Q&A: True Messiah, a board game about conquering hearts and minds

By hook or by crook.

Imagine you're a prophet. The one true prophet, even, on whom the fate of humanity hinges. That's the premise of True Messiah, a board game where each player assumes the role of a religious leader jockeying for power in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Designed for 2-4 players, True Messiah was among one of many innovative new table and board games on display at the IndieCade festival earlier this month. Players compete for followers with the ultimate goal of annihilating one of their rival 'true' prophets. The rich, darkly ethereal art design -- inspired by late Polish surrealist artist Zdzisław Beksiński -- paints a portrait of a post-apocalypse more Jodorowsky's Dune than Mad Max, in which a powerful computer called the Belief Engine is able to render fact any deeply-held belief... such as, for instance, a belief in the end of the world.

I caught up with designer Craig Stern after the festival to learn a little more about True Messiah, which is currently in the last hours of its Kickstarter.

An early prototype of True Messiah using repurposed chess and checkers pieces. An early prototype of True Messiah using repurposed chess and checkers pieces.

ZAM: Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you said at IndieCade this is your first board game? You touch upon its concept and origin a bit in the pitch video, but it strikes me that this must've changed a lot over 13 years in development. What were some of those big changes?

Craig Stern: I designed lots of board and card games when I was younger, but never did anything with them. True Messiah is the first one I'm actually planning to release to the world!

The original prototype of True Messiah was just a piece of museum board with a pen-drawn grid on it; index cards; checkers pieces; and a couple of chess bishops. The game was purely 2-player in those days, and everyone drew out of a common deck -- there were no coins, no individualized player decks, and no deck-building.

So the most dramatic changes to True Messiah since then have probably been the inclusion of a deck-building system, the addition of a 3rd and 4th player, and the creation of a lot of really nice surrealist art to fully realize True Messiah's theme.

Art design can be a huge part to board and tabletop games, and True Messiah's is undeniably gorgeous. It was really exciting to see Zdzisław Beksiński mentioned front and center as an artistic influence. I'd like to hear more about the art design process, the artists you've worked with, developing a consistent look and feel!

True Messiah's art comes from five different digital painters and one 3D modeler: Chenthooran Nambiarooran, Rostislav Zagornov, Franklin Chan, Tim Barton, David Hammond, and David Mann. I handled the art direction myself; before I even hired anyone, I went around the internet collecting reference pieces that would form the inspiration for the game's look and feel, and Zdzisław Beksiński was simply a perfect fit for the story.

"I was particularly ruthless with forcing the artists to remove 'generic magical glowy shit' from their pieces."

Once the artists were hired, I spent a lot of time with them ensuring that the game's art hit that mark. Every single piece had to be truly bizarre and/or horrifying in some way, and it needed to scream True Messiah. Any element that had even the slightest whiff of standard-issue high fantasy was immediately axed in revisions -- if it could reasonably fit in a generic fantasy universe, then what business did it have in a bleak, surrealist post-apocalypse? I was particularly ruthless with forcing the artists to remove "generic magical glowy shit" from their pieces.

The four prophet cards. The four prophet cards.


True Messiah has a "first blood" win condition, meaning the player just has to defeat a single opponent, not necessarily all of them. Was this done to keep sessions shorter?

That's part of the reason for it, yeah. If there are more than two players, a "last-man-standing" win condition only gives the players the incentive to survive, not to engage. The optimal strategy becomes one of "hang back, build up resources, and don't interact with anyone else while the other players fight and weaken each other... and then, once the remaining players are too weakened to effectively fight back, swoop in and stomp everyone." It's an absolutely terrible dynamic that leads to games which are boring from beginning to end.

With a "first blood" win condition, every player is incentivized to be aggressive and actively engage with the other players from round 1; you can still turtle [play defensively], but it becomes increasingly risky with every passing round, as it takes time to mobilize forces across the board.

There's one other reason for not using last-man-standing: simply, player elimination just sucks for the eliminated players. No one wants to sit around for an hour or two with nothing to do while the other players wrap up the game.

The finalized board game. The finalized board game.

Nevertheless, it confused me at first, because the story premise is, well, becoming recognized as the one true prophet. What's the narrative reason for the "first blood" condition?

It's never explained narratively in the rulebook. However, players almost invariably come to the conclusion that one demonstrates one's power as the true messiah by striking down a false prophet, and I'm inclined to treat this explanation as canon.

"One demonstrates one's power as the true messiah by striking down a false prophet."

It's said (somewhere) that there are three things you shouldn't talk about: politics, religion, and the other person's mother. But religion -- or rather, faith -- is central to True Messiah. How would you say religion "works" in your game, as a mechanic, outside the scope of the narrative wrapper?

As a player, your deck represents a set of core traditions, myths, and beliefs that you can draw upon at opportune moments to influence your followers and make miracles happen. The auction at the end of each round is, essentially, each player jockeying for new stories to add to their own religion's canon -- stories that can later be harnessed to produce real-world effects via the Belief Engine. Because the market consists primarily of unique, one-off miracle cards, each player's religious tradition very quickly becomes quite different from every other players', with different thematic focuses (and correspondingly, different abilities) available to them.

True Messiah card art titled 'Indulgences.' True Messiah card art titled 'Indulgences.'

Play on the actual game board, meanwhile, is unrelentingly cynical. Your actual followers are resources to be used however suits you best -- as long as you have enough of them, they're utterly expendable cannon fodder. Combat is bloody, with most exchanges resulting in a 1-to-1 cascade of casualties. If your messiah shares a space with followers going into combat, the followers will always die en masse before the messiah takes even a single point of damage.

This is a game in which belief is extremely powerful -- and simultaneously, a game in which believers are exploited for the benefit of those they put their faith in. Unambiguously, you play as a complete monster; that's intentional. As fun as True Messiah is, I want players to feel a little uncomfortable about what they're doing.

Have you experienced any pushback or ambivalence from people?

On the whole, religious players seem to mentally compartmentalize it as a game of fictitious fantasy cults, with any commentary the game may have not really applicable to real-world religions (or at least, not to their own).

My feeling is, there is always going to be some pushback and ambivalence with any topic that's actually worth addressing. I mean, I could just make this into yet another game about zombies or pirates or vikings, but do we really need yet another game with nothing meaningful to say about the world and our place in it? I happen to subscribe to the "games are art" theory, and I don't like wasting my time on projects that squander the artistic capabilities of the medium.

What about your view, is there a particular message or statement you want True Messiah to impart?

I'm not big on artist's statements: I think the work has to be able to speak for itself. If there is a singular message or statement to be had, I think it should be discoverable through the process of playing the game.

'Divine Inspiration.' 'Divine Inspiration.'

To address the elephant in the room: with less than 24 hours to go, it doesn't seem likely the project will be successfully Kickstarted. If you could do the campaign all over again, what do you think you would do differently?

I'm currently waiting to hear back from a couple of manufacturers with specific quotes, but if the numbers add up, my hope is to do some combination of charging less money for the game and/or offering plastic miniatures standard with every copy. That's the main thing.

I also want to set a lower funding goal next time -- as nice as it would be to make back my art budget via the Kickstarter, the only truly mandatory bit should be getting the game manufactured and delivered. I'm going to focus exclusively on that next time.

Finally, I'm going to line up more reviews before relaunching. Honestly, I find it pretty bizarre that board gamers evidently expect reviews of games that have been neither manufactured nor released like this -- but if those are what they need in order to feel comfortable ordering the game, then that's what I'm going to give them.

Since development is already completed, do you plan to go ahead with publishing through some other means?

I'm most likely going to give Kickstarter another shot.

I suppose I'd also be willing to let a publisher handle the manufacturing and distribution for me, but only if they don't meddle with the game's theme. Given a choice between the game being released as (a) some re-themed nonsense about zombies or farmers or whatever, and (b) it not being released at all, I'd pick option (b) in a heartbeat.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.