What Board Game Theory Can Teach the Church


Board Games are on the rise in recent years with the advent of European games that are intricate and involve different levels of skill than Monopoly, Guess Who, and other staples of American game cabinets. Also, Gamification (game theory applied to other areas of society) has become more of a thing in recent years due to online games using its mechanics to monetize casual offerings (why else would people pay real money to buy online tools in Farmville and World of Warcraft?).

Some research in this area has finally put into words what I believe could be a way to categorize churches based on their gamification of their ecclesial offering.

The Matthew / Mark Effect in Board Games

Jonathan Liu, Senior Editor of Wired Magazine’s GeekDad, recently wrote the following in an update to his Kickstarter Campaign for a new board game. He had been reading through Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Bronson/Merryman and they had a fascinating way of categorizing games based on Biblical passages.

Early in the book the authors mention the “Matthew Effect” and the “Mark Effect,” and they put into words things I’d observed but hadn’t realized had names.

The Matthew Effect is when early leaders get further ahead. In games it’s often referred to as the “runaway leader” problem: one player has gotten better resources, whether through luck or strategy, which then leads to better options or more expensive cards or what have you, and then that player is able to steamroll everyone else. It’s certainly realistic because this happens in real life. People who do well early on get more support, making them even better, making it even harder to catch up. It happens on Kickstarter itself: getting a lot of backers tends to move you up the list on the Kickstarter page, which gets you more backers—and a project that launches and doesn’t shoot up the charts has a hard time catching up. The Matthew Effect is named after a quote from the Gospel of Matthew: “For to everyone who has, more will be given; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

So the Matthew Effect is what happens in Catan when you get the best placement and luck of the roll, or Monopoly when you get the first monopoly through luck of the roll or are the first to take out another player. It establishes a caste system in the game: the winning player and everyone else. Every turn the winning player has more options, more resources, more advantages, and they keep on exponentially getting better. All the other players essentially either have to (a) pool their resources or (b) take advantage of any missteps/bad luck of the leader.

These games are harder to enjoy when it is clear you are in the lower caste. My spouse hates Catan because she played the game a few times and each time she had bad rolling luck and placement and didn’t get off the ground. The sense of helplessly watching another player rake in the glory and opportunity makes for a difficult board game experience, which leads to a strong sense of antagonism to the runaway leader.

Luckily there’s another effect that board games can embrace.

The Mark Effect is the opposite: it’s what we call the “catch-up mechanic,” or “rubber-banding” in racing games. It’s from a quote from the Gospel of Mark: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Many Euro-style games have these built-in, some more subtly than others, but the basic idea is to keep all the players in the game. Everyone still has a chance to win, so that the player in last place doesn’t feel like the game is inevitable but still has to sit through an hour of play. When it works well, you end up with an engaging game where the competition always feels tight. When it doesn’t, you end up feeling like the leader is just being unfairly punished for winning, and the game can drag on because there’s always a way to shoot down the person in the lead.

The Mark Effect is a game that doesn’t create a runaway leader or a caste system between the one winner and a buncha losers. Instead, the game mechanics keep everyone more-or-less close together. The discontinued game Dune does this exceedingly well as no matter how smart you play, it’s very difficult to be a runaway leader (my brother and his friend play obsessively). Many games where an individual’s actions don’t impact others decisions as hugely (such as Kill Dr. Lucky, Dominion, Race to the Galaxy,  etc) have this effect. Games where when you get closer to winning you have a significant handicap (everyone ganging up on you in Sorry) fall into this category as well.

These games are more enjoyable because you feel important and you feel like you have a chance. There’s a dramatic tension to the game rather than a sense of inevitability. There’s a sense of camaraderie with other players because anyone can win.

The Matthew/Mark Effect in the Church

When you read those above, which type of game would you rather play? It depends on your personality, which is why both types of games are popular. Some people like the challenge of either being the runaway leader or the upstart challenger to the leader in Matthew games. Some people like being “in the game” and the dramatic tension of “who is going to win” in Mark games. Both of these type of games sell well.

In the same way, I wonder if there are individual churches that cater to these type of Gamers.

  1. I wonder if Matthew Churches are churches that venerate success and offer narrow gates to advancement within the church. Megachurches with big pastors with big personalities put success on a pedestal. Fundamentalist churches that demand tax returns and rigid roles of their members. Churches that have long membership processes and only baptize believers. While attractive, there’s a sense of discontent the longer they are in play. The slowly rising numbers of people who have been turned off by Health and Wealth Word-Faith churches (because they receive neither the health nor wealth that is promised) is an example of a Matthew effect in those churches.
  2. I wonder if Mark Churches are churches that value community and togetherness at the expense of focusIn connectional churches where resources are shared (such as the United Methodist Church), then churches are yoked together and their success is bound with others. In networked evangelical churches, they lament whenever a church on their network–no matter how loose a network–is struggling because that leaves a mission field without an evangelist. It can be frustrating to the outliers in these connections/networks because they feel dragged down by other churches. But by wanting everyone to be in it together, while it can hold back churches from being truly focused by pouring all their resources into their focus, everyone is part of the effort together.

I would further wonder if the Call To Action failed because it sought to create a Matthew Effect rather than a Mark effect in the church. But that will be another blog post 😉


  • Are there churches that seem to create runaway leaders or programs that take away resources or leadership opportunities from other areas to be successful in one area? How do you feel in those churches?
  • Are there churches that seem to shoot themselves in the foot to be in relationship with each other to be successful in community-building rather than their focus? How do you feel in those churches?

Thanks for your comments and entertaining a Tuesday morning musing…

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  1. says

    I’m a little clear on how “everyone ganging up on you” is an expression of community building. The concepts are interesting (aren’t those two quotes in other places than just Mark and Matthew, btw?) but I think you might be stretching them too far to suggest the two effects map well onto your dichotomy of church styles.

    I’m not clear how catechism, for instance, is “rewarding the leader.” It just feels like there are some pretty big gaps between the theory and your way of using it to categorize churches.

    • says

      “Everyone ganging up on you” was an offhand reference to the board game Sorry. That paragraph did not mention community but only game mechanics. Furthermore, I did not make a direct link between the board game Sorry and the subsequent section on Mark Churches. So no, I did not claim that “ganging up on each other” was an expression of community building.

      The Matthew/Mark references are by the authors of the book Top Dog not my own inventions.

      I think when a membership process is long, then only those with the ability to complete it become members. While I know churches make allowances for homebound persons and disabilities, do they also make allowances for families that want to attend the membership classes but the spouse always has to work or care for elderly parents, etc? When there’s a gap between a family’s situation determining their ability to attend long classes, then that narrows the field. Furthermore, the claim was “venerate success and offer narrow gates to advancement” in that section, not “rewarding the leader” as that was not in that paragraph.

      In short, our conversation would be bettered by not applying language used to describe board game mechanics specifically to the language used to describe churches specifically and instead talk about how the dichotomy generally applies to both.

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