Board games and mental health: Mikko Games

I’ve talked about board games and mental health, in my case anxiety, a little in the past. Both in terms of self promotion (as a designer) and attending conventions (as a player). So I’m always happy to help someone else who suffers in their own board game related projects.

In this case it’s Michael Adams, and the company he started up, Mikko Games. Michael dropped out of college at 17, suffering from anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue. Playing board games helped him dig himself out of the deep hole he found himself in. So, he decided to start an online board game store and website. But which is also dedicated to letting others who have struggled with mental illness tell their stories.

The store’s stock is geared towards its aims, rather than being a one-stop-shop for board gamers. There’s a clear emphasis on simple rules and fun, with most of the games stocked being in the ‘under 30 minutes’ category. But categories for ‘big groups’, ‘small groups’ and ‘plastic free’ go some way to showing the ethos behind the site in general when compared to other online board game stores. The fact that signing up for the mailing list promises “helpful information on improving your mental health” as well as game discounts says it all.

A screen grab from the Mikko Games mental health blog

Telling their stories

But what really makes the site stand out is the attached ‘Gaming and mental health‘ blog. The site has only been up since the summer of 2021, but already has several long posts by people who have used board games to help them on their journey towards better mental health. How gaming has helped them connect better with friend and family. Or become part of a community after becoming reclusive. Or simply being a form of ‘self-care’, while giving fresh ideas for spending more time with the family.

COVID-19 hit a lot of people hard. and while many sadly lost loved ones, I can’t help thinking the mental price we’ve paid could well be even bigger in the long run. In this respect, I count myself very lucky to have had board games as a constant throughout the crisis. Whether playing live in my ‘bubble’, or online with friends across the world. They’ve helped me stay connected in the best way possible.

It’s hard to explain to ‘normies’ just how debilitating anxiety, and other mental health problems, can be. Days when you can’t get out of bed, can’t even talk to anyone. When you cancel plans because you can’t face being in a room with other people, even if you know and love them. Or when you’re trying to work when you’ve had zero sleep because your mind simply refuses to shut off. Michael deserves credit for simply breaking through that. But even more so as they’ve turned it into a positive, creating a business designed to help others. So if you’ve got a minute, why not go check out Mikko Games.

A goodbye to a fellow board gamer

Image by Shin Yoo. LSE, 2010.

I was terribly sad to hear this week that a well-loved stalwart of many a UK gaming con, Keith Rapley, had passed away. I’d spent time with him, and lovely wife Mary, at events such as LoBsterCon, SorCon and HandyCon over the years. He’ll be greatly missed.

I’m not sure I’d be comfortable calling him ‘friend’. We spoke and played together on many occasions, but always at gaming conventions. We never had a bad word, yet I couldn’t tell you where he lived, what he’d done in life (I’d heard he was an accomplished academic), or anything else non-game related.

But at the same time, he felt more than an ‘acquaintance’. I’d smile when Keith walked into the main gaming room of a con, always started up a chat, and invariably enjoyed my plays with him. He had an infectious manner and a sharp wit that was easy to be carried along by. Sure, he played pretty slowly – but he often played very well. And as another slow player, it’s nice to share the blame with someone else at the table!

The gamer’s greeting

I guess that’s often the way with gamers. There are people I’ve known for more than a decade I fall immediately into conversation with the few times each year I see them. Conversations invariably begin with the typically polite, “How are you? Hope all’s well” etc. Then, after a brief awkward pause it’s, “So, played anything good recently?” Then the conversation begins to flow.

It’s a mutual understanding that while the feelings for each other go deeper than the usual ‘acquaintance’ level, we’re there to feed our shared addiction. And when we head our separate ways at the end of the weekend, we’ll do it in the knowledge we’ll look forward to seeing each other again – at the next gaming weekend.

For these reasons, I was surprised quite how hard the news of Keith’s passing hit me. As Sarah said to me yesterday, sometimes its simply the fact of realising that person isn’t on the earth anymore. You’ll never see them again. It’s a reminder of our mortality and of all those other things we push to the back of our minds so we can get out of bed in the morning. That’s part of it, sure. But it was more than that.

A sociable gamer

I’ve spoken before here about anxiety. About how, as I move further through life, I struggle more in social situations such as gaming cons. What I tend to do now is line up as many things as possible beforehand: arrange a whole morning or afternoon with a particular group or other couple (if Sarah is around). I rarely play with strangers, as I find the initial stages very difficult.

Keith was the model social/con gamer. He’d wander the hall, looking/asking about games he’d pass; or asking to join if there was a spare space and people were about to get underway. I saw him play all kinds of things. And you just knew it was thanks to a deep love of the hobby, and everything that came with it. He oozed an ardour but also a level of inclusivity many younger gamers could learn from – not something many expect to find in the older generation. No cynicism: just wide-eyed, boyish enthusiasm.

And he showed age wasn’t a barrier to cons. Friends and I have often joked we’ll all end up in the same nursing home, gaming together and having the time of our retired lives. Thanks to him though, I’ll know I can comfortably keep attending conventions – and playing with people of all ages and walks of life – for as long as I can still role a dice. As I push 50, that’s a thoroughly uplifting and comforting thought.

Game on

The last few times I’d seen Keith, he’d looked conspicuously, disproportionately older. There’d been a clear physical change in his appearance and he didn’t look as steady on his feet. But when you sat down with him to play, that glint was still very clearly in his eye – and his impish smiling and joking were very much in evidence.

The last game we played together was Tales of Glory, at SorCon back in February. He joined a table of five of us as one of three players needing a rules explanation. I’m pretty sure Keith slept through most of the rules, and the game ended up being twice as long as it should’ve because of it. I didn’t mind at all – it was still great fun and meant I could be slow without getting all the blame. And despite spending half the time trying to work out what the hell was going on, Keith still won a tight game on 57 points.

My most enduring memory will be from a LobsterCon a good few years ago. There were only four or five tables playing games in a smaller room, several of which had become quite boisterous. But in one corner sat Rocky and Keith, learning the rules to boxing card game Jab. Keith was asking questions, obviously having to raise his voice over the din (he was a very well spoken man).

For a second, all the noisy tables happened to quieten at once. And cutting through the silence came Keith’s eloquent voice [sic]: “So what you’re saying is, I can just punch you in the face?” Rocky is a proper salt-of-the-earth lad, which made it even funnier. The whole room fell about laughing.

RIP Keith x (Posted with the consent of his wife, Mary)

Self-promotion and anxiety: Uncomfortable bedfellows

for me, self-promotion and anxiety don’t mix. I’m chatty. Opinionated. Sometimes loud. If you met me you’d possibly think I was super confident. But by then the difficult bit has happened: we’ve met.

It’s hard for some to grasp there’s a big difference between having the confidence to dominate conversation, and the initial hump of meeting new people. Or even thinking about meeting them. Or thinking about the fact you might have to meet some people in a few day’s time.

Recently I went to HandyCon, a board game convention just outside London. I hadn’t been before, but new it was a few hundred people – not too big. So I thought I’d take along some of my published designs, just in case people wanted to take a look. Just the recent ones. So I could have them on the table, just in case. Or maybe in my bag. Or I could just leave them in the hotel room, and bring them the next day if anyone asked…

The day before it starts, I get asked to help judge a competition at the con. Someone has dropped out – can I stand in? It’ll only be an hour. Sure, why not? It’s nice to be asked. And it’s only an hour. An hour I have no control over, in a few days time, where I don’t really know what is going to happen or with who. Will it be on a stage? Is my name going to be read out? Will people be staring at me? Why on earth did I agree to this…

Increased heart rate. Difficulty breathing. Headaches and hot flushes. Dry mouth and feeling sick. Why not have a few drinks? I’ll feel like I’ve got a hangover either way.

Then and now

What’s really annoying is knowing how much I would’ve taken this in my stride 10 years ago. I was brash, confident; loved being the centre of attention. As a youngster I had a mohican, crazy clothes. I did national radio interviews as part of my job. Now I can’t sleep for three days before running a course for a few colleagues I already know. Even going to the office and staying all day can be hard sometimes.

I’m OK walking into most cons (see previous cons and anxiety post). The anonymity works in my favour. They’re largely filled with people who know each other; who just like the idea of getting together to game. Most don’t aim to play with strangers. They’re happy to just meet a few more people, relax, and nerd out. And that means you can stroll around relatively ignored. But at the same time, you know these are your people.

But that all goes away if you make your face a target. Luckily, game designers are largely ignored unless they seek attention. It’s the YouTubers who get all the attention, with panels packed with v-loggers hunting for views and likes while the designers tend to skulk around awkwardly in the halls smiling nervously. But yeah, I’m a blogger too. So surely I should be doing all this self promotion stuff in double time. Gawd.

Self-promotion and anxiety sucks…

So things start OK. I send a few messages out, a few Tweets, saying I’ll be at HandyCon. Reply to a few things about the event, mention I’ll be there with a few games. But the closer we get to the con the less I message, until the social stream becomes a trickle and dries up altogether.

Others talk about demoing games, maybe hiring a table. Sitting at a table, for hours, smiling at people hoping they’ll sit down. And then hoping they like your game. And deep down, I know it would be fine. They’d be nice, polite, even if they didn’t like it. Who knows, some might even become friends or pick up a copy. But i’m getting a dry throat and shortness of breath just typing this, so it was never, ever going to happen.

I took my games to HandyCon. Day one they were on the table, day two in a friend’s room, and day three on a chair next to me, safely away from prying eyes. One even got played, with friends who had played it before. I played pretty much everything else I brought except my own games.

Thankfully the judging was low key, my name was never mentioned and it went without a hitch. A skinful the night before meant I did get some sleep. It was either booze or tablets; and a few beers has a more desired effect.

…but it’s really fun to make stuff

One mental faculty I still have intact is a thick skin. You need it as a journalist, and others deserve to give what I’ve been giving my whole life. If you don’t like my game, and give it a shitty review because you hated it, that’s your right. I’ll walk away. Yeah, sure – it might rile me for a few minutes. Especially if the negatives are based on arguments I find ridiculous. But 99 times in 100 I’ll quickly get over it and move on.

And it’s brilliant to meet people that like your games. Or that just want to talk design. Or that have enjoyed something I wrote here – or want to argue with me about something. If you’ve ever loved/enjoyed/been perplexed by/disagreed with anything I’ve done, I’d love to have a chat with you at a con. I just probably won’t radiate it much. If at all.

Because all these things make it worthwhile. But they don’t make it easy.

Board gaming and anxiety: My pros and cons of cons

So this may surprise people, as anxiety isn’t something I’ve talked about openly before. I’d think most of my friends and acquaintances see me as an affable gobshite who tends to relish social situations as part of a never-ending crusade against growing up. But while some of that may be true, it just goes to show – there is often a bit more going on behind the curtain.

I chose to write about board game conventions because they have been a big part of my social life over the past few years. I’m at my second of the year this weekend (AireCon), and the fourth in as many months. But I find them a mess of contradictions in terms of anxiety issues, so I thought I’d give a bit of a breakdown of my experiences – including the goods and bads that work for me (I know this may be totally different for others).

I’d love to hear your comments and experiences too – and I plan to write some more posts (including a more general ‘why gaming is good for me’ one) on the topic, so all feedback/ideas etc welcome. That said, pressing ‘publish’ on this is proving ridiculously difficult, so we’ll see how that goes…

Staying on and off site

One of the beauties of a con such as LoBsterCon or SorCon is the fact you have a hotel room in the same building as the gaming area – and what takes LoBsterCon to the next level in the last couple of years is the fact everyone staying in the hotel is at the con (so no awkward “what are those weirdos doing” looks from other patrons).

The big plus for me is having somewhere close to escape to that’s totally your space – as well as knowing that if you forget anything etc, it’s just a few floors up in the lift. For this reason I often book an extra night after the con, because otherwise – once I’ve checked out – I can start to feel a bit trapped and edgy. If I don’t stay that extra night, chances are I’ll leave soon after check-out and miss a day of gaming. I also like to arrive an evening early where possible, to get settled in and to be mentally ready for day one.

But of course, this locale bonus also relies on the hotel being somewhere you want to stay. Taking UK Games Expo as an example, the benefits listed above were largely negated at the Hilton last year: ridiculous room prices, even worse bar prices and a steady stream of rude and incompetent staff negated pretty much all the pluses (good breakfast though, in fairness).

‘Gamers needed’ flags

This may seem like a pretty minor issue, but these things are an absolute godsend: they should be made con-pulsory (ho ho) as far as I’m concerned. For the uninitiated, these are little flags you can put on your table as you’re setting up a game to indicate that you’re looking for more players to join you.

Firstly, this is great when you look around a room (especially a larger one) to try and find a game. Just because someone is setting up doesn’t mean they’re looking for players, so it avoids potentially awkward situations and pointless, stilted conversations. Plus, it saves people having to walk around the room trying to find players – which again can lead to some super awkward conversations.

But the unexpected extra bonus for me is people don’t (well, less often at least) see an empty chair and decide to come and impose themselves on you. I really don’t care if the game goes to five players: I’ve sat down with two good friends I rarely see to play it while we have a nice chat and a catch up – I’m sure you’re a nice person, but adding you would totally change the dynamic, so no thank you.

100 people good, 1,000 people bad

This may sound odd, but I very much feel that – despite 100 people being a lot – I gravitate more towards smaller cons. Walking into a room with 100 people isn’t daunting for me: it’s not as if we’re going to have a Slaughtered Lamb moment where everyone stops talking and looks at me. But at the same time, you immediately take in a bunch of faces you know you’re likely to be seeing regularly over the next few days.

I like that sense of belonging that comes from a smaller, more recognisable group: it’s probably why I never have a problem walking into my local pub even though I have nothing in common with many of the people that drink there – but when I’m having a bad day, I can fail to turn up to a gig by a band I love because I can’t face walking into a venue full of thousands of probably like-minded strangers.

I’ve failed to book a hotel for UK Games Expo so far and I think (along with the price etc problems mentioned above) this is a big part of why. I don’t really want to go, despite the fact I do want to go. It’s too big for me, too impersonal, too shambolic (you can struggle to even find a table to play on at times in recent years) – but at the same time too enclosing and too in-your-face (especially in the vendor area).


So… why the hell do you like Essen?

Essen Spiel is unique. Over 100,000 gamers uncomfortably packed into a bunch of convention centre halls which have zero open gaming space – meaning everything there is geared towards selling you product. On top of that, unless you’re royalty you’re looking at a 15-60 minute walk – or a packed public transport cattle experience – to and from your hotel. Everything I hate, right?

Wrong. Unlike every horrible sales pitch infested expo you may have attended before, you rarely find any hard sell here (unless you find yourself in the most outlying hall where terrible games go to die). In fact, if you see a stall worker that isn’t occupied they’re more likely to try and avoid your eye than get it – they’re probably taking a quick five-second breather from the retail carnage.

Add this attitude to the virtual sea of seemingly millions of excited gamers and what I find myself experiencing is strange kind of peace: I’m with my people, immersed in the best my hobby has to offer, but absolutely no one is paying any attention to me. I can just bimble around people watching, game watching, researching, without a care in the world. Everything I want to see is there, but the level of interaction is in my control – something I find increasingly important nowadays.

Later, when you get back to your hotel, you’ll probably find 90+% of the residents are fellow gamers – and the hotel (which are all well used to Essen Spiel by now) will have a small con-sized gaming area full of those familiar faces I spoke about before: people you’ll be in the same space with on the evenings for the week. Weirdly, somehow, that all makes sense. What can I say? That’s just me.