16th Sep2019

‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

strange-norrell-box

If you’re already a fan of Susanna Clarke’s alternate history novels that began with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, you’ll already be more than a little familiar with the concepts that she is famous for. In summary, this is a world in which magic once existed and was lost over time, but through the mysterious capabilities of the titular gentlemen, it has begun to creep back into the world. In Osprey Games board game of the same name, the players each control a famous magician from the series, competing to do magic and expand their support among the elite.

If you’re not a fan of Susanna Clarke’s work and you like the idea of this game, then the first thing you should do is read the novels. I say this because everything in the board game adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell assumes that you will have. As an example, the players will collectively face a common foe, primarily referred to as The Gentlemen with the Thistledown Hair, but also occasionally referred to by names such as The Fairy throughout the manual. This is fine if you understand that this character goes by many names, but if you’re new to the series, it takes a little getting used to.

Thankfully, there are several options to bring you up to speed with the IP relatively quickly, including an audiobook adaptation and a BBC series that is still readily available, since it only aired in 2015. With that aside out of the way, you can consider yourself fair warned – you’ll either need to be up to speed, or get up to speed. Assuming that you now understand Clarke’s world, we’ll continue, because Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is actually a fairly straightforward game, albeit draped in the artistic wonder of Ian O’Toole, and filled with the whimsy of the original material

In many ways, the game is a kind of race. Each round of turns, The Gentlemen with the Thistledown Hair will proceed along a track a set number of spaces. At certain points on that track, the players will compare their magicianship (or magical power if you will) to his, and if they are behind, then the game ends and realistically, every loses. As it happens, the manual says that the magician with the most power wins, but I don’t buy that, so in my house, everyone loses! Defeating The Fairy (see what I did there) is hard work, and you’ll likely lose as often as you win.

To increase their magical power, the players will each work to achieving what the game calls Feats of Magic, which are essentially spells cast as the result of gathering magical elements and then spending them. These elements, in turn, are collected by spending cards that represent social engagements – ie the gathering of knowledge or power by hobnobbing with the rich and famous of the era. Some cards also provide prestige or allow more cards to be drawn (in various combinations) and must usually be played at the location shown on them. This gives a kind of multi-tiered approach to spell casting, because there’s luck of the draw, positioning yourself accordingly and then gathering the right symbols by playing your cards right.

The players ability to gain these resources is linked to the same card, drawn at the beginning of each turn, that sets out how much power The Gentlemen with the Thistledown Hair (look, I’ve switched back again) gains. Only the elements shown on this card (a large tarot known as a Card of Marseille) can be gained during the normal course of the turn, and these cards also dictate how many cards the players will draw up next round. This can add dramatically to the difficulty and frustration of a game of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, because receiving several poor draws in a row can happen.

Play is driven by each players unique character board, each of which has a silver basin on it surrounded by actions. On each turn, the players place an action disk to cover one of the actions, eventually being forced at some point to spend a turn “clearing the waters” and resetting their action disks. It is possible to use one action to draw elements that differ from those shown on the Card of Marseille, but because this is a limited action, it’s a slow method to rely on. Other actions include the likes of moving extra spaces, taking a spellbook and so on.

What this results in is a game that can frustrate, but which otherwise allows a fairly logical flow from one turn to the next. You will occasionally have turns where you just feel as though you can’t do anything, but on others, you’ll have a clear plan to go here, get that, collect that book and then cast this feat and then that one. I can imagine fans of the series (and I wish I was one, but I’d never heard of Jonathan Strange before playing this game) getting quite excited about visiting locations from the series, contacting familiar faces and ultimately winning a tense race against The Fairy.

The problem with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is probably that for players like me, who have no link to the series, it’s hard to see past the fact that The Fairy is just a random checkpoint marker that dictates the pace at which I need to expand my own skills. That actual expansion of skills being more like a relatively simple, interlocking puzzle that sometimes feels as if it can’t be completed. If you’re a gamer that likes to plan turns through, you will occasionally be dismayed to work out, quite a bit in advance, that something you know how to do simply can’t be done because of several separate random outcomes.

So, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a very attractive, very well made game that I think uses its subject matter well, but which perhaps fails to spark the imagination in the way that other games about magic (Trickerion, for example) do. It’s more like a puzzle about resource management and trading multiple small things for one bigger thing – and that mechanism could apply to almost any theme. With that said, there’s probably enough of a game here for serious gamers who also enjoy the original subject matter, and at least this game isn’t a completely contrived consumer level game looking to cash in on the IP. Overall, I’d say it’s one for the fans.

*** 3/5

A copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was supplied by Osprey Games for review.
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