It's the future and those crazy scientists have been at it again. This time they've made a device called the Belief Engine, that has made spiritual belief become manifest. God-like personalities have risen to power, fuelled on the prayer of their followers while the world around them has become a wasteland. Of course it's not long before these god-beings become too big for their britches and everything kicks off. That of course is where we start our journey into the nightmarish world of True Messiah; a 2 to 4 player game of resource management, deck building and swarming your enemies with hordes of faithful followers.
Gods are supposed to be able to create miracles, True Messiah provides and this is where things get fun. Miracles are spell effect cards, the majority of which will be played during your turn but some can be played as a reaction. Each miracle needs to be fuelled by belief and so before you can cast these miracles you’re going to need enough faithful in the right place. There are numerous different miracle effects, too many to go into here, and they allow you to manipulate combat, boost movement, directly damage opponents and turn faithful followers into non-believers (who can still be used in combat but no longer generate belief). As you can no doubt tell, miracles are tools of manipulation, you're still going to be doing the majority of damage with your troops on the board but miracles allow you to get them into position or throw a spanner into the works.
What is interesting about miracles is that they are managed by a simple deck building mechanic. Each turn you'll be forced to discard some of your miracles and draw back up and the beginning of each round, meaning miracle cards are constantly being cycled. At the end of a complete turn, a market of new miracles will open up, allowing players to bid on cards to add to their deck. The cash needed to buy these new miracles comes from ransacking opponents' holy sites or, more commonly, playing other miracles that generate cash. Unfortunately, the market highlighted my biggest problem with True Messiah. Turn order is set for the entire game and ties in the bidding process are resolved through that turn order. It means that those players who were last at the bidding felt they were at a distinct disadvantage with no other obvious advantage to balance it.
Central to True Messiah is the concept of belief, it's the power needed to fuel your miracles and the majority of your game will be spent carefully managing this important resource. Belief can only be generated by your faithful followers praying on a holy site. The problem with praying is all that kneeling and closing of eyes leaves you rather open to attack and so while they may be generating your God-fuel, they become a complete push over in combat – they can take a hit, but aren’t going to be dishing one out.
Which leads me to True Messiah’s numbers game. Those followers who aren't praying (you know, the ones with a bit of situational awareness) simply generate one attack and can withstand only one damage. Four followers versus three followers will leave a lone survivor. It makes combat both costly and brutal. This brutality can be turned to your advantage and surrounding your enemies en masse means that you will come out on top, but you're also going to take heavy casualties in the process
The winner is the first player to eliminate an opposing player, which can be accomplished in a number of ways from killing the Messiah or its (I have no idea what sex that thing is under the crazy costume) followers, depleting miracles or knocking down holy sites. It means that in three or four player games, one player can do all the work beating down an opponent’s Messiah to the last hit point only for another player to steal the victory with a sneaky attack. Some players will see this as a big issue as there is a definite disconnect between your actions and victory. Other players will see this as another strategic option. By forcing the game into a sudden death game style it forces players to act carefully about when to attack, ensuring they can knock down a player to that killing blow without their other opponents stealing the kill.
But this then highlights an interesting aspect of True Messiah; it’s a game of turtling. Like Warmachine and Summoner Wars your Messiah is a glass hammer, it may be a very powerful unit when on the attack but can literally cost you the game if you over expose it. This makes turtling a very valid strategy, in fact I feel that towards the beginning of the game it is the only strategy. The more powerful the miracle the more belief it requires so you want to build up your army of believers and your infrastructure of holy cities. It makes the game feel like the old RTS video games and just like Command and Conquer you will spend the first half of the game building the machine of your belief. This turtling, and that the restrictions on movement can mean it takes a few turns to get your troops into location before you attack, can make the game feel very slow. However, we did find that once things started to kick off the game moved a lot faster because a weakened Messiah suddenly becomes a very tempting target.
I must confess to having an issue with True Messiah's theme, or more the application of it. I certainly don’t have an issue with the theme itself, it’s a dark and disturbing future and the artwork throughout is both creepy and beautiful, like if HR Giger had tried to impersonate Jean Paul Gaultier. But the problem is that True Messiah is a rather abstract game, with tokens played on a grid, so the theme doesn’t always translate into the gameplay.
No doubt you're now fed up of me prattling on and want to hear my opinion and True Messiah falls into that 'it's okay' pitfall in that there are parts I liked and those I didn't. It's the pace of the game, especially at the start, that's difficult to justify. True Messiah really does encourage you to turtle and you often find that the first aggressor over extends themselves leading to their demise. It does make True Messiah feel very purposeful and can get quite analytical once troops are facing off a short distance away.
However, the deck building mechanic is done really well and turns the managing your repertoire of miracles into a mini game of its own. But my favourite aspect of True Messiah was the way in which your troops are also your source of power for your miracles. There is a constant pressure to manage your followers and balance your belief against your combat power.
True Messiah is on Kickstarter soon.
This Kickstarter preview is based on a prototype version of the game provided by the publisher; the final product may look, play or smell different to that used in this preview.