Mind Games 2015 Recap

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 ~300 Mensans in attendance, specifically a self-selected subset of Mensans that are gamers. As a judge/attendee, you are assigned around ~30 games to play during the play period (Friday 11am until Sunday 9am). Between 50-60 are submitted in total each year by various manufacturers 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 the number of people who judge each game are balanced. 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/.

Mensa Mind Games 2015 was held in San Diego, CA from April 30 through May 3. 60 total games were played over the weekend. Unlike prior Mind Games events, 2015 included an extra day (Thursday-Sunday instead of Friday-Sunday). The extra day allowed everyone to have a more relaxed pace and to check out San Diego’s terrific attractions. (Yes, I went to the zoo.) There truly was no excuse for not finishing your assigned games this year. I did all 60, per usual, and I didn’t even have to rush that much. I had time to swim and relax on Saturday evening.

Per Chief Judge Greg Webster, 210 ballots were cast, but 11 of those were deemed invalid due to mis-votes. (Yes, even among Mensans, some folks make voting mistakes.) The game submissions this year were remarkably good; all games except two got at least one vote. I have attended Mind Games where it was tough to come up with 7 games that I was willing to give a vote. That was not an issue this year at all. In fact, I have enough “honorable mentions” this year that I will cover them in a separate post and only talk about the winners in this post. I suspect that Kickstarter and other indie game publishing houses are the result of the shift.

Before I recap the winners, I wanted to note that Chicago Area Mensa will be hosting in 2016. It will be back to a 3-day format (which I actually prefer), and you can count on a gaming-centric group like CAM to put on an awesome event. You can already book hotel reservations, and there’s a Facebook event for those of you who use FB. Spreadsheet services for MG 2016 will be provided by yours truly. 🙂

Without further ado, the winners of Mensa Mind Games 2015 (in alphabetical order) along with my scoring and notes:

[table id=2 /]
Publisher: Bezier Games
Category: Euro/Economic/Tile

I had heard of this one and even nearly played it at AGOG before coming. However, my first play of it was at Mind Games. It, unfortunately, wasn’t on my ballot, but it was on DH’s. Folks who have played Suburbia (another game from the same publisher and designer) will immediately recognize some of the component design, but the game itself has little in common with Suburbia. Players construct their castles using rooms that are arranged on a market for purchase by the current round’s “master builder”. Thus, the cost of a building may change from one round to another based on whether the current “master” feels it is likely to be desired or not (or whether they want to try to reserve it for themselves). Also, unlike Suburbia, most building purchases are paid to other players rather than the bank. Like Suburbia, each building has qualities that score victory points for the building itself, potentially adjacent buildings, or all buildings on your board. There’s also a Vegas Showdown type element where the construction of your castle matters. An entrance from the outside is required, and the shapes of the buildings or the placement of doorways can end up constraining your construction. All in all, it has a lot of strategic elements, and while the gameplay is relatively straightforward, it at least feels like different skill sets could be used to win. Besides, even if you don’t win, you get to build a fun castle. Aesthetically, there are some very minor issues of clarity on pieces (it’s hard to remember the symbol for adjacent vs. all on board, for example, and the art can make the size symbol/number hard to read), but the instructions and player aids are very clear and make it easy to get going.

[table id=3 /]
Publisher: Gamewright
Category: Card/Set Collecting

Dragonwood is a card game with a quest/RPG type theme. Players draw and collect “hero” cards in sets, straights, flushes, and straight flushes to defeat “creature” cards that are drawn from a separate deck. Most enemies award victory points but some enemies award powers that help you with future defeats. The size of the collection of cards you play determines how many dice you get to roll, and the sum of the dice versus the corresponding strength vs. the type of cards played (set, straight, or flush) determines if you defeated the creature. The game ends either when you go through the hero deck twice or when you defeat both the red and yellow dragons, which are shuffled into the bottom third of the creature deck. At game end, the player with the most victory points wins.

I admit that seeing so many variants on the “collect gin-style sets of cards and play them to do X” card games at prior Mind Games has probably soured me on the genre. But, beyond that, the game frustrated us in that we easily got through the hero deck twice before being even close to seeing either dragon come up. We had four players. Also, collecting the sets took longer and felt more frustrating that it should have due to how slow drawing is. I think they had a good concept with the merge of fantasy quest theming with a basic card game, but the execution needed work to tune the decks correctly. Aesthetically, I was also disappointed by the artwork. It is cartoony and reminiscent of Dragon’s Lair (and parodies of that genre). I would have preferred more realistic or compelling art given how dull the gameplay is.

[table id=4 /]
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios and Foxtrot Games
Category: Euro/Tile

In past years, this one could have topped my list, but it had the unfortunate luck to be competing with so many other solid entrants. This is a tile laying game where each tile earns you and your opponent chips in various colors, and the orientation of the tile placement determines what your opponents get vs. what you get. Once you collect the chips, you can claim scrolls for endgame victory points by having sets of single colors or an assortment of colors. As each person claims a set scroll, the value of the subsequent scrolls goes down (i.e., first person gets a 7 point scroll, second person gets a 5 point scroll, and so on). So, it isn’t just what you collect but whether what you collect gets you the most points at any given moment. It’s very easy to play. DH has concerns that the strategy is minimal. When I was playing, I noticed that the chips are piece limited and so worked on denying my right hand opponents chips in colors that put them in competition with what I was planning to claim. However, your ability to do that is constrained by the tiles and the way your opponents play. I’d put it on a similar strategy level as Splendor (and similar complexity). Beyond that, though, the landscape you create with the tiles is very pretty, and the components are nice looking overall. Thus, even if you aren’t enjoying the strategy, you get to enjoy the aesthetic aspect.

[table id=5 /]
Publisher: Ad Magic/Breaking Games
Category: Word

There’s an inevitable spate of word games at Mind Games, but this one managed to add something unique. Like many other word games, you draw cards with letters on them and then use those cards to lay down words in order to score (money in this case). The unique aspect of this word game vs. others is that after playing a word (and earning cash accordingly), you can pay to patent one of the letters you used. Once you patent a letter, you get money from the bank any time another player uses the letter in one of their words. Different letters have different costs based on frequency, but you always get paid the same royalty for the patent. The goal is to collect the most money by the end of the game. The patent cards also incorporate interesting factory art. One quibble I had with the game is that the payoff of stock rather than money (which occurs only on big words) seemed to be a pointless complexity, given that stock and money are equivalent with the exception that you can’t use stock to buy anything. If anything, it seems like the stock makes the larger words less valuable. If stock had some dividend mechanism or if it was worth more in the end game, it’d make more sense. I also nitpick that players should have to pay royalties to each other rather than royalties coming from the bank. As is, there’s not enough pain to playing a word when other players hold the patents, but that is likely by design and probably helps keep the game balanced among players of differing skill levels.

[table id=6 /]
Publisher: Bink Ink, LLC
Category: Euro/Routes/Set Collection

Trekking is a TTR-like board game played on a map of the US with locations based on the National Park System. In addition to a rules booklet, the game includes a guidebook of the included parks (each of which features a photo of the Kickstarter backer that sponsored that park’s inclusion). There are multiple ways to win. One is to complete the public contracts (not the game’s lingo) for sets of cards that you play once at the noted park to get the contract. One is to gather colored stones by being the first visitor to each park, getting a majority of each to score points at the end of the game. One is to complete private contracts (called postcards). All of these things get you victory points, and most victory points at game end wins. Like TTR, there’s contract decks and then the main deck where you collect colored symbol cards to be able to claim contracts. Unlike TTR, you don’t buy legs of travel. Instead, you’re completing the park contract cards that are publicly available with the specific card types noted on the contract. The game designer/publisher has a terrific website that includes very well done “how to play” videos. If videos aren’t your thing, the rule book is extremely well done, too. It is also fun to travel the parks, and I have to love any game that highlights the awesomeness of the NPS, as it’s truly one of our national treasures. I placed my order for this one while at the airport to head home from Mind Games.

You can view the official Mind Games press release here: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2015/05/prweb12697995.htm. Also, if you want to see my massive spreadsheet of scores and notes, it’s posted here: https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=f9c94cb9f01a9ee9!2232&authkey=!AFauXyK6LerQMAE&ithint=file%2Cxlsx. Finally, you can view my photos from the event here: http://tsukata.org/photo-galleries/mind-games-2015-and-san-diego-zoo/.

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