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Board Games As A Recovery Aid For Mental Health

Ever tried playing board games to help recover from a mental health related illness?

It’s has long been known that board games can be fun and a useful tool to help recovery in mental health and the idea of being active and staying active mentally through playing board games has a lot of evidence from recovery settings and through lived experience to back this up.

From my own experiences, I can attest to the value of meeting friends socially and using board games to bring people together for fun as well as a breathing space from what the world throws at you. I’ve also had the privilege of working in a mental health recovery setting, where I facilitated a board games recovery group.

This was very well received by a regular group of service users and I can honestly say the fun and entertainment we all had was very rewarding. In my time working in this setting, I could see the building of confidence and assertiveness, the use of social and communication skills, the bonding of friends and the increase in self-esteem supported by a non-judgemental and friendly environment.

We have collected a few snippets from bloggers to give an insight into how they have found playing board games rewarding and therapeutic.

Helping Yourself – David Ireland

Where to start on such a piece? I think about the times I have had my most challenging mental health periods and gaming doesn’t stick out in my mind as something I did to help myself, I know I would have played a few but it didn’t feel appropriate to play games at such a time of personal turmoil. I should have been! I was so lost in my own thoughts, worries and anxieties. What I know now is playing a game can be a method for practising mindfulness and bring myself back to the present moment and away from thoughts that were troubling me. It very much aids me in preventing myself going back to such troubling mental situations. I enjoy gaming and a way to improve mental health (which we are all told) is to do the things you enjoy. So, we should do things like this.

It then depends on your personality as to what you might be able to play and perhaps cope with. For me serious and heavy games were not an option as they were just too much. My focus is to look at the faster and lighter games that have huge emphasis on fun. I’ve talked about Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers before for mental health but another huge favourite of mine for a situation like this is GUBs. A beautiful card game by Gamewright games that is impossible to take too seriously but it does provide me and my wife with a lot a laughter during play. Suitable for 2-6 people and takes roughly 20 minutes with a definite end point. You have to be the player with the most GUBs on your side of the table when that end point comes, but when the game can flip on the drawing of a single card you really cannot take this game too seriously which is perfect for me at a time of mental challenge. Also, a great family game, playing with the family makes me realise what is important in life and where my thoughts should be.

A Perfect Distraction – Favouritefoe

I didn’t play many board games as a kid. Being an only child with busy parents didn’t give many opportunities beyond Christmas Trivial Pursuits and the odd Scrabble game. So I was a late board game bloomer. And the first time I played a game as an adult, it wasn’t at a party or a friend’s house. It was on a cruise ship being battered about in a tempest and Rummikub saved my soul.

The situation was scary and I needed a distraction. My husband grabbed a box from the on-board library and we sat under a table playing the game whilst waiting out the storm. And, as well as being the perfect distraction to calm my anxiety, it sparked a board gaming obsession in me that shows no sign of stopping!

If you haven’t played it, Rummikub is an excellent 2-4 player tile laying, set collection game. And in various guises, Rummikub has actually been around for more than 90 years. It also won the lofty Spiel des Jahres Game of the Year award back in 1980. Your objective is to make runs/sets of at least three consecutive or identical numbered tiles. Played over a number of rounds (or even a single game if time is tight), the game simply consists of a pile of chunky tiles (numbered #1-13 in 4 different colours plus 2 jokers) and plastic player tile racks. And whilst some rounds are calm, calculated developments of impressive melds, Rummikub quickly turns into a tense, brain burning session in our house.

Since picking up the tiles over a decade ago, Rummikub has become our go-to game when my world gets too loud. It’s familiar but always challenges me in a good way. We played it a lot when I was pregnant and again through the pandemic. Rummikub has become the game I grab when everything feels too much.

Keeping Mentally Active – Pete Bartlam

The University of the Third Age, or U3A is a national organisation for retired people to meet for social events and special interest groups. The aim is to keep mentally active through further learning. It also helps to combat loneliness. I lead the Board Game Group at the Arun West branch of the U3A.

We have been meeting on a monthly basis since November 2022. One of our founding members has a particular issue in that she is recovering from a stroke. This has reduced her cognitive abilities and she finds it hard to retain information. However, during the course of our sessions she has noticeably improved her abilities and seems more confident and at ease. She has proved a master at Takenoko, winning several times.

We have played quite a few different games: Splendor, Hare & Tortoise, Ticket to Ride Europe and King Domino but the one that got everyone off to a flyer was Camel Up! This was our inaugural game and was so well received it was all we played for the first three meetings.

Camel Up! is not demanding because you are not identified with your own camel and they are moved automatically at the whim of the dice so there is no pressure on you to get the move right. Also players are not going to be “nasty” to one another. All you have to do is to predict the outcome of the race! That’s hard enough for the “experts” to ponder but if you are less competitive you can just have a punt on the outcome and sit back and enjoy the camel-carrying capers.

Community-based Recovery – Rob Wright

There is a current meme doing the rounds on the social media despairing at the fact that men will spend thousands of pounds and hours restoring a steam train but won’t go to therapy, with the most common response being ‘this IS therapy’. It is also becoming apparent that men are less lonely in communities than in close yet unstructured friendships. So: hobbies + communities = the road to positive mental health. And what could be more of a community-based hobby than board gaming.

A case study for you: 2020 was not good for anyone, socially speaking. I started the lockdown like most – logging on to Zoom and engaging in long distance, camera assisted gaming or quizzes or chats or exercises or… or… but pretty soon it became teasingly unsatisfactory – I missed the peeps. Then one day, on one of my government prescribed daily walks (no more than an hour, mind you), I saw that someone had left some games-related paraphernalia on their wall for take-away. After seeing this, I decided to post a little note through their door, saying I too was of a gaming persuasion. This led to us becoming good friends who would see each other through some tough times.

The first time we met in person was in my back garden to play Space Base, and I think there are few better games or few better games for encouraging community, and I include co-operative games. The reason being is that you are always engaged with the game – other people’s rolls have as much importance to your game as your own rolls. Other games can see players locked in their own plays with little interaction, and between turn downtime is not good for the brain – rumination is a horrible thing. But here, there’s shared success, commiseration, satisfaction and camaraderie. To quote someone much smarter than me: men don’t talk face to face; they talk shoulder to shoulder.

Reaching Out To Others – Callum Price

There’s no escaping the fact everyone will, at some point, go through something awful or difficult in their life. “Taking the black dog for a walk” as some say. It’s part of the human experience. It hurts, hits hard and is centred on a lack of control. I too have gone through this, multiple times, but have always come out of it better in the end. I hate the cliche of “light at the end” and “stronger for it,” yet they’re right. The speed at which you can recover from it of course is wholly driven by you.

For me and many boardgamers like me, tabletop games and the likes are what give us joy in these moments. Sure it’s probably because of the control we regain through these! However, it’s also the social element within them, too. I walked the “black dog” late last year and may still have days when it rocks up… but meeting regularly with other gamers to play, win, lose and talk helped no end. Whether they knew it or not, they probably tripled the speed of my recovery and enabled me to begin doing the other human things in life again.

To support my mental well-being and get back into games, I signed up to a board games night. Possibly out of desperation, possibly as my first step to recovery. What’s the most wild element of this is that all of them, each and every one of them, were strangers. I simply reached out to other gamers and was welcomed wholeheartedly. No judgement, no prejudice. Just welcome arms and dice that needed to be rolled. One attendance became two which then became my routine. It’s not a lifeline by any means and needed me to take that plunge into the sign up and social element, but that simple step undeniably helped with my anxieties and preconceived thoughts about my own mental well-being and worth.

The fondest memory is of my first attendance when I was at my lowest. A group of four were already there and couldn’t wait to get more people involved. We played Klask initially and changed the rules so more could play. This inevitably changed into more and more games and soon it was like I’d never felt awkward around them. The barriers were broken easily and the vibe of the event was wonderful. We celebrated successes, we laughed at mishaps and talked nonsense and boardgames until closing.

Being Creative – by Neil Parker

I have found through my own lived experience how being creative can help tap into a healing reservoir. I used this knowledge to help promote a similar approach in helping others. Dixit is a great example of a light hearted game that requires a little creativity and is very rewarding as a result. There are a number of expansions to add variety and new challenges, but you can easily play the basic game time and again and still have fun.

When I first really discovered I could be creative, I was quite nervous because it meant by implication that anyone viewing my creativity could be critical. I found the opposite was true, whether it was writing poetry, building a wildlife pond or using my imagination in a board game, actually others liked what I did and so did I and flexing those creative muscles has helped me make the most of times when I’m not confident and feel the need to express myself.

If you have read through this article and feel it resonates with you or someone you know, we highly recommend reaching out and joining a local board games group, creating your own or perhaps simply finding time within your family or circle of friends to play board games.