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True Messiah Kickstarter Preview

Quick Look:

Designer: Craig Stern
Artist: Franklin Chan, Chenthooran Nambiarooran
Publisher: Sinister Design
Year Published: 2018
No. of Players: 2-4
Ages: 13+
Playing Time: 60-120 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com

WARNING: This is a preview of True Messiah. All components and rules are prototype and subject to change.

Who would have guessed that Science would be the thing to make belief overtake reality? In True Messiah, an ill-fated experiment has twisted the world into a barren hellscape where the dark side of faith reigns supreme. With the help of their gods, four powerful messianic figures lead hordes of devout Followers to build temples and rid the world of heretics. 

It is equal parts abstract strategy and thematic deck builder with just a dash of civilization building. 

Rules and Setup:

Setup is quick and easy. To start, set the board at the center of the table. In a 3- to 4-player game, place the Prosperity tiles on appropriate spots; these are spaces that earn the occupying cult extra income. All non-starting cards (ones without a Messiah symbol in the corner) are shuffled and placed beside the board. Each player then chooses a messiah and takes the cards, tokens, and mini associate with it, as well as five coins. They all start with the same stuff, but there is a set initiative order that never changes. Ties between players are broken in reverse initiative order, so keep that in mind when choosing.

The board has several marked spaces for each Messiah, depending on player count. Put your Holy City tile on the space indicated, then place your Messiah and four Follower tokens on it. Place three more Followers on the space next to it. Once everyone is set up and before the first round, each player will simultaneously perform a movement with as many of their pieces as they like. This allows you to choose between an offensive or defensive setup with a lot of strategic options. Movement is always two spaces orthogonally.

I should also mention that certain areas of the board are marked off to only be used in a 3- or 4-player game respectively. 

Theme and Mechanics:

From the publisher:

"It is the near future; Earth. Years ago, scientists successfully constructed the Belief Engine, a machine that warps reality based on peoples’ strongly held beliefs. The machine was turned on for testing, but it proved too sensitive: widespread belief in the depravity of man and fears of social collapse suddenly took on the full force of objective fact, and science skepticism rendered the Engine’s creators helpless to intervene. Without resort to a shared external reality, civilization crumbled like a sand castle in the tide."

This is a great theme that's implemented well. The beautiful art meshes wonderfully with the tactics. It's equal parts abstract strategy and thematic deck builder with just a dash of civilization building. You're building Temples to generate an income of Followers and money, then spending that money to learn how to perform Miracles. That part doesn't make a lot of sense at first, so think of the church as an abstraction in the mass-subconscious. To a lot of people, God eats money; why else would the church need so many donations?

Your goal is to take out the other players and prove you are the True Messiah. You will do this by maneuvering Followers, laying waste with your Messiah, and calling down the wrath of God on your enemies. A player is eliminated when they have less than four Followers, their Messiah is dead, their Holy City is captured or destroyed, or they have less than eight Miracle cards.

Each player has at their disposal:
  • 1 Messiah
  • 1 Avatar token (requires a card to put out, but it's a second, slightly weaker Messiah)
  • 6 health tokens
  • 1 Mask chit
  • 24 Follower chits
  • 12 Nonbeliever chits
  • 9 base Miracle cards

Below are examples of a player's chits. From left to right: praying Follower, ready Follower, Nonbeliever, Avatar, and money. You also get a Mask chit and 6 health tokens.

Each character's Low units have different art, as seen below.

Play is divided into four phases:

Phase One is a bunch of quick effects that take place in this order:
  1. Trigger turn-start effects.
  2. Flip your praying Followers to their active side.
  3. Holy spaces (your tiles) with two to three Followers on them recruit one additional Follower. A space can only hold four low units. You get nothing from full spaces. If your Messiah is on a holy space by itself, place two new Followers in his space.
  4. Place Temples on any normal spaces with four Followers on them. You only have four Temples, but you can move them this way if you like.
  5. Draw up to a hand of six cards.
Phase Two is action. You can do these in any order:
  1. On your turn, you can move up to six low units (as well as your high units) up to two spaces each. If your Messiah starts on a non-holy space, you can move three additional units.
  2. Use Miracle cards. Miracle cards have a belief cost in the corner, which is generated by flipping Followers on holy spaces. If the cost is four, you flip four Followers on holy spaces to their praying side and the card goes off. Cards range from generating money or extra movement to negating miracles, manipulating hands/decks of cards, and even "Doomsday," which kills all enemy low units on normal spaces and takes out a Temple for every four they lose. When you're done, discard down to three cards.

Phase Three is combat.

Zealots don't make good neighbors, so adjacency means violence. There are four types of units that can fight. Avatars/Messiahs are high units; Followers/Nonbelievers are Low units.

A high unit's movement doesn't count toward your move limit. They can distribute their attacks however they like among enemies on orthogonal spaces. They also shrug off one point of damage from each direction during a conflict. Messiahs have six health tokens and four attacks. When reduced to zero, their Mask shatters, they go back to full health, and they ignore any leftover damage. When they are reduced to zero the second time, they die. Avatars have three attacks and no health tokens; they die if they take three or more damage in a fight, but otherwise go back to full health.

Low units only have one attack and one health. All low units in a space have to attack the same adjacent space. Low units automatically eliminate each other when they fight. If you have one unit next to one enemy, they both die. If you have two and they have one, one of yours dies and so does the enemy. Some miracles can save them. Preemptive miracles can be used on another player's turn before the battle, but you have to have unused Followers on holy spaces to use them.

Flanking is a key strategy. All the units on one space have to attack one orthogonally adjacent space. If they are adjacent to enemies on two or more spaces, they can only do damage to units in one of those attacking spaces, but each of the enemy spaces still gets a separate attack. If you have three Followers on a space and they are surrounded on three sides with one believer on each space, your guys have to attack one of the spaces, killing one of the three attackers and losing one guy. Your attack is used up, so the other two attackers can kill you without taking damage.

You don't want to spend all night swapping wave after wave of Followers. Judicious resource building and defensive maneuvering are very important, but aggro strategies work best in a two-player game. The more players there are, the sneakier you need to be.

After the fighting, if you emptied a Temple, you can destroy or capture it. Destroying simply removes the opponent's tile, while capturing replaces their tile with yours and you can move onto it. Either way, you can also take two coins from the player who used to own it, then look at the top three cards of their deck. You can put one of them on your discard pile or simply remove it from the game.

Phase Four is the market phase.

Populate the market by flipping 3+1 per player cards from the top of the market deck. Each player can buy up to two of them, but first, you have to bid. The cost of these cards is the same as the Belief cost. So, look at your coins, and see what you want and can afford. Try to bid higher than the others so they don't snap up something you really need. You don't want to junk up your hand, so sometimes it's better to pass on those pretty good cards so you can be sure to get the insane ones.

Whoever bids highest buys up to two cards with their bid. Extra money is lost. Then, the next highest bidder buys, and so on. Ties are broken in reverse initiative order.

Bidding is one of my least favorite mechanics, but it adds an interesting element here. You don't want to be broke when the nasty Miracles come to market. You can trounce an opponent early on with your base cards if you know what you're doing. An aggro strategy is usually the way to go.

Once everybody is done buying cards, you receive one coin of income for every holy space/prosperity under your control, which leads you back to phase one.

Game Play:

It's actually really hard to convey the way this plays by describing rules or even watching the play-through videos. It's like trying to describe Chess. The game takes on the personality of the players. I was immediately impressed by the depth of strategy this has to offer. I really like the way they implemented the deck-building aspect. It doesn't feel like other deck builders, so it takes some figuring out, but that's not a bad thing.

It helps to know the cards. In early games, I tended to buy Miracles every turn, so I ended up with a big deck, and the cards I wanted took forever to come up. You start with nine cards and probably don't want more than twelve. You can get rid of weak cards with one of your starters, which is really nice. There's not a lot that lets you draw extras, but there are some that help you cycle other ways.

Is it more abstract strategy or modern thematic? I think it's equally both. I feel like I'm playing Chess with meteors. It's an odd combination, but a lot of fun.

Artwork and Components:

True Messiah is a gorgeous game inspired by the surreal fantasy art of Zdzisław Beksiński, I'm playing a prototype, but everything is gorgeous. The card art is beautiful. The iconography and terminology is clear. Player aid cards are great. 

I can't speak for the final product, but everything is really nice at the moment. 

The Good:

This is a deep, dark pit of skullduggery and carnage with a cool theme and spectacular art. I see this getting better every time I play it.

It plays very differently than other post-apocalyptic wargames. I read that it's inspired by Go. I'm a little embarrassed to admit I've never played Go. Always wanted to, but then there's always some newer, shinier thing. Anyway, this isn't a rehash. There have been a lot of games since Chaos in the Old World where armies battle for domination of the waste. Most are driven by special faction abilities, monster recruitment, and rolling dice. That's cool, but you only need so many. I tend to salivate over the minis then play them a couple of times and move on to the next one. True Messiah feels much more interesting and strategic to me.

It's a lot of game in a little box. It's rare to find a game with this sort of feel that plays more than two.
Quick setup, easy to learn and teach, and tons of replay as the game will evolve the more you play it. There's also lots of teaching videos made by the game designer available on YouTube.

The Bad:

I don't have much bad to say. I wouldn't mind if each player had one more Temple tile, but I think they are limited to encourage you to go take over other people's temples.

Some might think a few of the cards are overpowered. I think it's fitting, since they are acts of god. The really nasty ones tend to be pretty expensive. "Doomsday" is a game-ender, but it costs eleven coins to purchase, and then you still have to get it into your hand and pray with 11 Followers. That takes some doing. Then somebody could hit you with a "nope" card, and you probably just lost your turn. It's a high-risk, high-reward thing.

If all players are conservative in their play styles, this can take a long time, especially if you don't know what you're doing. However, if you ever need to end a game early, there is a scoring mechanism in the rulebook that you can use to determine the winner.

Expect a bit of floundering in early games as you figure out how to use your resources. For instance, there's a card called "Indulgences." For three Belief points, you can turn a Follower into a Nonbeliever and gain three coins. Nonbelievers can't occupy holy spaces, so when they are turned, they get booted out to an adjacent space. If the spaces around them are all full, they die. You can use this to kill opponents or target yourself to get one extra movement. Either way, you get three coins. In addition, if you target one of your praying Followers with it, the unready guy becomes a ready Nonbeliever that can move and attack. That's a lot of tactics for one low-cost card, but it took me well into my second game for all that to click.

To sum up, the closest thing to a negative I can come up with is that the strategy is so deep that new players might get frustrated.

Final Thoughts:

True Messiah has a fresh approach to deck building. Most deck builders are similar enough you barely need to read the rules to know how they work. Teaching them is like, "That's the symbol for money. That's the symbol for attack. Here's a list of keywords. Go." That's not the case here. Your miracles are tactics that connect directly to your unit placement. They have range based on where your Messiah is. You need ready Believers in holy spaces to use them. Your income and troops mostly come from controlling Temples. It's all woven together intricately to create a strategical experience that is more than the sum of its parts.

I really enjoyed the unfolding of strategy as I learned how the miracles and units work together. I'm a conquest gamer. Once I figure a game out, I get bored with it pretty fast. This is the sort of thing I could play a few times a week and never get bored with it.

Players Who Like:
Heavy strategy.
Dark themes.
Versatile tactic cards.

Check out True Messiah on:

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/186722/true-messiah  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sinister-Design/389072811171272   https://twitter.com/sinisterdesign      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Gte-57qlM8

On KICKSTARTER between now and April 11, 2018

Stephen Gulik - Reviewer

Stephen Gulik is a trans-dimensional cockroach, doomsday prophet, author, and editor at sausage-press.com. When he’s not manipulating energy fields to alter the space-time continuum, he’s playing or designing board games. He has four cats and drinks too much coffee.

See Stephen's reviews HERE.
True Messiah Kickstarter Preview True Messiah Kickstarter Preview Reviewed by S T Gulik on April 13, 2018 Rating: 5

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