Wolfgang Warche’s The Mind seems like a game that shouldn’t work. Or perhaps, it doesn’t feel like a game at all. The concept is simple, you and your friends need to cooperatively play cards from your hand in their numerical order. The cards, numbered 1-100 are dealt out randomly. Each round players get more cards, so for the first round each person plays one, for the second two, and so on. Players try to play sequentially without playing any cards out of order, for as many rounds as they can. Sounds like a mindless activity right? What could be so hard about playing cards in order? Well there’s a twist. You are not allowed to communicate with the other players.
Suddenly, what seems like a pointless counting exercise instead seems like an impossible task. If you are not allowed to talk or sign to other players, how could you possibly play your card(s) at the right time? Well the game is not entirely unforgiving. If you play a card that is higher than one in another player’s hand, you don’t lost the game immediately, but instead you lose a life. You start the game with a certain number of lives so there is room for error, and you can earn more lives by making it to further rounds. If you run out of lives however, you collectively lose the game. The game also gives you one more tool in the form of shuriken cards. These cards allow each player to discard their lowest card without losing a life, so if players are stuck and can’t seem to mind meld, they can play one of these to get rid of a few card without penalty.
When I first went over to a friend’s place to play this game, we all kind of laughed it off. At the end of the rules explanation (all two minutes of it) we looked at each other and said “That’s it?” Even a game of Spades seems to have more going on, more thought involved. Not to mention, this sounded impossible, unless we could truly read each other’s minds I would never know that my friend had the 17 and know to hold back my 36. And what if another player had the 35? It seemed, quite simply, like a game of pure chance. But we played anyways. It had been nominated for an award, there must be something to it, something unique. We lost very quickly our first round, and we did not fare too much better in our second.
The game has an interesting rule where you are each supposed to place your hand on the table and focus before a round starts. No one can begin play until all players decide they have formed a sufficient connection, and pick up their hand. Players can re-initiate this process at any point during the game by putting their hand on the table again, inviting all players to do so until they all lift their hand and keep playing. As we first tried the game, it seemed rather silly to do this, just some flavor, part of the theme of mind reading that the game purports to be about. For our third game, our last try at this ridiculous exercise, we tried our best to take this part just a bit more seriously. Everyone took a breathe, the room became quiet, and we lifted our hands.
And then something very strange happened. We made it further than we had in previous games. We bumped our way through the first round, found our footing in the second, and suddenly, almost in a surreal way we were playing cards in order, without talking. We kept succeeding when we should have failed, kept playing the right card. This was not random chance, but instead involved very concentrated stares, and a good amount of body language. It became a meditative exercise, where players would organize their cards, look at the other players and lean towards or away from the table. Players who leaned in would each stare at each other, and a certain kind of mental calculation would happen based on the confidence we each read on the other’s face. Over and over we would play sequentially when numbers were just one apart. Somehow, without words, I knew that I need to play my 35 because the person I was staring at had a 36. The effect, quite simply, was like magic. Several times as we pulled off narrow sequences of numbers, we would use that very same rule that had seemed ridiculous earlier, each place our hand on the table, recenter, and move forward once the vibe felt right.
We made it to the 9th round, each having to play 9 cards, before we finally lost. And even then, it felt like we lost because of a lapse in that silent communication more than anything else. Curious as to whether this was just a fluke, I brought the game to other groups. And each time the process of discovery and explanation is much the same. Players scoff at the idea, bump through a few rounds, and then say the same thing; “Again!” Even without a streak like that one game I described above, the puzzle and challenge of trying to read the other players is addictive. It always feels like you could have made it one more round, one more card. I adore this game. It is not one I will always bring out, but it does something utterly unique within the hobby. Who would have thought you could have such fun sitting silently, starting at your friends, and playing cards in order.