Have you heard of the Mind Sports Olympiad?
I’m often surprised how many board gamers are unaware of the MSO…
Given the scale and prominence of the physical Olympics, it’s a bewildering shame that its board games (or, more broadly, ‘Mind Sports’) counterpart remains comparatively low profile.
With this in mind, I decided to a) pen a brief intro to the MSO, and b) take the plunge of competing in a few events…
Intro A Go Go…
The Mind Sports Olympiad is an international event, featuring the best and brightest board gamers and mentathletes (and, this year, me).
The event has been held annually since 1997, with this year being the landmark 25th MSO. Although most previous events have been held at physical venues (typically in London), in 2020 it moved online, remaining that way in 2021. This opened the event’s doors to even broader audiences and 2020 featured its largest player base yet – around 6000 entrants from over 100 countries.
Much like the physical Olympics, the number of events on offer has expanded over the years, with newer additions bringing more modern games to the competition.
Classic games on offer include Chess, Scrabble, Backgammon, Go, Draughts, Oware, Poker and even Monopoly (many of the more established games also offer multiple tournaments, featuring variants and different rulesets).
Newer games include Carcassone, Catan, Splendor, Jaipur, Kingdomino, Ticket to Ride, 7 Wonders, Hive and many, MANY others besides.
The line-up expands every year and exploring the full range of games often piques my interest in trying new ones (Battle Sheep being a favourite find).
Medals are awarded for each event, but the highest accolade is the Pentamindtrophy – awarded to the player with the best overall performance across five different games.
Despite the allure of the Pentamind, I set my personal sights a little lower, tasking myself with not coming last in any tournament I compete in…
The tournament takes place over three weeks: Friday 13th August – Sunday 5th September.
The schedules are a dizzying offering; a board games buffet and banquet.
Without looking too far ahead, I spot an event for Logic Puzzles on the opening weekend and sign up for that. Nostalgia pops an image of the classic Logic Problems magazine into my head, and I’m comforted – this event should be right up my street.
Signup involves visiting the World Puzzle Federation’s Grand Prix events site: https://gp.worldpuzzle.org/content/puzzle-gp.
This might be the first, but it won’t be the last time I discover a whole new corner and community of gaming through the MSO. I soon appreciate why the looser, broader title of “Mind Sports” is used for the competition.
For reference, other Mental Skillsevents offered include Speed Reading, Memory, Mental Calculations, Cryptic Crosswords, Creative Thinking, Sudoku and Quizzle (a quiz/ riddle competition).
The Puzzle Grand Prix site contains info on regular Puzzle GPs throughout the year (eight events – running monthly until August) and a sister series of Sudoku GP events.
Event details include a Puzzle Instruction Booklet – a primer in which puzzles will feature in any GP event (as well as bulging archives of previous puzzles).
I glance through the booklet and find 19 different puzzles, none of which I am familiar with. Encouragingly, this breaks down into a more manageable 12 distinct puzzle types (none of which I am familiar with).
With some convincing self-talk, I persuade myself to not give up before the first event.
I spend several days tackling the booklet, learning new rules and solving the majority of examples (eventually).
It’s enough to be reasonably confident I can solve one or two problems within the 90 minutes allowed on the day. I remind myself I’m only aiming to not come last.
For an extra challenge, although event info recommends participants print their puzzle booklet off on the day, I don’t currently own a printer.
Fortunately, being an ex-maths teacher, I do own an inexhaustible supply of squared paper & rulers – enough to copy most puzzle grids with only a few minutes sacrifice.
I slide aside concerns of not being ‘fully’ prepared for the event and reaffirm my commitment to the cause.
Saturday Morning, August 14th
I open my laptop and prepare to begin.
The GP puzzle booklet requires a password, which I attempt to locate.
I check my emails – there’s nothing from MSO or the WPF in my inbox. Thinking again, I check my account profile on the WPF site. I find no new messages there either.
When I find the @officialwpf account on Twitter I discover you can’t directly message that account.
I find a contact email for [email protected] and, with some shame, compose an email explaining I can’t find the password to access my puzzle booklet. A mail delivery system informs me, ‘my message could not be delivered to one or more recipients’.
I take a deep breath. I likely sigh too.
Reading back through the event info, I click several sidebar dropdown menus and finally, around 45 minutes later, spy a section labelled ‘password’ – it appears entirely obvious once I’ve found it. No matter. No quibbling distraction. I’m ready.
Let the games begin…
I skip the first few puzzles (Easy As, Tapa & Tents) and settle on a Yajilinpuzzle I’d been more comfortable with in the example booklet.
Drawing out the grid, it becomes apparent that those examples were significantly miniaturised versions of the puzzles proper...
Changing from a 6 x 6 grid to a 10 x 10 might not sound much, but it’s also 64 squares more and almost three times the puzzle…
I make little progress. After several minutes I decide another puzzle would be a better investment of time.
The Looppuzzles remind me of an old iPhone puzzler (Flow Free) and something resembling previous experience makes this seem a better bet. The 5 x 5 square of the examples has been replaced by an irregularly shaped monstrosity – 34 x 31 squares, at its widest & highest…
I use the smaller squares in my maths book as I copy it.
Several minutes later and the outside is nearly traced – I’m one square off. I’ve made a mistake during copying…
More minutes pass, I re-draw the outline & shade squares.
After thirty minutes, it seems sensible to accept I won’t solve this puzzle in the allotted time either. I move on to Magnets.
It’s my first successful solve & I’m happy. Getting one might keep my goal alive beyond the first event...
I run out of time on a second Magnets puzzle.
I check my emails afterwards & there’s a response from the ‘undelivered’ email, explaining where to find my password.
My first event suggests it might be worth putting in additional preparation.
Last year I was surprised (and intrigued) to discover Can’t Stop was included in the MSO: I hadn’t thought they’d include games so heavily influenced by luck.
Since then I’ve reviewed Can’t Stop and the ease, simplicity and brevity make it a low-key firm favourite. It’s almost a week until the Friday tournament and I begin putting some regular practice in on BGA.
A few days later I’m developing tactics, insights & strategies in a game largely dependent on luck. Maybe there’s more to it?
My BGA rating moves up to ‘Good’ (200-300 rating) and at one point I’m shocked to realise I’ve won five consecutive games (loosely, there’s a 1-in-3 chance of winning a standard 3-player game). Giddy with the reverie of this I almost message a friend, but it is approaching midnight…
Instead, the next day I boast of winning seven consecutive games. My player rating moves to ‘Strong’ (300+). It doesn’t remain there.
The tournament takes place over 12 matches and several hours on a Friday evening. It’s highly enjoyable. I make a good start, winning three of my first six games and coming 2nd / joint 2nd in the others.
It doesn’t last, but 110th out of roughly 200-ish players is a respectable halfway up the leader board. It’s a solid, satisfying result. Much better result than my first event (which I remind myself to check results for later).
What a strange thing to be an event, I consider.
The CT event consists of four questions: 24 hours to answer them, 500 words max for each.
I’ll bite, I resolve.
7:30pm (the night before the Can’t Stop tournament) an email arrives. The questions (summarised):-
- Covid Redeployment – come up with ideas for modifying/ re-using items no longer needed after Covid (masks, measuring devices, etc.)
- Knife Redesign – submit ideas for a Swiss Army knife replacement
- Licence to Rethink – 31st-century archaeologists have only one 21st Century item: a list of the titles of 5 Bond movies. What do they deduce about our civilization?
- Alien Revolution – benevolent aliens arrive, offering a 5-year plan for Earth: we must follow it or be destroyed. What’s their solution?
I give it some thought and stay up until around 1am penning considered answers for the first three questions. I return to the fourth the next day after work, finishing in a reluctant hurry before the Can’t Stop tournament. I’ll need to wait several days for the results.
Familiar puzzles must make for an easier competition, right?
This event isn’t hosted on the Puzzle/ Sudoku GP site, so I find myself on Vint.ee – an Estonian Mind Sports page. I notice they have Entropy– an obscure game I’ve only heard of from previous MSOs. My mind flits to other abstract games the competition makes me keen to explore: Abalone, Quoridor, Circle of Life and Lines of Action.
The event will feature 6 x 6; 9 x 9; Diagonal and Irregular sudokus. I practice, so I’m familiar with the site…
I’m perplexed when it doesn’t seem to allow note-making in individual squares – “2 or 9?” or similar. In my experience, this is crucial to any advanced solves?
I message an admin.
I’m told this “has not been a requested feature by the users”.
I request it.
The next day I print off several blank sudoku grids to solve trickier puzzles off-screen (I’ve now invested in a printer…). Doing this reminds me to check my Puzzle results: my sole solution was incorrect.
I indignantly print out the Puzzle booklet to double-check.
My solution was correct, but I’ve submitted an incorrect character in my answer (a cross-section of the correct solve). This means I’ve not only failed my personal challenge but effectively fallen at the first hurdle.
I shrug. I’m having enough fun to carry on.
It’s another 90-minute event, working through a series of increasingly difficult 6x6 puzzles, irregular variants, 9x9s and diagonals. On one 9x9 I make an error and have to start again. I discover you can skip puzzles at the end. I finish low on the leader board, but not last – about 80% down the field.
Jaipur / 7 Wonders: Duel
These next two games overlap on a Saturday evening. I try both online and discover I’ve been playing each of them incorrectly.
- Jaipur’s tokens should be arranged high > low (not low> high).
- 7 Wonders: Duel’s Science Victory needs 1 Science counter of all 6 types – NOT any 6 Science counters…
I spend the week practising Jaipur.
Much like with Can’t Stop, I enjoy concentrating on a single game & noticeably improving.
My results come in from the Creative Thinking event and I’ve placed joint 10th in a field of over 50.
It feels good to be near the top of a leader board.
A real-life social event crops up on Saturday and I miss both tournaments (but have a good time).
While I’ve never been on the TV show, I enjoy it enough that I’ve attended a few tournaments in person – FOCAL events arranged by a keen community of Countdowners. There’s an online version of Countdown at Apterous.com, who are running the MSO tournament.
I play a few games and pay a modest subscription to unlock the site’s full range of offerings for practice (or, more apt[erous]ly, fun).
The tournament is on a Sunday night and I miss the first round (late from a day’s board gaming). Thankfully they’re happy enough to let me play the next five.
A few rounds into my first (15-round) game and I’m 16 points behind. I stay that way for a few rounds more. Around halfway I launch a comeback and go on to win my first game 80-50, feeling elated at the reversal of fortunes.
My next game is against Bradley Horrocks – a series 77 finalist, and finalist in the Champion of Champions series which followed. I suspect my fortunes might not fare as well this time…
Happily, I’ve met and played Bradley before – the first time I ever attended a FOCAL tournament. If I remember rightly, I might even have beaten him. (It was a distant day in Manchester, long before his star ascended!)
He’s a lovely chap and we spend a few minutes chatting amiably before our game gets underway. This chumminess is one of my favourite aspects of the MSO – a chance to engage with other game players and feel, tangibly, the warmth of different gaming communities. I might know Bradley already, but there’s a similar welcome across many tourneys.
The game goes as expected and I’m roundly trounced. I take comfort in winning a couple of rounds, spotting “GUANOS” (which would have earned another, had I plumped for it), and being a micro-second behind on the conundrum. I’ve been KO-d by a champ, but I landed one or two punches…
Bradley finishes third overall, I manage one more win – importantly, I’m not last.
Souring the experience slightly, online cheating comes to light during the tournament and several players are expelled.
Much like doping bans for physical Olympians, there are always players prepared to try and cheat their way to success. It’s disappointing to hear but encouraging to discover their methods are detectable and rejectable; another side and sight of the tournament seen.
My final event – a game I discovered through the MSO – seems a fitting finish. Eight double-rounds on a Friday evening from 7:30pm (as first go in a 2-player game brings a significant advantage, double-rounds neutralise this). It should close my MSO with a baaaang.
Sadly, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
This tournament’s arrangements are more ad-hoc than others, with pairings announced on Discord before each round. 30-45 minutes after the event’s scheduled start, my first game begins; the grumbling began much earlier. I sympathise with the organisers’ problems, but the extended waits are diminishing the fun.
The game is fine, but stilted – what normally unfolds at a pace becomes leaden. I wonder if the late staging of the event has raised the stakes for some players?
A tricky second game clinches a 1:1 draw, but my enthusiasm begins to wane with the pace. After a laborious 2-0 defeat, I realise my heart isn’t in this.
I’m clearly not alone. When another player announces their withdrawal, I glance at the clock (9:30pm) and make a follow-up request. I’m reluctant to exit the tournament this way, but I don’t want to taint my enjoyment thus far either.
When a further game is scheduled after my withdrawal request, I feel for my opponent. I return to Discord and point out the error. My sympathies are amplified when a fourth game gets scheduled afterwards.
Occasionally, it’s not just players who find things don’t run as planned.
There’s one final event I’d been considering – it starts at 3pm the next day (Saturday). I’m fond enough of Scrabble to be familiar with all the 2 and 3-letter words, so a last-minute entry isn’t entirely ridiculous.
It’s hosted on Woogles.io and players need to have played eleven games on the site to enter, so it might make for a busy morning...
I start off ambitious; I check the available opponents and battle a moderately skilful (1600-rated) bot. We both score just under 400: I lose, albeit marginally – we end less than 10 points apart. I play two more games, increasing my margin of defeat each time.
I close my laptop.
This time, I’m calling it quits.
I hope you’ve learned something about the MSO by reading this.
Personally, I’ve enjoyed it considerably. It sheds light on dusky corners of gaming and reaches crevices you’d never normally see illuminated. Even without participating, there are many games to discover and be interested by.
If you are participating, you might wish to measure your expectations, or… Be ready! (There’s plenty of time until next year)
The MSO is a fantastic event and we hope it will only grow further, bigger and more prolific. After all the gold medals are given out, I hope they’ve reserved one for the organisers.