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Top 5 Anxiety Busters

“Last night a board game saved my life………”.No, really. “ (Favouritefoe, Zatu Games, October 2020)

Woah, did I really start my first ever board gaming piece with this opening line only 6 months ago?

I think I am on pretty safe ground when I say 2020 was a year unlike anything almost any of us have ever experienced. And I am also probably in uncontroversial territory when I suggest that mental health has never been more at the forefront of our minds, literally.

Without doubt, the Pandemic has affected us all. Not in the same ways, but definitely changed us. Taking inspiration from author Damian Barr, it is like we have been swimming in the same sea but travelling in different boats.

I have been incredibly blessed not to have lost anyone to Coronavirus. And my own family has been extremely fortunate to have waited for the stormiest of times to pass in a house with a garden space – many did not have that luxury. In those respects, I am acutely aware that a lot of people have lost so much more, and struggled in much more challenging environments during this crisis than me. Which, you might think, should give me clear reason to count my lucky stars and quit worrying.

However, for me, it is not that simple. It is never that simple. And that is because my own particular brand of anxiety makes every.single.waking.moment a challenge. Pandemic or not, even “normal” life is a terror-fest. And, untreated, my disorder makes it impossible for me to control fear. Impossible to dial down emotional responses. Impossible to stop. I am dizzy. I am tired. I am wound tighter than a drum.

An Emotionally Unavailable Weeble

I am, in a word, overwhelmed.

But I can’t be. I am a mummy, a wife, a friend, a lawyer, a daughter, and a host of other simultaneous things. I am in control. I have to be. Micro-managing is in my DNA. It is in direct response to anxiety whilst simultaneously making me feel more afraid of the responsibility it brings.

You see, I don’t have the option to drop, run, and hide away like every cell and synapse in my body is screaming at me to do, needs me to do. I can’t delegate or assign problems – believe me, I have tried. But the worry that somebody else will make matters worse (or at least not make them better) has played out so many times now makes giving over responsibility just as impossible as doing nothing at all.

So I stay and I fight. I stiffen up, I ball my fists, and I grit my teeth. My eyes well but I blink hot tears away. My back knots but the uncomfortable tension is necessary. It keeps me standing. Just about. I become an emotionally unavailable Weeble – in survival mode, knocked down only to come back up again. Every time.

My anxiety can make the smallest decision feels gut-wrenchingly impossible as it breaks a choice down into innumerable combinations of possibilities and consequences. And on loud days it disrupts even the most basic routines of daily life. Tea or coffee? Shirt or jumper? I don’t know. I can’t think.

But I have to think. I have to decide. There is no quit. No matter how cornered I feel by my own anxiety dragon, not functioning is not an option. It hurts. Bone-aching, brain-pounding pain. Nevertheless, through the fog and the noise, choices must be made. Bad ones probably. But choices, nonetheless.

Board Gaming Band-Aid

And therein lies the gossamer thread which keeps me connected to the ground. The patch allowing me to mentally limp into the next day. Knowing that there is a safe space where I can shut out real-life, consequence heavy choices and practice on something smaller. A single action in a limited sphere; a decision inside a board game.

And, whilst I try my best to hide anxiety most days behind smiles and function, it is there. It is always there. Like trying to catch a single blade of grass in a raging tornado, focussing on a single thought is out of the question. The confidence and concentration overcoming my disorder requires being precisely the things it takes away. My headspace is invaded by a continuous thumping onslaught of sensory overload.

On that basis, board gaming remains a key element of my self-care. A hobby punching way above its weight – beyond some mere coping mechanism and into the realms of support therapy. Because, just as it was six months ago, gaming gives me an excuse to try and pause the noise. To try and narrow in on a particular mechanism or a theme. To sit and think. Or not think. Just play. Whatever I choose to do, I have agency over it.

I may be at the mercy of luck in terms of a deck or a bag in a game but, to me, that is infinitely more enjoyable than the unknowns shaping and slamming into me the other 23 hours every day.

In gaming I also know that I am not alone. I have great friends who I have met through playing, chatting, and writing about board games. Those who understand my need to focus on just a single hex or a die or a card. Those who let me be by myself amongst them, or as much a part of the social activity as I can cope with that day. No pressure. No expectation. No obligation.

And so, fortified with a little cardboard confidence and in honour of Mental Health Week, I thought it would be a useful exercise to see whether the 5 games I chose in my first post for Zatu Games about board gaming as a means to manage anxiety last year, are still my go-to anxiety busters now. Carry on reading to find out which ones are still on my prescription and which have been toppled by a new tabletop treatment.

2021: Calico

Don’t get me wrong, I still adore Michael Kiesling’s beautifully designed portion of Portuguese puzzliness that is Azul Summer Pavilion . The tiles look and feel good enough to eat, and the strategy behind picking and choosing what to lay and when to lay it in order to complete the stars on your board is enough to keep Azul Summer Pavilion at the number one spot of the multiple Azul options for me.

But there is a new cat in town, and this furry feline is fierce. Or not. It depends on how you want to play, and whether you even want to play with other people when puzzling it out. And, whilst Azul is also versatile in terms of friendly v fierce gaming styles, it is the added solo campaign which causes Calico to settle at the top of the abstract games for me. Like thick, luxurious, kitty tempting cream.

With gorgeous artwork by Beth Sobel, the box tempts all who gaze upon it with the promise of a soothing comfort of a quilt (if you play with your claws retracted, that is). And Calico is indeed a tile laying game in which you can either meditate over patterns and placement, or scrap like an alley cat when it comes to selecting patches to design your quilt and complete your personal objectives.

Calico isn’t one of my quick-hit anxiety-busting games. It is a rare one in which I allow myself to indulge – to let my analysis paralysis to play out completely until I am ready to select a tile and lay it on my board. And for that reason, with permission to sit, stare, and shut out the world, it is a top anxiety buster in my book.

(If you would like to read my full review of Calico, please click here)

2. 2020: Battle Line

Reiner Knizia’s flag-grabbing duelling card game, Battle Line from GMT Games was a strong choice last year and one that remains on my anxiety-busting list.

Strong, not because of weight or wargame connections (although it is all about the fight!). No, this is a game which I play when I am feeling strong. When I have smacked my anxiety dragon on the nose and I am riding high (relatively speaking) on a mini-victory.

This is because strategic decision making is you have to use in this game. It feels tighter than wet Lycra and, at times, just as uncomfortable.

Simple to learn, you are two opposing armies fighting to secure 3 or 5 flags by creating the most powerful troop formations. But with only seven cards in your weaponry (including the option of using some special power Troop cards – which we rarely do instead preferring the purer number battle), you have just your mind to battle the luck of the draw which determines your constantly evolving hand on each turn.

My dentist doesn’t like me playing this game. I have ground down more tooth enamel trying to work out which card to lay down in order to give me the best advantage than a lifetime of eating Flumps will ever do. But on a day when I feel able to go head to head with my husband in a game that is going to make my AP scream like a board gaming banshee, the choices I make (eventually!) in Battleline give me a cardboard confidence boost like no other.

Six months ago, Ticket To Ride Europe was my cardboard equivalent of a warm, comfy cardigan. I knew the game, I knew my strategy, I knew the reassuring “no blocking” house rule would be enforced. And, as I mentioned in my first piece, it was (and still is) a sprawling and sociable euro-style multiplayer solitaire. A still soothing choice for a challenging day.

Six months on, however, and whilst I will never say no to a game of Ticket To Ride Europe, there is a new social butterfly on my list.

Quacks of Quedlingburg by Coiledspring games is built upon a totally different main game mechanic. It is a bag building (or destroying), luck driven hoot in which you are mixing up potions and trying to gain points before you push-your-luck too far and blow up your own cauldron. It does share some similarities; it is sociable, it is fun, there is hardly any direct player interaction, and (like the temptation of extra routes in Ticket to Ride), you can overstretch yourself and crash out in spectacular fashion!

For a slave-to-control like me, a luck driven game like Quacks could be a curious choice. But it is a relief; a light, fun family game where I can leave 90% of what happens to chance. Don’t get me wrong, that last 10% is strategic and I know that is all down to me. With resource management in the form of using rubies at the right time and spending money wisely to select the most advantageous additional ingredients each round, as well as the need to decide between dipping in for one more token or sticking to safeguard against explosions, decisions ultimately help tip the bag in (or out of) your favour.

But throwing caution to the wind, and diving in for one more chit in the hope that it gets you further round your board than the other players, is what makes this game fun. And it is most definitely a great, safe environment where I can push myself to my limits, to see what happens if I don’t operate on 100% risk aversion mode!

Given that I wrote a virtual love letter to Railroad Ink on Valentine’s Day for another feature earlier this year, my love for this game and all the comfort that it provides me is, without doubt, enduring. And so it remains firmly on my list.

A game where you are simply seeking to draw the longest highways and railways connected to as many set network points as possible, base game Railroad Ink can be learnt in under a minute. But over a year of rolling, writing, and erasing later, I remain at its red-hot mercy. Those 7 rounds and 4 die providing an infinitely replayable experience whenever I need it (and that is before I even bring in the fiery expansions included in the box).

Some no-brainer tactics have been learnt along the way, of course. But with very little power to forward plan, and nobody to blame but myself for a poor score, this game is a silent-disco of synapse snaps and fantastically frustrated fist balling.

Soloing Railroad Ink is no different to playing with others, save that you take it in turns to roll the die (a tenuous responsibility-shifter at best), and have someone else to beat. And over the past year, its ability to play well over video call (and even asynchronously using recorded rolls) with any number of players has been a sanity saver for sure.

But, on the basis that I do not ever give myself an easy ride, I am already my own most formidable opponent. And therefore, without the pressure of pace, when I don’t have the fortitude to play to another person’s beat, but I still want to puzzle out the spaghetti junctions on the board rather than the ones inside my head, Railroad Ink remains one of my anxiety busting go-to choices.

(watch out for my review of the new 2021 Lush Green and Shining Yellow Challenger Editions coming soon!)

Rhino Hero is back, but this time he has brought his friendly rivals!

And I simply couldn’t review my initial list without including one of my son’s favourite games. At almost 6 years old, he has quite definite and discerning tastes, but Rhino Hero was always a sure fire hit. In October it was our go to dexterity game. Until, that is, Super Battle was delivered by Santa on Christmas Day. Now, our mini-meeple is all about trying to knock mummy down a level, and forcing daddy into moving those cheeky, balance-altering monkeys around the ever escalating tower.

A game elevating the house-of-cards idea into the stratosphere, victory in Super Battle (like its simpler sibling Rhino Hero) is heavily dependent on a steady hand and a steady nerve. Again, possibly a strange choice for an anxiety sufferer you might think.

However, what this game represents is time with my son. Time away from work emails, bills, deadlines, homework, chores, Pandemic panic……..Time where I focus on his eyebrows furrowing as he works out where to place his roof and how to arrange his walls. Time where I watch his eyes light up when Rhino Hero (he always plays the main mammal!) defeats me and sends me down to the level below. And time where I listen to his laughter as the tower topples and the cards fly everywhere.

I don’t know about you, but for me, there is no better medicine than that.

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