Board games are an ancient and noble human tradition. The oldest game—and it’s not Monopoly—is a small Mesopotamian strategy game called the Royal Game of Ur and dates back 4,600 years.

In the modern era, as well as being the catalyst for deep family tensions, some games have been used to facilitate diplomacy between nations—as when the United States and Soviet Union adopted a ‘non-traditional’ style of diplomacy during the Cold War through the 1972 Chess World Championship.

But now, in addition to the many styles of gameplay and fascinating thematic premises generated by a flourishing gaming industry, board games provide an opportunity to connect people with the life and spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola.

Fr Mariusz Han is a Polish Jesuit priest based in Melbourne, and in 2023 he released the second board game he has created for commercial release: Ignatius Loyola: Knight and Pilgrim. The game has been very well received, even winning an international Jesuit award.

Fr Mariusz has always been a ‘gamer’ in the more traditional sense. Born in 1971 in Wroclaw, south-west Poland, Fr Mariusz experienced the final 16 years of Communist rule in his country. He and his brother nurtured their spirit of play and creativity by constantly making different games with what supplies they had, often creating clay soldiers and tanks and trading them with each other.

‘There was not too many toys in our country,’ Fr Mariusz recalls, ‘and everything we did was on our own … We created the games and we played two or three times, and then we have the next idea to play and create.’

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Fr Mariusz Han SJ with his award-winning board game Ignatius Loyola: Knight and Pilgrim.

Ordained in 2001, Fr Mariusz is also a tech-savvy priest whose multimedia ministry has involved creating Poland’s most-visited Catholic website, working in Rome at Vatican Radio for two years and running his own popular website, where he publishes articles and homilies in Polish.

The idea for this board game came to him during the COVID lockdowns—a large portion of which was actually a jubilee year for Jesuits around the world.

‘We had the 500th anniversary of the battle of Pamplona in 2021,’ he explains, referring to the battle in which St Ignatius had his leg broken by a cannonball, changing his life forever, ‘and then the 400th anniversary of the canonisation of St Ignatius in 2022. We tried to finish by the end of the jubilee year [of] his canonisation, but COVID ended and work started, 10 times more intensive than before. We finished it in 2023, a little bit late.’

The game took three years in total to develop, partly because of the time difference between Melbourne and his home country. He worked on the game with his brother in Poland. ‘Without him, this game would never happen,’ he says. ‘But it was hard. When I got up, he went to sleep.’

The initial idea for the game was to develop it around the Battle of Pamplona, but after some discussion with his brother, they chose to make it about the life and spirituality of St Ignatius instead. Fr Mariusz says that while it is a fun and engaging game, it is also educational, a chance to introduce younger people to the great Spanish saint who, he says, changed the Church.

‘His was a beautiful life, an amazing life, when you read his story … This man, his spirituality, changed the Church, changed everything.’

‘For the greater glory of God’

The first thing you notice about the game is how professionally produced it is. Its quality is indistinguishable—if not slightly better—than any game one might find in a commercial outlet.

But working with a children’s artist in Poland, Fr Mariusz and his brother also designed a game that beautifully illustrates the life and journeys of St Ignatius.

The board has two sides, and as the game’s title suggests, it is meant to immerse the player in the journey from ‘knight’ to ‘pilgrim’, which was St Ignatius’ own journey.

‘In the beginning he was a knight, wanting to fight for the king of Spain,’ Fr Mariusz says. ‘His father was a nobleman, and Ignatius wanted to be a fighter, be a hero, and find a princess … but finally he realised that he is only a pilgrim in this world.’

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Fr Mariusz shows the detail on one the game’s St Ignatius player ‘pawns’.

On the first side of the board, as the players travel across the path, the goal is to collect the most AMDG points—AMDG being the Jesuit motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, ‘for the greater glory of God’. But as they do, they learn more about the different events in Ignatius’ life, including when his leg was hit by a cannonball.

Fr Mariusz also playfully included the time St Ignatius was imprisoned in Salamanca by Dominican Friars, who suspected him of heresy.

‘There’s a lot of small details, a lot of stories,’ he says.

Even the colour of the dice is significant: one is red, the other blue. This is because when St Ignatius was recovering from a broken leg and discovered a book on the life of Christ and the lives of the saints, he copied many passages in a notebook of his own, transcribing the words of Christ in red and the words of Mary in blue.

The other side of the board is for ‘connoisseurs’ and is based on a Polish board game called Miś Wojtek—or ‘Wojtek the Bear’.

Fr Mariusz says that in Poland, Miś Wojtek is something of a national treasure, regularly played by school students in large tournaments. The game is based on the journeys of a bear who marched and fought with Polish soldiers in World War Two—a true story, believe it or not.

Wojtek was discovered in the mountains of Iran by Polish prisoners of war in 1942, when he was only a cub. These prisoners were being transported from a Siberian gulag to Egypt, where, after a pact with Stalin, they would be released to fight alongside the Allies in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. Eventually, the bear and his military corps would end up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Players of Miś Wojtek join the bear on the journey from the USSR to Edinburgh, playing ‘travel cards’ in order to collect a full set of ‘bear cards’ before anyone reaches Edinburgh.

With permission from the designers of Miś Wojtek, Fr Mariusz designed the second game based almost entirely on the rules of the beloved Polish game, with a couple of tweaks to improve gameplay. It involves the players travelling to key locations in St Ignatius’ life—from Loyola to Rome—in order to collect a full set of cards.

In the same way that Miś Wojtek is beloved by children in Poland, Fr Mariusz hopes that one day this game—especially Loyola’s Path to Rome, the game’s second side—might be played at a larger scale.

‘I would be so happy if Australia would take up the idea, and the parishes could compete in tournaments. I would love that.’

The joy of creating

‘What I most enjoy is that I get to create something,’ Fr Mariusz says. The childhood delight of creating games has stayed with him, and he loves being able to make something that others can use, enjoy and learn from.

This isn’t the last board game from him, either: he has another secret project in the works he hopes to release sometime in the coming years.

But for now, Ignatius Loyola: Knight & Pilgrim is a colourful and immersive way to bring the story and spirituality of St Ignatius to life for families, schools and parishes everywhere.

Ignatius Loyola: Knight and Pilgrim can be purchased here.