Three players, stone-faced, are locked in absolute silence as they stare at the table with a card reading “13” resting on it. Two of the three reach for one card from their hand and gesture towards revealing it. As if shot in the gut, they both reel back simultaneously, and let go of their readied card. A minute passes, each simply glares at the other as their wordless conversation carries on. The third player sits back, placing their cards on the table as they watch the two quietly negotiate. Eventually, one grabs their card and throws it down on the table.
The other breathes a weighty sigh of relief as they drop a 44 on top. The third player barks a yell, throwing their hands in the air as they pelt a card reading 21 at the tabletop. The group erupts into a din of laughter.
“43?! That wasn’t a 30 kind of wait! That was 10, tops,” they say, as they toss one of the group’s three lives into the pile with a shake of the head.
And so they continue, wordless, expressionless.
This is pretty much the way it goes with The Mind, a pocket-sized card game by Wolfgang Warsch. On the surface, the premise is simple: players place cards in ascending order until their hands are empty, and then repeat the process 8, 10, or 12 times (depending on the number of players) with one more card in their hand than each previous, and the game is won when all the levels have been completed.
If that were the extent of it, then this game would be trivial — but the catch is that players are not allowed to communicate. Whether verbal or non-verbal, players are bound to silence by the game’s extremely brief rulebook: they simply need to intuit what to play and when to play it, and the means by which this occurs is where the magic happens — or doesn’t happen.
The strange thing with this game is that having played it with two different groups, each group’s response has been completely at odds with the other. The less strange thing is that such a gamut of responses seems, well, completely in line with other people’s responses.
It’s one of the more polarising games I’ve played, and its nomination at the 2018 Spiel des Jahres was met with some resistance to say the least — with some actually questioning whether The Mind is a game at all — but The Mind rewards the level of investment it demands. It’s easy to bend, or even break the one rule that governs this game, and truthfully it’s somewhat inevitable that players will at some point innocently widen their eyes, gesture for a pause, or something in that vein, but if done enough, it can bust open The Mind’s mystique, and truthfully, once the seal is broken, it’s not much fun at all.
Therein lies the interesting dichotomy: tabletop games are by their very nature social, and so eschewing that by forcing no communication goes against every unspoken rule of the medium. If players aren’t willing to roll with this, they simply aren’t going to enjoy their time spent with The Mind. The upside to this is that if the group is on board with what the game is offering, not only does its otherwise impossible proposition become indescribably possible, but the sychronisation that the group enters into is an extraordinary feat that’s basically irreplicable in any other game I’ve ever played.
In addition to the understanding that players build with each other, you have one other tool: should things get too difficult to discern, there is the option of using a shuriken card to place one player’s card on the table for free. Not only does this provide some indication of what that player may have in the rest of their hand (though exactly what it indicates may vary from table to table), but it also removes a card from play that could have otherwise blown the game wide open. With only a few of these on offer per game, they’re a precious resource to be used sparingly — and groups can easily go on full tilt if they’re losing lives and using shurikens in the opening few hands, though that proves more frequently hilarious than harrowing.
Of the two groups I’ve played The Mind with so far, one has enjoyed it thoroughly, and one other could barely scrape through two games before declaring it to be a waste of their time, begging to move on to another title. The latter was also the first group that I had tested this game with, and at the day’s end, I’d genuinely considered the possibility that I’d wasted my money. While I’m glad I persevered, I’ll leave the caveat at the door nonetheless: this game can prove to be a hugely disappointing experience.
If you’re a fan of co-op games like Pandemic or Mansions of Madness, where half the fun comes from the planning and scheming that comes with trying to plan your moves ten steps out, The Mind may not be a winner for you. But this game is, if nothing else, a completely unique experience that stands on its own far away from the pack, and in that sense, for better or worse, entirely deserving of the attention it’s been receiving.