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|The Mansion of Dreadful Night
Giovanni De Feo
Game Collectors Review 241
Designed by Fiorenzo Bencivenga in 1914, Il Maniero della Terribile Notte is an Italian board game of which only fifty copies were ever produced. The game was priced at one thousand lire, which in today’s currency would be roughly four thousand euro. Its collection value is now estimated to be at least twenty times as much, making The Mansion of Dreadful Night the most expensive board game ever. Only three known copies still exist.
One belongs to an American millionaire who obtained it from a WWII veteran. Another is in the museum of the Pamphilji family in Rome. The Pamphilji game is the only one that can be seen, although special permission is required. The third copy belongs to a private collector of undisclosed identity. For some time this claim was widely doubted, but in 1998 several game experts received solid proof that this individual—known in the collectors’ community as Incognito—did in fact possess one of the original fifty game boxes.
There is speculation that Incognito no longer owns The Mansion, which would explain why he surfaced briefly only to disappear. Several sources also claim that professional gamers have been approached during conventions by a man with a strong Italian accent who politely asks them if they would like to play “the longest game.” This invitation is taken as a clear reference to Bencivenga’s last work. Of course no conclusive evidence regarding this individual has ever been found nor has any living gamer admitted to playing The Mansion.
Orig. title: Il Maniero della Terribile Notte
The Best Game Designer in the World
In 1879 Fiorenzo Bencivenga, the seventh son of a Venetian typographer, went to London to work for John Jacques II, the game company that gave us Snake and Ladders, Happy Families, and the British version of The Mansion of Happiness, the Calvinist game which was the inspiration for Bencivenga’s later masterpiece. Aged forty-two, in 1901 Bencivenga returned to Italy, having obtained a patent to publish Italian versions of the John Jacques games. In a few years Scale e Serpenti and Famiglie Felici became the perfect Christmas gift among middle-class families.
However Bencivenga’s games were not just “translations.” They had their own visual design as well as optional rules. For example, in the 1905 version of Famiglie Felici, Optional Rule #4 indicated that “to move one extra space per turn, confess a secret of yours that no one has heard before” (p. 6). More unsettling was Optional Rule #12: “The player can take two extra cards if they confess a secret told to them by one of the other players” (p. 7).
These “rules” were controversial from the start, but Bencivenga was adamant in his denial of any moral responsibility. In a long interview with Il Corriere he said: “By sanctioning certain behaviours within the game I simply underscored the socially liberating function of gaming, that is, the freedom to become someone else.”1
In October 1907 Bencivenga issued his own version of the Goose Game. It was called simply La Torre (The Tower). The objective was to climb the tower through various levels of rooms and be crowned King. Players assumed one of four characters—The Knight, The Squire, The Damsel, The Giant—each with its own distinct set of moves. In fact what increased the game’s popularity to a fever pitch was the optional rule of Suspension. Players could “suspend” a game while in fact it was still being played. The King or Queen could “test” the players with penances in real life, keeping score until the Suspension was ended and play was resumed. The result of this piquant twist was that The Tower sold twenty thousand copies, a staggering amount for the time. Quarrels that began at game sessions would be carried on in real life. Reputations were shattered in a night, marriages destroyed over a weekend.
An epidemic of duels broke out in Milan, Rome and Naples. Newspaper articles addressing the subject of “game and morality” began to appear, and in 1909 France’s minister of education declared The Tower illegal. Then, on March 8, 1910, the Baron of Riccoboni jumped into the murky waters of Tiber and died. He had been playing the game for several weeks and his desperate act was an attempt to “win” in the eyes of the Game’s Queen, the Duchess of Melfi. It was the Duchess herself who brought Bencivenga successfully to trial. The gamemaker was ordered to pay a steep fine and withdraw The Tower from the market. The controversy of the game caused it to quadruple in value, making it the most popular pastime among the elite D’Annunzio-reading crowds. The dandy poet himself admitted to Il Corriere to owning three copies and to having fashioned some sexual penances of his own making.2
Soon the underground market for The Tower had become very lucrative for canny traders but not for Bencivenga himself. His fame was bigger then ever, yet his pockets were empty. For a time Bencivenga returned to harmless board games for children; ingenious in their designs, they are still considered small masterpieces of the genre, even though none had the compelling moral ambiguity of his earlier games.
The Most Expensive Game Ever Made
In July 1913, a year before WWI broke out, rumors began to circulate in fashionable cafés that Bencivenga had created a new game of impossible beauty and complexity. A price of one thousand lire was required just to secure a copy, of which only fifty were produced. A ferocious—and secret—bidding war ensued.
Shortly after the rumors reached the newspapers. Bencivenga denied them. He was simply an honest artisan who made a living inventing pastimes for children, and had nothing to do with adult games or mysterious bidding wars. An official enquiry was opened by the magistratura but no evidence of wrongdoing was found. Whoever had bought the game kept its secret. Reports surfaced that players of the mysterious game had to take an oath of secrecy. Apparently some were so eager to play that consistent sums of money were left as “bail” to guarantee their silence.
By January 1914, enough details had leaked out to confirm the name of the game. It was called The Mansion of Dreadful Night. As in The Tower, four characters had to enter a villa and reach the center. But the aim of The Mansion was to find the exit, whereupon a prize would be awarded. Paradoxically, the exit could only be arrived at by first reaching the center. In this way the players first played against the game, and then against each other. Would they gain more from competition or from collaboration? It was their choice to make. But that was not all. Right from the start the Mansion had an ominous, supernatural quality.
A Game with a Curse
In fashionable cafés the rumor mill spread tales about what would happen to the ones brave enough to play it: winning a large sum of money, marriage to a rich and handsome man, travel to exotic and interesting places. In short, it was said that what was won in the game was reflected in reality. But scarier still was that the game was apparently constructed so that the longer a game lasted, the more profound was its effect.
Players had an entire “Night”—the length of which they agreed on themselves—to reach the heart of the labyrinth and find the exit. Bencivenga had surpassed his own genius by creating a maze generated by the variables determined by the rolls of the die. However, the real game began only when one of the characters finally reached the Exagon Room. The player would then ask the Night’s Eye to grant a wish from one of four categories: Love, Money, Adventure, or Knowledge. From that moment, Night began to recede and give way to Day. The other players then had two possibilities: to risk going for the Exagon Room themselves, or to head for the Exit before the Night ended and trapped them within The Mansion’s walls. That’s where the tricky part began. For every turn after entering the Exagon Room the first character had to roll the die. If a double digit (11, 22, etc.) was drawn, the game would Freeze. Freezing was a bit like Suspension in The Tower: The game would be “on hold” and could resume only when the four players were together again after the time they had allotted for Night had elapsed—a time that could range from ten hours to fifty years.
In a game that lasted ten hours a character might receive some modest benefits: finding a lost key, receiving a nice postcard from a girl they fancied, dodging a splash of coffee on their suit. When the game was extended to two weeks the boons became more interesting: a small win at the lottery, a rival in love incapacitated by illness, good marks at university. Things got better still if you dared to play on. After one year, your enemies would fall like flies; impossible lovers would be won in a fortnight; mysterious visits would reveal you to be of blue blood. In a game that lasted ten-plus years the effects would begin to reverberate over the whole world; and if you won the prize, from twenty-plus years the result would be fairy tale–like. A young woman would be proposed to by a mysterious man who would later turn out to be a prime minister; a young man would set off towards adventure and find the ruins of an unknown civilization; an unforeseen experiment would open a new branch of science; a player would write a masterpiece in the league of Flaubert or Tolstoy.
This was when things started to go awry. For apparently those players who were on Freeze, who had abandoned the game but were in fact still playing, were able to enjoy their Prizes. Even if the game was not finished, they had won Love, Adventure, Money, or Knowledge, and could savour it for years to come. But there was the catch: Sooner or later the game had to resume. And if you didn’t win the game, if your character didn’t get out of the Mansion before Night’s end, then you would lose everything. Not only that: The winning would have never existed in the first place, and would fade out, like a dream. So twenty years after the first game, a middle-aged man would discover that his wife had been only a shadow. He would remember her: The world wouldn’t. The same would happen to the woman who had lived the life of a successful dancer or to the man who had funded a prestigious art estate: all their Prizes dissolving into unreality.
A strange paranoia began to run through liberty cafés and high-society balls. It was said that one could make out the four players of The Mansion by the way they looked at each other when they were in the same room. Dukes, journalists, poets, bankers, counts, and society ladies would stare at each other with an endless hunger. Were they still on Freeze? Was the party and the villa around them real? Or was it an illusion of The Mansion, all the guests Deceivers, dream-ghosts who took the semblance of real people to taunt them?
At the end of the first year after The Mansion of Dreadful Night was released, the suicides started. Most of them were women. Quite often the young (or not so young) women who played The Mansion had no dowry and were destined never to marry. Having nothing to lose, they bet on the game. It wasn’t clear if they killed themselves because they lost it, or because they had won the Prize and were afraid of losing their benefits. Nor were the suicides the only events linked to The Mansion. When a young, penniless baron received a mysterious heirloom that made him a millionaire, people whispered that the game was responsible. The same happened with an unknown painter, who in the course of a fortnight skyrocketed to fame by producing an impressive piece of art. Then there was the Regency scandal, in which an anonymous clerk was promoted to the highest ranks because of a “drift” on some international speculation. In short, every reversal of fortune seemingly had something to do with Bencivenga’s masterpiece. Meanwhile in Milan and in Rome people would throw themselves beneath trains, jump from bridges, or simply walk off into the countryside, never to be seen again. Ties to the Mansion were never proved, however. Yet the rumor was so persistent that the police opened an enquiry. Bencivenga was questioned again. He seemed sincerely shocked that these deaths were being traced back to his game. The public believed that this was just an act. But some insinuated that the success of The Mansion had gone beyond what its creator had intended.
A Diplomatic Scandal
In November 1914, when Italy’s prime minister Sidney Sonnino was secretly building an alliance with England to enter the war against the Austrian Empire, a little note was found beside the deathbed of Madame Fiorinì, the governess of Sir John Sackville, the British ambassador to Italy. It read:
I cannot live without him. One year of bliss has corrupted me more than twenty years of solitude. I will withdraw from the game now, before the other players can emerge winners, their prizes intact. I cannot stand to see their happiness. Envy is my assassin.The identity of the mysterious “he” was never discovered, adding to the widely held conviction that Mme. Fiorinì had lost the game and that her fiancé had vanished from existence.
The involvement of the British ambassador pushed the Italian police to investigate with unusual zeal. After exhausting all of Mme. Fiorinì’s contacts, finally the inspectors turned up a certain Marquis of Lerànd. His house was searched and the game was found.
The next day pictures were in all the newspapers. In the cafés college students snatched the papers from the hands of friends, trying to get a glimpse of the elusive game. Il Corriere had to make a special edition3 with an insert showing pictures of The Mansion and the original game pieces. These were handcrafted, some carved from oak, others from glass or iron. The board itself combined cold print with textile embossment. Even the most rigorous critics had to admit the game was a masterpiece. Still, no direct evidence was found linking the game to the suicide note. One essential thing was missing: The Mansion’s rulebook. Without it there was no evidence that the ambassador’s governess had taken her own life under its influence. Though Sir Sackville used his full powers to ensure Bencivenga would be punished, his efforts were limited. For Bencivenga had at worst introduced a game without the royal seal; that is, he was guilty of tax fraud. Given the fortune he had made from the game this was no small accusation, but still far from murder.
The trial attracted great attention. People followed the proceedings in the newspaper along with the news of the German invasion of Serbia. Now that Bencivenga had been formally accused, other “victims” were sure to step forward. But none did. Other copies surfaced—ten of them—but these only proved Bencivenga’s game was an overpriced trifle. And the rulebook? There had never been one. Apparently on the day of purchase Bencivenga had explained the game himself. There were no fixed rules, there never had been. That’s why most of the games lay discarded, gathering dust in cellars, at best an artful extravaganza, an investment gone sour.
But the general public didn’t believe a word it. Oh, that scoundrel! They could see now how clever he had been. In the end it seemed all too simple. Bencivenga was the rulebook. To play you needed his help. That was why they were so few copies. He had to be physically present every time the game was played. Otherwise the game could not work. He was the one taking the Tiles, shuffling the Deadly Foes, throwing the Spherical die. This explained the Freezes as well. They were how Bencivenga could attend different game sessions all over the country, traveling from one city to the next, a god of Chance. This was the truth no player would ever dare to utter. Bencivenga had even foreseen that he would be found out. There were rumors of a secret network that blackmailed all the owners of the game. Not with physical violence, but with the menacing assurance that if they talked their Prizes would vanish forever.
Three months later his trial came to an end. For the first time the gamemaker appeared in public. Bencivenga was fifty-eight, but looked to be well into his seventies, an old man, stooped and almost completely bald. Could this be the godlike schemer who had threatened the diplomatic relations between England and Italy? The judge condemned him to pay a fine so high it would certainly result in bankruptcy. Bencivenga was also banned from selling any game, under his name or any other, for twenty years: a life sentence, in a fashion. Yet the public was deeply dissatisfied. It had tasted murder, mystery, the occult, and now all that had come down to a sentence for tax evasion. But just when the whole case seemed destined to fade into obscurity, Bencivenga asked to speak to the journalists. His declaration was printed word for word in all the newspapers:
I am not here to justify my moral conduct. Indeed, I claim full responsibility for it. For I am guilty. Yes, I am fully responsible for the deaths of Madame Fiorinì and countless others. Alas, my misdeeds are far greater, for I have put their souls in thrall to the Unreal. As a child I asked my father which toy was the most ingenious. He replied by pointing to his temple. Here it is, he said, and if you know how to use it you will never be bored. This I never forgot. For I soon discovered that very few people know how to use their imaginations. Indeed this is the very purpose of games; they are an excuse for lazy imaginations to work. The board, the tokens, the dice: They are all a means to an end. What is of vital importance is that the players continue to play after the game has ended. Only in this way can imagination transform reality. Do you not see? I was the one who fed the rumors, all of them. I, master of games and disguises, sat with you in the cafés, under the stained-glass arcades, dressed as a French count, a journalist, a law student, even a street vendor (a wig, a fake moustache, a feigned accent, it takes so little when people want to believe). Why? It was my ambition to give hope to those who had none. Thus, even though The Mansion was an expensive toy, I convinced its owners to invite the penniless, the heartless, the talentless to play the game so that they could win their Prizes. Yes, our desires can be sharp as steel, but still we must fight against Fortune. Chance has no Memory, they say, but it has Imagination. This is what I envisioned. By believing in the supernatural powers of the game, its players would make its prophecies come true. That is why I created the Freeze: to ensure enough time for reality to merge with the game itself. Thus penniless students imagined their way out of poverty. Artists who thought they lacked originality managed to produce masterpieces. Women who considered themselves unmarriageable opened themselves to the possible, and that possibility became a reality. Imagination led the way, Fortune followed. Yet I committed a terrible mistake. Being an optimist, I thought the power of Imagination could only work for the good. I had forgotten the Unreal has no moral code. Thus some players feared loss more than they desired their wishes to be fulfilled. They would not lose the Prizes won in the game. No, I had made certain of that. But their terror of losing what they thought they had won was so great they preferred death to that eventuality. Why did I not reveal the fiction, then? Because it would have destroyed them, along with the players who received benefits from the game. In any case I tried, but they didn’t believe me, as I know you will not. Yes, I know you won’t believe me, even now. I am a magician who is telling you that the elephant that appeared on the stage was just a trick. But unlike a stage magician with his foreseeable props I work with the very fabric of reality. You would rather disbelieve me than lose that powerful sense of mystery, that feeling of deep wonder granted by The Mansion of Dreadful Night. So you see, I gave you too to the thrall of the Unreal. For we need games to live, though we usually call them Career, or Art, or Family, or Nation, or even God—may God forgive me. We need them to shape emptiness into meaning. But now I am doing just the opposite. Thus the imaginary elephant will stay on the stage: It is the magician who will disappear. Indeed, my last act is a vanishing one. I bid thee well, my players, and remember: Almost the same amount of effort is required to disbelieve a world as to create one.Bencivenga was right: Very few believed him. His confession was more preposterous than the mysteries it purported to explain. Bencivenga a “master of disguise”? No, as a counter to The Mansion’s fame Bencivenga’s speech was a failure, but it did miracles for his reputation. With what rhetorical genius had he turned the cards, making himself the victim while claiming to be the culprit!
The End of an Era
Most copies of The Mansion were destroyed by the police. Yet the fever for the game had never been higher. Everyone now wanted to play, at the very least to prove Bencivenga had been lying, that his game had a supernatural quality to it. The problem was that to play they needed Bencivenga, and he was nowhere to be found.
On April 13, 1915, Fiorenzo Bencivenga disappeared. He left a short note in his study in Venice, saying that it was only fair that he should vanish in the same way some of his players had. The canals around his apartment were drained but his body was never found. Some speculated that the old fox had faked his own death to escape his debts, and had traveled to Amsterdam to spread his games beyond the borders of Italy. Several journalists began to follow the lead, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.
A few days later, on April 26, 1915, the Italian Minister of War declared Italy’s entrance into the Austro-Hungarian conflict. It was the beginning of the country’s direct involvement in WWI. Hundreds of thousands would go to war, never to return. Soon Bencivenga and his games were forgotten.
When the war ended three years later, few copies of the game had survived. The turbulent years that followed did nothing to clear up the mystery. The fascists cared little for board games and were only interested in sports and “acts of valor.” It was only in 1951, a few years after the end of the Second World War, that La Gazzetta D’Italia published an article on the Pamphilji copy, the only one on display. The story of the “mysterious game” surfaced once more; a couple of magazines even enquired about Bencivenga’s disappearance. Some speculated about whether he could be still alive, perhaps surviving by renting the only copy of The Mansion, which he might have saved for himself. As for the old players, whether they had won the game or lost their Prizes, little was known.
But even after all these events had become nothing more than a curiosity for game collectors, the rumor that Bencivenga was still alive persisted; and persists to this day, half a century later. Though he would be now over 120 years old, some professional gamers insist that the mysterious Incognito—the owner of the notorious third copy—is none other than the Venetian game master himself. When confronted with the dubiousness of their claims they reply, smiling, that in The Mansion the only time that truly matters is the one spent playing the game, which is still—by far—the best way to cheat the cheap eternity of death.
1. “Il maestro dei giuochi,” Corriere della Sera, September 7, 1912, p. 23.
2. “D’Annunzio e La Torre,” Corriere della Sera, August 5, 1911, p. 17.
3. [Inserto speciale], Corriere della Sera, August 2, 1912.
Screenwriter and writer of speculative fiction Giovanni De Feo lives in Genoa.