Mental health awareness week, organised by the mental health foundation, is taking place from the 15th to the 21st of May with a strong focus towards anxiety. More information connected to this can be found at www.mentalhealth.org.uk.
According to the foundation’s studies, “Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems we can face”. But for us, that doesn’t make it any easier to alleviate. With a group of the Zatu bloggers we look to explore some of our own experiences with anxiety and what games we use to help us ease those anxious feelings. Our goal from this piece is to support raising the awareness of mental health challenges and provide some thoughts, discussion and ideas of games you can play on that you will hopefully find helpful.
This might sound strange for a board game blog, but the focus in A Gentle Rain is not on gameplay.
It’s not even on the game. Rather, it’s an invitation to connect mind, body, and soul. And being somebody who was diagnosed with neuro diversity at the age of 40, this is a very welcome and beautiful place. The world is a very loud, confusing, overwhelming place for me. But high functioning autism, anxiety, and dyspraxia is who I am, and board gaming gives me a point of focus. A way to cope. A chance to breathe.
As you might expect, A Gentle Rain is a single player experience. You are building a lake tile by tile. Each tile shows 4 half flowers of different colours/designs. As you lay out your lake, lily blossoms will form where two matching halves touch. And when 4 tiles touch, a circular space appears ripe for a blossoming lily token that matches one of the completed lily colours that surrounds it. If all 8 blossoms bloom before the tiles run out, you win. If you want to. Or you don’t win. It’s entirely up to you.
And that is what is so unusual and lovely about A Gentle Rain. The point is not to win or lose. It is just to play. Indeed, the instructions are more about calming down than firing up. It’s a mental meditation designed to give comfort through the process of laying tiles. I use board games every day to manage my conditions and I am extremely grateful for the moments of mad-less that A Gentle Rain brings me.
When I’m feeling stressed or anxious the game, I go to is Wingspan. This game is aesthetically pleasing with its soothing colour scheme and tactile components. In Wingspan, players take it in turn to either pick up cards, lay eggs, gather food or place birds. The game is made up of 4 rounds and each one has its own bonus task to complete.
Wingspan’s gameplay, although competitive, doesn’t feel stressful. As each player has their own board and goes about their own business, you barely look over at your competitors progress. Instead, collecting and building up your board is rewarding as it goes from being empty to a hive ofactivity. With lots of ways to score points, your chosen route is never blocked or hindered by other players. This makes it a light competitive experience.
Furthermore, Wingspan’s theme is calming. The deck is made up of a variety of birds and as you add expansions you will be discovering birds from all around the globe. Each one has an ability which makes the game dynamic and fun to play. The illustrations are beautiful, and you really feel like you are taking a stroll through nature and partaking in a bit of twitching. As the deck is vast, I still feel as if I am discovering new birds every time I play.
Overall, Wingspan may be a competitive game, but it is one of the best games to relieve anxiety. Its colour scheme, components and ease of gameplay make for a delightful gaming experience. For the hours that you are playing you can forget about washing up, bills and if you’ll get that raise at work. It does a great job of quietening any worries big or small. Instead, it focusses your thoughts on, “I wonder what bird I’ll see next?”
I think it is fair to say most people have feelings of anxiety to a greater or lesser extent throughout life, I am certainly no exception. One particular period in time I can reflect on as feeling so anxious that it led to a panic attack. I wasn’t aware in the moment that this was what I was experiencing but looking back it could not have been anything other than this. Since then I have spoke to professionals and taken other steps to try and prevent being in such a situation again. Or if I am, be better equipped to process the moment and the feelings created. There’s certainly no guarantee it cannot happen again, but I like to think my actions are positive to better help me going forward.
Board games are certainly one of my coping mechanisms because I enjoy them. Doing something I enjoy is a great way I relieve anxiety as I get totally lost in the moment, with board games, that moment is the gameplay. My ultimate board game for this being Carcassonne; Hunters and Gatherers.
Carcassonne is a tile placing game to that creates a unique map come the end of the game. There is always a definite end point with the last tile drawn. Throughout the game you will use your meeples to score points, the player with the most points win. This version sees scoring through forests, rivers, hunting fields and fish in the river network. There is also the opportunity for additional scoring on bonus tiles.
I have played this game so much I know it inside out and it takes quite an exceptional play to surprise me. It is this familiarity I have with the game that I find relaxing and a way to de stress. I turn a tile, I play it, I score it (if possible) and play passes on. As simple as that. The game works well with 2, 3, 4 or 5 people playing and throw a little music into the background, you will have a great social experience as well as gameplay experience. All of which help me to un wind.
2022 was undoubtedly the worst year of my life. Due to a number of factors in both my personal and work environments I wasn't myself. I thought I'd snap out of it eventually, but what I didn't realise was that I was suffering with depression and severe anxiety.
Once I got help things became a lot easier, and one of the things that really helped me cope was board gaming and the amazing people that I met through events and writing for Zatu.
One game in particular that still really helps relieve my anxiety is Skull. I know... a tense, bluffing game probably wasn't on anyone's bingo card when it comes to anxiety-relief. But for me it evokes memories of playing it at Airecon and UKGE with people who have become some of my best friends.
Skull is a very straight-forward game too. Everyone starts with 4 discs, 3 of which feature a flower and 1 that features the titular Skull. Players take it in turns to play a disc face down in front of them, stacking the next on top of the previous one. Once everyone has at least 1 disc face down in front of them, players can choose to kick off a bidding war, gambling on how many flowers they can unearth without finding a Skull.
The person who wins the bidding then attempts to find that number of flowers, but with the caveat they have to turn over their own pile first. Find a Skull and you lose one of your own discs at random. The game continues until someone wins 2 rounds, or everyone else loses all their discs.
It's so simple that I can teach it to almost anyone without the stress of any complicated mechanics, and it always leads to fun stand-offs and interactions, even between people who have barely met.
It's also a game I'm GOOD at, and when I'm playing I feel a self-confidence that often eludes me in other walks of life.
There are definitely more relaxing games out there; the iridescent, calming beauty of Noctiluca, the fun, laid back joy of Flamecraft and the simplicity and familiarity of games like Dobble or Something Wild to name but a few. But for me I'm never happier, more relaxed and carefree than when I'm convincing someone I've played 3 flowers and there's a Skull lurking ominously at the top of my pile.
Takenoko, known in our house as the Happy bamboo-munching Panda game, has proved popular with those suffering from mental health issues. I’m involved in our local U3A, the University of the Third Age, which despite its grandiose title is a friendly place where local retired people can meet and form common interest groups. Their motto is: Learn, Laugh, Live with the aim to keep the brain active whilst socialising once you’ve stopped full-time work. I run the local board games group.
Older people can have a different set of problems with regard to mental health: Loneliness, Memory Loss and conditions brought on by physical illness. The board games group helps all these areas. One of the ladies in our group has had a stroke and has difficulty retaining information whilst her cognitive skills are still good. This is where Takenoko comes in.
Takenoko, for those who don’t know (for descriptions see ZATU webpage) is a game of action points. You get usually 2 actions to perform each turn. You can lay tiles to extend the garden, grow bamboo via the Gardener or eat it by way of the cute Panda. This is all to get VPs by matching tile shapes, stands of bamboo or collecting pre-munched bamboo. The limited range of actions and targets are sufficient to keep choices interesting without being overwhelming. Secondly, it is not in-your-face
competitive. This is all set in a world of brightly coloured and visually appealing components. The garden tiles are chunky and placed with colour co-ordination. The bamboo stalks give a third dimension and can require a little dexterity to assemble whilst the sullen Gardener and happy Panda figure sculpts are a joy.
Suffice to say the lady in question has won every time and over the sessions her memory retention has noticeably improved.
There’s something intrinsically calming about nature, and I think that translates well into nature themed board games I’ve played. Whilst not always straightforward, for me, there’s always something that allows for a few deeper, longer breaths while trying to figure out a move.
Cascadia from Flatout Games definitely ticks the box for me here. At its heart it’s a simple tile-and- token drafting and placement game. It’s also a multiplayer solitaire effort, so what I’m doing doesn’t have any ongoing impact on you so there’s less stress in that respect. Cascadia also gives me fond memories of a holiday in the Pacific Northwest, spending time in British Columbia and seeing first-hand a lot of the habitats and wildlife that are depicted in the game.
On your turn, you’re taking tiles to try and score large, contiguous types of terrain, while simultaneously placing specific animal tokens on them to try and score points according to their unique placements cards. You get 20 turns and that’s it. Sometimes games with fixed turns make me feel like I’m never optimising what I’m doing. And while that lack of optimisation is usually evident in my score, I don’t get that same nagging feeling while I’m playing this.
There’s something satisfying about slotting in a tile that will let me play a final salmon token, scoring a chain of them who lazily swim up the river terrain I’ve placed for them. Memories of bears on mountains come flooding back as I put a wooden token down on a tile, and the elk remind me of the time I saw a giant moose swimming in a huge lake. I posted on Instagram earlier this year about how the solo version of this felt just as relaxing.
Gaming has definitely had a noticeably positive impact on my own metal health, and I’m always thankful for a time where I get to sit down with friends or family to play something. Games like Cascadia hold a special place in my collection as they offer some escapism and grounding that I can fit into a lunchbreak too.
There is not much better for my mental health than sitting down and concentrating on a game to the exclusion of all else. My go-to is a very peaceful game with limited player interaction and is all about solving a puzzle. For me, drawing a map in Cartographers is a great opportunity to reset my mind and not worry about things. In Cartographers, you’re flipping a card, revealing a polyomino shape with one or two terrain types which you then add onto your map in a way that is advantageous to you. There are four different scoring objectives which change from game to game, and a whole host of different maps to play with, so the puzzle is constantly evolving.
The only thing that can disrupt you is if an Ambush card comes up, revealing a monster which scores
negative points if it’s not surrounded, and you’re playing with others. Because your opponent’s plop that monster wherever they fancy, but the best way around that is just play solo. It’s perfect for that because you can just sit down, take 15-30 minutes and your favourite colouring pencils and just play. Colouring gives off some lovely endorphins and so does filling in a puzzle successfully, which is just great for the old brain. I highly recommend giving Cartographers a go if you need a mental health break.
Thanks for taking the time to read our blog in support of mental health awareness week. We hope our team here have given you some ideas and inspiration on how you can use board games as a way to manage anxiety and be involved with an enjoyable activity. If you want to know more information about mental health or anxiety, please check out www.mentalhealth.org.uk.