Luck Be a Lady (& Gentleman) Tonight
It’s easy to read about the ladies and gentlemen of previous times — say, the Regency or Victorian eras — and cluck at just how silly and simple those people were, to care only as far into the future as next Friday’s ball or Jane Warmporridge’s upcoming wedding. To fret so intently over appearances and the ministrations of their servants. To live with such a vast gulf between husbands and wives. It’s so easy to read about those people in those different times and let out a sort of superior chuckle. The easiest thing in the world, really.
So although a few folks have voiced concerns that Ladies & Gentlemen sounds a bit, ahem, sexist, in reality it’s a marvelous tool. For, you see, by the end of the game you’ll understand precisely how much a well-matched dress and hat can matter. Most importantly, this is one of the first board games that has stood out to me as having actually taught me something. And I’m not talking about trivia, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to say Trivial Pursuit is an important game.
It’s Serious Time
Okay, now that we’re into this article proper, it’s time to get serious. You might be reading this sentence out of a sense of curiosity, or out of completionism, or maybe because you like my writing style (hi mom!). But seriously, we’re getting serious now.
In addition to writing about board games, I sometimes cover computer games as well. Now and then I tag a PC game article with “Why Games Matter,” which indicates the game in question does a little bit more than most games bother with. In some instances, this means the game comments on human nature, or complains about something broken in our society. Sometimes it means the game sprays lots of vague philosophy against a wall to see what sticks, and at other times that it’s critiquing the world of gaming itself.
This is the first time I’m putting a “Why Games Matter” tag on a board game article.
It’s not that I didn’t think it could happen. Not in the slightest. And anyway, there’s always been something that’s “mattered” about board games; probably because they’re so inherently social that they promote similarly social behavior. The wide difference in warmth and civility between the video game and board game communities is one of the major reasons I’ve shifted the focus of this site over to board games this year, after all. I’m certainly not saying this is true of everyone, but I think it’s much easier to be a decent dude or righteous lady in a hobby that has to be shared, including all the face-time and positive demeanor necessary to make that sharing happen.
Even so, Ladies & Gentlemen stands out as doubly “mattering.” To me, anyway.
“Fine, fine, but can we actually talk about it now?” you’re probably thinking, or saying aloud if you’re the solitary sort. Fair enough, let’s do that.
The Game Itself
Ladies & Gentlemen is published by Libellud, the company you might recognize as the force behind the excellent party game Dixit and the tremendously unique drafting game Seasons; and designed by Loïc Lamy, who also designed Deadwood (which I know literally nothing about except that I have a friend who seems to like it). And it’s very, very easy to see why some people have called its theme into question.
Anyone with the capacity to sense the presence of that elusive creature satire really shouldn’t have any problem, though. In fact, if you’re one of those gifted individuals, Ladies & Gentlemen ought to suddenly transform from being that one game with the weird theme to being one of the most fascinating game premises you’ve heard in years.
For one, it’s about shallow Victorian couples going about the egotistical business of appearing more elegant and prestigious than any other couple at the upcoming ball. To this end, each team of two (one a lady and the other a gentleman, as though there were any other sort of arrangement proper before God and Nature) works to deck out their lady with the finest clothing, wildest accessories, and most resplendent jewels. Additionally, one of the most powerful tools at any lady’s disposal is the ineffable gift of gab, which they can use to insult their nemeses into a self-defeating fluster. The most peacock’d lady is pronounced the belle of the ball, while the others shuffle back to their manors to plot fabulous revenge at the next party.
Second, the disparity between classes is severe. Not only are servants bought and sold as easily and offhandedly as a handbag, they’re also purchased for a fraction of the price. A gentleman may earn over a thousand quid in one day of frantic stock-acquiring and contract-fulfilling, and come home to purchase his wife two maids and a hat that costs twice as much as those servants’ annual pay. Combined. And don’t expect any Downton Abbey-esque characterization of the people downstairs; these servants are appropriately invisible until called upon.
Third, there’s no breaching the gulf that separates a husband and wife. Although you’re on the same team and working towards the same goal, gentlemen will be going about the manly business of pairing commodities with contracts in a simple matching game, while women oversee the stocking of their favorite stores and then shop ’til they drop. Only during each day’s third phase (“evening”) will ladies and gentlemen come together to needle each other about the most appropriate, affordable, and wonderful items of clothing. Even then, the gentleman has absolute authority over his estate, and can purchase or toss (or place on layaway) any item he sees fit.
Finally, not only are you tasked with playing as painfully self-centered batteries of ladies and quagglestomps of gentlemen (proper period terminology is fun!), but you’re ordered to act it out. As in, the gentlemen are instructed to be the most arrogant, pretentious gentlemen possible, and the ladies are to slot into their roles by being as vacuous, flirty, and fashion-obsessed as they can manage. This can lead to some hilariously sexist and classist statements. Especially when talking about buying servants with your spare change. Especially when deploying hideous insults to make use of the gossip cards. And especially when your table is full of men playing ladies and women playing gentlemen and everyone’s really throwing their backs into it. It’s sort of like a train game asking you to chortle about all the natives you’re displacing when you lay those rail lines.
Which is to say, it’s a riot.
As I implied above with all the tact of a brick falling on your head, Ladies & Gentlemen is clearly satire. Even the fashion designer brands are examples of this, as you take pains to collect items from Jean-Paul Gantiez, Lolo LaBanne, and Mélanie Canel. And it’s the sort of satire that will have you acting out these insipid lives in the most bloated manner possible. My performance as a lady, for instance, is primarily informed by the behavior of the infamous Miss Piggy — which is to say, I’m possibly the most insulting, self-important, underhanded bitch who ever lived. “My, we’re hardly cousins of the Georges, my dear,” I say to the poorest player as I hand over a gossip card. Later I’ll be implying inbreeding in someone’s family line, or wondering whether someone’s mirror will crack under the strain. I’ve played tons of games that have let me be a bad man, but this is the first game I’ve ever played that has made me want to be a horrid woman.
My wife Somerset, incidentally, is an utter jackass as a gentleman, taking the most exquisite pleasure in denying her wife the finer things in life.
Even though it’s a laugh, the game portion isn’t quite as exquisite. It’s basically two minigames played in tandem, and the gentlemen’s in particular is so simplistic that it’s common for them to finish up their tasks long before the ladies wrap up all their shop-arranging and -emptying. It’s a delicious irony that the female portion of the game requires so much more actual forethought, planning, and undermining of opposing plans than the gentlemanly game at the stock exchange.
The primary downside is that you’ll need to assemble the right group in order to enjoy it. Players should be willing to talk, and to directly insult each other’s parentage and looks. People who are easily offended shouldn’t be included, and you might be well advised to drop them from your circle of associates anyway. You’ll also need the right quantity of players — too few and there won’t be enough exchanging of gossip and shop-visits, too many and the stock market gets rather crowded with grabbing hands.
When it comes together, though — it’s brilliant.
Why Ladies & Gentlemen is “Important”
Ladies & Gentlemen has taught me two life lessons. I mean, they’re not life lessons. Minor epiphanies, more like. Still, I’m glad to receive them.
1. This is the first time I feel like I’ve understood the importance of the little nagging insults and the importance of looking good for the upcoming dance that you read about in books like Emma. I hesitated to play L&G because I didn’t think I’d care enough for the theme — only to realize halfway through that I was getting really worked up about the fact that Adam had just insulted me because he had a pair of gorgeous earrings and I did not. It stung. And it was a testament to the way L&G‘s theme gets under your skin that after our first game, my friends Geoff and Elliott were arguing about their final elegance points and someone pointed out, “You’re like actual bickering Victorian ladies,” and both of them got all sheepish about it. When it comes down to it, we’re no better than those ancient ladies and gentlemen; I’m every bit as petty and competitive, and just as liable to snap when I feel like I’ve been pushed into a corner by injuries to my pride.
2. It made me feel more appreciation for the relationship I have with Somerset. In L&G, the roles of husband and wife are so irreparably separate that I soon found I had more in common with my fellow ladies — my opponents — than with my teammate/husband. He worked at the bank all day with his fellows, more in common with them than with me. Our alliance was one of necessity, not of any actual comfort or similarity. Of course, not all Victorian marriages were analogues to the system the game portrays, but it still made me happy that my relationship wasn’t anything like that lonely partnership.
Together, these two points gave me just a little bit of extra empathy for the strange, distant characters I’ve read about in fiction and from history. I can see how a lady and a gentleman might care deeply about those silly things when it’s their sole shared vocabulary. It makes them much more human, two people reaching out to each other in the only way they know how.
That’s what I got out of it, anyway. Your mileage may vary.
Either way, it’s a heap of fun. It takes less than an hour to play, it’s quick to teach, and it’ll have everyone calling each other names faster than any other game on the market.