Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: Ladies & Gentlemen

Let me say this first, Ladies & Gentlemen isn't really that good of a game. It is embarrassingly simple and does not have a lot of depth to the decision makings throughout. Let me say next that it is also one of the games that I have had the most amount of fun playing over the last year. More than just about any other game in my collection, it is one that is most dependent upon the group of players to make it a great experience. It isn't necessarily that you need specific types of players, but rather the players want to contribute to the game's ambiance and theme and, above everything else, don't mind not taking themselves too seriously in order to have fun.

Ladies & Gentlemen is a team based game, where players break into teams of two, wherein they will play a married couple. One player takes the role of the "Gentleman" of the couple, while the other player takes the role of the "Lady". During the game, the "Gentlemen" will be performing one set of tasks, while the "Ladies" will be performing another, but neither will be fully aware of their partner's game and will have to rely on imprecise communication to keep on the same track.

The game plays 4-10 people and takes about 60-90 minutes to play, despite the box saying 30 minutes.

Before getting too deep in the explanation, I should point out that the game is rife with sexism. However, with more than a cursory glance, it becomes very apparent that the game isn't embracing the Victorian sensibilities of a woman's role compared to a man's role, but instead mocking them. It is absurd. And the game is bettered if you embrace the absurdity and go over-the-top with it.

With that embracing of the absurdity, there is also an embracing of the game's ambiance. The game works so much better if you play in-character. I will talk about this a little bit later, but this makes the game so much more entertaining and fun.

The goal of the game is for each team's Lady to have the most elegant outfit by the end of the game. The Gentlemen of each team will be making money in the Stock Exchange and trying to fulfill profitable contracts, and the Ladies will be competitively shopping at the boutiques and trying to gather the most beautiful and complimentary wardrobe. This action is simultaneous and neither partner is fully aware of their partner's game. At the end of each day, the Ladies present their shopping lists to their Gentlemen, who then decide which of the items to purchase. Now, only imprecise communication is allowed. A Gentleman cannot say, "I made $1500 today" to his Lady. No, a delicate lady is incapable of sorting out numbers and figures. Instead, he could say, "My dear, I had a wonderful day at the Exchange today! You deserve to outfit yourself in fineries." Similarly, a Lady cannot say to her Gentleman, "I have a servant card that gives me double points for my hat, so buy that for me first." You see, gentlemen have no idea of sensible fashion and thus the Lady must communicate through his thick-headedness and could instead say, "Darling, Annabelle is going to the ball with a sheik hat. I would look a fool if my head was unadorned. Please don't make me look a fool at the ball."

On the Gentlemen's turn, a number of Resource tokens are placed face down on the table. Each is worth an individual amount, but there are also Contracts laid out. If the Gentlemen can match the tokens required to fill a Contract, he may fulfill the it for a higher pay out. On their turn they all grab at the tokens at the same time, but can take no more than three Resource tokens. Also among the tokens are turn order tokens. Once one of those is taken, however, no further tokens can be claimed. So, a Gentleman could find the first player order token, then needs to decide if he needs more Resources for money or if turn order is more important. After everyone has taken their Resource and turn order tokens, the Gentlemen sell resources and fulfill contracts, adding to their money. If multiple Gentlemen which to fulfill the same contract, then they are fulfilled in turn order determined by the token the Gentlemen took.

That is it. The men's game is incredibly simple. However, it is the men who decide how to spend their money, so more decisions must still be made--often to the chagrin of their Lady.

The secret of the game's ambiance is that although Victorian standards may make a woman seem frivolous and unenlightened, the game really is the Ladies' game. On their turn, each Lady chooses what type of items will be in their shop for the day. It could be clothing, accessories, jewelry or servants. After drawing the appropriate cards, they choose one item to place face up in front of their boutique to be displayed in the window. Each Lady will then look at the windows and simultaneously determine which boutique to shop in. Now, if no one comes to the shop you set up, then your Gentleman can purchase the item in the window for you at half-price. So the Ladies need to decide what to place in it. An expensive item is a steal at half-price, but will it draw the other Ladies to your shop? Should you put out a poorer item, but then if no one goes to it, you can get it cheap, but it isn't as nice of an item.

After it is determined which boutique each Lady goes to, then they get to take as many cards as they like from that deck. If more than one Lady chooses the same Boutique, then they go in turn order (determined by the Gentlemen's tokens) and choose. Now, the Ladies need to be mindful of their outfits. Servant cards can give bonuses to certain cards. Also, a Lady cannot have more than two different designers creating their ensemble. A Lady also cannot have multiples of the same item. So if you purchase two hats, only one can add to your outfit's elegance at the end of the game.

Ladies can take as many items as they wish from the shop, then they pass their "wishlist" to their Gentleman, who then has to decide which to purchase. The problem is that the Lady does not know how much money their Gentleman actually has. She may hand him a 4-point dress for $1300, a 2-point hat for $500, and a 2-point pair of gloves for $700. The man had $1500 and decides to be frugal and purchases the hat and gloves for $1200--still 4-points and a saving $100. However, the Lady had a servant that would have added their bonus to their dress and had hoped that their Gentleman had enough to purchase the dress and either the hat or the gloves with it.

This continues for six rounds and at the end of the game, each Lady puts together their outfit from the clothing they purchased, and they add together the elegance from their cards and any bonuses from their servants.

If there are an uneven number of players, the odd one becomes the Courtesan. The Courtesan plays as a partnerless Lady and shops at the Boutiques with the rest of the Ladies. At the end of the day, she passes her clothing wishes to any or all of the Gentlemen as she chooses. A Gentleman who purchases an item for the Courtesan, must also purchase at least that many items for his Lady. There is reason for the Gentleman to pay for the Courtesan's outfits. If at the end of the game, the Courtesan is the most elegant, then she wins with the Gentleman who bought her the most elegant clothing. However, if the Courtesan is the LEAST elegant at the ball, then she creates a scandal and takes down the Gentleman and Lady team who purchased the least elegant items for her.

The game is disarmingly simple and, frankly, could be a dull play if it is not embraced with the proper atmosphere. But, with the proper attitudes and ambiance, this game has never failed to entertain me and it is among my favorites to pull out and play with gamers and non-gamer couples alike.

The game is amazingly fun when people play it "in-character". To start of with the ambience, I try to explain the game to the Ladies and the Gentlemen separately. With the Ladies, I tell them what they need to do, but not to worry about the men are doing, since "trying to worry about figures and numbers would surely go over their simple, delicate minds and I wouldn't want to cause any worry wrinkles to appear to blemish them". I also explain that in referring to their servant bonus points and outfit strategies to limit their conversations to the men about it since "the gentlemen are absurdly dense when it comes to the matter of fashion sense and wouldn't understand the differences between a parasol and a handbag and to only use basic terms as not to confuse them." I explain it similarly to the Gentlemen to get them into the theme of the game. Neither side even fully understands the mechanisms of their other side. I've had players who have played Ladies in five or six games now who still don't know what the Gentlemen are doing on their turns and vice versa.

I have also went out and purchased tiaras, which each of the Ladies wear when they play, and cigars, which each of the Gentlemen hold when they play. Honestly, these simple purchases have made the game so much more entertaining and helps get everyone into their roles.

When we play, we try to use Victorian language (with modern references and name-calling thrown in for humor). Give a player a cigar to hold while playing and they innately puff out their chest and act like a lord.

All of this adds to the game so much, and I strongly suggest anyone playing to approach it with the same atmosphere. In fact, it is amazing what happens. The Gentleman's game of flipping tokens for Resources is competitive, but friendly. Holding a cigar, one is more likely to say, "Good show, old chap" to a player who just completed a contract. At the same time, the Ladies become catty as they fight one another for first dibs in the shops. The dialogue between the teams when the Gentleman cannot purchase anything because of a bad day at the Exchange or he is frugal and buys the cheapest of the garments, leaving his Lady without a proper dress is priceless.

We've played the game with a full 10 people in five teams. The Ladies all sat at one table, while the Gentlemen all sat at another. It was an amazing thing to witness. The Gentlemen's table was friendly and jovial and they chewed on cigars and complimented each other. The Lady's table, meanwhile, was catty and snobby as everyone sank their teeth deep into their roles. At the end of each day, the ladies had to get up and walk over to their men to hand them the cards they wished to purchase.

There are also Gossip cards which can be added to the game. It adds to what the Ladies can do. Each Gossip Card has a specific circumstance in which it can be passed to another Lady. For example, it may be require that you pass it to a Lady with no Hat, but only if you have one. Or it might require that she had clothes of 1 or 2 points, but you have none of that value. Each Lady begins with three Gossip Cards. When one is passed to another Lady, they lose 1 Elegance at the end of the game. However, for each card you failed to pass, you lose 1 Elegance at the end of the game. The best part of the cards, however, is that they are not simply passed. They need to be passed with an insult. For example, you could pass a card and say, "Oh, what a lovely dress! My servant has one just like it." However, as the Ladies become more and more catty, cards may end up being passed with insults such as, "Oh! I love that hat. Too bad everything your husband brings home to you isn't as fashionable, such as the chlamydia."

Ladies & Gentleman is a simple game, but there is so much potential in the box. The thing about it is that the potential is so very easy to tap. Buy a few plastic tiaras and cheap cigars and the game already starts to take on a life of its own. I cannot say that Ladies & Gentlemen is a deep game, but it has consistently been some of my most fun gaming moments over the last year. Played straight, the game would be a dull, boring and simple. But embracing the ambiance and theme, and there are few things that I have had more fun playing. It is not a game for every group. But if you don't mind setting aside deep strategy in games from time to time to instead just laugh and have fun with your group of friends, then I highly suggest finding a copy of this game and then going out to buy tiaras and cigars.

And, for any interested, here is a link to a Penny Arcade comic referring to their experiences playing Ladies & Gentlemen.

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