The Best Board Game of the Year Might Not Even Be A Game

When does a game cease to be a game? What exactly is a game anyway?

The Mind, designed by Wolfgang Warsch, lives very much on the edge of the definition. By it’s own admission, it can’t decide what it wants to be. According to the back of the box, “The Mind is more than just a game. It’s an experiment, a journey, a team experience.”

This story originally appeared in June 2018. It’s been retimed to coincide with the holiday break and corresponding sales; you can pick up The Mind today for $20 from Advent Games.

There probably hasn’t been a more controversial nomination for the Spiel des Jahres. (And this year is as controversial as any other, given that several highly rated games were excluded from consideration, on account of having poorly written rulebooks.)

The question is not whether it’s better than any of the other nominations, or those that weren’t nominated. The debate circles around whether The Mind is a game at all.

An experiment, it is. An experience, also. A strange co-operative journey, yes. A game? A lot of people would say no. If you were a Jedi and had telepathic powers, you would find this “game” more trivial than tic-tac-toe.

Normally I wouldn’t take you step-by-step through the rules, but there really aren’t many of them. You have cards, numbered from 1 to 100. You’re dealt a number of cards — increasingly more in each round. In round 1, you’re dealt one card and get one life, and so forth. The aim of the game is, together with everyone else at the table, to play your cards in ascending order.

Without using any physical or verbal communication in the slightest. Or, with everyone’s agreement, you could spend a shuriken — yes, a shuriken, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — to each discard a card.

If you screw up, discard cards that were skipped and lose a life. Lose all your lives and you lose. If you successfully play all your cards, you win.

That’s it.

For an added challenge, you could play the cards face-down, instead of face up.

The Mind is hardly the first game to impose artificial restrictions. Table-talk has been verboten in Bridge since time immemorial. Poker forces you to deduce your opponents’ unseen hands. The more recent Hannabi restricts what you can say and the cards you can see (you’re not allowed to see your own hand!). But The Mind takes things to a whole other level, and one that most serious board gamers find quite uncomfortable. Can you really call it a game?

It doesn’t resemble any tabletop game we play. You’re not rolling die. You’re not pushing pieces around a board. You’re not placing your workers, harvesting resources, building your engine, and skillfully balancing short-term tactics against your long-term strategies in order to outfox and outwit your opponents. Instead, you’re collectively pushing the boundaries of non-verbal communication. Is it really a game?

Depending on who you talk to, it’s either the most innovative game in years, or the very antithesis of a game. Some claim it’s an Emperor’s New Game, a pretence, a social experiment masquerading as a game.

The organisers of the Spiel des Jahres clearly think the former. Many voices on BoardGameGeek espouse the latter. As before, developing telepathic powers would make this cease to be a game, any more than 52 Pickup is a game. At least The Ungame was quite explicit that it was not, in fact, a game.

Whether it’s a game or not, perhaps you should try it. It’s certainly an experience. You’ll have vastly different experiences depending on who you play with, and most new players are going to approach this with a degree of scepticism. Some people get extremely excited about the in-built tension.

Some people are going to hate it. Some people are going to love it. Some people will complain that it’s not a game. You should you make up your own mind.

Still, I think Azul should win the Spiel des Jahres this year. (Update: it did.)

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