Therapeutic Meeples: Mechanisms

Today, Benny takes up the question of what game mechanisms work best for therapy. 

Welcome back, let’s talk about those game mechanisms. For myself personally, I want a game that has something different or engaging happening, maybe something that fits with the theme directly rather than abstractly.

Going deep on an explanation, and they have glazed over and taken a vacation in their heads.

bored game photoIn therapeutic settings, I look for a game that is quick to play, generally 20-30 minutes. It has to be a game that can be quickly explained. In any setting, you have about 8-10 words to get your point in quick, with clients this is especially true. Going deep on an explanation, and they have glazed over and taken a vacation in their heads.

So quick to explain, short to play, maybe some strategic depth. It’s okay if the game plays quickly and the client has a good time or even wins at the game. Those things are perfectly fine! It may be what brings them back. I think about demo people at conventions when I start looking at games. If you can’t grab my attention with some nice art or a fast explanation, remember 8-10 words, I’m going to walk on by.

“Easy” mechanisms ^

Mechanically, we need something that is going to resonate and make “sense” for clients who haven’t been at this gaming thing for very long. Playing a card to do an action and drawing a new card is pretty straight forward. Rolling a die and moving are also pretty straight forward. Using one piece to hop over others is also pretty straightforward. Too often the search for the next hot thing involves immensely complex games. Those are fine, but again we are looking for something “easy and accessible.”

Card drafting ^

Image courtesy of Board Game Geek

The average gamer is going to point to something like 7 Wonders as “easy” and “accessible.” While it does meet our recommended criteria for time and plays a large group, it is by no means “easy” or “accessible.” Antoine Bauza is a great guy, though, and this would be a good game to use with a big group that is familiar with it.

GameWright Games for example started their company around using games in the classroom. Vibrant colors, silly themes, easy game play are their hallmarks. One particular game of theirs I feel is important for this discussion is Sushi Go! While it is a drafting game, it is much simpler than 7 Wonders. Each turn the player chooses a card, plays it, then passes the rest of the cards. For the most part easy to understand actions. The cards themselves explain scoring for the players as they work to complete sets of certain cards.

Set collection ^

Set collection too, is a fairly easy to understand concept. Gain the cards that look alike. The client may need help with scoring, but the game itself is pretty easy to grasp as you are collecting like items. A game like Jaipur would also fall under the set collection category, though players are saving the cards in their hands before revealing a set to score tokens.

One of my current favorites for set collection and drafting with an intuitive feel is Circle the Wagons. This game has specific goals while also being a game where the players are building a town with their cards.

Image from Circle the Wagons’ Kickstarter campaign page

Roll & Write ^

To this end also, roll and write games are often an easy way for clients to connect with the counselor. It again provides a therapeutic milieu to discuss the play or strategy involved. In this case, using an enlarged sheet with a crayon may be a good option, thinking about those places that do not allow “sharps.” Laminating and using a grease pen or dry erase marker also work.

In particular with the roll and write games, I would want a game that provides a challenge, but also play quickly. Saint Malo, Qwixx, Rolling America, or Star Maps are awesome options.

Abstract games ^

Chess to be fair is decidedly complex and may best be reserved if that is something the client enjoys. I mentioned previously the young man i had worked with who loved chess and that was how I was able to get him to open up. He was certainly not the first to be engaged through chess and definitely will not be the last.

Image courtesy of Raiko Puust (CC-BY-3.0)

A similar game, though in a smaller container is Hive (Gen42 Games). The game does use reference as knowing what each bug can do, Chess-like in that way, though without the restriction of the board. Another game of this ilk is Tak (Cheapass Games) that uses a simple structure of pieces that can form roads or be stood on end as walls. Players can also move pieces to create stacks. In each of these games, a complex strategy can emerge from what at first glance appear to be simple mechanisms. Though, this is the point, simple mechanisms breed interest and engagement.

Go, for example, is a traditional abstract game that is said to take a lifetime to master. The intent is to capture the opponent’s pieces by restricting their placement. In many ways Go is a game of distant planning followed by placement with some reaction. The same is true with Chess, Hive, and Tak. Again, these would depend on the player’s ability and engagement with these sort of games as they are essentially abstracts or “theme-less.”

Those games also seem to draw players who are quiet and contemplative. They may still be expressive between moves, though their thoughts are often conducting complex strategic moves or possibly deciding what to have for dinner.

Dice placement ^

Another group of mechanisms that may see favor for clients could be dice placement games. In Yakitori, a game I designed with this mechanism in mind, the players are rolling dice and choosing actions with those dice. To this end, Alien Frontiers, without all the expansions may be a good fit for the time limit. There are also games like Roll Player and Sagrada where the dice are placed as part of a puzzle or trying to meet certain goals. I’ve noticed a certain satisfaction for players as they are rolling then placing the dice and seeing their work come to life so to speak.

Yakitori. Picture from Kristofor M

Conclusion ^

Even a mechanism like roll and move, featured in Clue and games like it has a reasonable easy to grasp mechanism. Remember, we are not trying to overwhelm someone who is new to this. It is already hard enough for them to enter therapy and talk about their concerns.

The important piece of this is finding a game that will “click” with your client and something they will find fun. Clients who are having fun are going to be more ready to talk. Since that’s what it’s all about.

4 thoughts on “Therapeutic Meeples: Mechanisms”

  1. Thanks again for another great topic! I have to agree 100% with Sushi Go as being a simple game that allows for connection. I have two foreign exchange students in my home right now and last night my daughter asked them if they wanted to play a game, to which they responded affirmatively. I was nervous the the language barrier would be too much as I looked through my game closet and finally decided to try Sushi Go on them. The concepts were easy to teach and they had a blast and asked to play again. They both commented that they hoped they could find this game in their country when they return (I think I’ll purchase two copies to send with them as gifts). Though this wasn’t a therapy setting, it shows how simple the game can be for others to pick up (even with a language barrier). I have also noted that playing a few games and watching them play hide and seek with my kids has provided a closer connection with these students. The act of “play” has provided the best interactions we have had with them and the comfort level has improved due to these “play” interactions.

    Thanks again!

  2. Hey Dustin!

    That’s so cool! As you probably know, games can be helpful outside the therapeutic setting as well. Really great how you all were able to strengthen that connection!

  3. Yes! I thought so too! One more quick comment. I attend the Board Game Designer’s Guild of Utah on the 2nd Tuesday of each month and due to a scheduling conflict I will need to take the exchange students with me tonight. Who knows, perhaps they’ll enjoy some games that are still in the design process. If not I’ll be sure to bring Sushi Go as a fall back option.

Your turn. Share your thoughts: