Almost 300 avid boardgamers showed up for a marathon weekend of game-playing and game-critiquing at a Washington, DC, hotel a few weekends ago – and this happens somewhere in the country EVERY YEAR. Who are these people, what are they doing, and why?
This is not a game convention: Origins and GenCon and Essen Game Fair are game conventions, hosting tons of games, and tournaments, and game publishers running demonstrations and giveaways and oh, so many sales. Game conventions are well attended by game publishers, and despite the massive amount of actual gaming going on, one can not ignore the overwhelming atmosphere of mercantilism. Some games get a buzz, then there is a rush to see what the buzz is about, and soon a tipping point is reached and the game skyrockets to popularity, and every game enthusiast has to have a copy. Eventually, once the game hits the market and gets some play from a wider audience, a lot of high-buzz games fade and their popularity regresses to the mean, or lower. These game conventions are geared very much towards game hobbyists and enthusiasts. Mind Games is a lot different, because it is, essentially, just a competition, a lot like a chili cook-off or a state fair apple pie bake-off. But it still isn’t the same kind of competition as those; there are not a few highly esteemed judges taking small samples of every entry and lending their vaunted approval to a few entries lucky enough to match the judge’s (ultimately) subjective opinions. No, the judges at Mind Games are, except for one important quality, pretty much a cross section of American society, and there are a few hundred of them, and they are each required to read the game instructions and play the game through (within reason) in order to make an informed decision about what games deserve their votes. The top five vote-getting games win the Mensa Select Seal. Ultimately, a Mensa Select award on a game means that a game is very likely to be enjoyable by most people or groups, even, and especially, nongamers.
First, some quick thoughts about the “other” big board game awards, especially regarding their usefulness to nongamers. The “Oscar” of board games is probably the “Spiel De Jahres,” awarded at the Essen Game Fair in Germany by a jury of around a dozen game critics and journalists. New jurors are picked by the current jury, and it is an honorary title. They do a great job of selecting great games…but is it the best way to find the best games? It’s debatable that a small panel of experts can do that, because games are very much a matter of taste. The “Origins” awards are held in the highest esteem by boardgame enthusiasts, but that’s because it is game enthusiasts who participate in the game fair, join the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design (the voting body), and decide what the best games are. This year the “Game of the Year” was Codenames, an excellent game with a lot of mass appeal (good job, academy!), but the Best Boardgame award went to Star Wars: Imperial Assault. What? It retails at $100, and if you think the typical suburban family is going to buy it and learn it (it is essentially a miniatures game, involving the deployment and movement of armies in 3 dimensions, kind of, within a relatively large battle zone; I always think of minis as adult sandbox play, with more rules), then you probably aren’t much of a people person. Great game that it is, it is not one to buy for your typical birthday present. There are also the Golden Geek awards, voted on by users the game hobbyist websites BoardGameGeek, RPGGeek, and VideoGameGeek; there are 16 categories for various types of board games, some of which have mass appeal (Codenames: Pictures won best family game and best party game), but most of which are still subject to the game enthusiast filter and therefore not good for a casual gathering of nongamer friends. Finally, Games Magazine awards its Top 100 Games of the Year, or Games 100, in a few categories. The Games 100 are chosen by the Games Magazine editorial board, but in my estimation, apart from the Mensa Select award, the Games 100 stands out as an excellent way for a family or group of nongamers to step into the current world of board games with little risk of being put off by complicated instructions or an immersive theme that doesn’t appeal to everyone.
The big point here is that Mensa Mind Games is an effort to at least somewhat objectively identify games that will appeal to a wide range of people. First, there are pretty clear criteria for judges to follow: Originality in structure, concept, and creativity; Game Play in terms of enjoyment, excitement, and challenge; Play Value – is it repeatable, long-lived, and a good value for the price? Aesthetics – how does it look and feel, is it stylish? And clarity, brevity, and completeness of Instructions. Take 300 judges, divvy up the games so they appear an equal number of times on random playlists, and randomly assign a 30-game playlist to each judge. Start Friday, end Sunday, and have each judge play their playlists, grade their games, leave feedback for the publishers, then vote for his/her top 7 games (weighted, so rank matters), then tally the results. The top five vote-getters, in no particular order, win the Mensa Select award, which any suburban mom or dad can pretty much count on for a shot at quality family time, or any group of friends from college or work can choose to expect to have a fair chance at enjoying themselves.
Here are the winners of the 2017 Mensa Select Award (and my take on why they won):
Amalgam (Simply Fun, 8+, 2-4 players, $32 msrp)
Mensa Select awards often go to games that are a LOT more simple to play than what game hobbyists enjoy, and Amalgam is a good example. Players are witches and wizards, shopping for ingredients. Ingredients exist in the form of cards, and are laid out in the “market,” a 6 x 6 grid, while player pawns move around the perimeter. When a player moves, they must choose an ingredient card from the row or column in which they stopped. The last card they chose has a number, which is the number of moves they must use next turn. The goal is to collect sets of ingredients, so a player can look ahead at an entire series of moves and guess where they will end up – unless another player claims their desired card first, or until a wild card is played that disrupts the order or arrangement of cards. Cards are replaced from a draw pile until it is spent, and the game ends as soon as one row or column is also depleted. Since there are many different types of ingredient, it is difficult to keep track of which and how many cards a player has accrued, so some memory is involved. This is the sort of game that can easily be played by adults, or by kids, or by adults and kids together, so it’s an excellent example of a safe game to buy, no matter who you are buying for. Chances are, it will be appreciated.
Around the World in 80 Days (Iello Games, 10+, 2-6 players, $40 msrp):
The very first Spiel de Jahres award, way back in 1979, went to a game called The Tortoise and the Hare, by Ravensburger. Around the World in 80 Days is the same game with a different theme – so what’s new? The artwork throughout the game, including the box art and the bookcase look and slide-out design of the box itself, are gorgeous. The game requires players to take on the role of Phileas Fogg, who has been accused of robbing the Royal Bank of London, who must follow an 80-stop pathway from London, around the world, back to London, with less than 10 pounds (money, that is) and without any of the three rumor cards with which they begin the game. Players start with money and are free on their turn to move as far as they want, except each extra space one might move to is increasingly more expensive (thus, the cost of moving one space is one pound, two spaces cost three pounds, and ten spaces cost 55 pounds, etc). There are several types of spaces, one that allows the draw of a bonus “wild” card, one that allows a player to earn 10 pounds if they skip a turn, various betting spaces that earn the player money if they accurately predict their rank when their turn comes around next, “police station” spaces that allow a player to spend money to get rid of rumor cards, and “layover” spaces, which can only be gotten to when unoccupied and by going backwards – but which allow a player to earn a lot more money. The basic problem faced by each player is to balance their moves so they earn enough (but not too much) money to get to London fastest, while being able to get rid of rumor cards at the sparsely placed police stations. There is no one solid strategy, because other players are constantly in the way of potential best; the game becomes as much a matter of guessing what others will do and bluffing to fool them, as it is about planning ahead.
Clank! (Renegade Games, 12+, 1-4 players, $60 msrp):
Clank! is a deck-building game; that is, a game in which you start with a small deck of cards that provide limited ability to accomplish what you need to accomplish, such as acquiring new and better cards, which in turn allow you to acquire even better cards, etc. They are enormously popular, but I really prefer moving men or pawns or meeples around on a board. This game, however, is a deck-building board game, and that makes all the difference to me. Players are treasure-seekers, and begin the game with a small deck of cards and their individual pawns outside the castle entrance. In the dungeon, the dragon sleeps. The task is to go through the halls and rooms of the upper castle and then the dungeon to collect as much loot as possible (At least one “artifact” must be acquired per player, and they are in the dungeon, so players cannot remain high in the castle) (That matters). Each turn a player will draw five cards from their own personal draw deck, and use them to move, fight, or purchase new cards from a lineup of 6 new cards. But some cards involve actions that are noisy – and the noise is a “clank” – which means a player puts one of his/her colored cube into a draw bag that is prepopulated with 24 black (dragon) cubes. If one or more cards are purchased, fresh cards are drawn and placed in to the 6-card lineup for the next player, and if one of the drawn cards has a special dragon symbol, the result is dragon breath (fire, that is): a certain number of cubes are then drawn from the bag (the number drawn increasing as the game progresses), black cubes are discarded, but colored cubes go to the respective player’s health tracker, indicating damage. Thus the more noise one makes, the more clank cubes one has to put into the bag, and the greater the chance of being hurt by dragon fire when it happens. As the game progresses, the dragon “wakes up” more and more. Players push their luck by remaining in the castle to acquire more treasure, but those who leave before the dragon wakes up completely get a hefty point bonus, and those who do not manage to leave are burnt to a cinder, leaving their treasure to their estate without the hefty bonus. It’s a clever game in which all of the elements work together well, and rare in the sense that it is a little complicated at first (setup is a little bit daunting), but it comes together so nicely that most people would be able to catch on pretty easily.
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (USAopoly, 11+, 2-4 players, $50 msrp):
There is no shortage of Harry Potter fans among Mensans, so this game had a chance at being considered based on the franchise alone. But many a beloved franchise has been represented by a subpar or at least disappointing board game. Hogwarts Battle is yet another deck-builder (see description in Clank!, above), but it is cooperative. That is, the players are all on the same side, competing as Harry, Ron, Hermione, or Neville and working together to defeat villains and protect Hogwarts. Each player starts with their own personal deck of cards, use them to acquire more cards that can represent other characters, professors, magical items, and spells, or they might represent health or injury. As cards are added to each deck, players wield more influence and power, and are able to take on more and more powerful foes and dark acts. Eventually the players either win as a team, or Hogwarts is lost forever (until it’s played again, that is). One of the most appealing things about this game is that any fan of the franchise already knows more or less what to do. All that is required of a new player is to read the cards and use them together. More chapters can be added – taking the kids all the way through to year 6 or 7, making this the kind of game that one can play for a long time.
Imagine (Gamewright, 12+, 3-8 players, $15 msrp):
If you were one of the people who played Pictionary because it seemed so fun, but felt like a failure every time because you just could not draw, then Imagine is for you. Players take turns choosing from a deck of double-sided “enigma” cards, which list eight items on each side. Once an item is chosen the player has to use some combination of any of the 61 transparent cards to get another player to guess what the enigmatic item is. The transparent cards are basic elements of larger things, and are meant to be overlapped with one another in order to depict something larger but totally unique. For example, if “Snowman” is drawn, a player might find three circles, stack them, and add a hat. Or a smile. Or whatever works. The cards can be moved around as well – so a card representing water going over a 90-degree corner might be a waterfall, for example. This game is accessible to everyone; the 12+ suggestion by the manufacturer is fair because it can be frustrating for younger kids to not be able to find the right symbols to convey some meaning. However, I would not hesitate to see what sorts of things much younger children could do with these cards; sometimes they are a lot more creative than adults.
So – that’s it! There were actually 74 games submitted to Mind Games by game publishers, and I will follow up with more summary/reviews of selected games.
If you want game buying advice, please contact me via the theholygrailgames.com. If you want to buy a game that isn’t shown, please let me know and if I can get it, I will! If you want my opinions on anything board game related, let me know that, and I will make an article out of it.
The joy of gaming is in the game, the people playing them, and the time well spent. Spread the word.