The Mind is certainly the strangest game I’ve played this year, and probably the one most likely to have you and your partners laughing while you play it, even though the game’s most fundamental rule is that you can’t talk to the other people playing with you. It’s disarmingly simple, yet very difficult to beat, especially if you’re playing with people you don’t know that well or with whom you haven’t played games before. It’s one of three games from Wolfgang Warsch to earn nominations in this year’s Spiel des Jahres competitions—there are only six nominations total, so he got half of them, winning the Kennerspiel for The Quacks of Quedlinburg—and regardless of whether you like it, you’ll probably have a very strong opinion on it when you’re done playing.
The game couldn’t be quicker to learn. Two to four players work together to play cards dealt randomly from the numbered deck, with one card each from 1 to 100, to each player. In any given round, each player receives a hand of cards equal to the round number. All players must then play their hand cards to the table in ascending order to create a single stack for everyone—that is, if I have the 12 card, and you have the 13, I must play the 12 before you play the 13 or we lose that round. The catch, as I mentioned above, is that you can’t communicate with other players at all—no talking, no hand signals, nothing. It’s all a question of timing, and knowing, or guessing, how long to wait before playing your next card to the table.
The game lasts a fixed number of rounds tied to the number of players—eight rounds for a 4-player game, ten for a 3-player game, and twelve for a 2-player game. You do get a few cards to help you for the inevitable stumble, including an extra life (the cards with the rabbit shown on the box cover), and a throwing star. If you still have a throwing star available, any one player can raise his/her hand to indicate that the player would like to use it. If all other players agree by raising their hands, then every player discards their lowest numbered card to the table at the same time, after which play continues as normal. You can obtain additional throwing stars or lives (rabbits!) by completing certain rounds as you progress.
There’s nothing more to the rules of The Mind, but of course the game play is nowhere near that simple. I’ve played with a bunch of partners so far, and everyone seems to have their own playing style. One partner literally refused to make eye contact with me at all during the rounds because he thought it was messing with our timing. (He wasn’t wrong; I think that’s the farthest I’ve gotten in the game, round 9 out of 12 with two players.) I’ve played with a few partners who had to look away to keep from laughing as we both waited for the other to play first; one of those games saw us dealt cards that were nearly consecutive in the first round, something like 64 and 67, and we busted immediately—and then busted out laughing at our misfortune and how we both sat there waiting for the other to play, only to both move around the same time.
The Mind is the kind of game that gets better the more you play it with the same partner(s)—you should start to learn the other players’ rhythms, at least enough to improve your chances of surviving each round. It’s harder with more players, but since you’re all in it together, it’s still fun and should induce lots of laughter and slapping of the table (preferable to slapping yourself or another player, in my experience). It’s also portable and is easy to teach other players, as well as something you can play with kids old enough to understand the number line and where their cards might sit on it. It pushes the boundaries of a traditional board game, straddling the line between strategy games and party games. That’s a feature, not a bug, of a game that more than deserves the plaudits it’s received so far.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.