Some of us remember fantasy role-play through 1980s board games such as Dungeons & Dragons. Today fantasy role-playing is a market worth a billion dollars, if much of it online.
Into this world comes a Catholic fantasy role-playing game: The Road to Bethlehem. It has all the usual elements typical of such creations but with one major difference — or, maybe expressed more correctly, with an added dimension. The characters at play are not fantasy figures but are real, historical figures. Also, the character one inhabits at the game’s start is not some fictional construct but rather the player’s truest self. This is role-playing for the sake of one’s spiritual life, therefore, not so much role-playing as playing for real.
Recently, I spoke to its co-creator, Jacek Malkowski, a Warsaw-based entrepreneur who for 15 years was a Games Master. His job then was to construct alternative realities, fantasy games, into which players might enter. He told me that his primary interest had always been storytelling; and it was through his capacity to tell stories that others entered into imaginary worlds. During those 15 years, however, Jacek was making his own spiritual and imaginative journey.
Now 47 years old, Jacek remembers the Communist era all too well. It was a time when the intransigently Catholic Poland was declared atheist. Children like Jacek were raised looking toward a Red Star rather than the Star of Bethlehem. Like so many attempts to impose a reality other than the real one — one in which the Fall and the Incarnation are central — this failed. It failed on a national level. Poland is today one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. It failed on a personal level beginning when Jacek met a Catholic girl.
Her name was Eva. Jacek fell in love with her and, in turn, with the faith to which she was devoted. It took years before he was received into the Church, but after many conversations, much reading and, no doubt, much prayer on the part of his future wife, he was baptized. He was 24 years old. Twenty years later, the couple has three children, and a new dream, or more correctly a fantasy game, but one the couple want to make very real for its players.
Fantasy role-playing games are noted for their complex structures: places, people, scenarios, and even cosmology are all uniquely conceived. Perhaps, it should come as no surprise that the birth of what would become The Road to Bethlehem board game emerged from Jacek’s reading of the works of a 20th-century Polish philosopher, Feliks Koneczny, and in particular his book: On the Plurality of Civilizations. It was while pondering the question: “What makes a civilization?” that Jacek began to feel the desire to turn his talents and experience as Games Master into something that would inculcate new values in his contemporaries.
It was three years ago that Jacek embarked upon developing The Road to Bethlehem. His motivation was a simple one: he couldn’t find such a game to play with his family and so set about creating it. He wanted to have within the game’s ‘universe’ the constituent parts of the Christmas story: angels, kings, shepherds, and, at its center, the Holy Family.
In turning the story of the Nativity into a something tangible, Jacek had an earlier, now staple, Christmas feature in mind: the crib. St. Francis of Assisi was the first; it is thought, to create a crib. He wished to help his followers visualize the poverty and simplicity of the newborn Babe. So, too, Jacek wants to help those who play The Road to Bethlehem to come to the manger with a renewed sense of wonder, using their imaginations, but also, and importantly, not to do so alone.
Jacek and Eva see The Road to Bethlehem as a board game for the whole family. The difference from other fantasy board games is that this game deliberately sets out to unite families as they make their imaginary pilgrimage together to Bethlehem. The game also provides a forum for the players to discuss the values and morals implicit within the roles and storyline. By so doing, it is hoped that the game will open new ways of discussing aspects of the faith, especially during the Christmas festivities, when many families and their relatives are together.
The Road to Bethlehem follows a well-worn path in being a family game that aims to edify and unite. In the mid-nineteenth century a board game appeared called The Mansion of Happiness: An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement. This was, for a time, the definitive formulation of the board game in which virtues were to be acquired and vices to be avoided. The game offered overtly Christian instruction; its goal was heaven. This board game was to have mass appeal. In the end, there were 13 editions between its inception and the 1920s. There were imitations and spinoffs but The Mansion of Happiness remained by far the most popular game of its type. Its popularity was no doubt because it was a communal game but also on account of the amusement to be derived at the expense of one’s fellow players as they made their imaginary Pilgrim’s Progress to heaven or hell.
The Road to Bethlehem follows in this tradition. It comes in a form and at a time when its benefits may be more needed than ever. Surely it would have been easier to have such a game online? As a deliberate contrast to the current predominance of online gaming, the Malkowski’s wanted to create something that meant families would switch off their computers, laptops, ipads, phones and other technology, in order to look at and speak to each other. Then, launched together into another world where imaginations – individual and collective – lead the way, players will not be going viral alone as much as collectively questing after virtue.
Unapologetically, Jacek and Eva see The Road to Bethlehem as part of the New Evangelization. This is something the Polish Bishops Conference seems to agree with; and it has wholeheartedly endorsed the game. Now, with the couple’s recent appearances on EWTN, the game’s English language version has been introduced to a new audience.
The Road to Bethlehem may be billed as great fun for the family, but, at its heart, it is truly countercultural, more so than the Communist rhetoric that its creators endured growing up. Today, when so much is enticing us to tune out and to stare blankly at screens, here is something that asks us to look at those around us, to play with them, to have fun together. There is something better still present in this game though. At the game’s heart, there is another Family waiting for each player, with an invitation to a family banquet greater still.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on National Catholic Register and appears here with kind permission.
The Road to Bethlehem is available from Sophia Institute Press or from your favorite book and games store.