Boardgaming, as a hobby, is rarely controversial. People get together, play games and generally enjoy themselves. People have very different tastes in games of course, but when one group of people say a game is good, those people who don’t like it are usually quite happy to say that it’s not their kind of game rather than saying that the game is actually bad.
My lowest rated game is Joking Hazard. I think I rated it a 2. I really didn’t like it. Other people I played with rated it a 6 or 7 though. I can see some people could really enjoy it. Just not me!
However, every now and then a game comes along that sharply divides opinion. Some people love it, some people think it’s so bad that it’s not even a game, and some people don’t get what all the fuss is about and reckon it was just ‘okay’. The Mind is such a game…
It hasn’t been released in the UK yet, but with all the commotion of course I had to see for myself what it was like, so I ordered a copy from Germany and it arrived over the weekend. I took it to my local boardgame café and broke it out with a few friends.
I explained broadly how it worked and they just stared at me. You could see them thinking, “Is that it?” The premise of The Mind is very simple. It’s a co-operative game in which players have to play their cards in ascending order to a stack in the middle of the table, but communication between players is not allowed.
The deck consists of numbered cards from 1 to 100. You start by dealing everyone one card. There are no turns; people just play whenever they want to. The lowest card has to be played first and you win if you manage to play all the cards in the correct order.
There. Now you’re thinking what my friends were thinking. You could see them waiting for me to explain the ingenious mechanism that would introduce lots of strategy and tricky decisions and make the game interesting.
But there isn’t one. There is a little bit more to the game, which I will explain in a moment, but the essence of the game is that you have to somehow divine when the right time to play your card is. You are not allowed to wink or shake your head or anything. Any and all communication is forbidden. Although even this point is hotly contested.
So how are you meant to know when to play your card? Well, according to the rules (which we might have misunderstood slightly as we were translating from German), you have to synchronise your minds, psychic-style and once you are in tune with each other, you will know when to play your card. I’m not kidding!
The rules even state that at the start, everyone should place their hand, palm down, on the table to facilitate the connection between you. Now you might begin to understand why some people are getting so upset about this so-called ‘game’. Before you throw your hands in the air and walk away though, let me be very clear: you cannot judge this game until you have played it. The experience was… remarkable.
We’ll come back to that. Let me first explain a couple of extra rules. If you win level 1 (where everyone was dealt one card), then you collect all the cards, shuffle and deal everyone two cards for level 2. Again, all the cards must be played in order from lowest to highest. Each time you win, you reset and the number of cards increases by one. If you win level 10 (ish – it depends on the number of players), you have defeated the game.
So what happens if it goes wrong and someone plays a card higher than one of your cards? Well, you say, “Stop!”, reveal and discard any cards that are lower than the card that was just played and then you lose a life. If you lose all your lives, you lose the game.
There’s one other rule, which always seems strange when you first explain it. You have a certain number of shurikens (any theme that exists in this game makes no sense) that can be used to discard cards safely. If you want to use a shuriken, you raise a hand. If people agree they will raise a hand, and if everyone agrees then everyone discards their lowest card face up. This then gives you some (limited) information about what cards people are holding.
So there you sit at level 2, holding a 12 and an 86. 12 is pretty low so it needs to be played fairly early. But if anyone has a lower number, you’ll need to give them time to play. Hmm… nobody is playing anything. You think you should play and you reach slowly for your card. Is anyone else reaching? No, you think the coast is clear and so you play. You hold your breath for a moment. It’s okay, no one has called stop – you can relax. For a while…
The tension throughout is palpable. You’re constantly asking yourself, “Are they going to play? What cards do they have? Should I play now?” Although it seems like there’s no strategy, you do get better with practice, which says a lot in my book.
There was even this strange moment in one of our games where everything seemed to come together. We’d learned how long each of us waits (roughly) before playing certain cards and we just seemed to know when our cards should be played. We managed to play a string of very close cards (57, 58, 61 and 63), with different people playing each time and it all worked! The sense of elation was tremendous.
It’s hard not to communicate at all. Inevitably people are pulling all kinds of facial expressions. Not with the intention of communicating per se, but the no-one-else-is-playing-but-my-card-is-high-so-I-don’t-know-if-I-should-play-yet face was commonplace! I imagine some groups will be stricter with this kind of thing than others.
After our first game, we just kept playing and playing. I think we got as far as level 8 in the end before we died. I had to call it at that point because the tension was too much! I still haven’t figured out when you’re supposed to use the shurikens, but we had a great time. I can honestly say I’ve never played a game quite like it.
Are you still sceptical? All I can say is, don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it!
EDIT: The Mind has just been nominated for the Spiel des Jahres – the most prestigious award in the boardgame world!