Every month Lisa Bourne of Time to Change Leeds, holds a board gaming meet up at Abbey House Museum. It is one of a range of events that she runs to raise awareness of mental health and also tackle social isolation. I go every month and now co-host the event, supplementing the museum's selection of games with some of my fun, unusual ones as well as helping to publicise the event. It is not a formal group by any means, there is no need to book or reserve a place, it's just an opportunity to meet in a safe environment and chat - or not - whatever you need. And that's where the games start to come into their own.
Playing games gives the group a focus which is not them. There is no sitting round, awkwardly avoiding eye contact and waiting for someone to share something, there is no pressure at all. Often we play a game and chat just happens, sometimes around the game itself and sometimes about our lives, our experiences, what's going on for us. There are no experts there, just other people who have experienced or are still experiencing mental health difficulties. I am happy to talk quite openly about my difficulties and I understand that, that's me, not everyone talks as much as me. To misquote a saying I heard about Autism recently 'Once you've met one person with mental health difficulties, you've met one person with mental health difficulties.' Whether we talk or not, we are still connecting and sharing a fun experience.
When I'm struggling with my own mental health I can often manage a game of something. Depending what mood I'm in, I will usually choose a game I'm familiar with that absorbs my attention either because of theme or strategic demands but that is not too challenging. When I'm feeling rubbish, the last thing I need is a game which is too difficult and reinforces my feelings of inadequacy. That is quite a delicate balance and entirely personal. So, for the games we always have a selection of games we are all familiar with which may trigger feelings of nostalgia maybe memories of simpler times as well as newer games which are light-hearted and fun. Last time, we played Hide the Pickle and we laughed. That has got to be good for you. Right?
When I went for therapy around the time of my breakdown, one of the first things I remember the counsellor suggesting was that I should do fun things which brought me joy. This sounded more insane than I felt. 'Joy?' I thought, 'fun?' - neither of those emotions were featuring in my life much at that point. They seemed like distant memories - the sort of thing other people did. The ability to play without reservation is something we seem to lose around the time we start secondary school; we become obsessed with 'being more grown up' 'being sensible', not indulging in 'stupid' or 'childish' pass times. As a fully grown adult I beseech you to do stupid, childish things, have fun, play games. Games are not just for children - there's a reason those Haba, MB and Spear's games say aged 4 - 99 on the box. The ability to throw off the shackles of adulthood and enjoy a game is not necessarily an easy movement of mindset but definitely worth the effort.
The right board game will encourage you to immerse yourself and forget about the real world, giving you control over your actions and outcomes on a small scale. That can be challenging when my mental health is poor as my concentration can be wobbly so I'm not talking about a 3 hour game of Risk. Even short games can be pleasantly absorbing.
I have maintained for a long time that board games are good for your mental health. This theory goes beyond - 'they're good for me therefore they'll be good for you'. And don't get me wrong I am in no way suggesting that I have ditched my medication and just play board games while choirs of angels sing 'allelujah, she's healed' above me. In fact, I have recently increased my medication because ...well... life...
While I'm sharing, I can also tell you that I'm trying to get into a meditation habit using Headspace and doing regular NLT with Becky Antrobus. It is amazing and by the end of the session I feel clarity and so much calm, again - as part of a wider treatment plan - I would recommend finding out more about it. But above all - I am taking my medication. Just as for a broken limb I would take painkillers as well as doing physio to build up the muscles. Only a sadist would suggest you ditch the painkillers and hit the gym. And I'm not that cruel - not even to myself.
So here is a brief run down of some of the games we've played and why they've been great for us. I can only really comment on my personal choices and those of the people who've attended. I'm definitely open to suggestions and I'm more than happy to play pretty much anything. (I won't have games that are offensive).
In this game you grow beautiful, sprawling trees and attract kodama (tree spirits) to your tree. There are creatures, flowers and clouds that adorn the cards and gain you points. It is competitive but it is such a gorgeous game that it's easy to become absorbed in your own actions and forget what others are doing. There are also layers of difficulty you can add as you become more familiar with it.
Are you dumber than a box of rocks?
I should warn you, it turns out most people are. This is a quirky trivia game where you play together against the rocks! The answer to each question is 0,1 or 2 so there is always the possibility that you could have an intelligent guess! The challenge is to reach agreement and of course outwit the rocks.
This is not one of mine. A regular at the meet ups brought it along for us to try and it is very entertaining. The aim of the game is to outrun death by correctly deducing whether the stupid death on the card is true or false. As you can imagine, even with such a morbid subject there are lots of laughs in this one.
Love Letter is another pretty one - I do like my games to be visually appealing. I also added little heart gems to score with replacing the little wooden cubes it came with. The game involves a lot of deduction which I can happily immerse myself in. You only have two cards in your hand and you must play one of those so decision making isn't protracted but it can be the difference between the safe delivery of your love letter to the princess and you being cast out of court for ever. (Well until we start a new round...)
Jenga, Pass the Pigs, Battleship
Classic games that need no introduction - these are just three of our favourites at the meet ups. They are not involved or complex enough to make conversation difficult and often reminiscing is a good conversation starter anyway.
Wordopolis, Fletter Fuse
I love word games and unfortunately don't get to play them so much at home as my passion for them is not shared! Lisa and I love a word game and so I was pleased when some of our regular visitors embraced them too. These are two differently paced games - in Wordopolis you create a grid (a bit like a word search) and carefully place letters to create new words. Although it is made for playing competitively, we have played this together - patiently studying the grid and slowly mulling over alternatives. Fletter fuse is much faster paced - you turn over cards and make words from the upturned letters. The longer you wait to claim a word, the more letters there are available meaning you can experiment with different strategies and test your vocabulary. You know it's gone badly wrong when you finish the game, tot up your score and grab a fresh cuppa... and when you come back your worthy opponent is still adding their score up. Despite being completely eviscerated, I'd still play again.
Hide the Pickle
Last meet up we played this. It's a silly one where you swap, steal and bluff to try to be the player that has the pickle when the game ends. The cards are very entertaining with brilliant illustrations and comical flavour text.
These are just some of the games that we have played - it doesn't really matter what we play, it matters that we get together. Board games provide fun, low key socialising and absorb you, allowing you to escape into other worlds, other parts of your mind. Go on, try it - 'you have nothing to lose but your chains.' (Marx).