12 September 2019
Will the book-based game leave you under its spell?
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Board Game of English Magic has a lot of expectation to live up to. It’s designed by two of the co-creators of the thematically rich, mechanically complex Lord of the Rings adaptation War of the Ring. It’s illustrated by Ian O’Toole, the talented artist behind the sumptuous visuals of Vinhos, Lisboa and The Gallerist. Its source material is Susanna Clarke’s dense Hugo Award-winning, Man Booker Prize-longlisted, adapted-for-TV bestseller crammed with erudite homages to classic literature and a spectacularly realised vision of an alternative 19th-century Britain where magic is real, but forgotten.
Given the combined cachet of its creators, maybe the board game was always going to face an insurmountable challenge of anticipation. Whatever the reason, it’s hard not to feel that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a little less than the sum of its parts.
That’s certainly not to say it lacks craft. Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello’s svelte gameplay – War of the Ring fans may be in for a shock at the length of both the game and its rulebook – smartly seesaws between the characters’ pursuit of social standing and their efforts to revive magic. The need for balance is reflected by the dual-use invitation and introduction cards held by players, which can either be spent at the matching locations around the board’s map of 1800s Europe to leverage more social opportunities or instead used to contribute the naturalistic elements required to cast spells.
Actions selected at the outset of each turn, which can’t be repeated until all tokens are recovered, help dictate which elements can be used, making maximising your conjuring during each round vital. This increases the characters’ magicianship, the trait that will define their standing by the end of the game. Social prestige may not put Strange, Norrell, Miss Redruth or John Segundus on top alone, but attending the right balls and shaking the right hands enables the characters to gain companions who make their ascent to magical mastery that much easier.
When the end of the game might come is unclear. Strange and Norrell’s arch nemesis, the Gentleman with the Thistle-down Hair, gathers strength as cards are drawn and periodically pops up every few rounds, giving players the chance to defeat him and bring the game to an immediate end by surpassing his own magical might. If they fail… nothing happens. The game continues, the characters continue to tour Europe and perform tricks, and the years pass until the Gentleman returns again. If he remains undefeated by the end of the game, there’s little consequence; the game just ends up being a little longer. It's underwhelming in its fleeting execution, and struggles to make the pursuit of magicianship feel like anything more than a thinly-veiled point-counting exercise.
The disappointing lack of atmosphere and theme extends to the entire game. While the gameplay is perfectly fine as an hour of action selection, board movement and cardplay, with interesting decisions present in how those cards are used, it never feels especially magical. The Gentleman’s appearance and spells drawn when feats of magic are completed allow for occasional interludes to the core of moving, drawing and discarding cards, but outside of O’Toole’s outstanding dressing of the components Strange & Norrell largely fails to engage with the promising setting of its source material.
From another creative team, the game would feel like a perfectly acceptable adaptation of a popular book. The fundamentals are there: the gameplay enjoyable enough to pass the time, the lightness of theme elevated by exquisite presentation. From this particular line-up of tabletop talent, however, it’s hard to shake the sense of a missed opportunity. What could have been something extraordinary is simply conventional.
PLAY IT? – PROBABLY
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell doesn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations set by its creators – that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. The balancing of social standing and magical power is cleverly reflected in the dual-use cards, and presents plenty of interesting decisions to mull over. Plus, it looks astonishing. It doesn’t quite feel as magical as it should, though, leaving a feeling of unfulfilled potential.
Designer: Marco Maggi, Francesco Nepitello
Artist: Ian O’Toole
Time: 60-80 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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