In the world of modern board games it is common for designers to look to history for themes. There are a large number of games that have found medieval and enlightenment Europe to be a perfect setting for their themes. There are hundreds of games that are all about building a medieval city or trading goods in the Mediterranean. Given that European culture was historically influenced by Christianity it is surprising that so few games have explored the Christian faith. A new game published by Stronghold Games seeks to tread this untouched ground with the release of Sola Fide. The game, designed by Jason Matthews and Christian Leonhard, is a two player card game about the protestant reformation. Sola Fide does not just paste this historical theme onto the game. The work seeks to make the historical subject matter more approachable through the form of a game.
In this game one player takes the side of the Protestant reformers and the other heads up the Catholic church. The players will be playing for the hearts and minds of the German people. This is represented by a pyramid of ten German provinces. At the start of the game three of these are face up. Each province will have two sides: A noble side and a commoner side. On each side there are influence spaces. Some start out pro-Protestant, others pro-Catholic, and the rest are neutral. It is also possible for players to shift the balance of power in the province between noble and commoner.
Each player also gets a deck of cards. From this deck, players will draft the fifteen cards they will use for the whole game. This is done at the beginning of the game through a draft. Players take the top three cards of the deck and pick one to keep. For beginners there is also a recommended started set up that is easy to access.
On a player’s turn they may do one of two options. The player may either draw a card from their deck or play a card from their hand. The cards have a wide variety of functions. However, the majority will do one of two things. The card may allow the player to gain influence in the common or nobility side of a province. Players are seeking to have the entire side be filled with their color of cubes. The other common ability is that a card may allow a player to change the marker of which side, the nobility or commoners, has control over the territory. If at any point a player has all of the influence spaces in their color on the side that is in power then they may claim the territory. Each territory is worth a printed number of points.
Some of the cards can place a disputation token, and if that token is present when the province is claimed then the claimer gets an extra point cube. The person who claimed the province also gets to draw one card from a foreign influence deck. These decks will either add cubes, change dominance, remove opponent cubes, or deal with cards. Finally, any face down tiles immediately under the claimed tile get turned face up. The game ends once the last province is claimed and the player with the most points wins.
The strongest point of this game is how well it brings out the historical theme. Even though the game is primarily just cards, each card is rooted in the source material. I especially appreciate how the game tends to focus on the spiritual aspect of this era in history. Many of the cards, such as the “doctrine of two kingdoms” and “sacred tradition beyond scripture”, actually focus on theological points of the era. This helps move this from being a political control game with religious underpinnings to a game that better captures the spiritual climate the 16th century German found themselves in. What really brings this historical detail to the next level is that the game includes an accompanying booklet that has a paragraph about each card. This book explains the historical detail about the cards and why the event, person, or concept depicted was influential to the reformation. This book makes this game a truly educational experience that helps give a deeper sense of both the political and spiritual developments of this era.
The history and thematic implementation of this game is top notch, but the game play is engaging as well. The way the decks are drafted at the beginning is a fairly unique way to do it. This creates a lot of very tense and interesting decisions since often a player will want to keep two of the three cards. This mechanism also helps add to the replayability since each game will have a different deck composition. It is also nice that the two sides are asymmetrical since the starting card base is different.
Building the deck at the beginning is fun but the best aspect of playing the game is how tactical it is. Every turn offers tough choices. First players have to decide if they are going to draw and increase their options or play a card. If they play a card, the choice is then which card. Finally, the player has to decide which territory to impact. This makes every turn a little puzzlely game of cat and mouse as the two opponents have a lot of back and forth.
One of the big drawbacks to this game is that it is not terribly accessible. For a player new to the game, drafting a deck is a daunting possibility. The game does include a pre-built deck option for this situation. However, this game is so card dependent and card driven not having a good feel for what the cards do puts a new player at a disadvantage. For a seasoned gamer the rules and concepts of this game are manageable. However, for someone interested in the subject material without modern game experience this will be a hard game to grasp.
For the most part the back and forth game play is engaging. However, that back and forth can break down in the end game. When the two players are competing for just one or two territories the game can become a real slog-fest as players endlessly go back and forth. Even though the whole play time is between forty-five and sixty minutes this laborious end game can feel like it is really dragging out.
Sola Fide is a gamer’s game. This may not be a good one to bring to a church game night with a lot of non-gamers. The game only plays two, so that also limits its ability to be used as a Christian education tool. Despite that, the game overall is a solid experience. The gameplay is engaging and the Christian theme is woven in beautifully. This is a game that is both educational and deeply strategic. There continues to be a severe shortage of good Christian themed games but Sola Fide can be added to the list of ones worth playing.