Jonathan Strange & Mr Butt
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a wonderful and (appropriately) strange novel, its meandering plot belying an uncommon thematic density. It never goes quite where you’d expect — an effect supported by footnotes that lend the air of a recovered manuscript — and you can hardly turn the page without encountering one idea subtly folding into another. Englishness versus otherness. The tension between madness and reason. The thin line between friendship and rivalry.
Now it’s a board game. And it’s a terrible shame that apparently nobody involved with this adaptation seems to have read the novel very closely.
Not all thematic statements are equivalently workable when it comes to board games. Consider the concept of othering, by which certain people whose circumstances mark them as different — a black man born on a slave ship and raised by the slaver’s family, a woman who appears mad thanks to the invisible torments of faeries — are removed from society’s near orbit and instead ejected to the fringe. How do you portray that? There are designers who might make the attempt, but they’re few in number.
In the case of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Board Game of English Magic, however, even the novel’s simplest themes have been jettisoned like smuggled cargo prior to a boarding inspection. Two magicians, one educated and the other charismatic — but both abrasive in their own ways — make a tentative allegiance to preside over the reawakening of English magic. It’s a classic scenario of clashing personalities, and the idea that people will sometimes get along and sometimes they won’t is present in plenty of games.
So, naturally, this game chooses to feature neither collaboration nor rivalry. Instead, its vision of magical revolution consists of stuffy balls, tea parties, and carriage rides. But not with your fellow players. The sole indication that you’re playing with other people is because you’re waiting for them to wrap up a turn.
For the most part, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell proceeds like this. In your hand you hold a selection of possible visits, split between invitations and introductions. Invitations represent the social engagements where your magician will be able to mix and mingle; introductions are specific connections with individuals interested in supporting your work. A single turn usually involves traveling across Europe, trading invitations for introductions, or trading either for tokens that can fulfill feats of magic. These feats — exhibitions of your growing magical prowess — will yield magicianship, the game’s name for victory points, whereas introductions yield prestige, which determines turn order and occasionally awards upgrades.
Now repeat. Again. And again and again, until Ian O’Toole’s lovely artwork and the occasional familiar face lose their glimmers of relevance. What’s the difference between crossing paths with Lord Byron, Jane Austen, and mad King George III? Nothing much. In game terms, Austen is worth extra prestige. Just a smidge. Not enough to go out of your way.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with repetition, especially when it comes to game mechanics. The more central problem is twofold. First there’s its thematic inappropriateness, which diminishes the game’s source material to some map-hopping and a prayer that you’ll draw cards that can be exchanged nearby. But second is the fact that, even if the novel (and to a lesser extent the miniseries) had never existed and there were no expectations to meet, the game’s core gameplay loop still becomes tedious almost immediately. It isn’t even pick-up and deliver. It’s draw and meander. It’s fetch. A game of fetch in which the deck might throw its stick at your feet or to Venice.
There are wrinkles to consider, but for the most part they’re complications rather than interesting detours. The most important is the magic system, which is so disappointingly dour that it makes one question why there should be a revitalization of the arcane at all. When you fulfill an invitation, you’re given a choice of introductions or feats of magic. The latter will sit in front of you for multiple in-game years, begging to be completed. This is accomplished by filling it with the appropriate tokens by discarding invitations or introductions that show those magic types. Doesn’t sound too difficult.
Except moving those tokens onto your feats is irritatingly fiddlesome. Every year opens with a single “card of Marseilles” being uncovered. This does at least two infuriating things; in terms of magic, it reveals which one or two magical suits, out of six, you can play this year. It isn’t enough to discard a card with a magical symbol that matches the feat you’re working on. The symbol must also match the suits permitted by the card on Marseilles. Or the suit, singular. Working with only two suits is bad enough. Limiting half of the game’s playtime to a single suit is functionally a vanish gonads cantrip.
There’s a way around this limitation. Each year, you’re allowed to take one action on your magician’s silver basin. One option lets you teleport, another activates your magician’s special ability, and a third nabs a book of magic that converts one token into another. The final three are for “studying magic,” unlocking an additional two suits that you can fulfill by discarding the right cards.
Crucially, using an action locks it off for future use. Over time, more and more of your actions become blocked, until at last you spend a year “stilling the waters.” It’s a perfectly fine system, demanding both balance and forethought — except, again, most of your cards are drawn at random, or from an offer of feats that’s constantly churning out new options. This relegates planning to second place, always subject to the luck of the draw. The result is half of a workable puzzle, let down once again by the capriciousness of the game’s many decks.
Since I’ve already bemoaned the cards of Marseilles, we might as well discuss the second thing that makes them so infuriating.
Okay, so magic is returning to England. Unfortunately, this resurgence has also attracted dangers that were previously shut out of our world. In this case, the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, a faerie tyrant, has decided to enslave England. Fair play, some might say. As a practitioner of English magic, you’d rather he not. Enslaving people is your birthright, thank you very much.
In order to stop the Gentleman — and prevent everybody from losing — you must obtain enough magicianship to match his power. Magicianship is earned from three sources: feats, books of magic, and certain spells, which are the piddly and barely-worth-mentioning rewards for completing feats. Oh, and you’ll need to possess this magicianship during the right window. Say, around 1811, 1813, 1815, or 1817. In any of the game’s other eight years, your efforts to banish the Gentleman will go unnoticed.
The problem is that each card of Marseilles increases the Gentleman’s power, often by leaps and bounds. This keeps him well out of reach of your magician’s budding talents. Even by the game’s end, you’re unlikely to have caught up. Naturally, you would think that this state of affairs would invite collaboration between magicians. But Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, in defiance of its source material, is as uninterested in permitting its players to work together as it is in letting them feud. This is no cooperative game. It isn’t even a semi-cooperative game. Most of the time, except when somebody chances upon the right draws, it’s a game for the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair and nobody else.
There are sparks of intellect, however faint. On those occasional turns when everything aligns — that year’s card of Marseilles, your own draws, the actions you have available in your silver basin, any feats awaiting fulfillment — putting them together feels like a genuine stroke of arcane genius.
The upgrades are also a highlight. A coachman who lets you move farther, a sense for business providing extra cards, a pupil to nudge you that much closer to narrowly losing to the Gentleman — each offering feels significant. Even cooler are the limited ultra-upgrades that pull out the really crazy powers.
But for every ray of sunshine, there’s a commensurate eyebrow-raiser. For example, while you openly track your prestige, your magicianship is kept secret. Presumably this is to facilitate a big reveal, a curtain pull, a ta-da!, a table-wide gasp of surprise as you strike the final blow to the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. Then again, in a game without any means to impede your fellow magicians, there’s no reason to keep secrets. If anything, this is functionally similar to any heads-down game where you don’t tally points until the very end — except you actually need to know where you stand in case you catch up to the Gentleman. Without a tracker, expect to recount all those cards more than once. Ta-da? More like ta-dud.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Board Game of English Magic resembles a trick in which a magician places a curtain over an empty box, speaks hocus-pocus, and then sweeps it away to reveal the box is still as empty as before. Designers Francesco Nepitello and Marco Maggi are perhaps best known for War of the Ring, a landmark title that captured both the broad maneuvers and the personal sacrifices of The Lord of the Rings. Unlike that adaptation, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell proves a miss. Maybe next time they’ll decide not to strip out the exciting parts.
A complimentary copy was provided.