03 January 2022
If you can see it from my point of view, we might be on to a winner
This article originally appeared in issue 57 of Tabletop Gaming, and was written by Christopher John Eggett. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here.
Pandasaurus games are very good at making weird puzzles that make my brain very happy. 2020’s Ctrl was one such game of competitive puzzling. A personal favourite, that gets dragged out at larger gatherings with regularity, is the joyous and raucous ‘controlled argument’ that is Mental Blocks.
The first time I showed it off to my gaming group, it might have been the easiest sell since Tokyo Highway. You can just open the box, show people the components, and they’re in. But do they know what they’re getting themselves into?
WHAT IS IT?
Mental Blocks a game of making the right shaped three dimensional object with a group of friends out of alluring foam blocks in a variety of colours. The issue is that, while you might all be trying to make the same shape, you don’t all have the same information.
Instead, each player is given a card from a set for each task which shows a coloured, two dimensional image of the blocks they can see from their angle. They can’t share the information on this card with others, but they can attempt to describe it, for all the good that it will do. This means, from where I am sitting, I know that there’s a two height blue block on the left on top of a single height yellow block, while someone else – maybe opposite, maybe looking at the side but sitting opposite, is looking at what you’re building with your shared blocks shaking their head and muttering “no, no, no, that’s not it at all.”
And then they’ll start pulling away your blocks and replacing them with something that simply doesn’t fit what your card says at all, and a third player, completely dismayed, suggests that this is wrong – but in a different way to both of you. There’s a triangle bit, and you both look at that person as if they’ve betrayed you by introducing the madness of a triangle bit… the very idea. And so on.
It’s a spatial game that messes with your head in the best possible way. The cards don’t display depth, so the flat two-high blue block could be a sloped part of a triangle block, or the part that’s clearly a small black triangle balanced against a yellow triangle of the same size actually… isn’t there, there’s another black block behind it instead. Which isn’t a triangle, or might even be on top of a differently coloured block that you can see from your side at all.
And so, what you thought was a team dexterity puzzle, turns out to be a crazy social cooperation game of clear communication, giving and understanding, and occasionally outright arguments. Oh, and against the clock too.
WHY SHOULD YOU PLAY IT?
As a controlled argument goes, there’s few games better. The absolute frustration players have over not being fully understood when they’re building elements, followed by the huge wave of relief and buzz of a eureka moment when either they understand which way they’re meant to be looking at the object, or that they’ve convinced someone else that they need to change their view, is just incredible. We’ve had full on “no, that’s complete nonsense” back-and-forths across the table as other players attempt to continue building what they see, only to end up cackling when we see what was meant to happen all along. Imagine the moment where you brain ‘clicks’ and you ‘get’ a puzzle. You can see the solution all at once.
Now imagine doing that with four of your friends, all at exactly the same time. It feels like pure magic.
At larger player counts it gets even more interesting – not only because the timer comes right down with more players (because the game assumes with more information you’ll work it out quicker) but also because new cards are introduced. Some players, instead of a single side of the three dimensional shape, will be given a colourless, grey render of the complete object from one corner. This player will be able to help confirm the shape (from their side at least) to the rest of the group, but not the colour or how those particular elements are made. This little tweak to how information is held in the room is enough to change the atmosphere, suddenly there’s someone without a real agenda about what colours everything is, but instead the general shape. It’s a great role to take on, as a kind of peacemaker (who might still make mistakes).
But if peace isn’t your thing, then we can recommend adding a traitor into the group. This is a player who is given a full colour and complete version of the final object on their card. They then spend the entire game making ‘hmm...’ noises and second guessing everyone’s actions, maybe just thoughtfully rotating a single block to be slightly… wrong. This has to be done subtly by the traitor however, players can call them out at any time to have them foam-blocked to death, we assume.
Winning the game is similarly done, everyone votes as to whether the pile of blocks they’ve created is ‘correct’ and the card is revealed. There’s a number of difficulty levels to run through in the game, and simply sitting down with the first few and moving on until you’re all foam block shifting savants (or crash out in a strop) is the way to go.
Difficulty can be ramped up further, with the introduction of restriction cards and minor glitches. Restrictions offer ways to privately tie the hands of individual players with effects like only being able to touch blue blocks or not being able to speak. Glitches are rules for all players around the table and could be anything from not being able to directly touch the block you want to move, or not being able to move yourself – which in a game of perspective, tends to make the mental gymnastics even more strenuous. Restrictions can’t be shared or spoken of, but it becomes obviously quite quickly – adding a whole new layer of complexity to the puzzle of the game. Not only do players now have to solve the actual perspective trick, but they have to understand what others can’t communicate and can’t do, helping one another through the game.
And without getting too sentimental, that’s what Mental Blocks is all about – understanding someone else’s perspective. Understanding what others need and helping them out with it. Which, for a game that I introduced as a controlled argument, is an amazing place to end up.
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