Being a magician myself, I was delighted to see Osprey Games announce a game based on the bestselling novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Intrigued, I managed to demo the game at the UKGE this year. Now, I have my very own copy.
In this review, I will let you know my thoughts on the game. This includes its theme and how it plays, before giving my overall verdict. It's time to learn more about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: A Board Game of English Magic!
Set-up and Gameplay
In this game, players will take on the role of one the four prominent characters from the novel. They are Jonathan Strange, Mr Norrell, Miss Redruth and John Segundus. You are tasked with travelling around Europe, spreading your prestige, attending social events, meeting new people and performing great feats of magic to increase your magicianship.
Your aim is to become the most celebrate magician of the age. However, it’s not that easy! The man with the thistle-down hair is currently regarded as one of the greatest, and it is up to the players to try and defeat him. There will be four points throughout the game when players will be able to compare their magicianship total to that of the fairy’s. If you're lucky enough to have a higher total, the fairy is defeated, and you can proudly bear the title as the greatest magician of the age.
In the box, you will find the main board. This is a map of Europe, with various locations, and a map of London. You will also have the player pieces and the player boards. On the player boards, you have the actions that the magicians can take, as well as the abilities that unlock with the prestige track. Set-up is relatively simple, with cards being the main component in the game. You will find seven decks of cards in the box;
- Invitation cards that allow you to attend social events.
- Introduction cards which let you meet new people and grow your prestige.
- Spell cards that are obtained by performing feats of magic and will give players a one-off bonus.
- Books of magic that let players transform invitation and introduction cards into different magical elements.
- Cards of Marseilles that dictate the prophecy of the Raven King and show how much the fairy progresses that turn as well as how many invitation cards one will draw at the end of their turn. It also shows which elements can be utilised that turn.
- And finally, named connexions, who will give a player a one-time bonus similar to the abilities on the player board.
Osprey always produces great quality components and games and this is no exception. The box itself is a book-style opening, which looks great. All of the cards and pieces are manufactured to great level, so you can expect quality from this game.
Each player will start with a hand of four cards; two introductions and two invitations. (a player’s hand limit is five, but this is only for these two types of card) They will also receive three feats of magic which are put face-up in front of their boards.
Each turn, a card of Marseilles will be drawn, dictating how much magicianship the fairy will obtain this round. This is the number you must better to defeat him. Once this card has been revealed, a new book of magic will be revealed as well.
Once this turn set-up has been completed, the players will then take turns. They'll take actions from their player board or still the waters (resets the action disks making previously used actions available again), attend the social events on their invitations and meet new people from their introductions by moving to the location shown on the card. Players can move a total of two spaces per turn.
It is then up to the player whether they attempt a feat of magic that turn or not. Players must play introduction or invitation cards to allocate magical elements to the feats of magic. The element associated with invitation or introduction is shown in the top left corner, but be wary, as the cards of Marseilles dictate what elements can be played. If your element is not shown and you have chosen not to take that element action from your player board that turn, then you can’t utilise that element.
You can play as many cards as you like and fill as many feats of magic cards as possible. If a feat becomes full, then you manage to pull it off, growing your magicianship and obtaining a new spell that can be used during the game.
Once a player has completed these actions, they can then confront the fairy if the year is 1811, 1813, 1815 or 1817. A player must total their magicianship and if it is greater than that of the fairy’s they defeat him, bringing about the end game.
No other players will take turns and the winner is the player who has the most magicianship, and that may not necessarily be the player who defeated the fairy! If you confront the fairy and you cannot defeat him, then you simply draw invitations equal to the number dictated by the card of Marseilles and reset any books of magic used that turn.
That is, in a nutshell, how you play the game. Of course, this game is competitive, while players will share the same goal of defeating the fairy.
Final Thoughts on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - A Board Game of English Magic
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - A Board Game of English Magic focuses on two key variants; prestige and magicianship. While magicianship may be the key to one’s success, prestige allows you to progress in terms of your resource availability and access to more valuable feats of magic. The game is more about balance, with players having to balance the need to progress with the necessity of taking opportunities to allow that progression. This gives the game an edge. Different strategies can be employed at different points and players can experiment with their approach each and every game, adding a sense of replay-ability into the mix.
While this balance is vital to get right and kept it interesting in the sense of changing strategies, I did feel that there was an overarching feeling of admin with this game. The flow seemed to suit the game well but for me, at times, I felt it dragged slightly and became ever so slightly laborious. The rulebook gives players a turn order reference which helps, but I couldn’t escape the feeling of the game seeming a little taxing in the admin department.
That point aside, the theme is where this game excels! Ian O’Toole illustrated this game and he has done a fantastic job, maintaining the 18th Century feel and producing some glorious artwork. A personal favourite of mine are the cards of Marseilles. They look incredible and fit nicely into the theme.
Thankfully, there are plenty of references to the books in this game. The feats of magic regularly reference them, whilst the introductions and connexions relate to characters within the novel. Fans of the book will immediately relate with this game.
Unfortunately, as well as the game plays and looks, it is let down by its ending. This could be described as being a little anti-climactic. The game requires you to build up your character, utilising their abilities and connexions and unlocking further bonuses to allow their magicianship to grow. So, when it comes to defeating the fairy, one would assume an awesome magic battle will ensue and players will have to bank cards or spells to defeat the fairy. This isn’t the case.
Instead, you simply check your magicianship total and if it is greater than the fairies, congratulations, you win. That’s it. It is rather unfortunate as I feel so much more could have been done with this ending piece. The components are so under-utilised here. Your sense of achievement diminishes with such a luke-warm ending and this is where the game really suffers.
I really wanted to try and like how the game ends, but I really can’t get to that point. If the spells were used to try and defeat the fair, it would add more to the game. The sense of achievement that comes with winning would also be more rewarding. Sadly, however, this isn't the case.
I think if it wasn’t for the ending, I would rate this Jonathan Strange title more highly. I still think the core mechanics work well and the game as a whole plays nicely. Admittedly, the admin side may become a little taxing and boring at times. However, the flow of the game does a job at avoiding this too much.
What we have here is a beautifully themed game. One that allows players to enter into a magical environment to strategise and work towards a common goal. Players will work hard to balance key objectives, only to be left feeling unfulfilled with the ending. I want to love the Jonathan Strange game so badly! However, I can’t quite get there with those points in mind. Do I like it? Yes, is the short answer. I don’t think it would be one that would be at my table time and time again. However, it isn’t a game to be ignored either!