I began my Cosmic Frog review by pointing out how weird of a board game it was. This has always been true of Jim Felli’s designs, even in the beginning with Shadows of Malice. The Mirroring of Mary King fits right in by once again establishing that it doesn’t.
The Mirroring of Mary King is splendidly esoteric. One player is the titular woman, fighting to maintain control of her body from an invasive 17th century spirit. The specter is an ancestor of Mary’s, one whose vile agenda is executed by the second player at the table.
The central arrangement is area control. Participants alternate turns where they play cards from their hands to flip tiles, tiles which visually depict segments of Mary’s countenance. The struggle is beautifully rendered with Mary’s constitution dancing between a reality that is lively- as it should be – and one warped with a phantasmal rendering.
This is an uncomfortable experience. Intentionally so.
Visually, Mary’s never quite right. It feels as though you’re pulling her very fiber in opposite directions. Both her physical and metaphysical compositions feel wrenched at the seams, as if we’re re-enacting the bleakest moment of The Hitcher as sacrament.
This pained struggle can end unexpectedly. If you orient all of the tiles in your side’s direction, then you win immediately. It’s a huge thunderclap of a climax. But this is an unlikely outcome. More often it comes down to final scoring where you’re graded on the number of cards left in your deck, as well as the areas you control of Mary’s physical form. This is a lovely system as it enforces a strong sense of tension throughout play where you must weigh the cost of drawing another card and expending more of your soul in pursuit of victory.
But what’s more interesting is what this says about the host. Mary’s body is typically blemished at the conclusion. It’s never made whole. You’re not instructed to flip the tiles to the winning side as a final show of mercy. The body – and spirit of both sides – is marked.
I’m also uncomfortable with Mary King’s central conceit of body autonomy as viewed from the current issues of women’s rights. In some sense, this political battle is wrought on the table. We’re taking part in the struggle. All with a little box of cardboard. Maybe that won’t plague your thoughts like it has mine, but I don’t see how you can get away from it within the narrative of Mary King.
Quite simply, you’re never in control. I’m not strictly speaking of the body you’re fighting over, but also in the assimilating of the game’s systems. Felli subverts expectations. His games don’t quite feel like anyone else’s. Often, playing them is learning the hobby anew. I adore this. But it’s an experience that isn’t familiar. You really have to work to dig into the subtleties and understand the strategic components of things.
Take the game’s concept of “Ideas” for instance. These are faceup cards. A set of three belonging to each player sits alongside the central tiles. You can acquire your ideas by burning cards from your deck, but this ensures you will then get to play exactly what you want. It’s a way to flirt with control and massage the game state towards your will.
But you also can play cards from your opponent’s faceup Ideas. It feels wrong, at least in the sense of comfort and expectations set by the thousands of hobbyist titles released every year. This mimics the tearing and uneasy co-existence between the two forces. It’s a small echo of the larger picture.
The Idea concept is also paramount because it’s the sole way to overcome the game’s one issue of significance – there’s a large emphasis placed on random draw. While it would be synonymous with the one-in-a-million proton torpedo shot, it’s possible for a player to win on their first turn. This would require drawing a set of cards that allow you to flip every tile to your side, of course. You will assuredly never see this happen. But it’s possible.
That non-zero chance reflects the quality that the whims of fate will have a say in how the game plays out. There are a number of tools at your disposal to contest this, as you can use power cards as well as the Idea stacks to maneuver slyly, but occasionally you will feel jobbed by destiny. It’s just the nature of this style of card game.
A final pointed element of considered awkwardness is the seating arrangement. The rules specify that both opponents sit next to each other on the same side of the table. The whole thing was designed this way, with components living agreeably in this orientation. It feels unnatural and unsettling for the participants, however. We have established genre conventions whose foundation is upended with this weird physical regulation. It’s the final touch in bottling the game’s disquiet.
Beyond that intellectual waggery, there is a very compelling tactical struggle here. Tempo manipulation is of utmost importance. If you can control large areas of Mary’s body you force your opponent to bleed cards off the top of their deck every single turn. If you can gain just an inch of ground and hold it, your adversary will feel their lifeforce drifting away like a palmful of vapor.
The decision space is unusual in that your options narrow over time. Early you’re afforded the opportunity of several actions, but as the game ages your agency is reduced. The whole experience constricts as tensions rise, forcing you to rely on purchasing Ideas in the final rounds as opposed to directly consuming control cards from your grip.
A large subset of cards offer special powers. These are wild and can really upset the status quo. Options are afforded such as manipulating your deck, permanently stealing your foe’s cards, and ending the game a turn early. That last one can really topple the cart with some shock and awe.
Mastering the use of these powers is the path to increasing skill. They have such varied uses and you are not guaranteed to see any particular effect is a given play. Additionally, both sides are asymmetrical in this regard as their power cards are unique.
It’s difficult for me to determine whether it’s recency bias or reality, but I will again assert that Jim Felli continues to elevate his output with each new release. If forced to organize his library into a strict hierarchy, my instinct is to order them by release date from newest to oldest.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with that judgment, I’m content taking these unforeseen Devious Weasel titles as they come. Each is sharp and wise beyond their form.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.