When I first heard The Mind described, it didn’t make sense. This little German game has players cooperate to play cards from their hands in ascending order, without talking—and that’s about it. The concept sounds farcical in its simplicity, particularly when paired with the amount of furor the game has generated.
Then I played the thing, and it wouldn’t get out of my head.
Originally published by Nürnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag, The Mind has now been brought to North America by Pandasaurus Games. It was nominated for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award (though it was beaten by Azul) and has started a groundswell of both praise and consternation. How can such a simple game generate so much attention?
Cult of The Mind
The community that has fallen for this design tends to describe The Mind with a sense of mystique and wonder. The game, they say, breeds a feeling of collective action that’s almost cult-like—which is why The Mind is often described as an “experience” as opposed to a game.
That’s not to say this isn’t a game. Players are dealt out a random assortment of cards from a deck numbered 1 to 100. Everyone must then play their cards in ascending order to a joint pile on the table. Whoever has the lowest card in the group must play theirs first, followed by the person holding the next lowest, etc.
The Mind’s magic lies in how it limits communication. Players are not allowed to talk and must instead utilize non-verbal cues (like delayed action) as their primary tools. So if you’re dealt the three, you slowly slide the card face-down towards the middle of the table with your eyes wide as you stare down your peers. You want to push the card forward just cautiously enough to allow someone with a one or two to play first. If you sit there quietly with that three in your hand for too long, the player with the 10 may incorrectly assume she has the lowest value card and toss that out to the pile.
When a card is played out of order, players immediately discard those cards and the group loses a life. Play escalates round to round as each level has more cards dealt to the participants. The stakes increase. The difficulty can be staggering, which provides an otherworldly sense of satisfaction if you eventually eke out a win. When that happens, you’ll be nursing a bruised palm from a dozen high-fives, then hopping up on adrenaline for the rest of the evening.
The Mind is one of the most intensely clever exercises in simplicity I’ve seen. It brings a single mechanism to the table and offers a few restrictions that result in a fantastic trick. Very few games rely so completely on non-verbal communication, and that’s exactly where this title lives and dies.
In many ways, the experience is similar to the classic Ouija board. It offers a situation ripe for exploitation and allows players to do the heavy lifting and meet it more than halfway. This framework can produce euphoric moments shared between everyone at the table. That sense of exhilarating intoxication is powerful—and many tabletop games never achieve it.
Take the following common situation: you’re slowly nudging a card towards the center when out of the corner of your eye, you spot one of your mates parroting you. As you both approach the terminus of open table space, a decision must be made. One of you must play your card first. You sit there a moment in indecision, staring each other in the eyes with a sense of intensity. Your brow furrows and that vein above your eyebrow comes to life. Then you go for it.
Before your 31 fully settles upon the pile, your chum slams down the 32 on top of it and every cell in your brain is electric. The table cheers and your heart swells. The game is full of these moments as each flip of the card is a distilled instance of drama. There’s a reason the cult of The Mind is vast and vocal.
It’s not a game?
As profound as this experience can be for many, an equally large population simply finds it empty. If you aren’t invested in the concept and don’t work to find the brilliance, it will never manifest. For such players, The Mind is simply a dull game devoid of charisma. Those drinking the Kool-Aid appear ludicrous.
Offering ammunition for this argument is the game’s fragile relationship with fickleness. Random variability can unfortunately have a large impact on the difficulty. For instance, if your group gets cards 91, 92, 94, and 96—all of them spread among four players—good luck playing those in perfect rhythm.
Increasing the burden for the non-believers is the sheer amount of disconnect that can potentially be felt. If you’re not hitting on that magnetic emotional connection with the other players, then it will feel as if the game is dominated by downtime. You’ll sit, waiting for your turn, tossing out a few cards at random points in the game.
It’s nearly impossible to predict where you will land until you try the game; my own skepticism was shattered almost immediately. The Mind suggestively pushes its telepathic narrative by having players place their hands side by side to mind meld before play begins. These little touches sound ludicrous upon first contact, but you might be the one insisting everyone sync up before the second round begins.
As you push through the levels and the difficulty explodes, your body will be eaten by tension. The game strings you along with just enough support to keep you going and intensely focused. When that last “life” is lost and the collective groan dissipates into silence, it will be only a moment before someone’s reaching for the deck and beginning to shuffle again.
The Mind is one of those games that can drive its hooks into the deeper recesses of your brain. It might keep you up all night trying to pierce its metaphysical curtain—or, you know, it’ll have you shaking your head as you toss it into the waste bin, trying to make sense of all these lunatics.
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