Mindful Design

The Mind is a short cooperative card game for 2-4 players that is getting a lot of buzz lately. Eric Martin of BGG is mentioning it quite a bit as he boasts over 100 plays already. It's not yet available in America, though some specialty sites have it, and you can go on the German Amazon to buy it. Many have made the comparison to Hanabi, which is the Spiel des Jahre winner designed by Antoine Bauza. While they share some surface similarities, namely a small number of players, a cooperative card game, and a goal of playing numbered cards in a sequence, I think they are pretty distinct in one very important manner: The Mind is a far superior game.

That is the very definition of a hot take, and I plan to back this up. But, my goal here isn't to slam Hanabi, but to share my analysis of the two. Typically I can point to specific mechanisms or executions, but with Hanabi and The Mind, it's a really soft, fuzzy analysis. At the top level, I begin with these statements.

Hanabi is a brilliant, innovative game, that isn't very fun.

The Mind is a rather straightforward game that doesn't appear special, but is very fun, and almost magical.

The first thing that comes to mind is cheating. In both games, players are told they cannot share information, cannot use subtle body language, cannot aid one another. You can only use the game's strictly identified ways in which to communicate. But in Hanabi, everyone cheats. You twist the rules, you change them, you cough, your eyes dart. While it's funny in the act, and fun is provided by the sheer delight in being naughty rule breakers, in the end you're cheating. In the end, it makes you feel bad. While we cheat some in The Mind, we do so far less. But more importantly, we don't feel the need to cheat so much. I think this is because Hanabi leaves out too much. It creates a void that must be filled. The Mind leaves no such void.

Let me make a comparison. In English, there isn't a specific word for You Plural versus You Singular. If I'm facing a group of three people and I wish to address all of them, I say "You." If I'm facing that same group and I wish to address one of them, I say "You." It's awkward. This is why different regional solutions have emerged, including "Y'all," "Yins" (Note: What is wrong with you people?), "You People," (Note: What do you mean by you people?) and "You guys." We fill the hole left by our language. 

I think Hanabi is similar. By just pointing out a number(s) or a color(s), you technically have enough to solve the puzzle, but you don't feel like you have enough. I've even seen groups go as far as creating standard, understood, overt conventions by which to play the game, which in my opinion is just blasphemous and a terrible way to play. But, the game has forced us down this path.

In The Mind, they give you a solution to fill this hole. It's a brilliant one. At the beginning of the game, you examine your cards, which are some subset of 1-100, distributed evenly among you (ex: each player has 4 cards). You arrange them and think about them. When you're ready, you place your hand on the table. When everyone does so, you lift your hands and begin. You're centered around that moment. Let's say a particularly tense play occurs and you laugh, or sigh, and get distracted. One player places their hand on the table. The others quickly follow suit. You re-center and begin again. Sometimes you may do it multiple times in a row to gain your focus. You don't speak. You don't wink. You don't square your shoulders. You just place your hand, you re-center, and you play again.

The game recognizes that as humans or gamers or whatever we are, we need to do something. It's awkward, otherwise. The designer gives us that, and it's enough.

Really good Hanabi players may dispute this, as is their right. And frankly, I've only played about 16 plays of Hanabi and about 14 plays of The Mind. But, play in Hanabi always felt rather routine and straightforward. It felt like a matter of deduction, of ascertaining the fluff around a particular clue if someone was good, or recognizing a spade as a spade if they weren't particularly clever. I never felt like I did something thrilling or amazing in Hanabi. I felt like I either failed a lot, or I failed less. 

In The Mind, even at lower levels, there will be sequences where you play 40, 42, 50, 51, 53, 54 and as a table your sphincters will be so clenched everyone will be shocked when a diamond doesn't emerge. Though, that begs the question who put the coal up their bum?  Even though you're only playing numbers in a sequence you feel brilliant. And that is one of the most important things a good design can foster - your players feel clever and special. With almost no lifting, but some very simple though, The Mind often makes us feel brilliant, or hiliariously stupid, but never in a dull or routine way.

The Mind demands you show up with an A or you show up with an F (in American letter grade terms), but nothing in the middle. It's Hindenburg or the Moon Landing. I think Hanabi is always just a Delta 737 crossing the Atlantic.

This isn't a long piece, and perhaps it's not sufficiently thoughtful. But, I've been sharing some of these thoughts on Twitter and wanted to note all of them in one, concise package. If you didn't like Hanabi, give The Mind a look. I think it's a much better game and it's really something special.