Truth Universally Acknowledged
There’s a terrific irony at the heart of A Universal Truth, Patrick Einheber’s strategic game of courtship. Jane Austen did a number on us with Emma and Sense & Sensibility and all the others. The Regency didn’t even last a decade, but it might as well represent an eternal summer, flushed with evening balls and surprise elopements, chilled by spurned advances and declined proposals of marriage, and above all marked by the triumph of true love over the tightly laced bodice of propriety.
A Universal Truth is… not that. If anything, it rears back to give the laces an extra heave.
For anybody who’s had the pleasure of reading Austen — or been forced to courtesy of the school system — the backdrop of A Universal Truth will prove familiar enough. As a strapping young introductee to the English beau monde, it’s time to enter the ton, weather the season, and find yourself a bride or groom. Lingo aside, you’re here to discover true love. Right?
Wrong. Where Austen’s novels (along with everyone else’s novels, movies, and streaming hits) depict high society as an itchy dinner jacket impeding the urgent work of getting naked in a hedge maze, A Universal Truth is about finding a match with the rickety pulse of an octogenarian scrivener. This isn’t about bedding Mr. Darcy by overcoming a modest dose of both pride and also prejudice. It’s about teasing loose the britches of pre-Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge by appealing to his steadfast accountancy. Your task, should you be forced to accept it, is to make a match in the literal sense by collating a spreadsheet’s worth of data on your prospective mate. Your identity is beside the point. No, really; you have no demands or desires, and exist solely to fill the needs of your match. In order to marry well, you must arrange sufficient income, talents, social connections, and heart icons. Only then will the blessed nuptials take place.
Setting aside the mournful shudder that accompanies any imagining of these poor people’s wedding night, A Universal Truth divides its pursuit of marital duty into two halves. In the first, players claim dice to move around a rondel of prospective acquaintances. I’ve tried likening this to a dance, but it’s a strained metaphor. There’s more information on these cards than there are powdered wigs in London, and the changing state of the rondel makes its movements more of a shamble than a glide. Most of the time, the essential tidbit is which actions all those cards permit or whether they can help you complete a sought-after accomplishment in your tableau.
Speaking of which, the second portion is your tableau. This is where cards are gradually ensconced. Each type functions according to its own rules. Income can’t be added unless you throw out a card worth equal or greater income, hearts are gated until certain requirements are met, and acquaintances must be made in ascending numerical order. That last one adds a bit of pepper to the proceedings: the cards must be ascending because you’re climbing the social ladder, you see. Little notes like that are speckled throughout A Universal Truth. They aren’t enough to save it from its own languor, especially after the first hour, but they’re appreciated anyway.
If we’re being generous, we might call this satire. The problem is that nobody’s laughing, and surely nobody’s getting invested in these pairings. Characters are interchangeable; there’s no spark of life, no sense of attraction or affinity, only their pocketbooks, their social connections, their desired accomplishments. That latter descriptor represents one of two efforts to introduce shortcuts to the game — direly needed, given its length. Made by building pairs of matching cards, accomplishments are both essential to your marriageability and inject special abilities into the staidness of the rondel. Some of these are cute: “riding” lets you horsey-hop past other players, “tennis” bops cards between players, and “drawing” lets you draw from the deck rather than grabbing a card from the rondel. Others upend the rules, sometimes even to game-breaking degrees. For instance, “conversation” and “letter writing” effectively bypass an entire quarter of a love interest’s requirements. Other accomplishments are baffling. Just in case you wanted to make this game take even longer, “Italian and German” reverses turn order. “Fox hunting” nabs a suitor or suitress from the rondel, something you’ll likely only do once per game. “Philosophy” presumes I give a damn about what you’re holding in your hand by letting me ask any question that you must truthfully answer. Most of the time, my chosen question was “Of the cards you’re holding, who would you marry, make love to, and murder?” At least that fostered some sense of investment.
Meanwhile, every card also has an optional event that can activate yet another onetime ability. These are more muted than accomplishments, usually restricted to rejiggering your tableau in those moments when you need to move a card from one spot to another. This isn’t uncommon near the end of the game, especially once all other requirements are met and you’re desperate for an extra heart or two. That’s its own issue: “court,” the action that apparently witnesses characters falling in love, is the toughest drudgery of them all, and often results in tedious races around the rondel to gobble up as many heart icons as possible. Like everything else in A Universal Truth, it’s courtship as checkboxes and to-do lists. There are no forbidden loves, improbable loves, desperate loves, great loves. There are only loves that were unrequited till you made enough friends, padded your pocketbook, and mastered needlework, haranguing the object of your affection out of further excuses to delay engagement.
I want to like A Universal Truth. I want to have my feet swept out from under me. I want to flush with excitement. I want to have my beau whisked away by a rival. I want to look forward to moments alone. I want to grow consternated at everybody’s meddling. I want to fall in love.
Barring that, I want the matchmaking to feel like anything other than a chore. A Universal Truth is an entire list of them, like an overbearing parent bent on ruining a Saturday. One of my favorite questions to ask couples is how they met. In the retelling, even the mundane sparkles. Ask these couples how they met. They’ll behold each other for but a moment before breaking eye contact, returning to their needlepoint or tea, and changing the topic to the weather.
A complimentary copy was provided.