Five young adults huddle together on a wintry Sabbath afternoon. They quietly discuss the options in front of them: Should they send a missionary to Crete to establish a new church, or grow the existing church plant in Tarsus? Should they send an angel to spring the Apostle Paul from jail, or collect the remaining books of the Bible and complete their fledgling collection? With the right choice, Christianity will flourish in the Roman Empire. Make the wrong move and it will be extinguished forever.
No, we haven’t traveled back in time — not exactly, anyway. But we have entered the world of table-top gaming — a world the creators of A’CampbellCon hope will bring more millennials through the doors of Adventist churches everywhere.
The game mentioned above is Commissioned, a “historically-based, cooperative style board game for 2-6 players. Acting as the Apostles of the early Christian Church, players must work together to strengthen their individual decks of faith cards, grow the church, collect the books of the New Testament, and overcome persecution.”1
Commissioned was just one of over a hundred table-top games at the recent A’CampbellCon, a gaming conference created by five friends and held January 5-7, 2018 on the campus of Andrews University. Though not affiliated with the university, conference organizers were granted permission to hold it in the Campus Ministries department after so many people expressed interest.
A’CampbellCon creators pooled their game collections to offer over 100 games for their inaugural event.
“We were originally going to have it be an in-home event, with three different games in three different rooms, but we quickly realized that wasn’t going to be big enough,” Katelyn Campbell told me when I spoke with her in the weeks leading up to the event.
Katelyn, a current seminary student, and her brother Jon Campbell, a recent seminary graduate, grew up with a love of gaming. “We come from a huge gaming family,” said Katelyn, who listed Rook, Clue, Scrabble, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride as some of the games she remembers playing during childhood.
Katelyn and Jon attended a gaming conference over the summer, along with Jon’s wife, Kathleen, and their friends Jeanmark and Abigail A’Kessler. Jeanmark is also a recent seminary graduate who now pastors in Northern Wisconsin. It was during this gaming conference that the five friends had the idea to host their own conference for Adventist gamers, and A’CampbellCon started to take shape.
“Gaming is very communal, but it’s often considered taboo and is widely misunderstood. Because of this, there’s a whole group of people that are held secret from the church — those who play games. We wanted to bring this group that’s not really recognized ‘into the light,’ so to speak, and show that gaming can be a tool for fellowship and evangelism,” said Katelyn.
This has been a passion of Jon and Kathleen for several years now. The couple regularly hosts bi-weekly game nights at their house and recently led a “Pray and Play” small group at Pioneer Memorial Church, but A’CampbellCon brought their passion to a whole new level.
After months of planning, taking inventory of the hundreds of games in the Campbell and A’Kessler collections, familiarizing themselves with the rules of dozens of games, organizing a gaming schedule, sending out invites, and hyping the event on social media, they were ready.
A’CampbellCon officially kicked off on Friday morning, January 5, with an opening ceremony. Kathleen Campbell greeted attendees and introduced the A’CampbellCon mascots: pups Gromit and Nutmeg. She encouraged everyone to “respect the space, respect the games, and most importantly, respect each other.”
In addition to regular table-top gaming, several tournaments and contests were going on throughout the weekend, with prizes up for grabs. The various goodies included items donated by local gaming stores, as well as items handcrafted by artist Abigail A’Kessler.
After the opening ceremony, attendees dispersed to play whichever game they had signed up for. Attendees who hadn’t registered in advance were welcome to join any game that still had open slots. Or, they could participate in “open gaming” instead, choosing from over 100 available games to play on their own. People were encouraged to try out new games and sign up for ones they’d never played before. I decided to do just that and registered only for games that I’d never heard of before but that had interesting descriptions.
A staff member was on-hand at each table to explain the rules to us “newbies” and assist throughout the game. While other attendees made their way to tables set up with Concept, Codenames, and The Great Dalmuti, I headed for Dixit.
A simple and beautifully illustrated game, Dixit is a combination of storytelling and guesswork. It took about five minutes to learn the ropes, and then we were off. A general excited murmuring was occasionally punctuated by shouts of surprise or victory as attendees laughed and learned together. I thoroughly enjoyed Dixit and it became the first game of the weekend that I added to my personal wish list.
Gromit, one of the A’CampbellCon mascots, took a break from his duties during the first round of gaming to nap and warm feet on what was a blustery winter day in Michigan.
After the first round of gaming, we gathered for an “Intro to Gaming” seminar. Jon, Katelyn, and Kathleen discussed where to find games, the best places to play locally, resources for learning games and finding out about new ones, and various game terms and types.
Some of the more complex table-top games can be expensive, but Kathleen shared why she feels it’s a good investment: “If you go to a movie, you’re looking at spending $15 per person for a two-hour experience and then it’s over. With a board game, you may pay $40 initially, but you can have that experience over and over again with multiple people.”
After the seminar, the attendees ate a potluck meal together, and then it was time for more games. I played Agricola, which is a Euro-style game (a term I learned during the seminar). In this game, each player is a farmer who is trying to harvest enough food to feed her/his family. Players can raise livestock, grow vegetables, and engage in various other activities to accomplish this goal. If you aren’t able to feed your family at Harvest time, you become a beggar. Though I never had to beg for food, I found myself highly stressed out the whole time at the prospect. By the end, I decided this game was perhaps a bit too depressing for me.
In Agricola, players are farmers who scramble to feed their families before time runs out.
As sunset neared, the organizers served dinner to attendees and a vespers service opened the Sabbath. Kevin Wilson, associate pastor of youth and young adults at Oceanside Seventh-Day Adventist Church, gave the worship talk titled “Gaming in the Faith.”
He discussed how he uses board games in ministry and why he finds them effective. Board games are a relational tool that builds trust and creates a space for belonging. Games can also be used as an educational tool. They create EPIC learning (Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Connected). Many board games can be adapted to teach biblical concepts and themes. Pastor Wilson described using the games Avalon and The Resistance to talk about deception, trust, and the Great Controversy with his fellow students when he attended Andrews. Vespers ended with the challenge to “use games to build friendships that will last longer than the game you are playing, and perhaps even into eternity.”
During Sabbath hours, only Sabbath-appropriate games were played. For me, Sabbath morning began with Bible Dixit, which used the same richly-illustrated cards as the day before, but with a rule modification that all stories be biblically-based. Many of the games played throughout the day, in fact, were secular games that the conference organizers had thoughtfully adapted for Sabbath. Their hope is that these Bible game versions can now be used for ministry by other youth pastors and Adventist educators.
One of the Sabbath games was “13 at the Table,” which A’CampbellCon creators describe as a “devotionally-oriented improv game designed to make players laugh, challenge their creativity, and draw them into the biblical narrative of Joseph and his family.”
While Michigan’s winter weather had kept attendee size on the small side Friday, the better road conditions on Sabbath brought with it more individuals, ranging in age from pre-teens to septuagenarians, all connected by a love of games. The organizers again prepared a meal for attendees, further emphasizing fellowship and community.
After lunch, I played the above-mentioned Commissioned, the cooperative game where players work together to bring Christianity to the Roman Empire. I’m happy to report we were successful.
In Commissioned, players act as Apostles spreading the Good News of Christ to the Roman Empire. Persevere against pagan mobs, collect books of the Bible, and send missionaries across the map to save Christianity.
A roundtable discussion on “What Gaming Means to You” closed out the Sabbath, with attendees discussing the impact games have had on their lives, and many sharing stories of growing up playing board games with their families.
After a dinner of veggie burgers and hotdogs, popcorn, and chips and salsa, Saturday evening was filled with boisterous fun that included a King of Tokyo tournament, Escape Room in a Box, Tokaido, and many more gaming options.
I played Photosynthesis, a gorgeous strategy board game that launched this summer, where up to four players grow and cultivate trees in a forest.
Photosynthesis is a brand new board game where players cultivate trees in a sunlit forest.
A’CampbellCon concluded on Sunday, January 7. I found myself involved in several spirited rounds of The Great Dalmuti, a game for 5-10 players where each person attempts to get rid of their cards faster than their opponents. It was easy to get the hang of, and I was quite delighted to win several rounds. Gaming went until 6:00 p.m. when the winners of the various contests and tournaments were announced.
Attendees were overwhelmingly positive about their experience at the first-ever A’CampbellCon. Michael Polite, associate chaplain at Andrews University, said:
'ATTEND A GAMING CONVENTION' IS A MUST-DO ACTIVITY FOR 2018…I am absolutely mind-blown at how many people are intimately invested in playing board games as a form of community building.
This experience showed me how much we are missing out when we limit game nights to the usual suspects of "Uno," "Taboo," "Dominoes," and "Pictionary." There is an entire gaming universe out there, filled with phenomenal games that build your cognitive abilities, build your social skills, and build your well-being.
I underestimated how much I would learn about myself and others during this convention, but I now see board games as a bridge to establishing healthy interactions between differing philosophies, ideologies, cultures, ethnicities, and personalities.”
Chaplain Polite said some of his favorite games were Photosynthesis, Kingdomino (named the 2017 Game of the Year), Coup, Concept, and Pandemic.
Theron Calkins, an attendee and educator, said, “It was great to be able to try out so many different games almost for free. I discovered several that I want to add to my collection.” (The organizers charged a small fee of $5 per day to help cover the cost of the provided meals.)
Another attendee, Cynthia Stephan, spoke about the spiritual impact the conference had on her life: “Everyone was so kind and patient — I saw God in everyone there. I also really appreciated the End Times [game] — it gave me a new (and probably more accurate) perspective on what the end times might be like.”
When asked if A’CampbellCon would become an annual event, the Campbells and A’Kesslers expressed hope that it would, while recognizing the challenges. “It’s difficult because we’re a fluid group. Jeanmark and Abigail just moved to Wisconsin, and Jon is waiting to hear back from PhD programs for the fall,” said Katelyn.
But, even if A’CampbellCon changes form over the coming years, the conference this year has made one thing clear to the organizers, said Katelyn:
We had 58 unique attendees come this weekend, most from the immediate Andrews area. There are gamers everywhere, and if we had this many people interested here, this speaks to a huge opportunity that might not have been realized before. Other churches, pastors, and youth workers can look at this and see something that works and brings people together. Three seminarians started this, but we’re going to go out from here to our churches and show how this can be used to build fellowship in the millennial generation. We hope others will do the same.”
For more information on A’CampbellCon and the games played, including rules and strategy, visit the A’CampbellCon Facebook page.
What are the favorite board games you played growing up — or play now? Tell us in the comments below!
Notes & References: 1. Commissioned game description: http://www.charagames.com/games/commissioned/
Alisa Williams is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
Photos courtesy of the A’CampbellCon creators.
Main photo: A’CampbellCon creators pose for a photo at the conclusion of their inaugural event. From L-R: Abigail A’Kessler, Jeanmark A’Kessler, Jon Campbell, Kathleen Campbell, Katelyn Campbell.
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