The Mind is the sort of game that cults form around. Little more than a deck of cards numbered one to one hundred, The Mind boasts that you’ll be able to gradually tap into your fellow players’ mental energies. It’s a bold claim, especially since your entire goal is to play your cards in ascending order. In fact, I’d even go so far as to call it fraudulent, since the concept is so simple that a child could—
Dammit! Who played that 65?! Was it you, Geoff? It was! Don’t deny it! Now let’s go again!
I’ve already explained the rules, but let’s try it one more time. Just in case you were assuming there’s more to it.
Everyone at the table gets their own hand of cards. Early on, that hand is small. One or two cards, that’s it. Later, if you’ve successfully attuned yourself to your companions — and yes, we’ll be talking about that in a minute — you may find yourself holding four, five, six cards. Maybe more. Though it isn’t likely you’ll survive that long.
Then, without any structure at all, you play those cards onto the table. In order. In silence. Without blinking at each other, or tapping Morse code on the underside of the table, or anything. You lay your hand on the table to signal that you’ve finished arranging your cards, then you begin laying them on the table. No turns, no prearranged intervals, nothing. Expect long silences that make the adjective pregnant feel underwhelming.
Placing a card out of order means you lose a life. Using a ninja star lets everybody discard their lowest card. Both resources are painfully limited, only trickling back onto the table every few rounds. And in the meantime, each round is also adding more cards to everybody’s hands.
Of course, The Mind isn’t the first game to pull the silent treatment. Hanabi did it, though the need to cheat was overwhelming. And The Grizzled did it, though under intent of communicating something unpleasant about war. So what makes The Mind special?
Two things, probably. The first is its freeform style of play. Because there are no established rounds, or turns, or intervals, or anything really, you’re entirely unencumbered by the usual trappings of game-playing. For the span of those few minutes, the only things in existence are you, your friends, some cards, and the need to play them in order. In one sense it’s a cleansing process, stripping out everything but the sequence, the belly-deep jitters over how many seconds have passed, and the intoxicating relief that comes when you play a 43, your buddy slaps down 44, your spouse hits 49 and 53, and you hit 55, all in perfect succession.
Which brings us to the second point: that eerie harmony The Mind inspires between its players. Before his theories were hijacked to describe gravity, this is what Albert Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” Or, as Alex “Hitch” Hitchens once famously uttered, “Sixty percent of all human communication is nonverbal.”
Fine, so it isn’t mystical, and it certainly isn’t about unlatching the gate to a higher plane of thought. Rather, it’s about tempo, about tapping into the unspoken rhythm that exists between players. If the last card was a 22, and you’re holding a 49, how long should you wait before you lay it on the table? Over time, those pauses gain a legibility of their own. Geoff plays fast, Summer plays slow. Mary, because she’s self-conscious, will hesitate to play a long-shot number. Therefore, because she’s still holding all her cards, we will wait a while longer.
The beauty of it, though, is that you will improve. While the first few rounds are burdened by capriciousness, it isn’t long before the group discovers that they’re doing better with each attempt. The pauses grow more attuned; cards are played more fluidly; ninja stars resorted to less often; lives lost only rarely. Then somebody new swaps in and the entire dynamic is tossed into disarray. No trouble. When a game only takes a few minutes to play, there’s no reason you can’t begin to read a newcomer’s sense of nervous tension too.
Even those few minutes will be too much for some folks, and not everybody will be enraptured. Similarly, a group that has been admitted once into the cult might not see the point in being brainwashed all over again. Fair enough. After all, The Mind is only as good as the attention it borrows from its players. If somebody wants to make silly faces or tap out the seconds on the table, there’s really no stopping them. The Mind is a trifle, the sort of game that captures the attention for a few plays — or an hour — and then releases it back into the sea.
But for a trifle, it’s a mighty little thing. Especially once your group has been conditioned enough that they can try to play the cards blindly, only revealing their order once the round is complete. It sounds impossible, and you aren’t likely to win. But once the right tempo has been sufficiently internalized, it’s surprising how many rounds a group can endure.
No need to worry about that for now. The main takeaway should be that The Mind possesses a spellbinding quality, a purity of gameplay that pushes everything else to the periphery. It may not be magic, but it is magical.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Only then will you be able to make it all the way to level 12. Face-down).