Sometimes a theme is going to be a turn off for some people. Maybe they’re sick to death of Cthulhu or Zombies or whatever the latest over used theme is. Or maybe the game just features a theme that holds no interest for them. In the (tragically) male geek dominated hobby we find ourselves in, a game themed around Jane Austen is what Emma Woodhouse would call “a bloody hard sell!” I was similarly reticent when offered this game for review. Yet, just like with books, you should never judge a card game by its cover.
Everyone gets a small hand of functionally illustrated cards featuring ladies you’ll want to send out into society to be married off and the men with which you’ll be doing said marrying. You also each get one of Jane Austen’s heroines; naturally the most appealing of matches and, after taking a moment to snigger at the name Fanny Price, you’ll start matchmaking!
Turning to your friend you’ll announce in your best posh British accent that
“Mr Charles Bingley wishes to take the hand of Miss Jane Fairfax!”
You’ll both check that indeed, Mr Charles Bingley is sufficiently charming to be worthy of Jane’s consideration (by comparing the numbers in the stars), and then it is up to Jane’s player whether or not she will accept this match. It goes something like this.
“He’s not very virtuous is he?” (The number in the heart, which is his value at the end of the game).
“He might not be the most virtuous of men but remember, even the most virtuous man is a mere 3 virtue, and he is very rich” (the number in the coin shaped symbol) “You would gain 3 cards if you married him.”
“He is, indeed, a fine match, but his rank, too, is very high and I would gain as many cards by rejecting him.” (rank is the arrow and a lady gains much interest in society if she rejects a man of higher rank).
At which point you are basically reduced to begging “don’t make a mistake you’ll later regret! I could have played a right cad but I wished for you to be happy! Besides, you’ll have to discard a card if you wish to reject him.” (Because a lady needs to be as charming as the gentleman if she is to reject him politely, discarding cards lets you increase your natural charm).
“Very well then, I shall accept your kind proposal, sir”
And you’ll exchange cards, putting them face down in your heaving pile of spouses you’ve gained, their virtue adding to your end game score. Now perhaps you’re not silly enough to get fully into character when you play a card game, maybe you’re the more competitive type, looking to crush your opponents, and for you there is a little manoeuvre I like to call the Charm Offensive.
You noticed in our example that Jane’s player would have to discard cards to raise her charm sufficiently to reject Charles’ advances. Now, the gentleman player is free to discard cards to raise his charm too, really putting in effort to impress the lady. Often this is essential since there are few very charming men “Preach it, sister!” as Jane might say). But there is no upper limit on how charming you can make your man, and if your opponent just doesn’t have many cards left in their hand then, well, they can’t possibly refuse! This is how complete cads like Mr Henry Crawford get married, leaving your opponent with sod all points.
Being on the receiving end of a marriage like that just feels awful. But not only because you’ve got a zero victory point card in your pile. It feels awful that one of your lovely girls is forever trapped into a marriage with a complete scoundrel! It’s genuinely heart breaking! While on the other side of the table the orchestrator is cackling with Machiavellian glee. The path to true love (victory) never did run smooth.
Jane Austen’s Matchmaker is just full of so many wonderful and silly touches. Any women you have out in society who are unmarried at the end of the game, when the deck runs out, have been spurned and have no future beyond becoming old maids, and so are worth negative victory points. This leads to a very tense end phase where everyone is spending their actions pushing leftover ladies into other players societies, trying to judge when the deck will run out, but of course no one is drawing cards while this is going on, making the whole process super challenging.
Then you can “Have A Ball” with the correspondingly named cards, a great way to improve your social standing, assuming anyone turns up! When played, everyone gets a chance to play a lady into their society, and for everyone who does the host draws a card. However, if you hold one at the wrong time, the party will be a complete flop because no ladies go to it, giving the wonderful image of that player slowly dancing around an empty ballroom! The mechanic so naturally discourages multiple balls in quick succession too, which is such a small thing but is completely true to life. The one issue they do have is how much more powerful they are at higher player counts but then its up to everyone else to keep threatening players in check.
The rulebook itself has some brilliant comments to make. Like how the first rule of proposing a marriage is to first make sure you’ve not accidentally proposed to your sister (actually a rule!) That when deciding whether to accept a marriage one must “always consider a gentlemen’s virtue and his wealth”, but that “towards the end of the game you can’t afford to be fussy”. Just like with real marriage! (I can getaway with that because I’m not married yet!)
Now I have seen some criticisms of this game elsewhere suggesting there is too much luck involved in the card draws, to which I say ha! I don’t think I’ve ever had a poor showing in this game. I’ve certainly not won every time, but I’m often in the top 2. This isn’t a game about choosing a strategy and playing it, it is a game of adapting to the hand your dealt and (sometimes more importantly) to the table of players around you. Sort of like real life then?
One other thing that needs commenting on is how the game kind of treats it’s women as commodities to be bought and sold, especially with the “charm offensive” I outlined above being a mechanic to force ladies into unhappy marriage. I could consider this a fair criticism (it certainly might make you uncomfortable if you view the game through that lens). But with all the tongue in cheek comments in the rulebook, and how everyone approaches the game, I firmly believe that this game is a wonderful satire on the 19th century values of Jane Austen and her peers. Women really were viewed as means to improve a family’s wealth or social standing. The fact that those familiar with the books recognise how well both the characters and the gameplay model those situations in the books is a testament to this. To criticise this game would be to criticise those novels it is based on, and far from glorifying that old fashioned behaviour, the game seeks to poke fun at every turn.
Jane Austen’s Matchmaker may functionally just be a game of comparing numbers on different cards but, in the words of Elinor Dashwood, it’s “oh, my God, like, so much more than that!” I cannot get over how wonderfully well it both captures and gently pokes fun at its theme. Fans of Jane Austen will love seeing the correct marriages come up, people who have never wanted to touch a Jane Austen novel will get swept away with the joking around. I know the theme might be off putting, but don’t let your… Pride and Prejudices (!) get in the way of enjoying a great little card game. Especially one that might actually appeal to a wider demographic than your average fantasy silliness. It won’t harm your Sense and Sensibilities (BOOM! I’m here all week, people).
I could tell you (if you haven’t already guessed) that I have fallen head over heals in love with this game, I could tell you that after our first game Peter immediately went online to order a copy for himself, but instead I’m going to leave you with this brief story. At the end of our first game, my friend Ben, with the most miserable expression in the world, looked up from his meagre pile of victory points and glumly said:
“I got screwed over by a bunch of shitty men…”
It was just perfect.
Rating: A match made in heaven
Jane Austen’s Matchmaker was sent to us for review by UK board game company Warm Acre Games.