Old News: Mind Games 2012

(I am moving posts from another blog over to this one, but this is still relevant!)

I look forward to this weekend every year, and it never disappoints!

Ever since 1991, board game fans belonging to American Mensa have been meeting annually to play the best new board games, judge them, and choose the best five. Those five win the right to affix their packages with the industry-coveted “Mensa Select” Seal of Approval.

I will spend another day talking about the how and why of the Mensa judging and its limitations, and compare the Mensa Select Seal to other such seals, but it’s important to understand up front that all Mind Games after the first few have drawn a pretty even cross-section of gamers, along with their varying preferences. What I mean by that is there are hard-core strategy gamers, laid back party gamers, serious-minded card and dice players, old-fashioned scrabble players, and everything in between, and every member gets an equal vote  as to what the best games are. The result has been a remarkably reliable list of games that, if purchased, would prove a suitable cache for any game shelf – especially a family game shelf.

So without further adieu, Here are the five Mensa Select Winners. Soon I’ll post eight more of the best games I came across this year at Mind Games 2012 in Washington, DC, and then cover the rest:

Mine Shift (MindWare, $19.95): A two-player game suitable for kids AND adults, Mine Shift probably won votes not by wowing judges but by quietly impressing them with its simple goal, simple rules, and wide variety of possibilities (It helps that the sturdy components come in a small box that retails for $20, of course). The game layout consists of parallel mine shafts (rows of three tiles each) connected at each end by another tile; players begin with two stones in a 4th tile at opposite terminals of the mine shafts from one another, and the goal is to be the first to move both stones to the opposing player’s home tile. Players take turns sliding and turning tiles or moving stones within the perimeter of the initial 3 x 3 (plus terminals) grid. It’s that simple, but upon playing it, I wanted to play it again – and that’s always the sign of a good game.

(images from http://www.mindware.com)

Iota (Iota, $7.95): If Mine Shaft got votes for being compact and affordable, Iota got those points in spades. It consists of a deck of 64 cards that are 2″ x 2″ – and that’s it! It’s the perfect game to stash in a purse or a glove compartment or anywhere else you might want to have a game ready to go. But just being small and affordable are not enough to win a Mensa Select Seal, of course! Iota takes the best features of the instant classic from 1991, the card game Set, and goes further. Each card has one of three properties: a shape, a color, and a number. On each turn, 2-4 players may lay one to four cards down in a single line and score the total number of points that they lay down, but they must be careful to make “lots” in which cards in a line either share each of the same properties, or differ in each of them (as in the Set card game). Bonuses are scored for laying a fourth card in a line (completing a “lot”), and cards laid in two directions simultaneously are counted twice.

(image from boardgamegeek.com)

Tetris Link (Techno Source, GS Schwarz & Co, $24.99): So Tetris is finally a tabletop game. It took long enough, didn’t it? Two to four people can play this game in which they take turns dropping various Tetris-shaped pieces (the “Tetriminos”) into a vertical, hollow, transparent wall that is sectioned into columns (picture Connect 4, except it looks more like a window). As soon as a single player has three pieces connected, three points are earned and each successive piece earns another point, and other players may try to place pieces to prevent it. If a piece is dropped in such a way that a unfillable gap is left, one point is lost; two or more gaps left result in a two point penalty. Play continues until no legal moves remain possible. There is a handy and simple scoring track along the side of the vertical board, too! This was quick and easy to play, and I ended up playing it more than any other during the weekend.

(image from http://www.tetris.com)

Coerceo (Coerceo Co, $52.00):  So you say you like your two-player strategy games a bit more hard-core than you’ve seen so far? We have you covered with Coerceo, a game with the unique feature of a playing board that dwindles as the game progresses, but only when the players make it happen. Movement and capture rules are simple, but when one of the hex tiles of which the playing surface is composed is left empty and unsurrounded, it is eliminated from the game, and the board becomes that much smaller. What would be just one more geometrically interesting jump-and-capture game in a long line of such games now stands out as a game that is hard to walk away from, and one for which the loser will ALWAYS want to request a rematch.

(image from http://www.coerceo.com)

Snake Oil (Snake Oil, LLC, $19.99):  And, finally, a party game – hooray! And what a blast this one is, too.  Players take turns acting as customers (one may be a clown, one a cowboy, one a pirate, and so on), while the others peruse their hands of word cards, choose two to combine into one convincing sounding product, and then proceed to “sell” that product to the customer. In the example below, with the clown as customer a player might want to combine paint with cannon and sell a “paint cannon.” But then the selling has to happen, and that’s up to the players. Although initial card combinations might be funny (when I played, a “married couple” customer was greeted with a “murder knife” as a product), the real fun happens when people try to come up with good reasons why a customer should buy their product. As with any party game, the cast of players will make a difference with this, but even the shy folks will come out of their shells; the cards are excellent props for breaking down those walls.

(image from http://www.gamesbyjames.com)

So, there you have it! I played each of these games, but only one was officially on my ballot, so I only voted for one of them. Would I have voted for all of them? I don’t know – I kind of doubt it. But check out my other posts when they come. I’ll speak to that then!


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