GrogHeads Interviews Craig Stern of True Messiah

frontier wars 728x90 KS

True Messiah is coming soon on Kickstarter; designer Craig Stern sits down for a chat ~

Brant Guillory, 15 July 2016

OK, so True Messiah has a totally off-the-wall-crazy backstory.  Where did it come from?  What was the original inspiration and how was it refined over time as it developed?

I thought it up in the shower one morning. (The ideas underlying the backstory had been percolating in me for a long time prior, mind you—they merely chose that moment to congeal. Maybe it was the steam?)

Anyway. You might think that this this game’s premise is meant to critique extremist religious groups like ISIS, people so certain in their beliefs that they are willing to slaughter tens of thousands of innocent people in the name of prophecies that they want to be (but have no good reason to believe are) true. You wouldn’t be wrong.

But True Messiah is really about magical thinking in all of its forms: about people privileging subjective beliefs over empirical facts, about valuing tribal loyalties over shared humanity. “What if,” I wondered, “we lived in a world in which believing something—and nothing more—really did make it so? What if ‘speaking your truth’ were literal?”

True Messiah - Logo w Box Art

click images to enlarge; images from the publisher

The idea behind the Belief Engine is pretty neat.  How far, if at all, did you guys try to develop a meaning for the physics behind it, and how much of it was just a fantasy-style lark that you decided to play with and see what you’d get?

True Messiah - Divine InspirationThe general concept is what interested me here. The fact is, as much as I enjoy reading about hard science, I’m no expert in that arena; I doubt my ability to come up with a plausible mechanism for rendering subjective beliefs objectively true. To use a metaphor: when your actors are flying around the set on wires, you don’t want to do a close-up on the wires. In the service of suspension of disbelief, I’ve chosen not to address the machine’s inner workings.

Ultimately, the machine is just a narrative device. It enables some horrifying and surreal imagery and events in the game, but the true core of the game’s horror comes from the fact that people actually think this way in real life: no Belief Engine required.


Give us a sense of just-opening-the-box gameplay?  What are we going to see, and how are we going to tackle our first game?

Opening the box, you’ll see an 18” x 18” quad-fold board with a lovely painted depiction of the howling wasteland that humanity now calls home. In addition, you’ll see a full-color rulebook; 4 rules reference cards; 4 character cards (each representing one of the game’s messiahs); 4 messiah pawns; 79 gorgeously painted miracle cards; 4 holy city tiles; 16 tiles representing the game’s buildable temples; and roughly 234 chits representing coins, health, various playable units, and a few other bits and bobs.

True Messiah - Memory HoleThe goal of the game is to be the first player to slay an opponent, thus ostensibly proving that you (and not they) are the true messiah. Each player starts off with a small deck of starting miracle cards, as well as their messiah, their holy city, and 7 followers. For most of the game, the key thing you want to do is to build and maintain control of numerous temples on the board while preventing your opponents from doing the same. Temples are your recruitment centers and primary income generators, so the more you have, the bigger an army you can field and the more powerful your deck will grow.

As for tackling your first game, the back of the rulebook contains the first round of a sample game to walk you through the flow of play and show you how the rules interact. I’d recommend that new players read that through once they’ve skimmed the rules.


What are some of the mechanics that people will recognize, and how did you incorporate them?  Conversely, what are the unique gameplay elements that you guys put into the game, and how do they blend with the setting to put the players “in the game”?

The miracles in this game behave similarly to spells in Magic: The Gathering. To perform a miracle, you must pay its cost: but instead of tapping lands for mana, you make your followers pray. Every follower has an active side and a praying side; flipping over an active follower to the praying side produces 1 belief point. Once you have enough belief points, you play the miracle. So far, so familiar.

True Messiah - JudgmentBut there’s a difference here: followers aren’t just fonts of belief points. They’re also your soldiers, and praying followers are left immobile and totally defenseless. What’s more, you can only have followers pray when they’re on one of your temples or holy cities, and it’s bad news if those get captured. So you have to be very careful where you build temples, and equally careful where and when you have your followers pray.

True Messiah has so many unique gameplay elements I could talk about. The system that determines your resources each turn is possibly the most novel of the bunch; it’s loosely based on cellular automata, in that different numerical configurations of certain units on different types of spaces will produce different results.

For example: if you have two or more followers on a temple, they’ll recruit a new follower during your beginning phase; when the temple is full, you can’t recruit there anymore; and you have a limited number of moves you can make each turn. So ideally, you want to set up stable configurations with your followers that recruit you as many new followers as possible for multiple turns in a row with no moves required. That mechanic is less about theme, admittedly, and more about producing interesting interactions with a minimal number of different unit types.

To keep this from turning into an essay, I’ll just pick one more gameplay element: the victory condition. Rather than victory going to the last man standing, the victor in True Messiah is the first player to eliminate an enemy player.

Rather than victory going to the last man standing, the victor in True Messiah is the first player to eliminate an enemy player.

If you think about it, “last man standing” is terrible design. It encourages a player to sit there and do nothing while everyone else fights so that, after an hour or two of doing nothing, he or she can then swoop in and mop up opponents too weakened to effectively fight back. Even worse, if the mopping-up portion takes a long time, eliminated players are then stuck with nothing to do until the player who barely participated in the first part of the game finishes everyone off! Just writing about it is making me yawn.

By contrast, where the first player to take down an enemy player wins, everyone is incentivized to be active and aggressive, and the game ends at the very moment someone would otherwise have to sit things out. It makes the whole experience dramatically more enjoyable for everyone.


True Messiah - Messiah Violet

What game designer would you love to sit down with and play True Messiah, and why?

Gosh, I don’t know. Perhaps Julian Gollop, co-creator of the X-Com video game series? I respect the hell out of his work, and I think we’re interested in a similar sort of play space. At the same time, I think he has a very different philosophy from myself on randomness and determinism in games; I’d be curious to see what he thinks of True Messiah, as deterministic as it is.


What sort of follow-on support is currently planned?  Expansions already on the drawing board?  Digital versions?  Kickstarter bonuses?  How is the community coalescing around the game?

The response from folks who’ve actually seen and played True Messiah has been tremendously positive so far. I showed the game at PAX East in Boston just a few months ago, and people kept coming back to the table throughout the weekend hoping to get play time with it. Just from that one weekend, I amassed an email list consisting of hundreds of people waiting to back True Messiah on Kickstarter.

I do have ideas for an expansion, and I’ve actually already built some of the framework for a digital version of the game—but at the end of the day, I’m only one person. I want to keep the scope of this thing within bounds that I can reasonably manage. Better to under-promise and over-deliver, right? So I’m planning to keep things very simple at the start: the Kickstarter campaign will provide the base game, with an option to back at a higher level to receive copies of some lovely 3D miniatures of the messiahs for those who wish to upgrade from painted wooden pawns. Whether I actually produce the expansion or complete the digital version depends on how well the Kickstarter for the base game goes.

True Messiah - Corrupt MiracleAfter the campaign, I’ll be available to clarify True Messiah rules questions on the Sinister Design forums. I’d also like to produce some short tutorial videos explaining various aspects of the rules in an easy-to-digest visual format (possibly before the campaign, but if not before, then definitely after).

Finally, while it’s entirely likely that there will only be a single print run of this game, I want anyone who buys a copy of True Messiah to be able to play it forever—as such, once the Kickstarter is finished and the game has been shipped to backers, I plan to make the rulebook available in PDF form and set up a system for people to order whatever replacement pieces they may need on an ad hoc basis through sites like TheGameCrafter, DriveThruCards, and Shapeways.


What was the biggest change you made to the design during playtesting, and why?

I first started designing True Messiah about 13 years ago. In its original form, True Messiah was a 2-player-only affair, and both players simply drew miracle cards from a single deck containing every card in the game. This meant that strategizing your miracle usage was highly dependent on luck and on memory, a little akin to poker.

As a designer, I’ve honestly never much liked the heavy reliance on luck I see in most turn-based strategy games. I resolved to excise the bulk of that from True Messiah, replacing the common-deck draw system with individual decks and a deck-building mechanic.

Here’s how that works in the finished game: each player starts out the game with their own deck consisting of the same 9 starting miracle cards. You build up a reserve of coins as you play; at the end of each round, a random assortment of miracle cards is revealed from the top of the marketplace deck, and you may use some or all of your coins to bid in secret on up to 2 of the cards that were revealed.

True Messiah - Messiah WhiteThe majority of the game’s miracle cards are uniques, so as the game goes on, each player builds up a distinct set of abilities representing their religion’s canon. Not only does this reinforce the theme quite nicely, it provides entirely balanced asymmetrical gameplay; it grants a lot of leeway to attempt particular strategies and card synergies; and it gives players the opportunity to deliberately foil opponents from doing the same by outbidding them.


We’ve all prototyped cards with a variety of wacky or fun artwork during playtesting.  Magic: The Gathering famously had a playtest card for the “Bezerk” spell that featured John Travolta dancing from Saturday Night Fever.  What similar humorous oddities did y’all have during your playtesting of True Messiah?

I only commissioned True Messiah’s card artwork after the cards had been playtested to death and more-or-less finalized, so there isn’t any card art to speak of that didn’t end up in the final game.

That said, the card whose artwork most consistently gets a laugh during playtests is Evangelize. Evangelize features a grinning, squeaky-clean young man in a suit, standing in your doorway and handing you a clipboard…flanked by two menacing acolytes wielding an axe and a club, respectively. One gets the sense that perhaaaaps not all of one’s followers are willing volunteers.

The runner-up in humor is Confirmation Bias, which also tends to get a laugh once people realize what the card does.


We all know that not all games are made for all people, so fill in the blanks for us:  If you’re a fan of _____ then you’re probably going to dig True Messiah, but if your preferences are more _________ you might be better off steering clear.

True Messiah - Messiah BlackIn playtests, the most consistent correlation I’ve noticed is this one: if you’re a fan of Magic: The Gathering, then you’re almost certainly going to dig True Messiah. It’s not the correlation I would have guessed at if you’d asked me a few years ago, but it’s the one I’ve observed time and time again in recent playtests.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure that I’ve noticed any comparable correlation for folks who didn’t like the game, but I can say this: aside from all the card shuffling, True Messiah is highly deterministic. As I state on the back of the box: “God does not play dice, and neither will you.” If you can’t have a good time without tossing plastic cubes around, you’re best off steering clear.


You’re casting the True Messiah movie: who plays the leads, and who directs the film?

Ah, this is actually a tricky question to answer—the messiahs are all meant to be gender neutral!

I’ll just give you an even split of actors and actresses here, and you can decide for yourself which messiahs get played by whom: Jeremy Irons, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Smith, and James Earl Jones.

As for the director: well, that clearly has to be Alejandro Jodorowsky, doesn’t it?


What are the next steps for the game – Kickstarter launch and then…what?

Unless demand exceeds my expectations, I will most likely produce only a single print run of True Messiah via the Kickstarter—then, once I’ve completed all the necessary post-launch support, move on to other projects.

True Messiah - IndulgencesOn the other hand…if it turns out that there is an unexpectedly high level of demand for deterministic strategy games of surreal religious horror, then I suppose it will behoove me to press on with that expansion and digital version, won’t it?


What should we have asked you, if we’d known what to ask you?

How about “Where can people go to learn more about True Messiah?” In fact, let’s just pretend you did ask that!

Here’s my answer: You can even sign up to get a one-time email notification when the Kickstarter campaign begins, so you won’t accidentally miss your chance to get it.


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