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Review: The Mind

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There are some people that I just share a bond with. My wife and I are often thinking the same things independently when one of us will blurt it out. My older sister and I are sometimes accused of sharing a brain.

The Mind asks the question: can you share a brain with a friend, or with a complete stranger? Can you become so in sync with the other players at the table that you can play numbered cards in order, even without communicating?

Does this sound weird? Intriguing? Vaguely paranormal? The Mind is all of these things.

How It Works

The Mind is a cooperative game for two to four players. Players try to play cards in ascending order to make it through levels without losing their last life. If the group beats the last level, they win.

The Mind set up for four players.

To begin, place the levels, lives, and throwing stars on the table appropriate for the number of players. Shuffle the deck of cards, and deal one to each player.

Each round begins with players “concentrating,” placing a hand on the table. There are no turns in The Mind. Players are trying to play their cards in ascending order without communicating what’s in their hands, and they play whenever they think it is their turn. If a player plays a card and another player has a card that’s lower in their hand, the other player says, “Stop”: all cards that are lower than the played card are removed and the team loses a life. At any time, a player may raise their hand. If all players raise their hand, they agree to use a throwing star, and each player discards the lowest card in their hand. Also at any time, players may put their hands on the table to concentrate. When all cards in a round have been played, players advance to the next level (and possibly gain another throwing star or life), the cards are shuffled, and new cards are dealt out, one more card than the previous hand.

The game ends when either the team runs out of lives or the team plays all cards in the final level. If the former, the team loses; if the latter, the team wins. (The game can continue after the team wins: they keep the game state where it is and immediately play again, starting at level 1, but this time they play their cards face down.)

Mind Meld

Not once have I explained The Mind to new players and been met with serious nods or game faces or a “we can do this” attitude. Each time, the reaction has been giggles, dubious eyebrows raised, perhaps accusations of New Age oddness. “Really? That’s it? And we have to place our hands on the table?” And then, after that first strange concentration, the game begins, and all that melts away, and you begin to see just how compelling a deck of 100 numbered cards can be.

The Mind is a “game” that shouldn’t work. It’s the kind of thing that, on the outside, looks less like a game and more like a sociological experiment, a sort of gamerati “Emperor’s New Clothes,” and if you don’t wink and nod to it, you’re out of the loop. This, at least, is what I thought before actually playing it. Now that I’ve played it, I can say 1) this is indeed a game: there are rules and you are trying to accomplish a goal that you can succeed or fail at; 2) it is also kind of/sort of a sociological experiment, although not of the kind I had thought at first; and 3) it is one of the most fun experiences I’ve had at the tabletop so far this year.

A sample first round. Eventually the player with the 39 would probably play first, but 71, 86, 90 might be tough.

The Mind’s rules are laughably simple. The “how It works” section above, rather than giving a general overview of the rules, is the entire explanation. Seriously. Your goal could not be easier: play cards in order. And it’s the simple digestibility of that goal that makes the game work.

I like complex games with interconnected systems, but the older I get and the deeper I go in the hobby, the more I appreciate streamlined games that allow players to be the center of the experience instead of mechanics. Yes, I like Trajan as much as (perhaps more than) the next person, but many of my favorite games–like Ra, El Grande, and so on–share the trait that they have a simple core of rules that drives interaction between players. Yes, they’re the kind of games that players get better at the more they play them, but they are also not so dense that a new player stands no chance to win. If a new player is especially perceptive, it’s possible that player could spin the game to their advantage because they’re not spending the game internalizing rules. The Mind is a similar player-driven game, and even more than the other games I listed, it’s not the kind of game that you’ll get rules questions halfway through: you just sit down and play and enjoy each other’s company.

The levels of The Mind. Each player count has a different end point.

That’s not to say that The Mind doesn’t have any cleverness to it; it’s just that the mechanical cleverness is hidden. It would be boring if players had the full deck of 100 cards in their hands. They could simply play them all in order; that’s no fun. It would lose some of its magic if certain cards were removed each round and players had to remember which cards were removed. As the game progresses, the difficulty naturally ramps up, and there are just enough cards in the game to make the task manageable (“Only 32 cards? We can do this.”), but enough cards are removed to make the game harder than you think. How long do you pause if the 34 has been played and you have the 39? What if you have the 36? How long do you wait for another player to play the 1, 2, or 3 if you’re holding the 4 at the start of the round? One player talked about internal counting in the middle of our first game–something the rules specifically discourage–yet even that wouldn’t solve anything, as players count at different rhythms, or might lose the beat, or might keep rhythm but play slightly out of it. Again, the rules of the game are slight but clever in such a way that the cleverness seems to arise from the players and not the game itself.

What makes The Mind special is the way it brings a group together, even more than other cooperative games. I’m not usually a fan of cooperative games unless there’s a hook, mainly because working together usually brings sour grapes. I’ve never been a fan of group work (in school and now in my professional life), and that’s what cooperative games feel like. You’re either letting the team down, or the team is letting you down, or someone is taking control of the team making the other members superfluous. PASS.

A mistake will cost the team a life. If the team loses all its lives, the players lose.

But The Mind, while being cooperative, avoids these pitfalls. There is no explicit communication, so there’s no opportunity for one player to direct the others or take control. Each player is in control of their own cards and contributing to the whole. And while players may get upset with a teammate when the team makes a wrong play, this always cuts both ways. “You played too fast!” could also be “You played too slow!” The game involves stepping into other players’ rhythms, making space for them and believing that they will make space for you. I don’t want to oversell this, but The Mind, more than anything, feels like an exercise in empathy: you’re trying to understand the other players, and they are trying to understand you. At the start of the game, the first plays are usually awkward and sometimes wrong. You’ll fail several times. And then, as you come to understand the other players, you might succeed. And succeeding feels so good that you want to keep playing.

The Mind is a lot like having a conversation with someone you’re predisposed to like but with whom you don’t really have a deep relationship yet. In the early stages, you might try to fill the awkward pauses–Are they bored with my conversation? They’re probably bored. I should say something. You might cut off the last phrase of the other person, or interrupt before they were finished, or not realize that the question they asked was or wasn’t rhetorical. It’s a little awkward at first, but you’re both committed to the relationship, so there’s grace involved, and after many such conversations, you get into a rhythm. No longer are the pauses awkward. You no longer feel rushed to get every word in as if this conversation will be your last. You become attuned to the other person’s quirks. Again, it’s odd for a game to do this, but The Mind fosters this kind of interaction. You might learn that Susie plays aggressively and quickly, and Brian plays hesitantly, second-guessing every card. You adapt to the other players and the cards you have in your hand, and the “conversation” happens on the table.

Playing a throwing star allows all players to discard their lowest card face-up instead of playing it.

Just as a friendly conversation has no winners or losers, The Mind feels similar. Yes, this is a game, and you want to win, but when another player costs you a life, there’s usually no animosity toward the player who misplayed. When someone plays out of order, the response is usually, “Oh, that was tough. Those cards were close together. There’s no way you could have known.” And then when the play happens the right way around, it’s exhilarating. This play could so easily have gone off the rails, but it didn’t! Aren’t we great?

The first time I played The Mind, I didn’t expect much. I explained the game straight at lunch. I didn’t say what I was thinking–“I know this looks lame, but bear with me: supposedly it’s great.” I just explained the rules, and despite the incredulous looks and protests that concentrating wasn’t necessary, we put our hands on the table to focus and just began to play. We made some early blunders, but we got a little better, and a little better. By the end of the lunch hour, we were shouting and cheering over our game of “just numbered cards.” There aren’t a lot of games that get me so excited over so little.

I should add, however, that The Mind isn’t for everyone. It’s a filler game, no matter how you slice it, and there are some “serious” players who have no interest in fillers, especially co-op fillers that are as social as this one. I’ve played the game with several different groups in several different places, and it has mostly succeeded; it flopped at game night because one player wasn’t interested. That’s okay; not every game is for every person. But since The Mind is a game that is so dependent on the dynamic of the group, just one person’s indifference can tank the game.

The insert. This is a big experience for such a tiny box.

I know a lot of hype has surrounded this game, and I don’t want to oversell it: The Mind is a simple filler card game, and not everyone is going to love it. But let me digress for a little bit and tell you why you’ve likely been hearing so many vocal board gamers talking about it. Thousands–yes, thousands–of new board games are released every year, and while the general quality of board games may be on the rise (this point is definitely debatable), there are so many merely “good” games released that it’s easy to become jaded, especially as publishers want you to be excited about everything that’s new. As a reviewer, I play mostly newish games and try to describe which ones are worth getting and which ones are worth passing on. Most of the games I play, while enjoyable enough, I know will end up in the clearance bin and forgotten. So when something offering a truly new and fresh experience comes along, it’s a little like finding an oasis in the desert. The Mind is that game. The mechanisms (such as they are–or aren’t) are not the point; the point is that it brings people together in a way that many games fail to achieve, and that it does it with simple components and even simpler rules. Whether players are achieving their goal or failing miserably, they’re participating in a shared activity that fosters the kind of interactions that physical analog gaming is supposed to be about. This isn’t a stare-at-your-personal-player-board kind of game or a deep brain burner; instead, you’re studying your fellow players’ faces, learning something about them, and potentially sharing a magical moment with them.

More than any other game I’ve played in recent memory, I know that what I write here doesn’t even come close to describing why The Mind is so good because so much of what makes The Mind exciting is hard for words to describe in the first place. I know this because was unconvinced by the other (better) writing I’d read about it. So take my advice: just try it for yourself. Try to go into it with an open mind and open expectations–as if there’s no hype, no contrarianism. Just you and your friends at a table together, nervously giggling while you concentrate, ready to engage the task at hand.

  • Rating: 9.0
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Summary

Pros:

Dead simple rules
Fosters positive interactions, win or lose
Compelling to keep playing

Cons:

One uninterested player can spoil the experience

9.0 Mind over Matter

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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