Time Travel in a Game Box: Barbara Cartland, a romance board game

Dear Mayfair Games of 1985,

I’m writing this from 2013. I know this letter’s chances of traveling back in time are slim to none, but the effort still had to be made. This past weekend I played Barbara Cartland: a romance board game. Unless my readers have immediately hit Google looking for information—or read romance novels older than them—they have no idea Cartland was a prolific British romance novelist.

Prolific to the point that I find it mildly terrifying, Cartland’s non-literary romantic adventures included:

swinging the purchase of 1,000 wedding gowns to ensure service brides had a white gown on their wedding day during WWI, lobbying for the rights of the Romani in Britain, fighting for better wages on the behalf of midwives and nurses, writing a number of non-fiction books, being made a Dame, contributing to aviation in the UK, and singing an album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The plots of romance novels suddenly look less weird when you realize Cartland lived one.

Now with that sidebar taken care of, the game. Aside from the depressing to contemplate “solitaire” option for a single player, the game accommodates for up to six players. Assembling five players, we figured it would go quickly. Half hour, hour tops. Would the game box lie to us?

According to the timestamps in my Twitter feed, our session lasted more than 2 ½ hours.

In the Cartland board game, you choose from the 12 heroines available to play. “Whether she is a rich American heiress or a poor peasant girl, you’ll recognize her to be a true Barbara Cartland heroine: soft, gentle, innocent, and pure, but also intelligent, charming, and resourceful.” With card descriptions extolling aesthetic virtues such as “nearly translucent white skin” and a succession of blue eyes, it was easy to mock the appearance traits of these 1985 heroines. Diverse? Not so much.

The point of the game is to be the first player to meet her True Love and get to her happy ending. This involves reading from oft brutal-in-length story excerpts in the playbook, something that requires a fair amount of record keeping just to keep track of who is in what city reading which page(s). These passages, through a 2013 lens, range from insipid, boring, rape-y, murderous, abusive, offensive, sexual/violent content, suicidal in their depression, to possibly racist. This included the prelude to possible rape, with a follow up of murder in self-defense, and another scenario opened with a heroine about to commit suicide.

On an equally jarring note: the designers may have had a background in/ wished to be working on war games. Many of the stories we played through took place during the Franco-Russian alliance, and the detail afforded to historic settings was surprisingly accurate.

The “Fate” deck of cards play a role in the game’s mechanics that I can only describe without using profanity as Die In A Fire. Fate cards shut down travel on half the board, derailed people in mid-travel, and devoured entire turns. Not even a card allowing someone to burn a turn to purchase traits was much of a balm from the hateful mechanics going on it that deck.

Travel was purchased every turn, unless you were remaining in a location on the map to proceed with plot, or burning a turn due to the vagaries The Mapof the Fate deck. After a winner was finally stumbled upon after multiple hours of suffering through this vintage game, we all took turns flipping through the playbook to find out the outcome for all our characters. One of the ends was entirely missing from the book, leaving us to wonder what happened to the young woman in France, looking for her anarchist love interest.

Due to the content, I’d recommend against letting any human being under the age of 14 get into this game’s box. I’d also caution that playing this game should only be done with people who can be trusted to ham up their performance of all playbook content, and who will refrain from merciless teasing after reading aloud the somewhat traumatizing sex scenes.

We played Cards Against Humanity afterward to recuperate from the experience.

So there you have it, Mayfair Games of 1985. Decades later, this game traumatizes more than entertains. I’ll keep the sadistic mechanics in mind if I ever make a game where I want my players to be as screwed over as they are desperate for it to end.


L, RPG Girl Thursday


P.S. No, I would not recommend a friend to buy this game.


Have a story about your own horrifying adventure with a vintage game? Leave it in the comments!

About l

L is a freelancer currently working as a writer, editor, journalist and game designer. She hauls a suitcase decorated in stickers as she blogs, travels, and tours. She makes her home in Washington, California, and wherever the tour stopped last night. You can follow L on twitter (@lilyorit )

Speak Your Mind