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A Game About A Woman - The Mirroring of Mary King Review

MB Updated September 29, 2022
 
5.0
 
0.0 (0)
2835 0
A Game About A Woman - The Mirroring of Mary King Review

Game Information

Designer
Players
2 - 2
There Will Be Games

Jim Felli returns with yet another stunning, singular design. 

In board games, the board itself is often a map or another representation of geographic or spatial proximity. Sometimes it is an array of containers or trackers that indicate holdings, timers, or other game state information. It can abstract an entire continent or universe. But how many games have you played where the board – the medium where you engage the other player – is a woman’s face?

This is a review of a game by James Felli called “The Mirroring of Mary King” and if you have any experience with this designer’s games, you may not be all that surprised that it is an experience quite unlike anything else out there. This game is a ghost story wherein Mary King encounters a vengeful, ancestral spirit in a Scottish castle that seeks to possess her mind, body, and soul. One player is Mary King, the other is the ghost. And the battlefield is the portrait of a woman that shifts in and out of focus, in and out of corporeality, as the spirit tries to claim her.

If you aren’t already interested in the wholly unique place where this game is going to take you, if you’re overly worried about “replayability”, whether the box fits the cards when sleeved, or if it’s all properly “balanced” then fuck right on off to Kickstarter where I am sure there are plenty of games to service you. But if you want to stick around, I’ll tell you why this game is special.

It’s not because of the mechanics, which are great but to be honest aren’t why I’m so impressed with this game. I’m not even going to spend much time in enumerating them. I’m sure other commenters and armchair critics will do so elsewhere in their “buy or try” analyses. Suffice to say that this is an excellent two player card game that elevates mundane gameplay concepts such as hand management and area control to a transcendental height by virtue of its subject matter. It’s tense, with plenty of back-and-forth play, sudden breakthroughs, and sudden reversals of position. It’s brief, running on a day-based timer that clocks out well before interest levels in the mechanisms and process wane.

What makes it special is that it is always about Mary King.

The focus of the game is in flipping the tiles that comprise her portrait in an attempt to control larger areas of her psyche, thus reducing options for the other player until eventually one side collapses. As the game progresses, these tiles go from naturally colorful and bright to ethereally bleak and monochrome. Her hair flies wild, her green eyes bleach to white and then back again. But it happens in pieces, sometimes chunks, and the effect is like watching this internal, psychological and spiritual struggle unfold. Sometimes one side will appear to have the advantage, but then an Idea card shifts the entire situation.

Watching this happen is strangely, unexpectedly moving. Because this game is about Mary King, and it’s actually about something other than capitalist fantasies, dredging up the old justifications for colonialism, or passive aggressively out-drafting a nominal array of nominal opponents. It’s about this woman, and the entire game you are looking her in the eyes and she changes over the course of a week.  It’s not hard to view this game as a metaphor for mental struggle, for trying to hold it together when sadness, regret, misery, or loss threatens to overwhelm us. Or it could be about simply wanting to exist, to assert ourselves into the present and establish a future. We can see ourselves in that picture of Mary King as we play cards to affect her internal struggle.

But in this struggle, there is a duality acknowledged- this is a game about “mirroring”, and it is about two Mary Kings. Maybe you can flip all the tiles over and become one or the other, a victory condition for the mortal or the immortal. But even if you do that, the other Mary King is also complete on the reverse of the tiles, unseen and separated by a thin barrier of cardboard. We can fight the ghost or become it, but it was us and is still us, on the inverse.

This is what theme is – not flavor text, not miniatures, not pictures of Marvel superheroes or Star Wars spaceships.  This is a game about something, that makes a statement about something that can resonate with us . Few designers are, if we are being honest, capable of achieving this kind of design goal. The Mirroring of Mary King has a narrative, and that narrative speaks to us about the struggle to realize one’s self while coming to terms with and sublimating the influence of the past, of negative energies starved for emergence and to be noticed in our continuing lives. In many ways, this is game is the closest any has come to true gothic horror.

Mr. Felli’s games are always singular, always compelling, and always idiosyncratic and this one is no exception. You’ve not played a game like this before. I’m sure some will break it down to a fucking boring litany of Boardgamegeek-isms, their critical frame of reference based on a comment some guy posted in his 6.5 rating. Others won’t be touched or moved by the themes at play here and how they interact with player agency, decision, and resolution. Maybe some players just won’t get it and still others won’t recognize that games can be more than just a fun pastime.This is definitely an arthouse game and not one stuffed to the gills with crowd-pleasing scenarios, pointless variations, and scads of bits. It’s a small, modest game with huge ambition that dwarfs every single five-million-dollar Kickstarter game you’ve ever pledged for.

It’s not my favorite game ever. It’s not the first game I’m going to reach for when it’s just my daughter or my son and I. I have friends that I wouldn’t even think of introducing it to, I just don't think they'd appreciate it. I’m not even sure that it’s one I want to play more than a handful of times because it’s such a precious, fragile experience that I’m afraid to dilute its value with routine. It slots in with a very, very rare subset of games that have completely changed the way I think about board game design and criticism in just a few plays. Shadows of Malice, another Felli joint, was another. I think about that game all the time and I expect to think about The Mirroring of Mary King for many years to come even if I never play it again.

This is a game where you spend the entire duration looking into the eyes of a woman while she fights against herself to achieve self-realization, right there on the table. Mary King is the landscape; the interior territories of heart, mind, and soul are the battlegrounds. That is such an impactful thing, and after so many artless “just fine” and “competent” designs over the past decade or so of board game design it’s unspeakably reinvigorating to encounter a game this daring, bold, and introspective from one of the most talented and courageous designers working today.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
5.0
The Mirroring of Mary King
A haunting poem of a game from one of the medium's foremost innovators.
MB
Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Gregarius's Avatar
Gregarius replied the topic: #335815 29 Sep 2022 13:47
Dibs for when you decide to sell it.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #335817 29 Sep 2022 14:44
If I paste these pictures on Othello pieces, does it take Othello to the next level?
birdman37's Avatar
birdman37 replied the topic: #335821 29 Sep 2022 17:45
This is a fantastic review. Thank you for writing it.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #335830 30 Sep 2022 09:29
Superb writing sir. One of your best.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #335833 30 Sep 2022 09:59
Always approve of a classic redhead!

But if you just make it blank white on one side and black on the other, does the game change in anyway? I.e. does the part revealed (eyes, nose, lips) affect gameplay rather than just location of the tile?
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #335836 30 Sep 2022 12:18
It would impact the game -profoundly-. It would be stripped of its meaning. This game is very specific in its subject matter and theme. The act of looking at her face while she changes, struggles, and shifts is intensely important.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #335838 30 Sep 2022 12:22
I have great respect for Felli's designs, but I find them harder to get on the table due to the unusual themes. I think this means that I need to try harder to get them on the table.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #335844 30 Sep 2022 16:39

Michael Barnes wrote: It would impact the game -profoundly-. It would be stripped of its meaning. This game is very specific in its subject matter and theme. The act of looking at her face while she changes, struggles, and shifts is intensely important.


Huh, so is it just the vibe of seeing it change or something specific about the picture being made? Can someone look at the image you posted, with like half the tiles flipped, and deduce something about the game state? I'm curious because it's a pretty rare thing that the art aesthetic of a game, if you consider it that, would be so critical. Looks like it would draw a crowd regardless.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #335846 30 Sep 2022 16:51
Yes, it is very very rare.

It's actually kind of an area control thing. Controlling more tiles (and thus more of Mary King) is the goal.
elqord's Avatar
elqord replied the topic: #335851 01 Oct 2022 05:23
Been waiting forever to hear about this. Too bad that this review focused on the one element I really don’t care about and that is Mary King and her portrait and the theme and yadayada…
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #335853 01 Oct 2022 09:33
"Hi, thanks for reviewing this thoughtful and highly thematic game, but I'm not interested in that, I'm merely interested in the act of moving pieces of cardboard around, so can you just talk about that because I don't like it when board games are 'about' anything I just like making points go brrrr"
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #335855 01 Oct 2022 11:21
About 100 percent certain this game is not for you elqord. It's likely the rest of this designer's games, the rest of my work, and this entire website also isn't for you.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #335860 01 Oct 2022 14:41

Michael Barnes wrote: About 100 percent certain this game is not for you elqord. It's likely the rest of this designer's games, the rest of my work, and this entire website also isn't for you.


Don't be so negative Barnes. Let's start a thread about the $250 Hero scape game Hasbro just dropped and take this site back to its roots :p
elqord's Avatar
elqord replied the topic: #335861 01 Oct 2022 15:49
@Michael Barnes: I own Shadow of Malice and Cosmic Frog. I adore his designs. I regularly visit this website and usually find it great. This is the first time I felt the need to reply and your answer is disappointing. Never took you for someone that is so ill equipped to take deal with a different opinion.
sornars's Avatar
sornars replied the topic: #335862 01 Oct 2022 16:31
I thanked Legomancer's reply but between that and MB's response I think we're being kind of churlish here.

TLDR: A good review != a good buyer's guide. Most people want buyer's guides.

A lot of the folks on TWBG (myself included) think that only enough of mechanics to convey the theme and emotions of playing a game are what are required to be covered in a review. The rulebook is publicly available should you need the details; otherwise a hundred other amateur reviews will give you a play by play of the rules and components in due time. Unless those things significantly effect gameplay they don't add a lot of substance to a review. They are incredibly helpful for a buyer's guide but reading buyer's guides is not what most of the folks here want.

@elqord You're a regular here so forgive me if you already knew that but I know this review got linked to from reddit where a very similar sentiment was commonly expressed. I'm going to link to a review by Dan Thurot, who is also a bit of an experiential writer, but he did describe more of the feeling of gameplay which this review could've potentially benefited from: spacebiff.com/2022/08/29/the-mirroring-of-mary-king/
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #335864 02 Oct 2022 10:12
If this isn't some next-level trolling, I just want to know where you guys are getting your edibles.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #335867 02 Oct 2022 16:19
You get a little artsy, you get a little out of the pocket, and everybody gets all pissy with you. Barnes needs to contact his union representative and file a grievance.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #335870 02 Oct 2022 17:44

Sagrilarus wrote: You get a little artsy, you get a little out of the pocket, and everybody gets all pissy with you. Barnes needs to contact his union representative and file a grievance.


Ahh, the cross a critic has to bear, eh?

I'm curious if you could rebrand this game as "KAREN" and replace the Mary image with a normal late 40's soccer mom on one side and a raging entitled....karen on the other. Would it change anything?

Ok, ok, now I'M trolling :P
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #335926 03 Oct 2022 17:55
For future reference, a more effective and productive communication would sound something like this.

elqord: I am disappointed that you didn’t write about x.

Barnes: What would you like to know? I am happy to answer questions.

Just because we aren’t speaking to each other face to face, doesn’t mean we can’t be polite and kind.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #335927 03 Oct 2022 18:06
I mean this is not Reddit y'all.
Gregarius's Avatar
Gregarius replied the topic: #335968 04 Oct 2022 15:47
I am disappointed you didn't write about how hot Mary King is.
Agent easy's Avatar
Agent easy replied the topic: #336228 18 Oct 2022 08:32
This was a fun read, as usual.

I have played and enjoyed Cosmic Frog and Shadows of Malice, but in both cases I like the idea of the game better than the game. I agree that he is a bold designer willing to do things that others aren’t doing, but by his own admission he hasn’t played a vast catalog of games so he might just be that rare designer who can operate in a semi-vacuum and benefit from that instead of suffering from it (Knizia is somewhat like that as well).

But… I feel like they could all have been better. For all the easy insults you throw at other designers that take other approaches to game design, it’s hard not to wish that the approach to generating creatures in shadows of malice was more successful at conjuring compelling enemies (it comes close, granted), it’s would have been great if the scoring mechanism of Cosmic Frog was not so disjointed from the rest of the gameplay, etc, etc.

I guess what I’m saying is that I feel like there is a strong chance that Mary King swings for the fences thematically and probably reaches it in a philosophical “wow, what an amazing design effort” kind of way and maybe that’s enough to justify its existence and to justify that anybody with an interest in expanding their game experiences should play it. But I’d be lying if I didn’t suspect that as a game I won’t ultimately wish it wasn’t more, wasn’t pushed just a little bit further so that it could be just as amazing a game as it is an idea.

I guess I’ll know when I play it.