Underground Church: The Card Game

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In church youth groups there is this crazy tradition called a lock-in, where the teens stay up all night in the church.  I have spent fifteen years in youth ministry at this point, and that means I have been in charge of dozens and dozens of these lock-ins.  Across the years and different churches, one of the favorite lock-in games is Underground Church. This is a capture the flag/hide and go seek/ tag mash up of a game played in the dark, where the smaller Roman team tries to keep the Christians in jail so they can not establish a church.  I can not stress how much this game is loved. I have also used social deduction games for all of those years, and those games are also well loved. When I heard of Unauthorized I was immediately interested. This game has a similar theme to Underground Church and strong social deduction elements.  This seemed like it would be a sure-fire, slam dunk of a game. So is this game authorized for a fun time?

Game Overview

Unauthorized is a social deduction game for six to twelve players with two teams that have opposing goals.   Both sides are trying to determine who is on their team and convert other players to their team. The two teams, the church and state, have different victory conditions.  The church is seeking to have the majority of the players be on the church team and have at least one of their players not imprisoned. The State wins if the majority are not on the church team or if all of the church team is in prison.    

At the beginning of the game each player is dealt out a role card.   Depending on the number of players one or two will get pastor roles and one or two will get police roles.  These roles belong to the church or state respectively. They are each dealt seven cards that correspond to the color of their team (green for church, red for state).  The other players get neutral roles. They are also dealt seven cards at random. Whichever color they have the majority of determines the team they are on. Some of the cards are wild and until played face up can count for either team.   The player holding the card can decide which team it counts for when it comes to determining their team affiliation.

The game is played over four rounds and each round has a couple of phases.  First, all players are going to simultaneously do card actions. In the first round this involves playing two cards from their hand face up on the table.  Again, if a player plays a wild they must lock in which side it counts for. The later rounds involve playing one card face up and passing a card to another player.  This new card might change the majority color and change the team of the player.

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Next starting with the dealer players will take a turn and on their turn they can do one of four actions.  The first option is “speak to a neighbor”. This allows them to look at the hand of the player on their left or right and this will tell them what team they are on.  

The next option is doing a role power.  Every character card has a power associated with it.   All of these powers manipulate the face up cards or hands of another player in some way.  The goal of doing this is to secure a player’s loyalty or cause them to switch loyalty because anytime a player’s card majority switches they switch teams.  All of this manipulation could cause a player to have less than two cards in their hand, and if that happens they draw back up to two.

The final two options are situational.   The police power can cause people to be arrested.  If someone is arrested, then on their action they can seek parole by flipping the top card of the deck and putting it in front of them.  If it is green they stay imprisoned and if it is red they are released. There are some limits on using role powers if imprisoned. The final option is only available to the police players and it can only happen once per game.  This option is a public execution, and it fully removes a player from the game. A pastor can not be targeted by this action.

After four rounds, all cards are revealed and it becomes clear who is on what team.  If Christians have the majority and at least one non-imprisoned player they win.

The Good

My favorite part of this game is the theme.   Making games out of a Christian context is difficult, and the theme of the underground church does lend itself to the social deduction genre of games quite well.   While it can be a little uncomfortable to think about, I do appreciate how they included the possibility of life events and circumstances swaying people away from loyalty to the church.   Even going back to the Roman persecutions, this was a thing that happened. Including that as a possibility in the game does present some potentially good teachable moments.

I also liked that they included different special abilities.  Unique role cards is a welcomed element in games like this because it makes every player unique.    I also like the added touch that they made each card double sided, so that players could pick the gender that they wanted to represent them.     

The Bad

While I do think this is a potentially good theme, I thin that Chara Games made a critical misstep by setting it in a generic, modern times setting.   I think setting this game in the era of the Roman persecutions would have been a better choice because the passage of time helps lessen the brutality of it.  Even setting this in a communist Europe country of the mid 20th century would have been better. With a game of this subject matter, a historical grounding is important.

Oppression and persecution of Christians happens today.  In one of the games I played, it was a laugh out loud moment for the group when the police used their execution ability. It immediately became uncomfortable though when it was remembered that this is a real reality for real people right now.  Even the artwork mishandles the theme. I think it was trying to go for a propaganda poster vibe, but instead it comes off as the kind of clip art that is found in church newsletters. It also uses bright colors, which gives an upbeat feeling to a game with a darker theme.        

My biggest issue with the game is that I am not sold on the game play.  Switching teams can be too fluid. It can be hard to keep straight what would be the best play for the team a player is currently on.  It is not uncommon in this game for a player to plan their turn but have their team switch before it gets to them. We also ran into the issue where in the last round a player saw the police side was going to win, and actively tried to get their team switched so they could be on the winning team.  That is against the spirit of the game, but it is hard to fault the player since up until that point he had been on the police team for the vast majority of the game.

This leads to the biggest complaint with the game play, there just is not enough agency in the game.  Based on the starting deal, one team could have a serious disadvantage. Late game, a player could find their team changed just because they had to draw cards.  There can be a lot of maneuvering and counter maneuvers in this game just to have it all decided by a card flip.

Verdict

I appreciate the attempt to make a game with the theme of the underground church.  This game does have some unique ideas that do have merit. However, I overall found the game to be a misstep.   Outside of the church theme, this game offers nothing compelling. This is especially true when compared to other social deduction games like The Resistance, Secret Hitler, or One Night Ultimate Werewolf.  When I play games with the youth group or with a game group I will stick with those. It disappoints me to say it, but I would not recommend this game to anyone.

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