Church history offers a lot of drama, depth, and spirituality. The history of the church is the history of a flawed people trying to navigate the circumstances of eras while faithfully following their savior. Church history is both messy and beautiful. It can painfully human and remarkably holy. This history offers a rich thematic tapestry that all variety of games and interactive media could draw from. There are a handful of board and card games that use elements of church history as a theme. Often in those games the history is a backdrop to the game mechanisms. It is a great rarity for a game to capture the experience and allow Christians today to feel their history.
Conclave is a game designed by Willow Palecek that attempt to deliver that kind of immersive experience. Conclave is a live action role playing game (LARP) that is inspired by the papal conclave of 1271. As a LARP each player takes on the role and persona of a cardinal, and then they work to attempt and elect one of them to become the next Pope. This game has an intriguing theme, but does it deliver on that theme in a fun and engaging way?
At the beginning of this game each player will select a role from the possible Cardinals. There are two recommended setups at each player count. The players will get a pamphlet that describes their characters. It will let the players know what their primary motivations are as well as their beliefs on important theological issues of the day such as the Crusades and poverty. Each player also gets a name tag. These tags are helpful because along with the character name they are color coded. The various colors will identify what the political beliefs, nationality, and mendicant order of the character are. Being able to gather this information at a glance can help players figure out who they might ally with. There is a recommended orienting activity where the group is broken up by nationality, political persuasion, and monastic affiliation before hand. This helps further visualize who allies might be and gives everyone a better sense of their character.
The game play has a structure to it. One of the extra roles in the game is the chronologist of the Vatican who ensure the structure is being followed and at the allotted amount of time. After players have their character and familiarized themselves, they will go around and introduce themselves. During this time, the players may also express why they think they should be considered for Pope.
After introductions, the first Scrutiny is held and everyone votes for Pope. Players may not vote for themselves and in order to elect a Pope requires a two-thirds majority. This election is done by a written ballot. Because of how the recommended Cardinals have been arranged it is nearly impossible for a two-thirds vote to occur if everyone plays their character properly.
If a Pope was not elected, following the Scrutiny is the Provisions step. In this step refreshments are provided to the Cardinals. After each successive Scrutiny, the amount of refreshments given diminishes. This is meant to simulate the pressure that was placed on this specific Conclave to reach a decision, but the rules explain this step can be skipped for a shorter game experience.
The next major phase is the “Prattiche.” It is during this time that the Cardinals can confer with one another, debate issues, seek common ground, or win people to vote for a certain side. The first period of Prattiche is twenty minutes and subsequent periods are fifteen minutes.
After the Prattiche there is another Scrutiny following the same rules. This pattern of Scrutiny, Provisions, and Prattiche continues until a pop is elected or the game reaches the fifth Scrutiny. If a Pope is elected then that player gives a speech stating what kind of church leader they will be, and what polices they will give priority. If the game goes to the fifth Scrutiny and a Pope is not elected with a two-thirds majority then the person with the most votes may declare themselves Pope. The person with the second most votes may declare themselves Anti-Pope. Both of these people then give speeches as the church schisms.
As a LARP, the game can on occasion get intense as players get into their roles and vigorously debate one another. For that reason the game does stress safe play, and allows for any player to call for a brake if they need it or recuse themselves from the game if they deem it necessary. Depending on player count and if the Provisions phase is being used a game of Conclave last between two and four hours.
What I Liked
The strongest point of this game is how incredibly immersive it is. The designer made the smart decision to have this game be inspired by the Papal Conclave of 1271 and not re-create it. All of the characters that can be played are fictional. They draw inspiration from real people, but the characters presented in the game have been intentionally made to easily bring out certain viewpoints. The interplay between these viewpoints as players seek to play their characters is dynamic and engaging. The game has been designed so that it is impossible for anyone to fully get what they want in a Pope. This requires everyone to weight their character’s beliefs and make hard choices of how compromise.
I appreciate how this game captures the feel of church politics. I have been to enough church board meetings and denominational meetings to know politics is an inescapable part of church life, and the game captures that well. Some of the characters are opportunists, but most of the characters, as written, have sincere beliefs and they are trying to pick a Pope that best reflects these beliefs. The way that this game captures a real life experience in the safe space, magic circle of a game is masterful. When everyone buys into it, this is one of the most immersive and intensely experiential games I have ever played.
What I Did Not Like
The downside to this game is for it to work, everyone has to buy in to it. If just one person did not embrace the idea of getting into the character and instead voted for the player they liked the most, then that could be potentially game breaking. That does make the game a little fragile. This is augmented by the fact that it is a higher player count game. The game plays eight to twenty four. Even at low player counts, it can be tricky to coordinate the schedules of eight to nine people to commit to a four hour game. It is doable, but this is more of an “event” game which means it will likely only be played occasionally.
The game is designed by a veteran LARP designer and it does seem to assume that players have some familiarity with playing games of this nature. I did play the game with a group of players who were brand new to these kind of games. They all found the orientation activity helpful, but they would have preferred a little more direction in the character pamphlets. For instance, questions like “remind me who is King Alfanso?” were still being asked over an hour into the game. A little bit more direction and assistance from the player aids would have been appreciated by novice players.
Conclave is not a game that is going to come out even semi-regularly at game nights. This is a special event game that will require some intentional planning to pull off. However, it is a worthwhile experience. This game delivers on a meaningful theme in a meaningful way. There are a lot of ways it can go, but this game opens up the door for deep discussion and insightful introspection. Just as important this game is fun. This game can really draw the players in and it is fully engaging. If a game simulating a Papal Conclave sounds intriguing to you, then jump on this game, get your friends together and make it happen. You will be glad you did.
Conclave will soon be available as a digital download on DriveThruRPG.com