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.

Qwirkle board game: A four-sided review

The Qwirkle board game is a 2006 release from designer Susan McKinley Ross. It has won multiple awards, including the Spiel des Jahres (when it was finally released in German) in 2011. It’s a game I often mention in Top 10s etc, and still a top seller, so I wanted to give it a full review.

Qwirkle is a tile placement and pattern building family game that plays in less than an hour. It’s listed as suitable for 2-4 players aged 6+, which seems about right (and it’s fun at all player counts).

It is completely abstract, with the box containing 108 nice, chunky wooden tiles in a drawstring bag. Some people do complain about the colours not being different enough (especially the red and orange). But I haven’t found it to be an issue in OK light. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for around £20 – which seems to me a real bargain by modern board game pricing standards. (Please click through via this link if you want to support my blog when picking up your games – thanks!).

Teaching the Qwirkle board game

Qwirkle is a very simple game to set up and teach. Fill the bag with all the wooden tiles, each player draws six, and away you go. On your turn you usually play one or more tiles to the table, then draw back up to six. But you can also discard any number of tiles and draw new ones instead (the old tiles go back in the bag). Play continues until all the tiles have been used, with the player running out of tiles first getting a six-point bonus.

Each wooden tiles has one of six symbols, in one of six colours. And there are three of each combination (three orange stars, three blue circles etc). When you play tiles, they must connect to at least one existing tile. And all the tiles played must be added to a single row or column. Each row/column must either contain tiles of the same colour, but showing different shapes; or tiles of the same shape in different colours. so you could add a blue square and blue circle to a blue star.

You then score one point for each tile in each row and column you added to. But you get a bonus six points for making a ‘Qwirkle’ – a completed row or column of six, either by symbol or colour. Once all the tiles are laid, highest score wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: As someone who loves reintroducing people to the hobby, the Qwirkle board game is a great addition to the arsenal. It sets up and teaches in minutes, is colourful and accessible, but is full of decisions. There’s even a bit of a game arc, but you’ll have a handle on everything by the end of your first game. And as it’s so fast playing, it’s a great game to play back-to-back games of. In terms of simple family games, it ticks all the boxes required to show people there’s a great middle ground in board games between children’s games and long, drawn out affairs such as Monopoly and Risk.
  • The thinker: There’s nothing to hate about this one, but as a strategist there’s nothing to love either. The tile placement nature, and luck if the draw, means its almost entirely tactical. While any strategies there are emerge in the first few minutes of play. They’re even flagged up in the rulebook for the hard of thinking! So while it’s a game I’ll happily play if others want to, there’s nothing here that would make me reach for the shelf and suggest it. Compared to a similar game with a little more depth, such as Ingenious, where I would.
  • The trasher: The Qwirkle board game is clearly ‘good’. And there’s a real satisfaction when you nail a qwirkle, especially a double one. But there are no real ‘take that’ moments, traps you can lay, or other ruses that make a game sing for me.
  • The dabbler: Love it! The simple, bright components don’t scare anyone off. And you simply need to waggle the single sheet rulebook at any friends who may be nervous you’re trying to turn them into a nerd! Yes, the overriding tenet is ‘don’t leave your opponents an easy qwirkle’. But there are interesting decisions. It is often tough to decide whether to play a tile or two to keep your score ticking over. Or throw a load away for the chance of getting that elusive qwirkle-making tile. Plus, as the game draws to a close, you can work out what’s left in the bag, and slowly those hoped-for opportunities drift agonisingly away.

Key observations

Unfortunately, without modification, the Qwirkle board game will be unplayable for some colour blind players. It’s hard to excuse this in the modern gaming world, so I’m not defending them here. Just stating it as a fact. And while I like the simple, chunky wooden pieces, others find them ugly and boring. Horses for courses.

Others simply find the game boring, which is fair enough. As I’ve alluded to above, there is no real interaction and little strategy. While things can bog down with slow, methodical players – or those unwilling to take risks. I guess descriptions such as, “Scrabble with shapes/colours instead of letters” aren’t far off the mark. But there’s no dishonesty here – it isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or be super clever.

It’s hard not to compare the Qwirkle board game to one of my favourites, Ingenious. Both have simple rules, colourful tiles in a draw bag etc. Ingenious is a much cleverer game, has a better game arc, and has more interesting tactics and strategies. But for less gamery audiences, and children, Qwirkle is a great stepping stone. And even for gamers, if you’re just wanting something lighter on the brain, I still think Qwirkle is a solid alternative on a rainy, hungover Sunday morning.

Sister game Qwirkle Cubes is also worth a mention here. It works on the same placement/ scoring system, but the bag contains coloured dice instead of tiles that are rolled when taken from the bag. The main difference is that the dice are visible, so you have an idea of what an opponent might do. But before their turn they can roll as many of them as they choose, so keeping a big element of randomness. The big downside for me is that this removes the surety you have in Qwirkle, knowing how many of each tiles remains as you approach the often crucial end game moves. But dice chuckers may well prefer the chaos.

Conclusion: The Qwirkle board game

Qwirkle is a simple and accessible family game. How fun it is will depend on your tastes, but it does exactly what it says on the tin. For what it’s worth, it will be staying in my collection. It will never make my All Time Top 40 and may not even be played once a year. But at the right time, with the right people, I know I’ll reach for it in the future.

Kompromat board game: A four-sided review

The Kompromat board game is a light small box card game for two players. Recommended for ages eight and up, a full game lasts about 30 minutes.

Anyone familiar with Blackjack (Pontoon/21s) will immediately feel at home with the basic rules. While anyone familiar with Schotten Totten (Battle Line) will recognise the twist. Essentially, you’ll be playing several hands of blackjack at once, with the winner of each gaining rewards.

The hidden cards elements lend them selves nicely to the ‘duel of spies’ theme. While the highly stylised artwork is nicely done. Comparison site Board Game Prices (please use to support the site!) has it available from several independent retailers for around £15, which offers good value for money. While there’s not a great deal in the box (57 cards and 18 cardboard tokens), everything is made to a high standard.

Teaching the Kompromat board game

Anyone with a grounding in traditional card games will be on solid ground. Making this a great game to teach a friend/partner who may be new to the hobby. Each player is given their own identical 14-card deck, while four of the game’s 29 ‘mission’ cards are put face-up between the players. You’ll use all of the mission cards, so the deck makes a handy timer.

Your deck is made up of numbered cards, ranging variously from 0.5 to 10 plus two 1/11 cards. On a turn you’ll look at your top card and decide which mission you want to attempt this turn – placing the card face up in front of it on your side. now, you continue to add cards until you decide to ‘stick’. But these are all face down. So your opponent won’t know if you bust, have 21, have 14 etc. On your next turn, you’ll do the same on a different mission. Once you’ve both played cards to all four missions, the round is over.

Your mission…

The mission deck has 24 standard cards (so you’ll play six rounds). The other five are ‘counter intelligence’ (CI) cards. When you draw one of these, you’ll place a normal mission card on top of it. Missions either give points, or one point plus a one-off special ability. You may be able to discard a card from a mission, look at your next few cards, look at an opponents played cards on a mission etc. It’s all pretty straight forward but meaningful stuff.

Scoring is simply revealing the cards, with the winner taking the spoils. But the CI cards add a nice twist. claiming them gives you notoriety tokens, each of which counts as a point in final scoring. But if a player ever has too much notoriety (nine tokens), they automatically lose. Any hand you bust also gives a notoriety token (while a 21 allows you to optionally discard one). So getting too many too soon can make things very tense. Unless someone busts on CI counters, highest score wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While the Kompromat board game won’t be everyone, I think they’ve made the best version of the game they wanted to make. The rules are simple, the whole package is beautifully made and the gameplay is assessible. But there are just enough nods to gamers in here to keep a couple of experienced players happy when you’re looking for a quick and light filler game. Especially as it packs up and down in about a minute.
  • The thinker: There’s nothing wrong here. Unless, like me, you want to strategise. It’s a light push your luck game, so you can’t expect too much. And it’s based on Blackjack, so you need to come in expecting that. but with such varied numbers, the first couple of hands are a lottery. Only in the latter two, if you’ve done some card counting, do the odds start to become clearer. So it’s a not for me – but not because it’s a bad game. I’d just rather play something with less randomness, such as Battle Line.
  • The trasher: The Kompromat board game is basically fun. Bluffing and taking risks are always a laugh. But here things get more interesting later, when the CI tokens start to really come to the party. If you have too many, busting can be a problem. And if some big CI cards come out late, and your opponent knows it, they may bust deliberately to make you win. As a light game, in a cool little small box, this is a great filler/train game.
  • The dabbler: I wish I was better at bluffing! If I bust I can barely contain myself – and it’s the same if I get 21 lol. Nightmare. But that should tell you, I really enjoy this one. There are some tactics you spot once you’ve played a few rounds. And it is so easy to pick up. And while the art style might not be for everyone, I thought it was incredibly cool looking.

Key observations

I don’t have an awful lot to add here, as the game has largely been well received. And I tend to agree with what seem to be the general sentiments people are noting about the game.

As blackjack with bells on, it may not convert many people if they don’t like the original. All it does is cleverly replace the tension of betting real money with a points system. If its the thrill of losing your wages, this isn’t going to cut it. But if you like the push your luck/bluff elements of the original you should get a kick out if this.

Replayability may be an issue, as there’s not much variety in the box. However, in terms of the gamer community, I don’t see this as a ‘play every day’ game. It’s a filler for when two friends are hanging around waiting for something else to do. And for that, it’s perfect. Also, half the fun of Blackjack is in reading your opponent. So if you’re not getting a kick out of that, which should itself add longevity, then it probably isn’t the game for you.

Conclusion: Kompromat board game

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Kompromat and it’s definitely a keeper. There’s a lot to be said for any game that can setup in 5 minutes, be taught in another five, then is back in the box after 30 minutes. Especially when it will fit in your coat pocket. It will never rise above about 6/7 out of 10 in my eyes. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, or do anything particularly clever or original. But this kind of game doesn’t set out to. The designer has spotted a gap in the market, and made a nice little game to fill it. So it’s still a winner in my eyes.

Essen Spiel 2021 preview

Essen Spiel 2021 is, theoretically, just two months away. I’ve had my two jabs, got my Eurostar booked and hotel sorted. Normally that’s all I need to start getting excited about the event. But it’s fair to say this year is going to be a little different.

Looking back at my preview of the last physical event (Spiel 2019) it was the biggest yet. Back then they were expecting 1,500 new games from a staggering 1,200 exhibitors. This year I’m amazed they’ve managed to get together an impressive 600 exhibitors from 43 nations, presenting more than 1,000 games.

Of course, things can change very quickly in this pandemic. But let’s keep everything crossed that it will go ahead. And more importantly, for me, that I can get there if it does. And that I can beat my anxiety and actually turn up!

What to expect when we get into Essen Spiel 2021

Everyone attending is going to need to prove they’re vaccinated, or show proof of a recent negative test. Thanks to brexit our NHS passport should be enough to get me through, but it will take longer to process. Once inside, a ‘medical grade’ face mask will have to be worn at all times. I’m presuming that will just be inside, and that the outside areas will offer a welcome release from them (as well as a beer and a bratwurst).

It’s usually an incredibly squished event. Whether getting from A to B or trying to play a game on an undersized table with no room to squeeze past, it’s a bit of a nightmare. I don’t even go in on a Saturday, the busiest day of the event. But this year there’s the promise of wider isles, as well as strict limits on how close gaming tables can be from each other. Hand sanitiser will be required before playing a game on a booth. While some kind of contact tracing app connected to each booth is also being mooted.

all these measures seem sensible and I’m right behind them. But I wonder how it will all affect attendance – or whether that will even matter. I think around one-in-three people I know that usually attend (as punters or journos) are planning on going this year. Sure, that’s just international travellers – and the vast number of attendees will be German. But if attendance numbers at other recent events I’ve heard about are anything to go by, it may be a strangely muted affair regardless of the safety measures. Tickets will go on sale at the end of August.

My Essen Spiel 2021 (early) wish list

It’s a bit early for a definitive list, but here are some games I’m looking forward to finding out more about. I suggest checking out the fantastic Tabletop Together Tool to see many of this year’s Essen releases in one place. I’ve been through the first 200 or so (I know…) and have picked these out for potential reviews:

  • 1923 Cotton Club (Looping Games, 2-4 players, 60 mins): I love this series of mini euro games (see 1906 and 1987), which pack a big game in a small package.
  • Ark Nova (Feuerland, 1-4 players, 2 hours): Heavier zoo-themed tile placement/card actions euro with an interesting action selection twist.
  • Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Looping Games, 1+ players, 20 mins): Flip-and-write which looks like a more fun/complex version of Railroad Ink.
  • One Card Wonder (Ape Games, 2-6 players, 15 mins): Light and fast filler game, which should act as a good gateway to resource management games.
  • Pessoa (Pythagoras, 1-4 players, 1-2 hours): A worker placement/hand management euro with a similar rotating mechanism to the excellent Pharaon, but a little more complex.
  • Sobek: 2 Players (Catch Up Games, 2 players, 30 mins): A simple, smart tile collection game where your move on the grid decides what’s available to your opponent. (BGA)
  • Squaring Circleville (Spielworxx, 1-4 players, 2 hours): Medium weight rondel euro with area majorities, where timing things right looks key.
  • Twinkle (V Games, 1-4 players, 30 mins): Light dice/set collection game, which looks just different enough to make me interested.
  • Winter Queen (Crowd Games, 2-4 players, 30 mins): Nice looking interactive abstract where you’re trying to be first to benefit from scoring opportunities.

Oldies to look out for

I’m really hoping the second hand stalls will be in attendance, as working my way through them is one of my annual Spiel highlights.

This year I’ll be looking out for:

  • Archaeology – The New Expedition: Slight improvements to the fantastic original.
  • Attika: An older Hans im Gluck abstract tile-placer I enjoy on Yucata.
  • Barenpark: Nice tile game, but not worth the £25 UK price tag.
  • DVONN: My favourite of the GIPF games.
  • Firenze: Another old interactive euro I always enjoy online.
  • Industrial Waste: A smart old (2001) Rio Grande light, fast yet deep euro game.
  • Parade: The gorgeous Alice in Wonderland art version.
  • Vanuatu: Strangely hard to find despite a reprint vicious euro.

Want to know anything more about Essen? Just ask in the comments below.

Best 1990s board games: Which stood the test of time?

Ah, the nineties. Or, to me, my twenties. The decade that introduced many of us to the internet, mobile phones, rave and grunge. But what were the best 1990s board games? The one’s that many of us old timers are still playing regularly today?

There are a few big games I should mention that didn’t make my list. These are all great games and well worthy of this list. But they’re just not my type of game. Tigris and Euphrates (aggressive abstract), Catan (euro negotiation), Magic/Netrunner (collectable card games), I’m the Boss (silly negotiation) and Tichu (card shedding) all fall into this category. The last is El Grande – which is my kind of game, but I’ve just never picked up a copy or played it much. I think largely because it needs at least three players.

Links below go to my full reviews of these games elsewhere on this website. and you can scroll to the bottom of the post for online play options. Most of the games are also still in print. If you’re thinking if investing, please use this link to Board Game Prices to get started. It’s a great comparison linking out to a range of great independent retailers.

The best 1990s board games

Ra (1999, 2-5 players, 60 mins, ages 10+, Reina Knizia)
This is comfortably my favourite auction game. And after more than 50 plays it is showing no signs of getting old. What makes it stand out is that you’re making a single bid, with a numbered tile. But there’s a ‘push your luck’ element to when you do so. Scoring tiles are slowly added to the pot, which will have different values to each player, creating some delicious tensions as the game progresses.

Manhattan (1994, 2-4 players, 60 mins, ages 8+, Andreas Seyfarth)
Famed for its incredibly ugly board, Manhattan comfortably rises above the terrible 80s-style artwork. This cutthroat area majority abstract game won the Spiel de Jahres (German game of the Year) in 1994 – and deservedly so. Cards limit where you can place your pieces, while you can score in three different ways. It makes for a clever balancing act where talking your opponents into believing you can be ignored can have as much influence as tile placement.

PitchCar (1995, 2-8 players, 30+ mins, ages 5+, Jean du Poël)
This is the only game here I don’t own. And that’s purely down to cost, not my enjoyment level. Imagine Scalextric, but with flicking discs for cars, and you’re on the right track (ho ho). Add track sections without barriers, jumps and even loops (with expansion packs) and you can probably imagine why this is one of the best ‘end of evening’ con game around.

Entdecker (1996, 2-4 players, 60 mins, ages 10+, Klaus Teuber)
This game certainly isn’t perfect. But if you’re playing with the alternative rules and at least three players, it’s still one of my favourite tile-laying games. It has the luck elements a sea exploration game needs for its theme. But there’s enough strategy and tactics in the majority battles to easily make up for it. And its just different yet simple enough to stand out.

Small box games

The Rose King (1992, 2 players, 30 mins, Dirk Henn)
This is one of my favourite two-player-only abstracts. It has the feel of a classic such as Go, but introduces a random element in that piece movement is limited by cards. However you can see each other’s cards, so are always aware of your opponent’s options.

Basari (1998, 3-4 players, 30 mins, Reinhard Staupe)
With the right crowd, this little negotiation game is an absolute blast. Players simultaneously choose one of three actions, all of which affect each player slightly differently. If you’re the only one to pic it, you do it. If you all choose the same one, no one does anything. But if two of you pick it, you negotiate/bid to see who gets the spoils, and who the action. Listed under small box because the only available version is the smaller, later released card version.

For Sale (1997, 3-6 players, 30 mins, Stefan Dorra)
A two-round auction game where you first bid for properties (English auction), before selling those properties for end game cash/points (single shot blind auction). It’s a great end-of-night closer game and – along with my next pick – the one out of my picks you still see most often on gaming tables today.

6 Nimmt! (1994, 4-10 players, 45 mins, Wolfgang Kramer)
a game for every collection, 6 Nimmt! is the classic hand management/simultaneous card play game out there. At its best with 5-6 players, it gets a little too chaotic (but still fun) with more. And while it can seem super random, with 5-6 players you’ll tend to notice the better players tend to win. The later 2-4 player version (X Nimmt!) is also excellent.

Kahuna board game box

Kahuna (1998, 2 players, 45 mins, Günter Cornett)
Another simple, elegant two-player abstract where a card deck restricts your options. This time, the cards are largely secret. But a small deck with limited options means you have a good idea of what’s coming. It’s area control, with a clever cascading mechanism which can see your best laid plans collapse with a single clever move.

Lost Cities (1999, 2 players, 30 minutes, Reina Knizia)
This is a clever two-player push-your-luck card game. You’re trying to score points by playing sequentially numbered cards in the same colour to your side of the board. But you only score a number if it rises above 20 – otherwise you’ll get negative points. With shared coloured discard piles you can both draw from, it soon becomes a battle of wills where you both think the card deck hates you.

The best 1990s board games: near misses

Several of the GIPF series games came out in the 1990s, and are well worth checking out if you like two-player abstract games. But my favourites came along a bit later, in the 2000s. Schotten Totten/Battle Line (another two-player Knizia design) would’ve been my number 11 – a great game, and in my collection, but it didn’t quite make the list.

I also noticed I almost had a game from each year. If I was to do at least one for each year, I’d add Games Workshop classic Space Crusade (1990), Tichu (1991) and mind-bending trick taker Sticheln (1993).

Online play

Many of these games can be played free online at the following sites:

Enjoy the list? Check out all kinds of ‘best of’ selections over at my Top 10s list page.