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Exploring The Mind; Bonus — Full Playthrough with Color Commentary by Dave Arnott

W. Eric Martin
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Magic isn't real. We've all seen magicians make objects disappear or float or move to a new location or be split in two, but we know that those magicians are performers who have tricked us into thinking that something has disappeared or floated or moved or been split. The object in question hasn't really been affected — or perhaps it has, but another identical object has been presented to us in its place.

We watch a magic show knowing that we're inviting ourselves to be fooled, then we try to forget that knowledge so that we can enjoy the charade. If the magician does their job well, we don't see the ball vanish up a sleeve or a card get loaded into a box. We watch the act, and we respond with enthusiasm when the trick goes off as planned.

The Mind invites you to participate in the performance of a magic trick. You become both audience and performer, playing a trick on your fellow players while amazing yourself in the process. That's the hope anyway...

German publisher Nürnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag publishes a few new titles in the first and second half of each year. Most of those titles are card games — the "Spielkarten" in their name might have hinted at such — and as is the case with almost all new games released on the market these days, most of those titles disappear from retail shelves within a season. The publisher baits its hooks, often with material familiar to what we've seen in the past, and gamers ignore most of those hooks because we're moving in a world filled with so many hooks that they've lost their ability to grab onto us, the hooks now so close together that they form a solid wall that doesn't even catch our attention, much less our wallet.

Sometimes titles do emerge from the crowd, their hook longer than normal, flashier, or highlighted in some way that you can't ignore. NSV's Qwixx from Steffen Benndorf is one such title, this roll-and-write game catching a Spiel des Jahres nomination in 2013 for its combination of simple press-your-luck gameplay and constant interaction among all players. In this game, you're not simply hoping to outperform the other players as each of you bash the "test your strength" meter side-by-side at the carnival; no, you want to outdo them while being presented with pretty much the same raw material. You're in the Qwixx reality show, with everyone facing the same challenge, but moving in different directions once they start to make choices.

Benndorf followed Qwixx with The Game in 2015, a cooperative card game in which the player interaction is brought even more to the forefront, with everyone now sporting a hand of cards and trying to discard them into shared ascending or descending piles. The Game forces you to play at least two cards a turn, spurring you to action whether you want to play or not, which in turn brings you into conflict with your teammates as you place them on the Procrustean bed and are forced to wield the knife. You all want to live, yes, "living" here meaning playing all your cards, but each of us has different imperatives, different conflicting goals in doing what you need to do, just as you and I have different, possibly conflicting goals in life since my ability to land a job or live in a particular place might necessitate you not being able to do the same. We all want happiness, but our paths toward that goal interweave constantly and it's easy to bump someone into the ditch. You might be satisfied with that individually since you can still do what you want, but as a group we're worse off than before, a car minus a wheel, a building without support.

The Game netted another SdJ nomination in 2016, and now in early 2018 NSV has released a spiritual successor to that title: The Mind from Wolfgang Warsch, a designer with only two publishing credits prior to this year, but one who is seeing a quartet of his games hit the market in the first half of 2018.

At first blush, The Mind resembles The Game: Both are cooperative, both feature moody artwork, and both require you to play cards in order. Beyond that, though, The Mind feels nothing like The Game. Yes, you're playing cooperatively, but you're all playing at the same time, each of you presented with a hand of cards and asked to play — together — cards from a deck numbered 1 to 100 in ascending order into a single discard pile.

How do you determine when it's your turn to play? You can't ask others, at least not with words. You can't say what you're holding, and they must be similarly mute. As the rules state: "[N]one of the players is permitted to disclose any of their card values or show them to another player. There must be absolutely no consultation between the players, and no secret signs either!"

That said, you definitely consult with other players, but not by talking with them. Instead, you watch them. You all place your hands in the center of the table to start the level, a communal moment that feels somewhat goofy and cult-like, yet one that takes on importance the more that you do it, you acknowledging everyone else, effectively saying, here we are together again — let's do this!

You lift your hand from the table, and that corresponds with you lifting your eyes to see what everyone else is doing. She still has her eyes down on her cards; she's quiet, waiting. He just looked back-and-forth between us quickly, checking to see what we're doing. My hands are still on my cards. He just sat up a little, he's tensing, reaching for a card. I have a 19. Surely he's playing something lower than a 19, yes? Let's see...

When someone first hears about The Mind, they often say, "You're just counting, right? You each count to yourself, then play a card when you hit that count?"

No, this is not what you're doing — or at least it's not what you should be doing. To win, you all must play all of the cards in your hands in order for a certain number of levels without running out of lives. You start with 2-4 lives, each player bringing their own life to the table, and anytime someone plays a card out of order — say, discarding the 48 while someone else still has the 42 and 46 in hand — you lose one life, then play continues. Run out of lives, and The Mind is over.

Your goal is to win, yes, but to paraphrase a quote attributed to designer Reiner Knizia, the playing of a game is what's important, not the goal. Don't focus on winning, but on playing well within the spirit of the game. Otherwise you could just set up a metronome in the background and be assured that every card will hit the table at its properly ordained time, winning the game in the emptiest manner possible, akin to winning a match in a chess tournament because your opponent drove to the wrong location and left you facing an empty seat. Sure, you won, but with no thought, no effort, no risk, no challenge. Winning might come as a consequence of playing, but winning is secondary to playing. You won't remember the victory as much as everything that brought you to that point, so why skip everything that makes a game what it is?

•••


To demonstrate how playing The Mind is not counting, here's a full playthrough at a convention in April 2018. Jess Davis, Daryl Andrews, Matt Tolman, and I played seven times in a row, and I think this was game #5 or 6 for us, with the time being somewhere near 3:00 a.m. at that point.

GameNight!'s Dave Arnott saw us playing and was blown away by our pace. Boom, boom, boom, down go the cards! GameNight! covered The Mind in March 2018 (video), and Dave's playing style differs a lot from mine, with him constantly placing his hand on the table to call for a break. I prefer to just get in a groove and roll, and you can see that in the video below; even when we lose a life, we keep on rushing. Maybe that's a mistake if we're trying to win, but for me it's the best way to play:



•••


Author Timothy Ferriss claims to have won a gold medal in a martial arts tournament by vastly dehydrating himself at weigh-in so that he'd compete against people much smaller than him, then by pushing people out of the ring (instead of fighting them) to get them disqualified so that he'd win by TKO. This is winning of a sort, I suppose, but if you feel the need to go full rules lawyer to win a game, I'd rather not play with you.

Along those lines, another suggestion from those just learning The Mind: "Play the 100 when you have it. You'll lose only one life regardless of how many cards are discarded, and you'll get to the next level immediately." Everyone suggests this. I thought of this as well, thinking about the game in the shower and realizing that you could possibly discard your way to victory in the final level should you have a life to spare.

Thankfully the author and NSV know how gamers think and specify in the rules that when you play, you must play your lowest card in hand. Yes, you protest, but what if my hand is 96, 97, 98, 99, and 100? Then I'll play the 96, we'll lose one life, then I'll play everything else.

Does victory mean more to you than the experience of play? If I had a hand like that, I would cherish the memory of playing that level, everyone else staring at me and waiting for me to play; me, staring them off and not moving an inch. I can imagine that scenario being played out at the table, and it's a hundred thousand times more satisfying than me dropping the 96 and axing one of our lives when doing so might have been unnecessary. Life is not a resource to be squandered by taking the easy path, but something to be fought for and held onto dearly.

If you still feel that winning is the goal, perhaps you should reframe the goal. You're not simply trying to complete a certain number of levels to win; you're trying to play cards in ascending order together for a certain number of levels. Play those cards. Play them. Play.

The Mind consists of almost nothing other than the numbered cards and life markers. The only other tool available to players is the shuriken, with one at hand at the start of play and others available to be gained as you complete certain levels.

If someone wants to use a shuriken, they raise their hand. If everyone raises their hand, then you discard a shuriken and everyone discards their lowest card face-up in front of them. Sometimes these discards resolve a stand-off, with everyone previously staring at one another, hand on a half-pulled card, and now smiling in relief after seeing three revealed cards in numerical sequence. Sometimes these discards reveal an opportunity. Everyone else has cards no lower than 74? Let me drop 63 and 70 right now, then step back into our shared timestream to stare at one another once more.

What I love about the shuriken is that it's a tool that reveals something about the player suggesting it — or the player who refuses to agree to it — but you're not sure exactly what it reveals:

• Do they think they have the lowest card, yet aren't confident enough to pull the trigger?
• Do they have two or three cards close together and are hoping to create a window in which they can play them safely?
• Do they have only high-value cards and want to effectively step away from the table until they need to jump in again?
• Do they have only a single card and want to clear a path for others to play?

I've suggested the shuriken in all of these situations, and sometimes it's the right thing to do and sometimes it's not. You don't know what others hold, so you don't know their struggles, their internal monologues. An especially enjoyable part of play is that a shuriken request doesn't stop play. You raise your hand, staring at everyone, and they're staring at you and everyone else. Yes, you want to use a shuriken, but I don't think it's because you're next and no one else seems ready to play, so I'll drop my 38 on the 21. No one objects, yelling to indicate that they have a lower number and we lost a life? Okay, I'm now dropping 41. You just keep that hand up if you want and maybe I'll join you after I play 45...

Playing The Mind is like acting in a stage play where you've been handed a script showing only your lines and told to perform. You don't know what everyone else is supposed to do and when, but ideally you'll perform at the right time and so will they, and the play will go off without a hitch.

In game terms, The Mind is like a formalized version of that occurrence at the game table when you realize that you're staring into the distance and no longer sure of whose turn it is. All too often, it's your turn and everyone else is waiting for you to do something. Whose turn is it to play a card? One of you is next, so figure it out! Is it you? No, is it you? No, not you either, so I guess it's me. Is it me? Is it? Do something and find out!

The Mind plays quickly, especially in your first game with a new group of players. I explain the game, deal one card to each player, engage in our communal table-touching, then tell everyone, Whenever you feel the time is right, play your card.

Not everyone agrees on when the time is right, of course. The Mind is a game of chicken, with all of us staring one another down and daring someone else to go first. Surely it's not my turn, is it? You make mistakes, jumping to 60 when someone else feels that it's not time to play 45, much less their 53. How dare you!

You die in that first game, then flip the level cards back to one, shuffle, and say, Okay, we'll do better this time — and the most unsurprisingly surprising thing is that you almost always do. I know that this player plays more quickly than I do, so I'll try to speed up a bit and maybe they'll slow down. This player grabs their card long before they actually play it. This one makes their cards crawl across the table like a soldier under barbed wire. This one remains motionless, then slams down their cards.

You see all types of behavior, with the most common being unexpected giggling. You're staring at someone, saying "You're going to play now, right?" only with your eyes, and they're doing the same to you. You back in junior high or high school, waiting for that cutie in science class to make the first move because you're sure that if you do it, you're going to screw it up. Maybe not, though. Maybe you're the one who needs to be bold. Take a chance! If you're wrong, well, then we'll blame the person who should have played ahead of you — unless you played waaay too early of course, in which case you're a terrible person and deserve to be shunned.

My favorite part about playing The Mind — something I've now done more than one hundred times on a review copy from NSV — is how your sense of the proper time to play a card changes over the course of the game. When each of you has only a single card to play, you're probably comfortably dropping the 62 immediately after someone else plays the 50. After all, what are the odds that someone else is holding a card between those two values? (I say that, but I don't really want to know the odds. I prefer going by gut feel in pretty much all gaming circumstances once we'd start measuring things in something smaller than sixths.)

As the hands starting getting larger, though, you're going to hold off on playing that 62. More cards are out there, so surely someone has something higher than 50 that must be played first. Yes? No? Look around the table, wait a beat, reach for the card — wait, she's reaching for a card, too.

Time freezes.

The two of you are like Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix, flying toward one another, yet still. The silly putty of time has suddenly stretched between us, and everyone else has fallen away from our mini-play. The standoff continues. What do you have? What? What? You flip out the 61 onto the stack, I slam down the 62, and now time crashes into action again. All hands on deck! Go!

The funny thing about The Mind is how the game looks like nothing — and some people have denounced it as such, as a charade, as the emperor's new clothes, but no, not that one.

Yet in my experience The Mind has generated numerous incredible moments at the playing table. The game facilitates a crazy amount of human interaction in a way like no other game that I've experienced, despite it being airier than meringue, and that's further evidence of the magic at work in this design. No one can alpha-game this co-op. The game takes place between all of you, and you all matter in its playing. You are all important, and I invite you all to join me in playing it. That feeling of welcomeness, paired with a rule set that takes no more than a minute to learn, is why The Mind will win the Spiel des Jahres award in 2018.

•••
Instead of going through all the numbers, let's pretend that we've already been playing together for years, that we know one another about as well as we can, and imagine the numbers flowing out in order from our symbiotic hands.

I'd like to think this shared knowledge is true of me and my wife, and perhaps it is as she's been involved in three of my nine victories in The Mind, two of them with just the two of us and a third with a woman we had only recently met, a woman who became so entranced with the game that she mocked up level cards to take with her on a trip home to Macau so that she could introduce it to friends and family by using a copy of The Game as proxy until Pandasaurus Games releases The Mind in the U.S. in mid-2018.




I love her introduction of level 0 cards for the starting lives and shuriken, with the extra lives and shuriken being incorporated onto the level cards themselves. No need for extra components! The cards even have medals on levels 8, 10 and 12 to show what you need to complete in order to win. All of this was hand-drawn, by the way, which amazes me all the more. You know what's amazing? People, that's what.

The last surprise that The Mind holds for players, assuming you don't tell them this until they need to know it, is the advanced mode of play: blind mode. If you win the game, keep your live and shuriken, then start again at level 1 immediately — but this time when you play cards, play them face down on the table. If you use a shuriken, then cards are discarded face up as normal, but otherwise you see whether you've succeeded or not only after everyone finishes laying down their cards.

The few times I've done this, I've squared all of the played cards, then revealed them one by one from the bottom of the deck. The tension is incredible, and the joy of finding that you've played sequential cards correctly is indescribable. This might be chance, yes, and possibly random, but that joy is real, manufactured from your expectations that the impossible can't be done, then finding those expectations ignored. I've made it to level 8 in blind mode (again, with my wife), and someday we'll see it through.

In conclusion, I like The Mind, but if you've read this far, you probably knew what I was holding for the end. Time to shuffle up, and move on to the next round...
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