I excitedly ordered Pandasauraus’ new game Mental Blocks recently after being quite interested to try it since seeing a short ‘pitch’ of what the game was about a few months ago. Unfortunately the game didn’t live up to my expectations, and so this is a shorter review than normal. After playing the game a few times I’ve had a lot of thoughts about it rattling around inside my head. It’s not enough I’m comfortable with calling this a full on review, but more of a shorter article outlining my thoughts and conclusions on the game. So here it is –
2-9 Players | 10 Minutes | Designed by Jonathan Gilmour and Micah Sawyer
Mental Blocks is a co-operative puzzle game in which players are trying to collaboratively build a structure out of blocks. Each player is given a single view of a side of the structure (which shows colours and no depth), or a view of the shape of the structure from one angle which has no colour information. Players work together with what information they have to try and deduce and build the 3D shape and colour correct structure. For an extra challenge, a traitor can be included who tries to foil the construction of the structure by supplying false information. The game includes 60 puzzles of increasing difficulty.
Mental Blocks is an interesting innovation in co-operative puzzle games. It does a lot of things well:
- Mental Blocks is a fun and interesting idea. When you start out, solving the puzzle is an intriguing challenge and it can be quite a bit of fun (whether you get it right or wrong), especially when everyone discusses how the round went at the end and shows their cards.
- The traitor can be a fun mechanic, both for the person playing as it and in terms of throwing doubt and suspicion into the mix, removing the pure co-op ‘perfect information’ element of the game. In some ways the traitor is necessary to stop the game from being perfectly solvable.
- Overall I think this is a very interesting concept for a game.
- The materials used for the blocks (dense foam) is great and makes for nice pieces that work well for this sort of thing. I think it’s a good trade-off (obviously wood would be nice but would be prohibitively expensive).
- The tactile nature makes it very engaging for all players. During play people are up and about moving around the table to look at the creation, and there is a lot of discussion going on.
- The game really encourages team work (it’s required) and everyone has vital information so everyone can contribute to solving the puzzle. One of the great things about the game is seeing as players flounder in the first few rounds and then slowly figure out a methodical system for effectively solving the puzzles, but unfortunately, this could also be Mental Blocks downfall.
What Doesn’t Work?
Despite sounding like an amazing game on paper, in reality there are a few problems I found with the way the game plays out that left me a bit disappointed:
- The rulebook is burdensome and could have been streamlined significantly. This game should be something with single sheet of rules, super super basic. I think the rulebook really over thinks what is a very simple game. The back page of the book is almost everything you need to know to play.
- The cards are clunky. It seems like the cards were intentionally made less usable (double sided) to save on printing. Having to put them in sleeves is quite annoying. I understand the reason as there is important set up information on the back of the card, but most players are honest and having the information on the front (e.g. along the top strip and just obscuring the rest of the card while you quickly sort them). Maybe this was agreed as the best solution, which I suppose it could be.
- Once a group ‘gets the hang’ of the game it’s no longer a challenge, or really that fun. After a couple of games we worked out a very effective system of everyone communicating their information and then us assembling the result. The game then more or less became going through the motions of this for each challenge.
- Building on the above, the traitor can’t be effective once this happens. Playing with two different groups I’ve found after the group settles on their ‘system’, (which happens after 3 or 4 games) the traitor basically can’t say anything – if they lie it can be easily refuted. So the traitor can only be effective in the first couple of games you play with a group. It also feels like the traitor is more of an afterthought than a feature, as they don’t really have any tools to use to help them sabotage. When you are playing against a competent group with a ‘system’ there is basically no scope for sabotage without being instantly revealed.
- In my opinion, the game is not re-playable (for several reasons above). Replaying the same puzzles is surprisingly not the issue (no one will memorise them), but as soon as you play again with same group all the issues above will basically mean that there’s not much fun in replaying the game. Just to demonstrate this, after playing 6 or so ‘low level’ puzzles and finding them a bit easy, my group skipped ahead to puzzle 45, solving it quickly and then decided to play the final puzzle (60), successfully beating it too.
In summary, I think that Mental Blocks is a great thing, something that would be amazing for a one off team building activity for example, but I felt quite let down in that it didn’t fit my expectation for what the game would be, and didn’t end up being as fun as the ‘elevator pitch’ made it sound. I feel like there are several ways the game could be simplified and improved and I’ve read that it was heavily play tested so I’m surprised it was released in the state it was. Maybe Mental Blocks 2 could make use of a Game Master with a creation hidden behind a screen and some other mechanics to make this more of a game. I’m not sure. I do admit the first 4 or so rounds of the game were very fun (a few good traitor moments and spectacular failures), but as I mentioned, after getting the hang of things it got a bit boring for me. The game is not for me but I hope you get a good idea of whether it might or might not be for you from this review.