Overview: ‘The Road to Bethlehem’ is a “RPG-in-a-box” game where players journey to meet the Holy Family through a series of scenarios, which contain story path choices, and personal and team challenges.
How to Play: Each scenario begins with narrative read by the Game Master (GM), which presents the first decision point for players. Using voting cards (labeled A through E), players secretly vote on their preferred decision, reveal, and discuss if a majority is not reached. The GM reads the narrative for that choice, and proceeds through further decision points, and conducts personal and/or team challenges. When the end of the scenario is reached, the GM reads the Epilogue narrative, which features a question(s) asked by the Archangel Raphael. After the 8th Scenario, the GM reads from the Final Epilogue, which will vary based on players time, equipment, authority, and reputation progression levels (i.e., arriving too early/late and the players will miss meeting the Holy Family, higher levels of authority/reputation/equipment will mean richer event descriptions).
Gameplay: We had three generations playing the game, with nine players (we used seven player boards as my parents doubled with our youngest two who are 4 and 5), and myself as the GM. The initial narrative and encounter board helped everyone picture the situation. Every decision point often evoked discussion before and after. For instance my youngest daughter expressed distrust of the Phoenician merchant due to his aggressive advertising of his wares, but her grandmother proposed maybe he had something useful for the journey ahead. The personal and team challenges were sometimes entertaining and invoked a lot of laughter, and other times brought frustration. I prepped 2-3 scenarios in advance to ensure I had a modified alternatives for elementary age children, and middle-schoolers. For the scenario epilogues I decided to read each person their own Archangel Raphael card (my parents were visiting and I wanted them to see as much of the game content as possible). Each card has some serious answers, but there’s always a funny one or two which made the kids laugh hard. For some challenge/card rewards, it allowed a player to pick a token out of the ‘Bag of Surprises’; this created some mystery, and some of the tokens were private challenges, e.g., make someone laugh, help someone with a personal challenge, for that player to earn some extra reputation.
Some examples personal/team challenges:
- Properly arrange parts of famous proverbs
- Sing Christmas Carols from memory
- Find hidden objects in a room
- Define Biblical Phrases, e.g., Promised Land, Prodigal Son
- Untie knots as a group behind back
- Build a tower out of paper & toothpicks (we used marshmallows in lieu of paper)
- Memorize a maze pattern
- Walk on a path blindfolded, following directions from others
- Name synonyms/antonyms for words
Our Family Background with Gaming: For family background, and experience with board and role playing games, my parents, my one sister, and I played Heroquest, the grandfather of “RPG-in-a-box”, in the early ‘90s. More recently, I have played in several Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition campaigns, and hosted some ‘No Thank You Evil’ sessions with my four oldest children. The wife and I have been heavily involved in the board game renaissance, and have introduced our children to a wide range of new generation board games, e.g., Machi Koro, Carcassonne, Castle Panic, Smallworld, Survive, to name a few, and in particular the modern “RPG-in-a-box” Mice and Mystics.
Summary: I would definitely recommend this game. The kids were excited to play the next scenario, and would ask when we were going to play it again. I would be hard pressed to find a better game to play during Advent, this game fits the role well and I believe it will become an annual family tradition. The kids often found the physical challenges entertaining, and the funny answers in the Archangel Raphael cards brought out hearty laughter. It was a great way to spend hours together as a family, and everyone was able to play. Traditionally, Christian-themed games are either mass market games with tacked on Christian veneers, e.g., Operation Noah’s Ark, Bibleopoly, or made by well-intention Christians who made unfun games, e.g., Solomon’s Temple, The Bibleman Adventure, Walk to Jesus. Because of this Christian-themed games tend to be a niche market, despite Christians representing one-third of the world’s population. Which leads into my next point. The game is currently selling for $89 on Amazon, which is high for a board game, but fairly on par for a “RPG-in-a-box”. I conclude it’s due to the market size and the quality of the components. For comparison, Mice and Mystics retails for $70, Descent: Journeys into the Dark for $79, and Gloomhaven (currently #1 on BoardGameGeek) for a stunning $289. For another comparison with pen & paper style role-playing games, seriously getting into D&D 5th edition will cost you at least $100: one copy each of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and some dice. Now, it’s bit of comparing apples to oranges (D&D is immensely flexible and Gloomhaven has mind-boggling 95 scenarios), but where I’m driving is the price is not unreasonable and if we want to see more games like this we need to vote with our wallets. Get the game, play with family and friends.
Verdict: FOUR out of FIVE WISEMEN
- Requires little setup time, and minimal prep time for the Game Master
- “Choose-your-own-adventure” feel
- Co-operative, family-friendly play with story decision points
- Top-notch Quality Components
- Beautiful, professional Artwork
- Variety of challenges that catered to everyone
- Educational about Advent, the Nativity
- Replayable, each Scenario has several major paths
- Candidate for Annual Family Advent Tradition
- Scenario pacing is sometime uneven (Too narrative heavy at times, team decision points bunched up, back-to-back challenges)
- Some mildly mature references (e.g., Drinking at an Inn, Bandits capturing people for slavery)
- Some challenges are hard to understand, based on reading alone, short videos would help
- Challenges/Trivia don’t scale based on age
- Missed opportunities for proverbs/quotes/references from the Bible, Catholic Saints, Popes, Church Fathers, etc. (I would guess this is a design choice, in order to appeal to all Christians, regardless of Denomination)
- No built-in mechanism for create your own scenario/campaign
Playing Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour for each scenario; 8 scenarios in total
Age: 8 and up (younger children can play with assistance from adults)
Designer: Jacek Malkowski
Artist: Martyna Bylinka, Monika Popkiewicz, Michal Dziubicki, Natalia Kielmel, Przemyslaw Pulit, Kacper Molewski
Distributor: Gates of Tau
Translation: Annabelle Chapman, Anthony Glotz, David Liebers, Krzysztof Rafi Gorski
Year Published: 2017
Categories: Adventure, Biblical Campaign Setting
Mechanisms: Co-operative Play, Storytelling