Mind Games 2014 Recap (Austin, TX)

Background:  The Mind Games convention is where/how American Mensa awards games the Mensa Select seal.  The seal is awarded to 5-6 games each year. It’s an event with 200-300 Mensans in attendance, specifically a self-selecting subset of Mensa that are gamers. As a judge/attendee, you are assigned around 25-30 games to play during the play period (Friday 11am until Sunday 9am). Between 50-60 are submitted in total each year by various manufactures in lots of genres, though Euro games are sadly almost always under-represented and under-ranked. Each judge gets to vote on 7 (in a ranked order) from the list of ones they were assigned. To vote, judges must play the 25-30 they are assigned, but that is on the honor system. The remaining submissions are optional, but I try to get through all of them each year. Other people have different mandatory/optional lists versus yours, such that it is balanced with the number of people who judge each game. At the end of the judging/play period, the ballots are tallied and the winning games are announced on Sunday. A press release generally follows on Monday.  You can look up the winners for past years at http://mindgames.us.mensa.org/about/winning-games/.

This year’s winners for Mind Games were Gravwell, Qwixx, Pyramix, The Duke & Euphoria.  My votes to win were (in rank order) Euphoria, Compounded, Pyramix, Four in a Square, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, 20 Express, and Tapple.  If I could have voted based on all the selections, my votes to win would have been Euphoria, Compounded, Coup, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, Sushi Go, and Qwixx.  So, there’s decent overlap between what won and what I liked. 🙂

Of this year’s winners, the only one that really bums me out is Gravwell.  I just did not find it to be a very interesting game.  The concept is that you program moves to try to escape a gravity well with your spaceship, but in my play of it, it felt like the programming could only rarely be done strategically.  Talking to other attendees, their experiences differed.  Either way, I will say that it’s better than some past winners that made it into the mix.

Qwixx is a Gamewright republish of a game found at Essen, and they did a great job with the rules and components.  It’s a very quick and simple dice game with no downtime and light strategy.  Its only flaw is that you need the included pad of scoresheets (which will inevitably run out).  It’s also a great value for the price.

Pyramix uses cubes (d6’s) with symbols on them to build a pyramid and then has each player collect cubes.  There are multiple approaches that can win, and, like Qwixx, it’s aesthetically pleasing.  The strategy is a little limited, as final scoring depends heavily on things you can’t discover until the endgame, but it’s a unique concept and turned out to be a great little game.

The Duke is a chess-like abstract strategy game.  It’s a bit tough to summarize beyond that, but one unique mechanic it uses is having pieces where the moves change each time you use them, alternating between two types of moves.  This is made simple by them printing the move on the piece itself, so you never have to ask “what does the wizard do again?”.  As with any abstract strat game, it will suffer from Analysis Paralysis (AP) with the right player(s), but if you can avoid that, it’s pleasing and a good challenge. There are expansions in the box that add more complexity and variety to the gameplay, too, but I didn’t get to try those.

Euphoria…now, looking at the names of this year’s submissions alone, I would have bet good money that Euphoria would  be a dog, but it turned out to be my favorite of the weekend.  It is a worker placement and resource management game.  You’ll see people complain that the rules are long.  If you’re a frequent euro gamer, you’ll find them remarkably well-written and easy to grasp.  It *may* have a bit of an issue in that it doesn’t provide enough encouragement to perform a mechanic that seems like they wanted to happen (building markets), but that may also be a result of inefficient play or simply not knowing the game well enough.  The theming, building in a dystopian future, reminded me of several young adult dystopian future novels. (Is that a new genre yet?  Remember when we had “young adult paranormal romance”?  Do they now have “young adult dystopian sci-fi”?)

Compounded was a non-winner that I enjoyed.  You play the role of a chemist in what is clearly a severely underfunded lab (you have to build your own fire extinguisher), and you use elements drawn randomly to fill compounds from a set that is available to everyone.  Different compounds, once claimed/created, have different benefits that help you make the next compound faster, and the goal is to get the most points before game end.  There’s also randomized explosions that occur, scattering the elements around the lab.  Overall, it’s a medium strategy game with cute components and a nifty periodic table as a scoreboard.

Freedom is a co-op game where players work together as abolitionists trying to move slaves on the Underground Railroad.  This game is masterful with white guilt, but it’s also nicely historic, beautifully laid out, and it plays well.  You really do care about your slave cubes and feel bad about not rescuing them.  Plus, the theme forces you to make tough decisions in the vein of deciding whether it’s worthwhile to sacrifice one person to save many.  (People who have trouble not saving a person in Flash Point will not do well at this game. 😉 )

Another notable submission was Coup, which has an endorsement by Wil Wheaton on the back and comes from the makers of The Resistance.  Coup has similar elements to Resistance, but it is playable with fewer players (2-6).  It very much reminds me of the dynamic in Survivor around hidden immunity idols.

Overall, this year’s submissions were remarkably good.  The “dog” of the weekend was Po-rum-bo, and, in many past Mind Games, that would have been a middle of the pack game.  The head judge noted that every single game got at least one vote, and that, too, is unusual. I think it reflects that the submissions were overall of good quality.

Full spreadsheet o’ ratings and other such joy:

1 thought on “Mind Games 2014 Recap (Austin, TX)”

  1. While I agree with the author on most of the games listed, I would like to offer an alternative opinion on Gravwell. While the author’s opinion of the game was lessened by the non-deterministic nature of the players’ programming of moves, I think the resulting chaos is the factor that makes the game so interesting, a la what happens in Robo Rally. Players can rarely be sure that their moves will have the intended effect, unless they are far behind. This alone keeps the game close and competitive.

    However, there is an underlying order to the chaos. The fuel cards, ownership of which to a small degree the players have control over, are played in a known order, so when you play your card, you know which cards would take effect before yours, and which after. While you will not be sure which cards will be played in any given round (advantage to card counters!) you can have a general idea, and when it’s time to grab the brass ring, strike early or late, as appropriate. I found this subtle strategy quite appealing.

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