Going to Bed Angry

Yes, this is the extent of my header skills tonight.

I occasionally think back on the mudslide of advice I received when Somerset and I got married. There was so much, and we were so inexperienced, that at the time it was impossible to sort into good or bad. Hindsight helps. Some of it has proved apt (“Keep making the choice to love each other”). Other tidbits were stale even at the time (“Always listen to your wife, but as the man of the house you’re the tiebreaker”). And then there were the lines that sounded good until we realized they were soul-crushing (“Never go to bed angry”).

Xoe Allred’s Persuasion is about a brand of holy matrimony not all that far off from the partnership Summer and I entered into — young, rapid, religious, and oh so very Victorian. But where other recent games about the courtship rituals of yestercentury have been drier than hardtack, Allred’s take is viciously seductive. Not because it’s particularly spicy. Oh no. Because it’s so toxic it could break a Geiger counter.

"Sat too long on my work chair and now it smells like bum" was too long for the card, apparently.

Can you guess my traits?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Thus begins Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now for the part that goes unsaid: As rapidly as possible lest the prospective mate reach a spinster’s age or attain a bachelor’s temperament, in fulfillment of one’s needs and desires but with nary a care for those of the wife, perhaps settling for one’s first cousin if nobody else will do.

Persuasion is about tricking somebody into fulfilling your needs and desires. Barring that, perhaps you can change them so that they’ll fulfill said desires. Barring that, perhaps it would be better to settle for the independent life. If you can’t tell, that last option is probably the least concerning of the lot. It’s a game in which everybody at the table could win. Or nobody could win. Or — far more likely — some will win and others will lose, often in the same pairing. As in, wedding bells are ringing, but the groom is sweating under his collar. Or the bride has been talked out of taking flight to the colonies. Or someone has decided to pursue a life of solitude only to discover that there isn’t anything waiting for them on the other side.

To navigate these treacherous waters, everybody begins with two things. First, a page from your diary that details exactly what you’re looking for in marriage or independence. Second, a hand of trait cards that outline whichever personality you’ve emerged from your parents’ household with. To give you the gist, a starting hand might call you out as invasive, receptive, conniving, enabling, subversive, and industrious.

The central element of both your diary and your traits are the icons they bear. There are three — wealth, standing, and passion — and just as your personality will be dominated by certain icons, so too is your ideal match determined by them possessing one icon over another. Perhaps your ideal mate is a caretaker, meaning they’ll hold more wealth icons than passion icons. Invert that and your diary might reveal you’re searching for a Bohemian soulmate. Or maybe you’d like a bureaucrat, a spouse burdened with more standing than wealth. Hey, we don’t kink-shame around here.

Every trait also has an action. Crucially, you will never use these actions yourself. Rather, these actions escort us into the main portion of the game: writing inquiring letters to your love interests. That is to say, exposing some hidden detail of yourself for the sake of love.

A rich old hen. Just insanely rich. I don't care what I gotta do. Just get me that silver.

Dear diary: Here is what I want in a mate.

Persuasion is a perceptive little game, often nicking the artery of what gives courtship — or dating, for the modern boors — its raw vulnerability. You see, most of your traits are hidden away at the start of the game. One will begin revealed for all the world to see. If you’re taking the game seriously, this trait will be carefully selected. Think of it like putting your best foot forward. You want your peers to know something about you, an anchor by which to attach your identity, but not anything too damaging, too close to the bone. Not anything that could be used against you.

In order to find love, however, there’s really no alternative to letting somebody peek through the cracks, at least a little bit. So you send out letters in the form of those trait cards. You take one of your hidden traits, stamp it with your seal, and send it on its way. Its recipient views it, marks that they’ve seen it and can look at it again in the future — this isn’t a memory game, after all — and returns it to your row of traits.

That’s the first half of every turn. Dropping your armor. Exposing your flank. Showing some bare and fleshy portion of yourself to another breathing person. The second half is when the blade might slip through the shell. Going around the table, everyone takes an action. Not their own action! Again! Every time we play, somebody forgets this! Rather, you take an action from anyone who sent you a letter. That action can come from anything visible to you; a face-up card, a card with your stamp on it, that sort of thing. As long as you can see it and you hold that player’s stamp, that’s where your actions come from.

It’s a slightly confounding method, to be honest, partly because it buries its players beneath a morass of information. Yet this is also where Persuasion takes shape. Not only as a card game with a most unusual method of social deduction, one that’s about showing information in bite-sized morsels and carefully arranged parcels, one that puts the onus on you to share a hidden portion of your identity, but also as a game that’s so painfully barbed and so tremendously conscious of why dating is a terror. The recipient of your letter now gets to take an action from your traits. In effect, they’re using what they learned about you to their advantage. The forms this can take are potentially brutal. They might pluck a card from the discard and attach it to you. “I can change him,” she says, heartbroken but selfishly hopeful. They might reveal a card somewhere. “I know a secret,” he says, the petty gossip. They might, in some circumstances, reveal your traits to the whole table. Maybe even your entire personality. “I know everything about him, and he’s quite the wrung-out rag,” the reprobate says, stripping his fellow bare of secrets or pretense. This prevents you from sending further letters — you have nothing more to reveal about yourself — and ensures you’ll offer a proposal ring each turn. Yet it isn’t the end for you. In a curious sense, such an exposure places you at your most vulnerable and your most powerful. On a paratextual level, that’s what happens in stories when our protagonist’s private life has been robbed; they emerge unburdened and ready to rock. In the game, something similar happens: everybody knows your traits and must begin to court you more openly, trading openness for openness. After all those secrets, an open face is a breath of fresh air.

And that’s just one possibility. Persuasion is full of little notes like that, all of them woven effortlessly into its perceptive and satiric fabric. A player who doesn’t receive any correspondence that turn becomes spurned. Their action is to discard a card from anywhere at the table, perhaps robbing somebody of a much-desired trait, pruning away their own dead wood, or gradually forcing somebody closer to their image of a model mate. It’s toxic in the extreme, deliberately so, but it’s also breathtakingly effective. It’s a confrontation, an argument, a hurt person hurting another person, the sand running out of the hourglass on the way to spinsterhood.

It can also be a metamorphosis. Like I noted earlier, everybody can win at Persuasion. Everybody can find a perfect partner or forge a satisfying independence. That won’t happen. At least I haven’t seen it happen. But it’s possible.

and in the game, etc

I love receiving and sending mail.

Perhaps that’s what I like best about Persuasion. There are plenty of contenders. I love a good skewering, and Allred understands that many of our favorite love stories are dripping with venom. I also love a game that does something novel, and Persuasion’s approach to social deduction is rough but defiantly clever. The production… well, it hasn’t been published officially, and it would benefit from some development, but I’m even fond of its current print-and-play state, with card sleeves and irregularly cut stamps giving it a cottage-industry feel, all too appropriate for a game about penning anxious love letters.

But most of all, I love that it’s full of heart. Allred has done something remarkable. It’s taken the courtship rituals of a bygone era and zeroed in on what gives them their everlasting charm. We don’t adore Victorian relationships because they were healthy. We adore them because they were toxic, broken, born of stiffness and expectation and propriety — only to sometimes crash through the barriers to blossom into something vibrant and invigorating. Persuasion comes with a well-considered content warning: “Presents marriage and independence as win/lose scenarios, and suggests volatile power dynamics.” Indeed. And therein lies the appeal. Persuasion is about all the muck of matchmaking. It’s about going on bad dates, revealing too much of yourself to a jerk, sometimes being the antagonist in somebody else’s story. It’s about finding the right person. Or not. Either way, Persuasion is about how it’s all right to go to bed angry.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on November 3, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’m a big fan of Fog of Love so at first thought this was a paired down version but then realized this wasn’t just a two player game. Multiplayer courtship sounds very interesting. Will need to keep an eye on this one.

  2. Love the theme and premise here.

    Also, as an internal thought experiment, I’ve been thinking about how most games we play tend to have a one winner format, and what it says about us as human’s (or potentially human’s carrying post colonial baggage) that for “fun” we continually gravitate to games and group experiences where there can only be one winner. Or, stated from the opposite perspective, games where the majority of us will be losers.

    Which got me thinking, how would a game where the winner could be everyone, no one, or some combination thereof be played? Not from a rules perspective, but from a players’ decisions one. Seems like this game might answer some of those questions.

    • Yes! I love this line of thinking. There’s so much to be said about how we pursue victory, and assume victory must be singular.

    • Dead of Winter is a game that offers from 0 to N winners, where N is the number of players. That is just one of the reasons I thought it was a brilliant design when it came out.

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