Therapeutic Meeples: Choosing the Best Game

In bringing my professional lives together, I wanted to touch on something that is very important for me and has been for a number of years, games used in counseling or therapy. As a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor in the great state of Texas, I am often challenged with interesting clients. Often the goal is helping them through a situation and be able to get onto the next chapter of their lives.

Chess photoBy current job working for the PsychoNeuroPlasticity Center offers many distinct challenges in that I only have two days with a client to figure it all out and offer some direct solutions for them. Often games are presented as part of the overall treatment plan because they offer many opportunities for personal development and growth. Occasional opportunities for using games as part of the assessment occur. Most recently, playing Chess with a young man was the “access code” to open his awareness up to treatment and that we really did want to help him be more efficient and effective in his life.

One of the biggest points of using games in a therapeutic setting is that it can be done very seamlessly if done well. Games themselves not only offer skill development, but offer a milieu (arena) for discussion to spring up. I’ve found, on a personal note, that as someone who is socially awkward/shy, it is easier for me to have a conversation with another person over a game, because it helps to give boundaries (look at me using all the psych 101 words!) to the conversation. I don’t necessarily have to seek out a common talking point (do you like rodeo clowns? Yeah, me neither) since the game does that automatically. This in certain instances will be referred to as the “Metagame,” but more on that in the future.

The most important aspect of using games in therapy is finding the right fit. Like a really good pair of blue jeans or a jaunty hat (do the kids still say “jaunty”?). Mechanically, time, number of players are all really important. The most important of all is theme. Did the Eurogamers all faint? Smelling salts, for them stat!

If the cover is a reflection of something we want, we are more likely to jump in.

ticket to ride photo
Photo by yoppy

Yes, theme! As people we all know it’s the visual (for most people) that makes or breaks what is on offer. Judging games by their cover is what we do constantly! If the cover is a reflection of something we want, we are more likely to jump in. My wife’s uncle Roger was very into trains, also train games, so for someone like him I would have a copy of Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder) on hand as a game for sessions. Ticket to Ride conveniently fits in the reference range for players and time to play also.

Ticket to Ride is often called a “Gateway Game” meaning that it makes so more complex games more accessible. When searching out games for therapeutic purposes, they are going to fall quite often into the Gateway or Family game category. Especially with setup/teardown time on the longer, more complex games those are not going to fit the recommended time frame.

Let’s delve a bit further into theme. Trains are a great theme for games as there are a lot of people in the world who like trains. This can be a great way to entice a youngster or even an adult that you are actually there to help. It may take several sessions of train games to help break through those barriers.

I have worked with several youngsters over the years who loved trains and this was often the “access code” for them. Typically one session with a game like that because it captures their interest and makes them feel “understood” or that as the counselor I can appreciate what is important to them.

I want to say I worked some kind of magic or something like that. Not at all. I just pulled out Ticket to Ride and I got a quizzical look from him.

One of those youngsters had been through 5 other counselors before he and I started working together. Most of the counselors he saw ended the therapeutic relationship after a couple of weeks, because he wouldn’t talk to them. I want to say I worked some kind of magic or something like that. Not at all. I just pulled out Ticket to Ride and I got a quizzical look from him. I invited his parents to join us and they liked it enough that I left my copy with them.

There’s a certain heart string moment when you see a mother and father realize someone not only cares about their child, but gets the difficulties that can be present. Sensory integration, anxiety, even depression were bogging this poor guy down and the mother really seemed genuinely shocked when I suggested we play a game. Again, not magic, just willingness to go a little bit further. Every counselor has this in them, it’s how we’re wired.

I haven’t seen a great game version of therapy yet though. Maybe one day. In the meantime we have more theme to discuss. Are the Eurogamers conscious yet? Good.

I’m not whipping out a game like Cash n Guns for a group, I don’t want to encourage clients to point foam guns at each other.

Not every theme is appropriate. Repeat it after me. Not EVERY theme is appropriate. Especially for the therapeutic setting. I’m not whipping out a game like Cash n Guns for a group, I don’t want to encourage clients to point foam guns at each other. That could be very triggering to some or lead to other sorts of arguments. That said, I also wouldn’t put something like Cards Against Humanity in a group therapy setting. Again, not appropriate for what we’re seeking to accomplish.

City games are usually safe, games like

Carcassonne game photo
Photo by bgreenlee

(Hans im Gluck), Circle the Wagons (ButtonShy Games), or Sunrise City (Clever Mojo Games) seem to be good bets here. They may not be a big draw like trains with particular theme, but they do offer a certain sense of fun and planning.

Farming games are also good for this, Finca (Rio Grande Games), Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small (Z-Man Games), My Happy Farm (Portal Games), or Bohnanza (Rio Grande Games).

Racing games can also be a good theme, Formula D (Asmodee), Snow Tails (Renegade Game Studio), or Rallyman (Rallyman.fr). For a larger group, Camel Up (Z-Man Games) or Tsuro (Calliope Games) would be a good fit. Make sure that where you work is okay with a game that has betting before using Camel Up or any of the horse racing games, such as Mint Julep (ButtonShy Games).

Folks at local game stores are generally helpful if you have questions about a game theme that looks interesting.

Be sure to check those labels for player number and time though. With a typical therapeutic session lasting 45 to 60 minutes you want bang for the buck. Plus squeezing in a game, with talking during or after the game. Ultimately you’re looking for a 30-45 minute game. If you’re working 1-to-1 with a client, make sure the game plays 2 players. Maybe research online or ask at the game store if the 2 player game is solid.

Bigger groups, such as a therapy group could do a game like Werewolf (Bezier Games) though maybe look for a gentler theme. Mascarade (Asmodee), Coup (Indie Boards and Cards), Apples to Apples (Out of the Box Games), or Saboteur (Mayfair Games) certain can fit these larger groups with engagement throughout.

Thanks for reading, next time we’ll take a deeper dive into the mechanics and bring about some deeper understanding of why these are important.

6 thoughts on “Therapeutic Meeples: Choosing the Best Game”

  1. I’m surprised to see Werewolf as a recommendation – as someone who’s run dozens of these games, it’s easy to have players feel attacked, take offence and get overly defensive as a result of other players simply playing the game and accusing them of being a werewolf. It’s definitely a fun and engaging game for a large group, but I think all players need to feel comfortable with the idea of being singled out and accused of lying.

  2. hi Chad, thank you for reading! As you probably know Werewolf/Mafia was developed as part of a psychology program in Moscow. In terms of therapeutic practices, it helps players identify the experience of being in the uninformed group. They may not recognize how they could leave friends/family/teachers/colleagues in the uninformed group. It also correlates with the development of group skills and coordination of efforts across multiple people.

    To your point, those things could be frustrating if the person is not prepared for the experience that could occur. In writing about using games therapeutically, i encourage the practitioner to be up front about the experience and to know their audience. Thank you for your reply!

    1. Huh, I didn’t actually realize that’s how the game was first founded! Very interesting. I do agree it can be a valuable exercise especially with a retrospective afterwards to reflect on the different experiences across the players, but as you said being upfront about the challenges in the game goes a long way.

      For what it’s worth I’ve been running games of werewolf as team-building events in our office over email for about 4 years now, and it’s always a great time.

  3. Interesting article! I’m also a therapist (LMFT) and an aspiring game designer. Therapeutic Meeples seems like an interesting opportunity to blend these two worlds. As far as the comment about Werewolf, therapy is often about dealing with frustrations and even provoking these feelings to emerge. I could imaging this could be a way of doing that if the right support was in place.

    1. Hey Dustin! That is awesome! I’d love to chat about both processes, or i guess all three. email: benny_sperling at yahoo dot com. There are definite gamification elements that can happen with therapy that can make it a fun experience and to your point, seeing a person’s frustration can greatly enhance the therapeutic experience. I found taking clients out golfing also provided this option of observation and discussion

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