of board gaming and our Christian faith.
You started Chara Games to design/publish games with Christian themes. Did you try shopping your games to other publishers? Did you think that self-publishing was the only avenue, or simply the one that was right for you?
At Chara Games, our mission is to design games that create joy by developing relationships with God and people. We started with the dual goals of helping Christians grow in their faith through gaming, and of engaging the secular gaming world to present Christ in a non-threatening way. Initially, we thought we would design games and then find a publisher. In pitching Commissioned to 20 publishers, however, we got a uniform response. “This game is tight, mechanically-innovative, and fun, but it won’t sell. We need to re-theme it because there is no market for Christian games.” After a few months, God began bringing art, website, and legal professionals to us. This was our cue to step out in faith and start the company to publish ourselves. The Kickstarter was an amazing roller coaster experience. God provided more than we asked, but it was exactly what we needed to cover some unexpected expenses. We will continue using that model because it is one of the few ways a small company can engage the larger board-game market.
What were the toughest and/or most important lessons you learned from self-publishing? Would you make any decisions differently, in retrospect?
The skills needed to self-publish effectively are very different from the skills needed to design effectively. We would not have succeeded if it weren’t for a few very important things. First, running a Kickstarter well requires about a solid 6 months of unique preparation. Read Jamey Stegmaier’s blog cover to cover. It is worth every minute of time. Second, making a game and selling a game are totally different problems. Cracking the distribution, marketing, and shipping codes are incredibly complex. The financial costs involved are significant. If we could start over, I would spend more time laying the ground work in these areas before launching our first campaign. It would have saved a lot of sleepless nights. Third, nothing substitutes for convention attendance. If, like us, you can’t get to a major convention, find someone else to take your products. The visibility factor is huge.
What is a typical day at Chara Games like? How much time do you spend on prototyping, rules-writing, designing, etc.?
Chara Games is a second career for us. Pat is active-duty military, and Kat homeschools our 4 kids under ten. These commitments have to take priority. This is why we can only focus on producing 1 or 2 titles a year. Right now, Pat spends about an hour a day managing daily upkeep on the company (talking to customers, working with our manufacturer, marketing outlets, and social media). We spend some evenings testing designs, refining rulebooks, and prototyping. It is a slow and steady process. It can be discouraging at times, but perseverance is a key trait needed for this business.
Your first published game through Chara Games is Commissioned. How did you get the idea for the game? Did any other particular games inspire you?
In January of 2014, Pat had recently finished both a Master’s degree and a game design. Kat had just wrapped up a church history series. When we decided to start a new design together, the concept of exploring the first century church came immediately to mind. We had just started exploring cooperative games like Castle Panic and Pandemic. The cooperative mechanic seemed a natural fit for immersing players in the faith, fear, and wonder of the early church.
Pandemic and Trains helped inspire the development of Commissioned. The ties to Pandemic are fairly obvious, although reversed. Trains was the first game we played which tied a deck-building system to a board. This is a robust way to integrate theme and mechanics within the game’s narrative. With Commissioned, we set out to improve on these systems by minimizing the alpha-gamer issue and maximizing player participation. By creating a balance between cooperative and individual decision-making, I think we found a unique way to do both at the same time.
One of my favorite things about Commissioned is that players face trials but not a particular enemy/person, i.e. no one is particularly antagonized. Was that an intentional aspect of the design? How do we as Christians work with game concepts such as conflict, lying, mythology, etc. that are actually quite fun to have in games but seem “counter-Christian?”
Avoiding specific antagonism was key for two reasons. First, it unites the players against the oppressive system of Trials. This is necessary thematically and mechanically. Second, this approach makes the game much more about history than theology. In turn, this broadens Commissioned’s appeal beyond Christian circles. Time after time people tell us how surprised they are at the rewarding game play. The feedback from non-Christians is almost always, “I was surprised at how good a game this is!” This is because they are expecting a “Christian” game to preach at them. We simply want to immerse them in the historical setting, and allow them to draw their own conclusions.
From a game design standpoint, the decision to include a “morally questionable” mechanic is a big one. There are valid arguments for and against including these very real and pervasive human behaviors in games. The cooperative nature in Commissioned allowed us to sidestep a lot of these issues. For other designs, we have attempted to leave room for players to make their own decisions about these issues. By neither requiring nor ruling out these behaviors, a designer can actually create an interesting space for players to discuss the impact of these behaviors on the individual and group dynamics. In this way, games can be viewed as a type of behavioral laboratory in which players can experiment on the impact of living according to a given worldview’s perspective. This can have profound effects on the people involved.
Your next project is 3 Seeds. What inspired you to consider an outside design? What is it about 3 Seeds that grabbed you?
3 Seeds is a great little game. From the start, we loved the tension the game creates between immediate and endgame scoring. We call it deceptively simple because the more you play, the more you realize the opportunity costs involved in your decisions. This allows players of all skill-levels to quickly pick up, learn, play, and enjoy a game together.
As for working with an outside designer, once we made the decision to start Chara Games we knew we would work with other designers. Our goal is to be the publishing company we couldn’t find. We are not going to produce lots of different games by repackaging them with Christian themes. We want to be the company known for producing high quality, original games for all gamers that deal with Christian issues.
To fit the Chara Games line, how central does that Christian theme have to be to the play of a game? (I’m thinking of Chess having a medieval theme, etc.) Is it just about clean fun, or also about making sure the gameplay delivers a message to the players?
This is a critical question for several reasons. Heavy-handed message sending derails the fun of a game. Instead of a relationship-building experience with the people around your table, it feels like you have all just been lectured. Nobody wants that. The other extreme has its own problems. A game without theme has trouble explaining itself to its players, and leaves people asking questions like: “Why am I doing this?” “What is going on here?” “Is there a point?” As a result, we have created the following goal for a Chara Games game: engage the players with an immersive theme impacting Christians (past, present, or future) in a way that allows the players to draw their own conclusions about the subject. Commissioned opens a window to the struggles of the early, persecuted church. 3 Seeds challenges players to think critically about how to invest their time, money, and labor. Neither of these dictates the way a player has to think, but both allow the players to explore issues they otherwise may not have engaged.
In other mediums, it’s often a concern that Christian-themed content can come across as cliché. How do you overcome that in game design?
The key to this question rests in valuing your players. A cliché approach forces your players to think like you. An engaging approach creates the sandbox in which a player can make a decision, and then evaluate that decision on their own terms. The challenge is to create a series of feedback mechanisms that preserve genuine player choice while preserving the narrative. For example, a key tension in Commissioned develops between the need to use cards cooperatively vs. the need to save cards in order to strengthen your individual deck. Both actions are important. Both actions produce significantly different results. In the middle of this tension is the fact Christians live best when they are walking in a close, personal relationship with God (the individual faith deck) and with each other (the cooperative game).
Several prominent reviewers, gamers, and publishers in board gaming are Christians at the moment. How can we as a body of believers with different roles in the hobby come together to progress the Kingdom?
Games allow us to build relationships with people we would otherwise never get to know. Whether you are a gamer, designer, publisher, or reviewer, you have the ability to engage with many people another Christian simply would not be able to. We do NOT need a plan for an organized, systematic approach to “covering” the gaming industry. Instead, each of us needs to share life with the individuals in front of us in honest, transparent ways. We have found the authenticity of one person sharing triumphs and struggles with another person across a game board can lead to powerful change. Then, when you find a person, company, or group doing this well, take a moment to encourage them. You never know how much a kind, encouraging word from a brother or sister can mean to a person putting themselves out there.
As a counterpoint to that, what trials and barriers face Christians (designers, publishers, reviewers, etc.) in the industry?
In our experience, this boils down to two key aspects. The first is a perceived stigma against religious concepts of all kinds. This first aspect is what we faced in our initial approach to publishers, but it is more systemic. The impression the market simply will not support a good game with a religious theme. This effectively closes doors at the design, publishing, distribution, marketing, and sales levels. It is hard to get any game through these hoops. Adding significant barriers to entry simply over the game’s thematic content can make it nearly impossible to bring a game to market in an economically viable way.
The second aspect is the division of the potential Christian gaming market between the gaming industry and the “Christian” bookstore. Our games are meant to introduce gamers to Christianity in a low threat way. Another key element, however, is their use to develop, strengthen, and expand the faith of Christians. This requires reaching beyond typical gaming channels into “Christian” circles. Unfortunately, this second market is far more disorganized than the secular gaming market. Also, the “Christian” market is not convinced games have much to offer their customers. This is why Commissioned has been available in game stores for almost a year, but still is not carried by Christian stores. As Christian gamers, this is a bridge we need to build to our own communities.
If designers want to contact you to look at their prototype, what advice do you have and what avenues should they take to contact you?
Normally, other designers engage us through social media or through the contact us page of our website. This generally works pretty well. The difficult thing to effectively communicate is how far through the design and testing process you are. Most of the people who have reached out to us have what I call an “initial concept” or an “early prototype.” These are game ideas that have been played up to 50 times (primarily by friends or family). They may or may not have a developed rulebook. My feedback to these designers is to:
1) continue to refine your game by testing with strangers,
2) send your games to other people to “blind test” the rulebook,
3) take your games to local conventions to see what the response is, and
4) come back to us when you have a game people want to play over and over after having played it several times before.
We don’t mean to be rude, but we have a limited amount of time to invest. When it comes to developing and testing, we need to focus on our own ideas. If a designer does their homework and brings their design to us, however, we will be happy to consider it. Just like with 3 Seeds, we were happy to help the designer polish up the final elements and get the game into production!
What are you reading/playing/watching/enjoying lately?
This is a big question! On the game side, we have been enjoying Scythe, Memoir ’44, Scoville, and Hive lately. We are working our way through the Hobbit movies with our kids. While we have not done a lot of recreational reading lately, we did enjoy Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Our next game is finishing art development. The next step will be to get some final prototypes made, and sent out to reviewers. The game is called Unauthorized, and is a social deduction-style card game about the underground church. Players have a public role and a private loyalty which allow them to influence other players toward their side. It scales from 6-12 players, and plays in 30-45 minutes. We hope to get it to Kickstarter in the next 6 months or so.
Thanks to Patrick for the wonderful interview! To find out more about Chara Games, click here. To purchase Commissioned from Amazon, click [amazon text=here&asin=069239530X].