There are many studies and articles praising the mental merits of board games. They hone critical thinking, sharpen analytical abilities, develop social skills and exercise the mind. Generally those exercises are subtle, hidden in a theme or narrative so that players are exerting their grey matter – maybe even doing actual math – without consciously aware of it or thinking about it in those terms. Every now and then, however, there is a game in which such mental excursions are never in doubt. From the start, players understand the design is all about the brain, your intellect and how you use them. Ironically, those are the ones that usually make you feel the dumbest!
How To Play
Braintopia puts your mental synapses to the test. The goal is to recognize patterns, memorize images, solve puzzles or otherwise use your brain faster than the other players. One card at a time. It’s basically cerebral Slapjack.
The rules are simple. Flip over one card from the deck. Players try to deduce the card’s answer based on its category. If you think you’ve solved it, slap it with your hand and leave it covered. The one with the quickest reflexes gets to announce the solution. Correct answers win the card. Guess poorly, and you sit out the next round. Collect two cards to earn a brain token. Gather four brains to win the game.
Now we all know that everyone’s brains work differently. And that is at the heart of game play. While the turn a card, solve the card structure is clean and easy to jump into, each card actually focuses on one of eight categories that all make your mind function in slightly contrasting ways. There is memory, in which you have to remember and recite five images. Maze challenges you to discover the correct path from three options. In duplicates you need to find the only pair amongst a gaggle of images. Reasoning deals with finding a missing puzzle piece. Frequency forces you to find the majority recurring image from an assortment of similar patterns. The always interesting color category tasks players with determining which word is actually printed in its actual color. Tactile works a bit differently from the other categories in that it’s not speed related and the player who correctly names the image by touch alone wins a brain token.
But the craziest, and most difficult to explain and grasp, mini game is coordination. This card has between 1 and 4 red or blue numbered circles corresponding to your five fingers on various points on the image of a face. If the circles are red, you must place the indicated fingers from your right hand on the appropriate points of your face. If blue, you use your left hand. Which, of course, means you must cover up the card with the opposite hand, so that you can use the correct digits to complete the challenge. Slap with the wrong hand and you fail before you can even try the challenge! If ever there was a time to discuss left brain versus right brain, this was it!
Remember when I said these games can make you feel dumb?
If I Only Had a Brain
A number of games often relegated to the “smart people” bin are about trivia or puzzles. Braintopia does include a bit of memory and puzzling in two categories, but the design is more about utilizing those latent intellectual functions in our brains that don’t always manifest themselves so overtly in everyday life. And it’s as much about reflexes as cognitive processes. That makes it more approachable to a mixed peer audience as opposed to other “brainy” titles.
The design is essentially a distilled version of Cranium with the several mini games worked out through a deck of cards. It’s also more analytical, rather than creatively geared, each category focusing on different mental challenges and/or cerebral functions. That can be intimidating for some as it certainly imbues a sense of an intellectual showdown. Yet two aspects ease those anxieties, to a degree. One, despite its nerdy aura, Braintopia really does feel more like a light, casual party game. The speed element is reminiscent of Slapjack or Spoons, providing levity and humor in its simple physicality. Plus it often forces one’s hand, leading to incorrect answers rapidly fired from the hip, inducing laughs, groans and forehead slapping Dohs!
Second, there are enough categories to generally give most players a chance in the long run. If you
feel like an idiot stumble with one type, you’ll likely compete in others. For example, I killed the memory category which, for those who know me, were completely astounded and dumbfounded. I must admit the irony, too, as my memory is legendarily horrible. But I suppose it’s usually long-term memory that I struggle with. Again, the brain. Who can really explain it? I also performed well with the color cards. When it came to maze and reasoning, however, I could not win a dang thing to save my life, which was infuriating to no end since each puzzle has only three stinking options, for crying out loud, and like a 33.333% chance to get it right!
So while the design is conceptually straightforward, the seesaw of categories brilliantly recognizes that everyone’s brains work a little differently and tends to level things…at least in our experience. It also limits the repetition. And the card backs identify which challenge each specifically represents, so that all players have a moment to mentally switch gears and prepare for what they’ll be looking at as soon as it’s flipped.
To revisit the whole “shooting from the hip” reflex for a moment, that is one area that can prove bothersome with some players. If others frequently reach and merely guess – usually incorrectly – it can be annoying for those who honestly have the correct answer but are just a touch slower. I get it. The speed element creates a tension that can trigger certain players to rush, whether instinctively or via calculated strategy. Still, lucky guesses quickly grate on nerves and a string of wrong answers needlessly extend the game. There is the penalty forcing players to sit out a round for any erroneous surmises. That may not prevent the behavior, but will at least temporary sideline repeat offenders.
While Braintopia works amidst a mixed group of peers, it’s not a family game…at least honestly competitive. My older teenagers are good game, and win their fair share of challenges, yet haven’t beat out adults in the long game. Interestingly, and maybe not pertinent to this game, the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20’s. I’ve no doubt there are fantastic young prodigies out there, but alas mine can only work with the DNA they’ve got! But my 10-year old doesn’t stand a chance right now against older gamers. With age comparable competitors, though, you don’t need a PhD to win, thanks to the variety of contrasting categories. Indeed, I think the experience genuinely thrives with more casual groups. Now, that’s not to say I wouldn’t personally want to play against five Mensa members. But still, while you might feel like an idiot at times, it’s all good-natured…and you could always blame your arthritic elbow.
The one advantage an intellectual phenom might employ is a photographic memory – or just plain memorizing cards through several plays. No, the majority of players won’t be able to benefit from that – unless they played a ton, I suppose. Still, in that vein the game could use more cards, I think. Especially with the tactile category. There are only ten, and many players can easily remember these once familiar with them. The game also caps out at six players. One, there are only enough token sets to supply that many. There is also the practical consideration of fitting everyone around the table within easy sight and reach of the card. But if you can accommodate more and provide extra suitable tokens, I recommend an expanded game. Just make sure everyone’s fingernails are trimmed!
A simple and neat concept, Braintopia takes the creative mini game structure from Crainium and reduces it to a mere deck of cards. And it’s more mental in the effort. With a good mix of challenges that focus on flexing different parts of your cerebrum, there’s usually a chance you’ll be competitive in at least a few. Maybe. In the meantime, the reflexive speed element amps up the tension…and humor. Despite it’s brainy nature, it’s a surprisingly light and enjoyable experience with a relaxed and mixed group. Unless it just ends up making you feel stupid.
Asmodee North America provided a copy of Braintopia for this review.