MIND GAMES: The Psychology of Board Games
Casual Game Insider|Spring 2021
What is the mind? For the ancient Greeks, the idea of the mind was synonymous with the concept of “soul.” Plato believed the psyche was immortal and became wiser and more perceptive after death. More recently, Freud and Jung refined the idea of seele (soul) as a subset of the overall psyche, that which governs thought and behavior — in short, personality. As a game designer and armchair psychologist, I am fascinated by what makes games tick. But even more, I love to discover what makes players tick. Games are products of the human mind, and the mind is the arena on which the contest is played. All the aspects of cognition — perception, thinking, judgment, language, memory, and more — play into the game experience.
Bayard Catron

Human psychology is inextricably linked with almost every type of game

The psychological connection starts from the beginning, as the game inventor determines which concept will hold a player’s interest and the “psychology of fun.” What is fun and, indeed, what fun is. As with humor, the essence of fun is slippery, subjective, unpredictable, and deeply personal.

A game designer must balance skill level as well. Players want to be challenged but also feel smart. Although a simple trivia game, Trivial Pursuit became a household name by sneaking in questions that often sounded tough but were easy. “What river delta in southwestern Vietnam...” This is an easy question thinly disguised as a hard question. How many Vietnamese river deltas do you know? Anyone who has seen a film set during the Vietnam war knows the answer is the Mekong, but there’s still a hit of dopamine delivered to the brain when you get it right. In a time when fewer people were playing board games, the game turned something trivial into something almost essential in its day.

Recent television miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” does an excellent job of illustrating the timeless role of psychology in games. Chess is a game of perfect information. Nothing in the game state is hidden except the thoughts of the players. In an early scene, the protagonist faces off against the local champion, who arrives late in a show of confidence meant to intimidate the newcomer. When she surprises him with her aggressive play and backs him into a corner, she opines that he should concede. “I can still get out of this,” he says, trying to convince himself. “Perhaps if you’d gotten here on time,” she replies. Now he can think of nothing but the ticking clock.

Types of psychological experience

Let’s break down some of the various game-related psychological phenomena.

Intimidation

As we saw in “The Queen’s Gambit,” intimidation is a powerful tool in games, one that can backfire. Much as in real-life geopolitics, a player who is perceived as powerful will be either a threat or a desirable ally and thus will be the target of attacks or ingratiation. Back in the heyday of The Settlers of Catan, it was possible to win without drawing a single card, but it never hurt to have a few face-down cards sitting on the table, the implication being that you could swat away the robber if another player dared to put him next to one of your cities. And how people choose where to place the robber could fill an entire article itself. One player in my weekly game became known for her threats about what she’d do if someone put the robber on her. She claimed her vengeance would last multiple times throughout the current game, and even future games! How powerful you are is not as important as how powerful you are perceived to be.

Deception

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