Designer: Wolfgang Warsch
Artist: Oliver Freudenreich
Ahhh, The Mind. One of the most controversial game from the warped mind of Wolfgang Warsch, and I meant that as a compliment. The Mind is so polarizing that folks are debating the definition of what makes “a game” a game because it is kinda genre bending. Honestly, this is just a deck of cards but it plays like no other. Some people think of this as an “activity” instead of a game. Something that a group of people get around to do collectively for fun…. which is kinda the definition of a co-op game, I suppose. You either win or lose against the system.
Classification aside, The Mind plays like this: there is a deck of cards with values ranging from 1-100. If this sounds awfully familiar to the 50 other cards games in the market, you are forgiven. However, what you do with these cards makes the game unique. First, there are 12 levels in the game. In round 1, each player gets 1 card, round 2, 2 cards and so forth up to round 12 where each player gets 12 cards. Cards are kept secret and hidden from each other. In each round, players must play cards to a common pool in ascending order. However, there is no talking amongst players and no secret hand gestures. You have to decide at the right moment to play the card. If you play a card that is not the next highest card in the collective hands of all players, you lose a life. So for example, John has 3, Christina has a 95 and Tom has a 99. John, Christina and Tom must play their cards sequentially in that order, without any discussion. If either Christina or Tom plays before John, one life is discarded and the game continues.
Sounds challenging? Well it is, but it can be done.
The job for players in the game is to feel the rhythm and timing of playing cards in a particular order. As a group, players need to breakdown how a unit of time is measured against the value of a card. Quantitatively speaking, if you can assign a time unit to each incremental value on the card, then you can figure out when to play the card. For example, if it takes 2 seconds for every increase in the value of card by 1, then you can technically play a card at the appropriate time. However, since there is no physical way to measure the value of time when playing, then the group as a whole must come to that consensus by “feeling” their way around the game. Clearly, this game benefits if the same group plays the game often. You develop an internal clock for correctly playing the right card at the right moment. You collectively build an unspoken set of rules or language, if you must, that synchronizes card play. I think this is a feature of the game, and not so much a bug.
As the game progresses from round 1 to 12, the group will gain some bonuses to help along the way for completing specific levels. First, you will get a few more lives along the way. You also get some cards with a shuriken symbol on it… basically Japanese throwing stars that when expended during the game, allow all players to collectively ditch their lowest cards in their hands. Used at the right time, the shurikens will provide a lifeline when the momentum and rhythm for card playing is momentarily disconnected. You can feel this in the game especially when the sequence of numbers on the cards are very close. Say a 21 followed by a 22. It is impossible to tell the cards apart and a lot depends on luck. So, when that happens, using a shuriken to discard the lowest numbered cards can be a life saver.
The whole idea of the game depending on rhythm, feel and intuition will put most Euro gamers who crave a structured rule set in a tizzy. It’s true that this game cannot be won by logic or strategy alone. It is won when players collectively build a cadence for playing cards in a sequential order. When everything is moving smoothly, it is delightful. Playing a 67 before a 68 is an amazing experience that cannot really be explained, but felt. No other game I know can trigger this particular feeling. It is a unique and shared experience.
I have played this game many times with my partner and it is clear that when it works and we sync, the game flows and we win. Other times when we are tired or distracted, game play is saltatory and we can’t even get past the initial levels. Mr. Warsch has designed something so different and unique that I have not encountered anything similar from the past. For that alone, the game is a worthy inclusion in any collection… just by virtue of it being so different. While not everyone will jump on the bandwagon, The Mind offers a different gaming experience if you are willing to explore and keep an open mind. It is not something that I will reach for every session but I think there will be times that The Mind will be a perfect fit for the right group. It is certainly good with 2 players.
As to whether this is a game or an activity, I think I will resist the temptation to neatly categorize every single gaming experience. Let’s just say it is both a game and also an activity which brings joy when it hits the table and leave it at that.