By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 28 2016 02:00PM
In Jane Austen’s novels, the quest for a suitable marriage partner is serious business. By law, Regency women surrendered most of their economic and domestic power when they married, so it was crucial to pick a decent, trustworthy husband. In Austen’s courtship stories, the stakes are lifelong happiness or perpetual misery. This is not a game, people!
Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped any number of Janeite entrepreneurs from creating Austen-inspired games. There’s the charmingly low-tech Pride and Prejudice board game, which requires players to answer P&P trivia questions while racing to get both halves of an Austen couple to the church on time. There’s the more up-to-date Ever Jane, the MMPORG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game), currently in beta testing, whose final version is scheduled to launch next year.
And there’s Marrying Mr. Darcy, an outrageously entertaining cards-and-dice game that is this month’s entry in my Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 filling holes in my Janeite education. (OK, OK: playing Austen games isn’t, strictly speaking, educational. But I refuse to apologize for having fun.)
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I played Marrying Mr. Darcy twice – once with two players and once with four, including a tolerant college-age male who gamely adopted the role of Georgiana Darcy, winning the weekend’s Good Sport Award.
Marrying Mr. Darcy involves two stages of play, Courtship and Proposal. During the Courtship stage, players embodying one of eight female characters from P&P take turns following the instructions on Event cards covering everything from parties to gambling games to scandalous elopements. Along the way, everyone tries to collect adequate numbers of Character cards awarding points in five crucial areas: Beauty, Wit, Friendliness, Reputation and Cunning.
In the Proposal stage, players take turns weighing offers of marriage from six male P&P characters, with a dice roll determining whether he proposes or passes. Turn down Mr. Collins, and – as he pointed out to Elizabeth Bennet on a parallel occasion – “in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you.” And then you could end up an Old Maid, with another roll of the die determining whether “you live a short, lonely, and bitter life” (for zero points) or “become a celebrated author” (for ten).
Victory goes to the player with the most points, calculated by combining your Character score with your reward for marrying well. The highest number of marriage points is awarded to characters who marry as Jane Austen intended: Elizabeth Bennet gets fifteen points for landing Mr. Darcy, but only five if she settles for Wickham.
It’s a cheerful diversion, lasting just long enough to pass the time on a quiet evening, but not so long that it requires blocking out a whole afternoon. The cards are attractively designed, with character illustrations that seem intended to recall some of our favorite screen adaptations, and for the most part, game play is intuitive and easy to master.
What the Austen-ignorant would make of the game, I can’t say – all my fellow players had read P&P -- but for a Janeite, the game’s pleasures lie in the small details: the quotes from P&P slipped into the Event cards (one entitling you to a second shot at a proposal from a refused suitor is titled “It is usual to reject the addresses of a man when he first applies for your favor”), and the elements of play that suggest the game’s creators have read their Austen (a card titled “Call on Maria Lucas” gives a bonus to the player impersonating Kitty Bennet).
At the risk of overthinking what is, after all, Just A Game, I also found some unexpected Austenian resonance in the game’s structure.
Dowries are foundational but seldom mentioned – except when ties are resolved in favor of the character with the larger one – and heroines have almost no opportunities to increase the dowry points they’re awarded at the start (one for the Bennet sisters, four for Georgiana Darcy). Luck plays a major role in determining whether you amass enough beauty and reputation points to satisfy a high-status suitor. Cunning is deployed in the service of undermining female rivals and increasing the odds of a proposal from a desirable suitor. And the all-or-nothing dice roll that decides your marital fate – along with the concomitant risk of choosing to reject a lower-status man in hopes of landing a better prospect down the line -- is a fair analogue of the high-stakes decisions that confront Austen’s heroines.
I don’t want to overstate the parallels here: Austen surely wouldn’t consider beauty to be a matter of character, and she wouldn’t think of friendliness and wit as qualities entirely determined by chance. Her people grow and change through humbling trials and painful reflection, not on the turn of a card. Marrying Mr. Darcy is a delightful game. Pride and Prejudice is more than that.