Becoming Mary King

Since I was a kid, I wanted a scary dead white eye.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jim Felli brings me the weirdest stuff. That should be read in the most positive sense possible. Whether it’s a cannibalistic football match, embittered artists, crumbling great houses, or mile-high frogs, nobody in the hobby is doing anything quite like him.

The same is true of The Mirroring of Mary King. It’s about a woman, Mary King, who is being possessed by a spirit, also named Mary King. Like everything else that passes through Felli’s touch, it feels like a relic from a parallel dimension.

That awkward moment when "You resemble your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother" triggers memories of the old biddy's attempt to possess your mortal body.

Mary King, meet Mary King.

I’m often fascinated by descriptions of alien things, objects or actions so unfamiliar that we lack the vocabulary to describe their usage. The Mirroring of Mary King falls under a similar category. While its movements are magnificent to behold, there’s nearly no antecedent. Oh, there are power cards, decks and discards, tiles to flip, tracks to advance. It is recognizably a game. But it’s a game that moves to an ephemeral rhythm.

Let’s start by calling it a puzzle game. Between players sits a portrait of Mary King. Two portraits, really, one from the 21st century and another from the 17th, superpositioned between realities. Much of the game’s headspace is preoccupied with the state of these portraits. Certain cards flip segments from one side to another, nudging Mary King closer to either her mortal humanity or her lost humanity. The trouble is that the cards rarely play along. It’s easy to disrupt the portrait, especially after your foe has aligned most of the tiles in their favor. Far harder to align it your way. The effect isn’t unlike an adversarial puzzle, sections of your portrait swinging between life and afterlife.

Or maybe it’s easier to describe it as a martial arts game. Although it’s possible to win control of Mary King’s body by shifting her portrait entirely to your side, this is exceedingly difficult without favorable luck or some blunders on your foe’s part. Probably both. More often, victory will be won or lost via your deck. Either your rival runs out of cards entirely or the week ends with you in possession of more leftovers. So you play the long con, sapping your counterpart’s strength while trying to preserve your own. There are tricks aplenty. The problem is so obvious that it’s easy to overlook: for every triggered effect, that’s another card you’ve spent. It isn’t long before you’re engaged in a bout of card-based judo, every motion minimized, every expenditure bottomed out, every card carefully parceled. There’s still a very good chance you’ll be ripping through your deck faster than you can sustain. It’s a shrewd game that asks you to withhold your energy rather than go all-in. Yet that’s what Felli accomplishes here. Mary King is the equivalent of holding a difficult pose, underused muscles straining to keep you from toppling over.

And still, card effects begin to clash. The per-turn limitations become restrictive. Was that another power card you discarded? Damn it. Just damn it. Why is it so much easier to mar your opponent’s portrait than to paint your own?

As opposed to other games, where power cards reinforce the rules. Sometimes I'm bad at captions, m'kay?

Power cards bend the rules.

In the process of both breaking and becoming, The Mirroring of Mary King becomes another game entirely. A game about identity. Your face comes through in fragments. Sometimes those fragments crash against one another, submerging your desired image only moments after its surfacing. Your identity is pieced together one shard at a time, only to watch those shards get snatched away yet again. For anyone who’s struggled against themself to overcome an addiction, a habit, a temper, a peccadillo, a status, it’s oddly familiar. Does that seem far-fetched? Too cerebral? Too wanky? I can’t help but regard it as deliberate. The duality of the self becomes a motif, explicated by the illustrations on the power cards. “The Mirroring” works as a title not only because of the game’s symmetry, but also because it’s a game about how the process of becoming somebody necessitates abandoning the alternate somebodies you could have been. Sometimes I wonder if Mary King is truly two women wrestling for command of one body. Sometimes, she seems like one woman who’s still deciding which of two people she would rather be.

I can’t overstate how pivotal Naomi Robinson’s dual illustrations of Mary King are at depicting this struggle. Good thing, considering you’ll spend half an hour staring at those twin faces. Mary King — the living one — may be attractive, but she’s a far cry from a fantasy heroine with bared midriff and custom boob armor. Rather, her defining characteristics are evident in her expression: poise, determination, an appropriate measure of horror. It’s possible these seem mundane in the face of her assailant. Slightly gaunt with age or death, the elder Mary King reverberates with threat. Her eyes are live circuits. Her hair channels pure static. One sees the appeal of becoming this woman. The thrill of possession isn’t in becoming something you hate. It’s the possibility of becoming who you’ve always secretly wanted to be.

These nuances are easily misplaced in the middle of a session. Felli has never been one to state his thematic ambitions outright, and The Mirroring of Mary King is ludically rich enough that its moment-to-moment play is dominated by its puzzle, its judo, its cautious metering of resources and powers. Only later does its textual richness sink in. When one Mary peers out through the cracks of the other, it’s to build an area control majority to force your rival to discard cards. But it’s also a representation of the innate struggle with the self.

X-Person? I don't know the lingo.

Is Mary King’s ghost an X-Man?

Religious awakenings and comings-out are both often described in the language of rebirth. You existed before. Now you exist again, but more wholly. Rituals take on fresh meanings. Families are forged. New names are adopted. In designing a game in which every action reveals or buries identity, in which nascence is birthed and smothered and birthed again, in which one’s every action carries the possibility of self-harm or transformation, Felli speaks to a terror some of us know all too well. The stakes couldn’t be higher. You risk becoming yourself.

The result is wonderfully layered, both as a plaything and as an observation of human nature. I haven’t said it before, but it bears stating: Jim Felli brings me some of the best stuff.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on August 29, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I love that in the game’s fiction, this battle for identity is taking place smack in the middle of Mary King’s Close, one of Edinburgh’s premier tourist attractions.

  1. Pingback: Best Week 2022! The Traumatics! | SPACE-BIFF!

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