Welcome to the third installment in this series, I already looked at the social aspects as well as the educational purposes of why I game. Today we’re taking a look at yet another reason why I love to play games: It’s a hobby that is mentally stimulating. At least, it can be.

Mental Stimulation

I’m a little worried that this post might come off with a hefty dose of snobbery, but that is never my intention. Part of the reason I love board games is the challenge of the game, and pitting yourself against other players. There’s just something very rewarding that comes from a result of that mental bout. Usually that feeling increases as the strategic, or tactical level, of the game ramps up too. Games with a lot of randomness don’t give quite that same edge, which I guess can speak to a lot of my personal game choices. I like games with little to no randomness, or where that randomness has very distinct ways in which it can be mitigated. Eventually some things will come down to the luck of the roll, but I want that roll to be significant in the context of the game: my opponents and I have worked hard and set ourselves up to at least be rewarded by that die roll.

Liberty or Death: a game with a few die rolls in combat, mitigated by your force compositions. The biggest luck element outside of that is the draw deck, again, mitigated by the initiative track.

There’s room for every game somewhere in the world, but I pour over my collection and I have games that are mostly on either end of the spectrum. I have very heavy, war-games like Empire of the Sun, or Silver Bayonet, which have minimal levels of luck, and a huge gratification for playing well and really thinking through what you’re doing. On the other end of the spectrum, I have some games that have (what I would consider) a pretty low mental/strategic investment level. This category includes games like Coup, The Duke, Thunder Alley, and B-29 Superfortress, for example. Again, each game has their merits, sometimes I just want a good story (Lord of the Rings LCG, or Silent Victory), or sometimes I want to have light hearted fun (Secret Hitler, Dice Town), but more often than not I want something with some meat to it. I’m looking for games that make you think, plan, and execute. Not everything has to be Pericles, where there’s a million moving parts, and lots to digest. Recently we played an older game called Batavia from Queen Games, it’s not super heavy but forced you to think about set collection and auctioning in a different way. I got a huge kick out of trying to make my brain think in a different way.

blood rage
Blood Rage: hack n slash (sort of) with a bit of a really fun thinky drafting element.

All that being said, sometimes I just want to play around and Hulk-Smash everything. Blood Rage is right up my Alley in that regard, there’s this neat drafting mechanic that gives me enough to think about and try to pick and execute a long term strategy. But mostly, it’s just a dudes-on-a-map Ameri-trash game, which is just unadulterated fun. One of my favourite games, in that sense is actually Mage Knight, it’s criminally underplayed because of the set-up and game length but the puzzle aspect of how to play your hand versus the RPG fantasy story that evolves from the game provides me with a good time. It’s a game I like to play solo because it can get pretty back-stabby (and much less fun – even though I normally like that) with the PvP rules implemented.

mage knight
Mage Knight: The Hand of cards which allows you to do what you want to, if you can figure it out!

More often than not, however, I find myself drawn to 2-player, strategic games. The mental challenges that stem from trying to utilize my pieces/faction/workers/cards/forces in order to out maneuver, out perform, and out flank the other player provides me with a great way to exercise my brain. Breaking out of historical molds in war-games and trying new things in order to achieve victory: there’s no better feeling. Even in losing efforts I find myself satisfied by having competed. It’s like going to the gym, to work out my physical body, I go to the tabletop to work out my brain. The cerebral nature of complex games gives me great satisfaction.

High Frontier: I went to bed thinking about this game because it’s a monster I’m still not sure I know how to play it well.

Recently we played High Frontier, a game I was very hyped for. It’s much more a simulation than a board game in my eyes, but boy, did it tick all the boxes for me. We wrestled with this beast for a couple of hours and at times the game was very frustrating for players who were having trouble doing what they wanted to do. For me, this game was about trying to do what the game is trying to simulate. Whilst I have a scientific background, I’m by no means a rocketry expert, but High Frontier requires you to suspend your gaming preconceptions and play a game with a level of ‘realism’ that forces you to process your decision making in a very different manner. I loved trying to come to grips with this, and I cannot wait to get back to it to try and make the game work for the group, or at least the solo mode for myself! But I can tell you, that after reading the rules and playing a few hours, I was mentally warmed up and as such was fulfilled as far as the cerebral aspect of gaming goes.

So what about you? Do you game to turn off your brain and escape hard work? Or are you too someone who dives into the deeper games to stretch your grey matter to the limit?