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Papal Games: If You Can’t be the Pope, at Least You can Play one at Home

by Michael Barnes (02/28/13).

The Vatican—an opulent city-state of incredible aesthetic beauty… the board game, not so much.

Folks don’t tend to resign from the office of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome and the appointed worldwide leader of the Catholic Church. It’s kind of a cushy job and it comes with an awesome hat. Not to mention the fact that you get to ride in the Popemobile. But it is also such an imminently high-profile position that is historically prone to controversy, scandal and drama. Pope Benedict XVI, who was elected by a 2005 Papal conclave, will resign, effective February 28, citing a “lack of strength of mind and body.” This makes him the first pope since Pope Celestine V in 1294 to willfully step down. And with Easter coming, there’s a job opening with some very specific qualifications.

I was born and raised Catholic, but I’m pretty sure that I don’t qualify; I didn’t even send in my resume. What I am qualified to do, though, is to direct you to some games that will bring at least a little bit of the white smoke excitement of the upcoming Papal Conclave to your tabletop through the magic of board games. There are tons of games in which various historical, fictional and abstract popes play major and minor roles, and there are even games where you can be the pope. He’s not quite as common a figure in games as, say, Napoleon, but I’d say the pope has had more starring and supporting roles on the table than even Frodo Baggins.

First up is a fairly recent game from a tiny publisher called College of DuPage and it deals specifically with the modern selection of the pope. It’s called, rather hilariously, Vatican: The Board Game. This is one of those very rarely seen and very rarely played small-press games that comes and goes without a blip—this means that it could be a valuable collector’s item in time or it could be completely worthless. I wouldn’t begin to hazard a value, particularly since it’s only about five years old.

In the game, each player controls a Cardinal aspiring to move up through church offices to become the next pope. It’s a modern setting, so most of the ways that the players accumulate influence points and get ahead in the papal race are by doing things like conducting interviews with reporters and dealing with various events such as, rather awkwardly, sex scandals. I’ve not actually played the game, but from reports there have been complaints that the game isn’t really representative of the papal election process and contrivances such as these news interviews aren’t a very accurate representation of what goes on in the modern church. With extremely Spartan production values, I’m inclined to say that this game—despite its scarcity—might wind up on the low end of the value scale.

Of course, if a Vatican game isn’t accurately portraying the election of the pope, it begs the question—is the pope Catholic? And that is the title of a 1986 game, also from a virtually microscopic publisher called Crowley. Billed as the “Catholic Nostalgia Game,” it’s a lighthearted trivia game wherein the players attempt to become the pope by completing a “six-decade Rosary,” which means answering a lot of questions about the Catholic Church. There’s kind of a catch here. The questions are all about the pre-Vatican II church, so it’s specifically about Catholicism prior to the reforms enacted by Pope John Paul II. In other words, at this point, it’s a game for old folks.

Is the Pope Catholic!?!, Catholic Nostalgia Game, is obviously not a serious look at Catholicism. I’ve always wondered if there was a companion game about the toilet habits of bears.

Is The Pope Catholic is definitely a niche-appeal item. That said, it is a game that may carry some value. Copies have been spotted for anywhere from $50 to $100, but I bet if you trawl your local St. Vincent DePaul Society thrift store, one will turn up eventually. If you can’t find this one, there are a number of other Catholic trivia games out there, including Catholic-opoly and Scattergories: Catholic Edition. Yep, and I’m not bearing false witness, here, folks.

But let’s say you want to be pope without doing all of these questionable interviews or answering questions about Lent. Let’s say you want to skip right to being pope. Of course, I’ve saved the best for last, the game that is more or less the ultimate pope simulator—at least for one of its six players. The game is Here I Stand, a 2007 publication from GMT Games designed by Ed Beach. This is an incredible, sprawling and truly epic game covering the Wars of Reformation in Europe, 1517-1555. It’s papal gaming at its finest, as the Catholic Church comes into conflict with Martin Luther and John Calvin in theological debates, all while material—rather than spiritual—war rages throughout Europe between the Ottomans, Habsburgs, the English and the Valois of France.

Probably ought to be called “Here We Sit.” This is not a simple game, as it takes on the Wars of Reformation in Europe. It is papal gaming at its finest, as the Catholic Church comes into conflict with Martin Luther and John Calvin in theological debates. The Papacy on the board is represented by the purple pieces.

It’s a truly epic game with virtually every major historical, political, scientific, religious and military figure of the age represented in its cards, and with almost every event you could possibly name effecting gameplay. It’s a card-driven game and each faction plays with its own specific victory conditions and objectives. As the player representing the Papacy, you get to do exciting things like excommunicate people, convert cities to Catholicism, translate the Bible and get it printed in new languages, and disgrace or even burn heretics at the stake.

It’s a massive, complex game and it’s expensive—$80 retail—and when it drifts out of print between printings, that price could increase dramatically, since it’s such a highly regarded title. So it’s definitely not one for everybody, but it’s also a tremendous accomplishment in terms of conveying the rich and varied themes of this period to a tabletop experience. It’s also a pretty major time commitment, especially with inexperienced players.

If I were elected pope by some kind of incredible fluke, not only would I have the makings of a great fish-out-of-water comedy screenplay, I would also be in a position to make Here I Stand part of the Catechism. I think I’ve learned more about the Reformation from this game than I have from any book.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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