Dramatic License

A weblog of thoughts, inspirations, experiences of, in and about live theatre, film, television, literature and other media.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Review - Mensa Mind Games

I had a singular and unique experience over the weekend of April 20-22, 2007. I attended this year’s Mensa Mind Games in Pittsburgh, PA. As a card-carrying, dues-paying member of American Mensa, I had the privilege of participating and rating games in Mensa’s quest to award the year’s best new games and, in the words of the weekend’s chairman, allow the game publishers to say, in effect, that “smart people like these games.”

This year’s winners were announced on Sunday morning. They are, in no particular order, Outset Media Games’ Skullduggery, Mindware’s Qwirkle, Gamewright’s Hit or Miss, Pywacket Games’ Gemlok and Z-Man Games’ Gheos. These five games now have the privilege of displaying the “Mensa Select” foil sticker on their packaging and of using this in their advertising.

I had the pleasure of playing 4 of the 5 games rated best this year and had 3 of the 5 on my personal list of 7 best. The experience was exceptional and I hope to be able to attend again in some future year. Here are my 2 (per)cent(s) worth on this year’s games.

My personal favorite is Qwirkle (www.mindwarewholesale.com). This game is a cross between Scrabble and Dominoes. Players are challenged to create rows of similar tiles by shape or color, scoring points for placing their tiles and completing sequences of shapes and/or colors. It is quick and easy to learn and quick and easy to play. It is just as much fun to play the second or third time around as it is to play the first time around. I played it twice over the weekend myself. The game is also gorgeous. The tiles are thick wood pieces that are black lacquered with brightly colored shapes printed on them. The contrast between the colored shapes and the black background is striking making this game visually appealing. I give it ***** out *****.

After playing a couple of so-so games to start the weekend off on Friday night, I got to play Gemlok (www.pywacketgames.com). This game combines the simplicity of Checkers with the strategy of Chess and the random chance of Parcheesi or Chinese Checkers. Players line up 8 pawns on their side of the board. By rolling dice with movement patterns on them, players move their pawns toward the gem field on the board. The object is to “lock” your pawns on the highest point-value gems on the board. One space on each die has the word “Gemlok” on it. Players may “bump” other players’ unlocked pawns off of high-scoring gems or their own unlocked pawns onto high-scoring gems. All in all this was a very enjoyable game. The pawns and the board seemed a bit cheap, but the dice were very big and had considerable weight to them. I give it **** out of *****.

One of this year’s game trends seemed to be trivia games where players need not know the exact answer to win. At least 5 of the games this year were of this type. Third on my list of chosen favorites is one of these games, Hit Or Miss (www.gamewright.com). Players draw a category card. Everyone has 45 seconds to write down as many words associated with that category. Rotating players, changing each round, roll the die. Roll “hit” and the player tries to match as many other players as possible with one of his/her words. All matches score points. Roll “miss” and the player tries NOT to match as many other players as possible with one of his/her words. Only misses score points. Roll the “joker” and it’s player’s choice whether to “hit” or “miss.” There is very little set-up or preparation for this one. It is fun to compare lists after each round just to see what everyone else is thinking. I give it **** out of *****.

While I had considerable difficulty playing Skullduggery (www.outsetmedia.com), not because the game itself is particularly difficult but because one of my playing partners was extremely competitive and quite annoying, in retrospect I realized that I really did like this game and would probably have a great deal of fun playing it with my 10-year-old son. This is, as its name suggests, a pirate-themed game, one of 3 seafaring games entered this year, which has players racing around an ever-changing game board to collect map pieces and then the ultimate treasure. Players have very nicely molded plastic pirate character pieces that they maneuver around the board. On each turn, each player rolls to move his/her individual character piece (paying enemy pirates a toll to pass them or going back to his/her boat), moves a board tile to another location and then rolls to move enemy pirates to aid themselves or block their opponents. My annoying playing partner was actually playing the game the way it was meant to be played, diabolically. I give it **** out of *****.

Gheos (www.zmangames.com) was not on my playing card and I did not have opportunity to play it after I had completed my card, so I have no review of it. If it plays as well as the other four games on this list, I trust my fellow Mensans’ judgment. I did, however, get to play several of the trivia games for people who don’t like trivia, NAQ and Numaro being of that sort.

(www.naqgames.com) was very interesting. Players compete to move from the start to the finish by asking questions that they think half the other players will get right and half the other players will get wrong. Players come up with their own trivia questions to do this. I like the concept, but I thought that charging $39.95 for a trivia game where the players come up with all the questions was a bit outrageous. This is something we can all do on our own without the aid and benefit of a game board. I understand why this one didn’t make the cut and I give it only *** out ***** myself.

My overall favorite for the entire weekend, and the one that I am pleased to have taken home as my door prize, was Numaro (www.playnumero.com). I love Trivial Pursuit, but it is very difficult for me to find people outside of Mensa who are willing to play it with me. I can play Numaro with them. Using Trivial Pursuit-style playing cards with 6 questions each; players compete to answer trivia questions with numerical answers. The trick here is to be the player with the closest response. Educated guesses, best guesses and even wild guesses are rewarded here. I played my door prize game with my wife, my 14-year-old daughter, my 10-year-old son and my 6-year-old daughter and we all had a great time. My wife, who hates Trivial Pursuit, said “I love this game.” Even my 6-year-old daughter won a couple of rounds with totally random wild guesses. I did hear several Mensans complaining that they did not like the trend of trivia games where you didn’t need to know the exact answer, but I still think it’s a great game and my personal favorite that I got to play the entire weekend. I give it ***** out of *****.

In addition to the non-trivia trivia games trend, the other prevalent trend was eco-friendly and eco-conscious games. Aussie Rules Super Subsistence Farmer (www.zilchgames.com) was entirely based on this theme. My favorite eco-friendly game, however, was Head1Liners (www.kvalegames.com). Players are shown a photograph and are asked to write a headline for it. Players vote on their favorite headline and are awarded points for the votes they get. The playing pieces are made out of 100% post-consumer waste, all the paper is recycled paper and the games instructions are printed on the box itself, saving paper from having to print a separate rules sheet (which can easily get lost anyway). While the rules on the game box or lid is not unique (Parker Brothers printed game rules on box lids over 30-years ago), it was refreshing in the sea of glossy full-color magazines that masqueraded as rules sheets. I am, however, concerned that an eco-conscious manufacturer would publish something that relies so heavily on writing on pieces of paper. They could have used recycled newsprint to stay with the theme rather than white paper. While the chunky wood block playing pieces were certainly eco-friendly, they could have achieved the same thing using recycled metal to make substantial pieces that look like moveable type. It was a fun game to play, though, and I would buy it for my family and for parties. I give it ***1/2 out of *****.

In closing, I would like to address the game manufacturing industry as a whole. While we Mensans are capable of understanding and interpreting a lot of intricate data, we don’t appreciate rules that are unnecessarily verbose or dense anymore than anyone else. Several games’ instructions were so complex that they bordered on incomprehensible and I’m pretty certain that players never completed these games before rating them on their playing cards. You are selling games to the general public, not to the top 2% or even the top 5% of the population in terms of IQ. Make your instructions clear, concise and understandable. Place the object of the game first, the order of play second, the rules third and any special situations last. I negatively rated several games for placing rules governing special pieces or cards first and objectives last. There can be a great blend between simplicity and intricacy and this is the key to making a game that challenges both Mensans and their non-Mensan friends and family.