Game Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

jonathan strange & Mr Norrell board game boxFirst Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was a terrific book written by Susanna Clarke then the BBC picked it up and created a highly entertaining and engaging series with the same name that’s available on Netflix. Great. Why not turn this rich Victorian world of gentlemen magicians and strange characters into a board game? Game designers Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello joined up with game publisher Osprey Games and created A Board Game of English Magic.

While the designers have captured a lot of the details of the early 1800’s world of Strange and Norrell, however, what they haven’t managed to do is make a game that’s actually fun to play. I’ve played it a few times with friends and the slow pace and seemingly arbitrary complexity has outstayed its welcome: I now can’t convince anyone to play it again given how many other games we have in our little community.

But we’ll come back to playability. Let’s start by talking about the basic story, then how the game implements the storyline. It all takes place in a mythic Victorian England where magic is real, but magicians study, rather than actually perform magic. Except Mr. Norrell, who is a practical magician. He heads to London and offers up his services to the government, just to find that life in London is all about earning prestige by attending parties and meeting famous people. He continues to cast spells and study books of magic even as upstart ne’er do well Jonathan Strange decides he also wants to be a practical magician and challenges Norrell to various magical feats. When Norrell accomplishes a substantial magical feat, he is startled to meet the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, the faerie antagonist who, in the game, players are all trying to defeat even as they compete for magic points.

Here’s the basic board, at a point where we’ve just finished up a game:

jonathan strange & mr norrell board game

First and foremost, there are two maps on the board. A close-up view of various locations in London on the left and major cities throughout the the rest of the British Isles and the Continent on the right, from Florence to Gibraltar to York. Along the top is the Man with the Thistledown Hair’s green power track (the black marker shows he has 27 points, if you look closely). Above that green ribbon is the turn tracker, where each round represents a year, 1806 – 1817. We finished up in 1815, as that marker denotes.

The lower beige ribbon is the prestige track, with different color tokens representing the different players: Brown is furthest behind with 13 points, aqua is at 18 and red is slammin’ at 25. On the left side of the board are Books of Magic available for acquisition, and on the right side are actual Feats of Magic that can be cast with the right resources, gaining magicianship points for the final tally.

There are six elements that magicians use to cast spells: rain, wind, trees, hills, stone, and birds. Acquisition of those elements is a critical part of the game, and they’re difficult to acquire because you can’t stockpile them but need just the right ones to accomplish Feats of Magic. To assist, you can acquire Books of Magic:

strange norrell books of magic game

On the left, this book will allow the player to, once per turn, convert a tree element to anything else they’d like (as allowed by this turn’s constraints, which we’ll get to in a moment), while the one on the right somewhat does the opposite, turning any element into a bird element.

Why would you want these? Let’s look at Feats of Magic:

strange norrell board game - feats of magic

Any number shown on a candlestick is magicianship points, so you can see that the card on the left requires three rain elements (of which I have one so far) and will be worth 3 points, while the card on the right is tougher to complete, requiring one each of stone, trees, rain and wind, but is worth a very sweet 5 points. If at specific points on the time track you ever have more magicianship points than the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, you can instantly win. But that’s remarkably difficult!

As in the book and BBC TV series, magicians work with their silver basins to accomplish just about any magical actions. That’s all tracked on the individual player board. Here’s Jonathan Strange’s board:

jonathan strange player board game

The key thing here is the bowl on the right side and all the colored tokens. Magicians “study” a specific action type (top left, for example, lets you study — and use – wind and trees elements, and the bottom allows you to claim a Book of Magic). Along the bottom are your Connexions, each of which can bring extra powers. Note that I have the Street Magician which allows me to discard two cards of a matching element to place a different type of element. Very helpful!

But… cards? None of the cards I’ve shown are what we’re talking about in this instance. The main cards of play are actually Introductions and Invitations. They look like this:

invitations and introductions - strange norrell board game

On the left is an Invitation to a Dinner Party in Bath. On the right are Introductions to Arthur Wellesley in Gibraltar and Stendhal in Paris. But there are nuances. Look at the top left: Each card also represents a potential element (birds, wind, stone, if you look left to right). Invitations beget more Invitations or Feats of Magic: Every one of these you play when you’re in the matching city allows you to pick any two of Feats of Magic or additional Invitations.

Introductions offer prestige instead: Wellesley is worth 4 prestige, while Stendhal is worth 2. It’s the red wax splot on the left of the portrait image. The prestige track is the beige ribbon along the bottom of the board and while it doesn’t factor in when calculating the winner (or trying to defeat the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair) gaining prestige gets you more Connexions which increases your power and capabilities.

Does this feel complex yet? There’s still more to the play – actually the most challenging constraint – because on any given turn you’re limited to only producing elements that you’ve studied (remember I could study stone and wind in my silver bowl above?) or the one or two elements included on the current Card of Marseille. You flip a new one each round. They look like Tarot cards:

strange & norrell game - card of marseille

The bottom indicates which elements are allowed this round, wind and birds, while the ‘4’ on the top left indicates that the Man with the Thistledown Hair gains 4 points along his fairy tracker (making him harder to defeat), and the ‘2’ means that at end of each player’s turn this round they will get 2 additional Invitations.

Lots of complexity and lots of interdependent sequences: You need Invitations and Introductions to gain prestige to become more powerful, but you also need those cards to turn into elements. Except you can only create those elements you have studied this turn or as allowed by the Card of Marseille, and you need elements to complete Feats of Magic. Oh, and you need to collect the Feats of Magic before you can attempt them too. And the Books of Magic? They help you turn the elements you have into the ones you need, but again, make sure you can create the elements or it’ll all be for naught because you can’t bank or store elements for subsequent rounds.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that chain of nuanced dependencies is what constantly tripped us up every time we played. I’d plan all the steps of my turn to create, say, two rain, just to realize that I couldn’t create rain this round so my action was null. Or I’d want to be in York to attend a party, but I was too far away and so couldn’t accomplish anything other than a slow, plodding move along the board that turn.

I’m pretty sure that there are some tweaks that could make this game faster and more fun, but since I can’t convince my friends to play this game again, it’s destined to the Shelf of Dust. The book’s so fantastic, the series is such good fun, but the game? Even when you win it feels more like a relief that it’s over than a delight that you’ve had a fun reenactment of the 1800’s English Magical World. Which is hugely disappointing because I really wanted to love this game.

Perhaps someone can come up with a variant play rule (suggestions: Have the element on the Card of Marseille be what you can’t produce and allow all others. Or allow a storage mechanism so you can create elements and save them for subsequent turns. Or eliminate the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair entirely and make it a straight competition between players) but until then, I really can’t recommend this particular title.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Board Game of English Magic by Osprey Games. $35.00.

Disclosure: Osprey Games sent me the game in return for this honest and candid review. Thanks, Osprey!

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