I love playing with religion in games. Be it pouring hordes of leprous cultists and bloodthirsty demons onto a corrupt humanity in Chaos in the Old World, smacking your divine cow when it tries to munch on your precious worshipers in Black & White 2, or manipulating the rest of the world into electing you as Pope in Civilization IV, there’s something about the whole godlike powers/moral superiority/psychological ascendancy shtick that pushes all the right buttons for me (did I just give away my plans for world domination?). So when I was assigned Religion Simulator, Gravity Software Ltd’s first game for Android, I was ready to be all, “Yes! Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!” But while Religion Simulator is certainly an addictive, fun little strategy game, it didn’t quite meet all my theistic expectations.
Religion Simulator is a simple game (almost too simple, but we’ll get to that later). As the name suggests, you play as an entire religion, trying to spiritually dominate a hex-based, spherical map. You can only do four things: construct buildings, expand your religion’s reach, smite your foes, and improve your religion with upgrades. The first three actions form the core of the game, and determine how you interact with the map. You only have a choice of two buildings: either a temple to increase your faith and buffer your tiles against conversion, or a treasury to increase your income, allowing you to purchase more buildings, weapons for smiting, and expansions. You expand your religion by claiming tiles in predetermined patterns (line, or radii of varying sizes), the strength of your claim determined by the population and education level of the tiles. You use weapons of varying sizes (and hence costs) to clear tiles of your opponents’ influence and buildings. The whole thing was fast-paced and addictive. You have to remain constantly on your toes, watching for enemy expansions and countering them with your own, keeping track of your income and making strategic decisions (is it worth it to spend on a lightning storm and curtail an opponent’s expansion, for example, or should you instead expand into unclaimed territory yourself?). And for some reason, managing territory on a spherical map was so much cooler than on a flat, rectilinear projection. You can only really see half of the map at any one time, creating interesting blind spots where unexpected things can occur… and spinning the globe around just makes me go Weee!
The fourth action, upgrading your religion, is the least elegant part of the gameplay. You spend a second currency, god tokens, to advance on along a web of upgrades. God tokens appear randomly on the map, accompanied a column of golden light and a chime that begins to grate on your nerves after about ten minutes, and you have to tap them before they disappear to collect them. While the system did add a sort of twitchy variety to the game, it did little to reinforce the narrative and felt tacked-on. The upgrades themselves, while useful in purely technical terms, held no other appeal. Every upgrade did the same thing: increase a couple of your attributes (income, faith, knowledge, publicity or happiness) by a few points. Apart from being a fairly opaque system (you could never quite tell how your scores were affecting the game; I guess you simply had to have faith…), it was just…well, boring. Upgrades offered no special benefits (not even simple flavor effects, like Black & White’s aesthetic changes), and only once in the upgrade web does choosing a particular branch prohibit another. In a game about religion, I really wanted a way to differentiate your cult from others in interesting ways, and since you can basically end up purchasing all of the upgrades offered, the Play Store’s vaunted “RPG Elements” and “Decision Tree” fall a little flat.
While Religion Simulator is certainly fun, for its $3 price tag I really wanted more. I wanted an actual decision tree, with upgrades that added interesting (and not just numerical) changes to the game. I wanted random events that sewed chaos among the faithful, pop-up flavor-text that reflected my religion’s philosophy, more visible feedback about how my scores affected my territory, messages from my opponents, something more. As it is, the game is too short (I finished it twice in one day), with low replayability, and feels like a project in an advanced Game Design class: challenging and engaging core mechanics, but in need of more substance and polish before publication.
With a few more religious tenets (read: game features), it could be quite the demigod.