By Which We Measure Our Pain – An Inspire: Works of Mercy review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.


When I stumbled over Inspire: Works of Mercy in my preparation for Spiel 2016 I was intrigued by the hook of the game: you go out to help people in need. Not in a somewhat abstracted, top-level manner where you eradicate dangerous diseases before they spread out and cause harm. Nor in that almost superheroic manner where you drag a young woman (and later her dog) out of a burning building before it collapses on top of you. Instead you reach out to people who are homeless, who suffer from addiction or depression. You reach out and try to help them. The problems in this game are normal life-type issues. This grounds the game, makes it relatable and to be honest… kind of awesome.

Photo by Sławek Wiechowski

Unfortunately the rest of the game’s ideas are hopelessly outdated and barely functional. You lay out cards in a 5×5 grid, representing people that need help and people that may support you in helping others. In order to move your cube towards one of the people in need, you roll a die. In order to help them, you need to spend resources depicted on the card you landed on, which you get by first moving to one of the corner spaces of the play area and rolling a die. In the tradition of such game design luminaries as Snakes & Ladders or Monopoly, dice make all relevant decisions for you.

To be fair, the game does have a kernel of two good ideas buried within it. The card piles of “people in need” and “helpers”, that make up the play area, are both are face down, so you don’t know what awaits you when you end your turn there. Some cards have arrows on them, that add costs to moving off of them in a specific direction. This could have been used to make movement a clever and engaging little puzzle. But since the cards are set up in an alternating pattern, it only matters if you’ve rolled an odd or even number. Odd numbers will move you onto a different card type, even numbers will move you onto the same card type you started on.

The other kernel of a good idea is the introduction of an “everybody loses” ending to the game to encourage cooperation among players. When you reveal a person in need that you can’t help, other players may spend their resources to keep the card from being discarded. If they don’t, the card is removed from the game, and once you’ve discarded 7 cards this way, everybody loses. But since players are actually capable of counting, this threat is both toothless and easily ignored.

Basically, the game is not very good. It replaces decision-making with randomness, and the short bursts of enjoyment when you can claim to have helped a lonely old man by showing an interest in him, and giving him a gift… are simply not enough to keep you engaged for the 20 minutes it takes to play this game.

Which means now is about the right time to talk about the game’s central idea: Christianity.

Inspire is clearly not supposed to be played as a game, to foster social interaction, to create a space for play or even appeal to the puzzle-solving or challenge-seeking player. Inspire exists to promote Christianity. Most likely Roman Catholicism, since that is the most wide-spread strand of Christianity in Poland.

In fairness, it’s not particularly shy or coy about it. The box comes with a small booklet named “Message of the Game” and has short descriptions of the historical and fictional characters featured on the cards. As well as an “inspiring” (Get it? Get it? Did you get it?) opening chapter that talks about the power of mercy, and God’s love… and possibly accepting Jesus as your lord and saviour. (I am not sure about the last part actually, my booklet was badly miscut.)

Honestly, all of this isn’t much of an issue – assuming that you don’t have any particularly complicated feelings towards organised religion. You could insist that a depression isn’t cured with a nice chat, a gift and a job offer. Which is all true. But then, neither do you plant and harvest a wheat field by putting one worker in it. Nor does the crop double in size, because you send their brother after them. Call it abstraction or simplification, but it would seem strange to criticize Inspire for doing what all games do.

Sure, you could also get offended that being a non-conformist (“rebellious”), an atheist or an orphan is treated as a personal crisis akin to unemployment, homelessness or addiction. Yet a game like Chaos in the Old World rewards you for murdering innocent peasants and we treat it as a non-event and trivial fiction.

Because it is.

Only a man who is spiritually empty would be proud of that haircut.

Actual murder is awful and harrowing. Rolling a 4-6 and removing a piece of cardboard from the table… is not. Whether a card says Atheist or Conservative doesn’t really matter. Sure, in reality one means that you’ve given your soul over to eternal damnation and abandoned what moral compass you had, and the other that you don’t believe in the existence of god(s)… but in the end it’s only words. We don’t celebrate murder, because we slaughter peasants for points; nor do we assume atheists are deeply unhappy people, because we get to “help” them in this game.

Ultimately the idea of helping people in need is great and fun. Inspire is at least respectful enough of non-Christians (the atheist card notwithstanding), that the tokens used to aid people have a religion-themed name and a secular name. Prayer is also conversation. Word of God is also “kind word”. You can easily fill in the thematic negative space with a narrative about how you had a heartfelt conversation, gave somebody a gift or spend some time together to help them turn their life around.

Whatever good intention of promoting kindness, solidarity and compassion might have found an outlet in people turning to the bible, which in turn led to the creation of this game… Inspire’s design simply falls short of capturing anything but the most superficial details of it all. The act of helping people becomes rote and mechanical as you play. There is no uncertainty, no risk of failure, no sacrifice. The ennobling act of helping the helpless is instead replaced with players reading out a card’s flavour text, i.e. quote from the Bible, as if it were a game of Arkham Horror.

Inspire is simply not very good. The rules fail to coalesce into an interesting game. It is not even a good piece of Christian marketing, but possibly on par with a typical issue of The Watchtower.

Minus the long-form articles.

And centrefold.

Inspire’s game is pasted on and that is how it undoes whatever missionary purpose it was supposed to have. It doesn’t fail, because it’s religious, but because the game fails to promote the values with which Christianity promotes itself.

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