Mind Games

[Marty Goldberger is no stranger to these pages having contributed reviews over our two and a half decades. Marty’s reviews are an example of quality over quantity. First appearing in the Summer 1997 issue, he last graced our pages with his 5th review in the Winter 2010 issue with his review of Back to the Future: The Card Game when he helped kick off our 25th year. Now, to celebrate our 100th issue, Marty, a Mensa member, makes his sixth contribution and takes a different slant on revealing the inner workings of “mind games”.]

Reviewed by Marty Goldberger

mensamindgamesNo, not the ones you are thinking of. “Mind Games” is the annual competition run by American Mensa, Ltd. American Mensa is the national organization representing the United States within International Mensa (the High IQ Society).

bestwesternalbanyAmerican Mensa has been holding a games rating convention for a couple of decades. Each year five games win the Mensa Select award (earning the right to place a “seal” on subsequent printings). The award designates games that Mensans enjoyed playing. As might be expected, the award translates into increased sales. This event has an added benefit for games other than the top five. Over the years quite a few quality games initially produced by manufacturers with limited means have been picked up by larger firms and reprinted in glitzier form. The event is held over a weekend in a different U.S. city each year. This helps equalize the opportunity for Mensa members to attend.

I was told that the April 15-17, 2011 event held at the Best Western Sovereign Hotel at Albany, New York (pictured left) had 292 (out of an upper limit of 300) registrants (two were from Iceland!). The event is open to all ages and this year a half-dozen children under 12 were attending. Non-members can register, but only current/active Mensa members may vote.

The event is usually held in a hotel with convention facilities. An area is set aside for Registration. The judging area contains LOTS of tables, a games pick up & return sector (along 1+ walls), a ballot box (for votes), a Comments feedback sector (pigeonholes for each of the manufacturers’ games), a “Lost game pieces that have been found” box, and a microphone. The Hospitality room provides snacks, drinks, basic hot nosh (pizzas, hot dogs, et al). Hospitality is normally 24/7 from Friday afternoon through Sunday morning.

mindgames2When you arrive at the Registration area, you are checked in and given a personalized folder with the Mind Games materials, a badge (there were any number of comments about American Mensa saving some money on these by using previously unexpended material – this year’s badge reads “San Diego – 2010”), a stapled together pair of “Playlist” pages on sturdy colored cardstock and other useful items.

One Playlist page is blue and specifies the thirty (yes, 30) games you are expected to test during the weekend. The other Playlist page is yellow and specifies the remaining games submitted to the competition. Playlist page-pairs are computer generated. Each contains a different set of 30 games to be judged. The bottom part of the blue page is your ballot.

Common to the blue and the yellow pages are the game evaluating portions. These are printed on the front & back of each page. The columns, from left to right are: Name of the game + identifier + list price; Number of players + Time to play + Minimum player age; criteria of Aesthetics (look, feel, style), Instructions (brevity, clarity, completeness), Originality (structure, concept, creativity), Play Appeal (enjoyment, excitement, challenge), Play Value (repeatability, longevity, price), and Overall (gut feeling); and Total Score/Your Ranking.

In addition to your personal scoring, it is also requested that, for each game, you complete a Comment Card with feedback for the manufacturer. This 3 1/2″ x 8 1/2″ card has pre-printed sections for key information plus plenty of room for specific comments. These go into the appropriate pigeonhole with everyone else’s reviews of that game.

I arrived in the late afternoon on Friday. This was my second Mind Games and my previous experience helped. I knew I could review the 30 games on my judging list but would not have enough time to go hands-on with all of the remaining games. This mind-set helped me finish my 30-game list by about 8pm on Saturday night. I then looked back over my notes and selected my top seven (7) games, wrote them in on my ballot, tore it off, dropped it in the ballot box and breathed a sigh of relief. I then took a break for a restaurant-type dinner. From the late evening until about 2:30am I played a dozen of the games on my yellow page, incidentally helping a number of other attendees who were still on their blue page judging list. When I left there were probably fifty people still gaming.

My experiences at this year’s and my previous Mind Games leads me to believe that I am in a minority when I review a game. I’ve been playtesting games for over thirty years and I’m there to judge & review a game, not worry about whether or not I win. I used to work at Simulations Publications, Inc. (the wargaming company better known as SPI) and have tested perhaps fifty military history/science fiction themed games published by the top firm in the field. The rules booklets for these range from eight to forty-eight 8 1/2×11″ pages. Since joining the Long Island Game Group I have had the pleasure of pre-publication playtesting about a dozen games designed by members of that group.

I’ve always been interested in a game’s system. That is, do the mechanics work with or against the game? After working at SPI with Redmond Simonsen, the head of its Art department, I added ease of understanding of the symbols/graphics on the mapboard & game pieces/components plus clarity of the rules to my requirements.

I don’t expect submissions to necessarily be of the highest quality components. A lot of the firms just don’t have the resources to publish that type of game. I find Kill Dr. Lucky originally published in a bare-bones edition by Cheapass Games (Fall 1997 Gamers Alliance Report) is just as much fun as Clue.

I’ve played a lot of many different types of games over my 62 years. I’m looking for originality. Encountering the 30th incarnation of a rip-off of Scrabble does not thrill me. I am particularly tough on Euro strategy games. It seems to me that most of the attendees are not that familiar with the genre. To me, reasonably well-designed games of that ilk get higher ratings than other well-crafted games that were submitted. On the other hand, I’ve never been a parent and am fascinated by games that teach kids logic, et al. I give those high marks. However, all of the parents I talk to go “ho hum” because they’ve been checking out those types of games since their kid showed an interest in playing something more complicated than Candyland.

Games submitted range from solitaire to ten(+) player. As with my previous Mind Games, few fall into the Euro strategy game category. I found that most of the solitaire-capable games are well designed and contain multiple levels of difficulty. Rabbit was not on my judging list but I am glad I checked it out. Watership Down by Adams is one of my favorite novels. This game seemed to me to be a very good if not excellent, albeit difficult, simulation of founding and expanding a warren of rabbits. I was surprised that the game did not score higher among the attendees. Quality components do not guarantee a good game. Neither Celtic Challenge nor Periodic Quest did anything for me and they are both nicely produced.

One game stood out as the winner of “Why was this submitted by its publisher?” award: Duckslam! It is an interactive question and answer game but there is no winner or loser. Given that Mensans tend to be very competitive, this easy to learn and OK to play game was the joke of this year’s Mind Games.

eleminismartypicI look for games that have value for the money. Unfortunately for Pastiche, I’ve played Fresco (Fall 2010 GA Report) and its originality and theme suffered thereby. BUT, I was only one of many judges and the game generated good buzz from the get-go. Among my favorites:

Eleminis (a simple but effective set-collecting cardgame)

FlipOut (a set-collecting card game with an unusual mechanism, featured in its original version as Patchwork in the Spring 2010 GA Report)

Mr. Jack Pocket (a portable version of the 2-player deduction boardgame Mr. Jack) and…

Uncle Chestnut’s Table Gype (a race game where the capabilities of the pieces change whenever they are “jumped” ala Chinese Checkers. That’s me with the game at right. Photo courtesy of Vicki Goldberger)

But tastes differ. My friends acquired at least the following games: Pastiche (mentioned above), InStuctures (team game where the person who can see the 3-D object must talk teammates through being first to build it), Lexigo (hexagonal-shaped tiles allow building words in straight and twisting paths), Spot It! (be the first to find the one matching symbol among those on two cards), The Resistance (card game where some players are secretly assigned the task of overthrowing a regime while others have been secretly assigned the task of supporting it), Toppletree (a get 4-in-a-row combined with hand & eye coordination game), Train Of Thought (hidden word guessing game. If the 3-word clue “Cetacean _ Jump _ Hedge” makes you think ‘Dolphin’, this game is for you) and Volcanic Disaster (card game about predicting eruptions and therefore saving lives. Game provides educational material embedded in the play. I have a Masters Degree in Geology so it didn’t strike the chord with me it might have.)

I managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep on Saturday night and then had breakfast while the votes were tabulated on Sunday morning. The five “Mensa Select” winners are announced and the winners were:

InStructures (Jane’s Games), Pastiche (Gryphon Games), Pirate vs. Pirate (Out of the Box Games), Stomple (GaZima Games) and Uncle Chestnut’s Table Gype (Eternal Revolution).

Then the game giveaway starts. The names of the Mensan registrants had been listed in a randomized order. In sequence, people were called and they selected any one game from among any remaining copies. This continued until everyone had been mentioned. Then, starting at the last name, the list was read in reverse order and people got to select a second game until all copies were distributed. Any games you wanted but didn’t win could be ordered at the ‘Mensa Boutique’ table. I came home owning Eleminis and FlipOut!


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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