When I heard that my old friend Rod Humble was making a game about the spread of religions, I knew I was going to be playing it. Rod has always had an interesting approach to game design, almost more interested in posing questions (whether about history or emotional connection in games) and I had high hopes that Cults and Daggers would be the same sort of mind-twisting, self-reflective sort of game that I came to expect from him.
Of course, when you’re selling a game on Steam for 30 dollars, there are limits to how “out there” you can go, and Cults and Daggers is ultimately a quite conventional territory control game that uses persuasion and secrecy instead of armies. It’s underdocumented (I’m not sure exactly what wars do, or what happens to the map between ages) and the UI is a mess. But it does have interesting ideas, and a quite old-fashioned style of play. Some people have been able to use its thin religious veneer to reconnect with their personal ideas of faith. I was never able to make that leap.
It’s probably not surprising that I couldn’t quite connect with it. Religion in games is generally a matter of special buffs or general harmony. In Civilization IV, a multifaith empire that controlled all the Holy Cities was an unstoppable force of culture and gold. In Civilization V, you pick generic religious “beliefs” if you found a new faith, but the most powerful ones are, again, related to bringing in gold or special buildings. Our games at Paradox (the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis series) give every religion an attribute or two that, usually, give you bonuses or new game experiences.
But Dominions is about becoming a god, not founding a religion. The temple in Rise of Nations expands your boundaries and increases tax income, but is not a building of “faith”.
So the more I think on it, the more I think that Cults and Daggers is not about faith at all. It might be about religion, but it’s really about fear.
It’s important to keep in mind that C&D is a quasi-historical game. By that, I mean that it uses a roughly historic setting (in this case, Hellenistic Europe between the death of Buddha and the birth of Christ) but attaches themes and mechanics that stand outside or apart from that historic age. In this historic period, the region was not full of competing religions, each one trying to destroy the other; for the most part, advanced civilizations easily assimilated foreign deities. The recruiting of disciples and driving out of rival sects is, in fact, a phenomenon of the Christian and post-Christian world.
C&D also has an apocalyptic timer, something that would have been alien to most religions and cults of the era. The only really historical thing in C&D is the map and its 12 cities. The setting is a buy-in, a way to entice people with a familiar script and then give them something weird. Like disciples that turn in monsters or places of power that send bad juju to neighboring cities if they aren’t cleansed by a holy man or woman.
The general theme of C&D is, in fact, that everyone is out to destroy you and your community of believers unless you can get to them first. You can blaspheme against local gods and then pin the blame on a rival cult. You can go into deep cover, only emerging to murder a persuasive enemy preacher. You can invoke prayers that will transform your ministers into agents of chaos. You build temples, suck up to nobles for protection and count on the hope of the people to carry you into the next age.
In many ways, it is a very paranoid game. Naturally, any game that has Old Gods in it gives you a reason to be paranoid. You accumulate hope and faith (and occult power) not just to fill the coffers of your church, but to stave off the end of days.
This is, of course, one theory of the origins of religion made manifest. Some anthropologists argue that priests came about in early societies because that rituals were required to hold off community disaster. Even advanced religions fell into a sort of ritual paranoia; the Romans were so antsy about this sort of thing that if some rituals were interrupted, they had to be performed again from the beginning, or invite calamity.
The religions you promote in C&D are content-free, just like those of most religions in strategy games. You pick a perk at the beginning and add more “prayers” as you go through the game, but these, again, are bonuses to disciple power, faith, hope, etc. The mere fact of believing in something is what is holding off the world-ending apocalypse, but you are engaged in a death struggle with other cults to make sure your religion comes out on top. To stay number one with the people, you will need to spend the hope and faith that you also need to keep evil at bay. And nothing is certain, and disciples grow old and die, and it is a long way from Carthage to Babylon.
I do like that Cults and Daggers doesn’t cast you as a demigod, like in Dominions, or a Devil, like in Solium Infernum (which is either the most blasphemous or more Christian strategy game ever made). And strategy games, with their emphasis on systems and patterns instead of story will never give us a living, breathing faith as powerful as the Chantry in the Dragon Age series.
But if you want to play a simple game where you are a small collection of believers trying to stay alive in a world that distrusts novelty while under attack from imaginable horrors (imaginable, because you don’t see a lot of evil in the game), then there might be something here that connects with you.
I do know I want Rod Humble to keep making weird things like this.