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Top 5 Anxiety Busting Games

Top 5 Anxiety Busting Games Feature
Top 5 Anxiety Busting Games Feature

10th of October, marks World Mental Health Day, as recognised by the World Federation for Mental Health. Two of the Zatu Bloggers have put together features on their relationships with mental health and anxiety. They talk about how board gaming has impacted their journey and give some great board game inspiration.

Last night a board game saved my life...” No, really.

Anxiety; like running a mental and physical marathon on the best of days.

On a world-turned-upside-down-global-medical-crisis-you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up-loo-roll-panic-buying-home-working-home-schooling-juggle-everything-where-is-my-mask-who-is-in-my-bubble-has-my-bubble-burst-pandemic kind of day, it is a bone-aching, sound drowning, oxygen depriving nightmare.

Now, you may be thinking “Everyone is worried, aren’t they? What does this have to do with board games?”

Well, fellow Tabletoppers. Let me invite you to lay on my rather comfortable, virtual sofa for just a few minutes, whilst I recount the moment I realised the unexpected benefit board gaming has on my own life.

I offer this brief insight, just in case my confessional can in some small way help you navigate your “new normal” without feeling desperate pangs of regret. Regrets that you wasted your formative years qualifying as a chartered accountant to make your gran proud. When all of this time you should have been training for life post-coronavirus! This would be by playing endless rounds of Z-Man Games’ prescient Pandemic series. All whilst chanting along to the Gibb brothers’ now motivational anthem 'Stayin’ Alive' (although, come on, how cool would that be?!).

I jest but only because lighter moments make it a little less terrifying for me, as a person with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, to talk about the A-shaped elephant stomping about like Rhino Hero in every space I inhabit. Humour me. Literally.

You see, anxiety is a nasty, sneaky business. It isn’t visible like a rash. I can’t point to it proudly like a battle scar. Rather, when anxiety bites, that fragile veneer of calm and control I struggle to maintain shatters spectacularly. People start looking at me strangely, their own minds trying to work out why I am now acting a little bit (or a lot) “weird”.

Anxiety is relentless; it surges like a virus through every cell, paralysing my ability to make the most simple decision. Let alone those critical and life changing choices we faced in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It causes me to doubt everything I am and everything I do.

Anxiety simultaneously stops me thinking and doesn’t let me stop thinking. It crushes my chest like an anvil whilst making me hyperventilate to the point where I see stars wherever I look… If, of course, I can bear to open my eyes, that is. Squeezing them shut, covering my ears and hiding away, wishing the world would pause the sensory overload battering me from all directions is part of my everyday routine. It is exhausting, painful, and overwhelming.

“So, what does all this have to do with board games?”

Well, friends, for me it happened by accident about 6 years ago. I was heavily pregnant and having “one of my loud days”. With medication temporarily banned, no amount of CBT, rubber band pinging, applied relaxation, or meditation (which, ironically, my anxiety makes impossible anyway) was making a dent in my hyper, enhanced mummy-to-be levels of panic. Switching to DEFCON1, my husband took my hand and led me to our kitchen table, easing me gently down in front of a small blue box.

I recognised it instantly. Rummikub: a game we played on our honeymoon in 2013 when we were stuck on a cruise ship off the coast of Canada, frustrated and afraid, We were unable to dock due to the mother of all storms battering the east coast.

Rummikub was my first meaningful tabletop gaming experience. Yet its connection to any sense of calm had been entirely overlooked. Fast forward 3 years and, with tears streaming down my puffy face and my mind in overdrive, my patient husband silently set up the game and we slowly, tentatively started to play. And then we played again. And again. I started to focus on the numbers and sets. I breathed in. He breathed out.

For five years, Rummikub became a trusted daily crutch. However, because anxiety does what it does, I couldn’t (wouldn’t) try another game; to risk disappointment at the expense of greater joy was the sacrifice I paid. Until March 2020 that is, when the world went into Lockdown and Rummikub just wasn’t enough anymore. Suddenly, the need to find a bigger distraction from the overwhelming 24 hour rolling news broadcasts, online updates, and daily briefings increasing the volume of my already omnipresent anxiety outweighed my usual reliance upon the familiar. My brother-in-law cautiously suggested we try Ticket to Ride and I felt something new: relief.

Now, please don’t get me wrong; my story does not have a fairy tale ending. My anxiety disorder dragon has not been banished forevermore by a fearless, broadsword brandishing board game. It is the indomitable dark force it always was and will (probably) always be. Anxiety shapes my every day, sometimes screaming in my face, other times skulking around, tapping me on the shoulder and whispering doubts in my ear.

Rather, what board gaming has given me is another tool: a power to help manage the destructive force that my anxiety wields. With the immense variety of gaming mechanics on offer, I can counteract my most crushing symptom on a given day by selecting a particular game which offers escape through relaxation, immersion, or focus. A personalised tabletop treatment plan. Or, if feeling a little braver, I can pick one which challenges part of my disorder. A journey in proving to myself that I can make decisions (or even fail at something) in a safe space where the consequences of doing so are perhaps less scary and real.

And maybe it can help you too. So, if any of the above sounds familiar and you would like to know more about which games are currently my go-to options, may I present to you: my Top 5 Anxiety Busters!

Azul: Summer Pavillion

This is the third instalment of Michael Kiesling’s beautifully designed, puzzly, abstract series of diamond tile laying pattern games. Players are transported to Portugal to create a colourful composition worthy of the highest royal assent.

Whilst the foundation mechanic of drafting and placing beautifully tactile tiles on your own board from central “factories” to complete stars can be soothing, almost meditative, there is the option within Azul Summer Pavillion to unleash a fierce strategic attack: planning the order in which you place your own tiles and “hate drafting” to frustrate your opponent’s design.

And strangely, as Aristotle famously didn’t say, the whole star is greater than the sum of its points. Whilst you may still lose the game overall, the sweet satisfaction that comes only from seeing a complete star on your board (in stark contrast to your opponents who have a hotchpotch of fractured celestial patterns) makes you feel like the real winner.

A beautiful arrangement or a vicious battle fought in pastel pantaloons; you decide.  

Battle Line

Reiner Knizia’s analysis-paralysis-inducing flag-grabber may appear to be a surprising choice for a badge-wearing analysis paralysis sufferer like me. Just bear with me for a moment. The Dr. was on to something.

This is a very simple but incredibly strategic card game. Two opposing armies are fighting to secure 3 or 5 flags out of a total of 9. Those wooden flags (which sadly aren’t flag shaped – the only disappointing element in the game) are captured by achieving Troop Card formations scored similarly to poker with certain combinations trumping others. In a further twist to the original game (Schotten Totten), players can employ additional Tactics Cards. They could instantly flip-reverse your own strategy or that of your opponent in a single action. It is fast and it is furious.

The heady mixture of deduction, skill, and luck of the draw makes Battle Line an exquisitely tense game. It forces you to lay down cards in your own hand knowing that you could be giving your opponent an undeniable advantage at the expense of your own formations. The pain that flashes through your jaw when you pick up a card that WOULD have been perfect on the previous round is teeth-grindingly intense.

I do not believe I own another game which packs so much punch into such an innocent looking premise. It is the necessity to make decisions which at first heightens but then slaps anxiety in the face like a cold, wet towel. However long it takes you to place a card, you commit and you win or you commit and you lose; either way, you have made a decision. Whatever happens after that, unlike the real world, you get to shuffle the deck and start over. That is the confidence building super-power this game offers.

Immersion therapy, Ancient Greek style.

Ticket to Ride: Europe

On days when challenging yourself to the maximum a la Battle Line is a big no-no, I invite you to turn to a Spiel des Jahres legend of tabletop gaming. Like a warm, comfy cardigan, take a Ticket to Ride and embark upon a journey around Europe. Lose yourself in cities old and new as you make your way to various destinations across the continent.

With a lower player count and a “no blocking” house rule in force, Ticket to Ride Europe’s open map gives the option for anxious travellers to plan ahead. This allows for focusing on their own mix of long and short routes with minimal interaction; a sprawling and sociable euro-style multiplayer solitaire. A soothing choice for a challenging day.

Alternatively, you can abandon your blocking bans on the platform like a curled-up buffet-car sandwich and frustrate your opponent at every turn; strategically placing a smattering of carriages making it impossible for them to complete their own journeys or forcing them to incur a points penalty through the use of stations.

Primarily a card drafting and hand management game of collections and connections, the ability to select more route cards during game play and the randomness of the train cards on each turn ensure an element of luck. This will mitigate predictability and guarantee replayability. Further, whilst less weighty than many other railway themed games (yes, 18XX games, I am talking to you), the charm and simple fun of Ticket to Ride cannot be understated. Especially on a day when you need the comfort of the familiar. The expansion, Europe 1912, and other standalone maps in the Ticket to Ride series further means that you should never tire of tabletop train travel.

Will it be Murder on the Orient Express before tea-time? Who knows but it will be fun to find out!

Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition/Railroad Ink: Deep Blue Edition

You may be forgiven for thinking that with 2 out of my 5 chosen titles featuring railways, board gaming has turned me into a fervent trainspotter. However, fear not friends. Whilst those (hopefully long and winding) tracks are the object of these two games, it is the puzzly, challenge and the flexibility of these quick, compact, travel friendly “roll and writes which cement their places in my list.

In each game, armed with only a dry-erase marker and your own board, you are seeking to draw the longest highways and railways you can, all whilst making network connections wherever those innocent looking dice will let you in order to score the most points and win the game.

Analysis Paralysis Warning! These small games require big risks and even bigger decisions. With only 7 rounds in the base game (6 if you use the clever, unique expansions contained within each box), every move is critical. But this can mean players spend A LOT of time either staring at their own board, pen tip drying out as the minutes pass, or drawing, erasing and redrawing whilst those less afflicted gamers wait for the anguish-inducing process to take its course.

However, with no direct player interaction in multiplayer mode, going one step further and playing Railroad Ink solo makes it an ideal game for anxiety sufferers. Just you against the dice – no pressure to make choices within a socially-acceptable time frame. No need to measure your worth against the achievements of others. Railroad Ink offers solo players the generous ability to improve their own technique. As well as the chance to spot efficient connections and to prove to yourself that commitment is possible.

If you just aren’t feeling it that day, the cacophonous spaghetti of open routes and missed links dotted across your board can disappear. A single cleansing wipe will ensure that they are never to be seen again.

One final comment on these cheeky little numbers. Whilst having both blue and red editions of Railroad Ink expands the game to 12 players, they are at their core the same game. The expansions do not need to be played to have a really satisfying experience, although they do add a unique, challenging twist to each version. On that basis, smudge your way into the marginally more serene blue edition with its lakes and rivers. Or charge, pointed nib first into the fiery red edition with meteors and lava.

Either way, you’ll be mapping your way to solo serenity, 4 (or 6!) dice at a time.

Super Rhino

Last in this inaugural list of games comes a fast, fun game of tower building, courtesy of family friendly publisher, HABA Games. Following the shape indicators on randomly assigned roof cards, players take it in turn to erect walls. If unlucky in the draw, they must relocate the intrepid eponymous Super Rhino. Hoping that their own set of roofs will form part of the emerging superstructure before one of their opponents reduces the whole lot to a pile of... well, cards.

Apart from a lightness of touch, this game demands very little but it gives a lot; laughter is the soundtrack to each round! It allows you to try informal, party style games without pushing too hard at the boundaries of your comfort zone. Completely ignoring the metaphorical overtones, watching the cartoon covered tower warp and wobble before toppling wildly to the ground is a useful exercise in acceptance. No matter how steady your own hand, Super Rhino can (and most likely will) stumble and fall - its fate is not for you alone to determine.

Super Rhino is a firm favourite in our household, not least because our 5 year old son loves standing on a chair, singing the begrudgingly catchy theme tune whenever the little wooden rhino scales the heady heights of the fifth, tenth or even (once) fifteenth floor, but also because it is a game where nonsense makes complete sense.

Whatever your age and whatever your mood, it is difficult to deny. A purple-caped rhinoceros with superpowers is something everybody needs in these anxiety-exacerbating times.

And there you have it. With case history, symptoms and diagnosis complete, all that remains is your tailor-made therapy.

Reader Prescription: Play two games, 3 times per day until the world calms down (not really, of course; the content of this piece is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis,  or treatment. Always consult a medical professional. (I always knew my dry as dust training as a lawyer would come in handy one day!)

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