Review of  Games you can Play in your Head

Top Ten Games book cover

I’ve long been a fan of ‘elegant’ games, by which I mean games that achieve a great deal of gameplay – and therefore fun – without having lots of materials or overly complex rules and mechanisms. I also, at times, especially since lockdown, struggle to gather together sufficient people to play some of my favourite tabletop and role playing games, so I’ve come to appreciate games which allow for solo play.

So, imagine my joy at discovering a game, or actually, a collection of games, which require no materials at all, beyond the complex computer situated between your ears, and has the subtitle ‘By Yourself’.

Games You Can Play In Your Head By Yourself is a collection of 10 games, gathered by Editors Sam Gorski and D.F. Lovett. They discovered six volumes of the original 14 volume set by J Theophrastus Bartholomew at a yard sale in 2015, and have selected these ten as being their favourites from those.

Top 10 Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself: Second Edition available at Amazon 

Each game provides you with a series of stimuli for you to create a character and setting for your game, more accurately, to elaborate on the skeleton character and setting suggested for you.  For example, the first game, Adventure, casts you as an Indiana Jones/Lara Croft type (depending on your gender choice) who is about to embark on the exploration of a tomb in 1940s Egypt. The exact specification of the tomb is decided by you as part of the process of preparing yourself to play, as are your age, your nationality and politics, or even whether you are undead or not. You have a choice of disturbing childhood memories to draw upon as motivation/distraction during your adventure.

Once you have gone through the detailed preparation, you are ready to begin the game – which starts in the same way for each game – with the single word ‘GO’. You then sit quietly, on your own and play your chosen game, interacting with the characters you have imagined, walking the terrain described by maps you have drawn in your imagination, and seeing what becomes of you.

At the end of the book, you can read some of the experiences of those who have played these games before. You can read about Brad who accidentally assassinated the wrong person when playing ‘Murder Night’ and planted his gun on the Butler. You can recoil in horror at the idea that Chris nearly starved to death when playing ‘Dungeons’.

Playing with your Shadow Self

Before you start to play any of the games there is a practice exercise where you get to literally split yourself in two – your own self and your Shadow Self, and then play a simple game – a bit like the Tray Memory game, where your Shadow Self goes into a house and steals an object.  You then have to go back into the house and work out what it is they have stolen. My Shadow stole a Yard of Ale.  I have no idea why, and I also have no idea how they managed to hide it about their person as we passed in the entrance to the house.

Some of the games are also played with your Shadow Self. In fact, playing against your Shadow Self is considered the Expert version of the ‘Chess’ game.  The Shadow Self also provides something of a Red Thread running through the book, as after some of the games, you are asked to return to the house you imagined (Your Sanctuary) and hide something you have just brought back from your latest game. At the end, your treasures provide you with an opportunity to reflect and reminisce.

Games of Hard Fun

There is no denying that the core activity of this book is much, much more difficult to do than the simple instructions would imply, but perseverance pays off. The skills are much more akin to meditation, or guided daydreaming than ‘playing a game’, although I think that long-term practice of the games in this book might make the time spent alone living other lives in your head, feel more playful and less like a repeated failure to stay focused.

Some games designers reading this may well find inspiration to create similar games, but I think it would be difficult to design a form of these games that would be playable quickly, for most people.  I would suggest that the greatest value of this book, comes therefore, from its potential as a tool for exercising your own creativity and improving storytelling skills, which is essential for practitioners in our field.

This, if we were to apply the work of Nicole Lazzaro, is most definitely Hard Fun, both in the sense that the practice itself is difficult, but also in the sense that the things that you discover about yourself, through working and playing with your Shadow Self, can also be challenging.

A deeply strange, but beguiling book, highly recommended if you want to dip into the games to learn how to play creatively on your own, but also because there is an easter egg which gives the whole thing a really satisfying symmetry – and which will make you smile when you work it out.

Top 10 Games You Can Play In Your Head, By Yourself: Second Edition available at Amazon 

Editor at Ludogogy
Sarah Le-Fevre is a games-based learning professional who specialises in organisational learning around systemic ‘wicked problems’, and helping businesses spot and exploit opportunities for ethical ‘for good’ innovation. She works with tools such as Lego® Serious Play® and the Octalysis gamification framework to create compelling immersive learning experiences. She is currently writing a book outlining a systems practice approach to delivering impactful learning within organisations.

A real board games nerd, she is considering having her floors reinforced to support the ever increasing weight of the boxes. When she is not designing or facilitating learning games she is the editor of Ludogogy Magazine. Sarah lives in Oxfordshire with her husband, younger daughter, and a beautiful (but very loud) Bengal cat.

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