One of the great joys of board gaming is that the hobby brings people together in a truly interactive manner, often competitively, sometimes cooperatively, but, unlike so much in the modern age, it requires players to be involved in the moment, to be engrossed in the game. Maybe it has just been a matter of time, but the new game Call To Mind has taken this idea even further. It is part board game, but much more of an aid to conversation and discussion, and its intent is to broaden the horizons of those suffering with dementia, patients and their families, by allowing sufferers to talk about their memories and interests, and family members and carers to respond and take note of what the patient might need.
A game for gamers? Or something different?
Nearly a million people in the UK suffer from dementia, a degenerative disease that slowly destroys a person’s ability to think and remember, and with over 200,000 new cases diagnosed every year there is clearly a considerable audience who could benefit from a game like this. The brain, damaged or not, has the capability to respond to external triggers, and there are many documented cases of a person’s childhood memory being recalled after listening to a piece of music or a line of poetry. Hundreds of thoroughly worthwhile projects have been set up to explore and develop these techniques, such as Living Words. Call To Mind is the first board game I know of that has been designed specifically to be used by people with dementia, so a review of it, especially for a gaming website, needs to take two possibly exclusive strands. Firstly, does it stand up as a board game in its own right, and secondly, how well does it work as a tool for those living with and suffering from dementia?
The box is bold and clear, if functional.
Call To Mind was conceived by Angela Newton, the product of many years of work with people with dementia, and the design itself was undertaken by Laura Templeton, a graphic designer, but also Newton’s sister. A team at University College London led by Gill Livingston, the Professor of Psychiatry of Older People spent four years researching and writing the questions that appear in Call To Mind, so it’s the product of many years of painstaking development, designed by experts with an intimate knowledge of their field.
What’s in the box? Let’s find out!
The box is that of a medium sized game like Ticket To Ride, though less deep, and the cover is clear and simple, with the game’s name across the top and various pictures along the bottom. It does not scream the latest in graphic design, but I have to admit that it is not intimidating, and it makes a pleasant change not to have some bearded chap holding a map while a half-finished monument/pyramid/insert-building-here rises in the background. Clearly the intent is for this to be as open and inviting an experience as possible, especially for those who might not normally enjoy games.
The assembled spinner and play guidelines.
Open up the box and you find a spinner (which needs assembly), a fold-out game board with bold pictures and photographs along the edges, and a set of cards in four different categories, each of which has three questions on the reverse side. The quality of the components is good, the board and the spinner made of decent quality cardboard, while the cards look as if they could hold up to a decent amount of use. Setting up the game is simplicity itself – you shuffle each of the four sets of cards and place them face down in their designated spots on the game board, put the spinner in the centre, and you are ready to play Call To Mind. Lastly, there is a set of record sheets, each of which has four pages, one for each category of cards. These are for carers and families to jot down the answers given by those they play with, and they are printed on high quality card stock, clearly built to last.
Rules or guidelines? Not what you might expect!
Once you have set up the game and opened the brief rules booklet it becomes clear that this is not a game in the traditional sense. The rules for Call To Mind are less a set of rules than a list of very rough guidelines, and it is clear that the game should be played more or less how its players would like. The spinner is used to indicate a category of questions at random, each of which has its own bright colour (green for Active, yellow for Creative, blue for Present, red for Past), and within each category there are various subsections. In the Active category, for example, are cards dealing with religion, gardening, travel, keeping active, football & sport, shopping, and dancing. The player picks up a card of the indicated colour, reads out the card topic and then identifies the picture on the game board that represents it, which will have the same coloured border as the card. After this they may answer any or all of the three questions printed on the card. In the event that the player finds nothing to talk about then they can pick another card of the same colour, and after they have finished answering the questions the conversation is then opened up to the other players. The player gets to keep the card, and the aim of the game, such as it is, is to collect one card of each of the four colours.
The question cards come in four different main categories, with three questions on each card.
This is the main outline of the game, but the rules are much more flexible than this – the included booklet even goes so far as to say that “the play instructions are guidelines” – and it is clear that Call To Mind is much more about conversation and communication than it is about competition. For example, if the spinner indicates a colour card that the player already owns then they may spin again, and even the end game condition is open to change, a possible ending being just when the players decide that they would like to stop. There is no mention of any scoring or of declaring a winner, and the booklet makes it clear that the aim of the game is to stimulate conversation as part of a safe and comfortable experience, and that it is perfectly acceptable for players not to answer questions if they do not wish to do so.
No scoring? Everyone’s a winner!
The conversation is clearly the most tangible and immediate benefit of Call To Mind, but the feedback sheets also provide the possibility for longer term enjoyment of the experience. It is recommended by the designers that these are kept from game to game, one for each player, and that information should be added by family or carers each time Call To Mind is played. Not only will these sheets eventually form a detailed snapshot of a player’s likes and dislikes, they will also help family members or carers to communicate more effectively with the players and to understand their feelings, desires and interests. The benefits of Call To Mind are obviously intended to reach beyond just the time spent playing the game.
The board is only a very small part of Call To Mind…
As you may have gathered, it is clear almost from the moment the purchaser opens the box that Call To Mind is more of an activity than a game, and that it should be considered more on the merits of what it achieves for its target audience than whether it uses worker or dice placement in a new and innovative manner. That it enables those with Alzheimer’s disease to talk about their memories and interests in an open and relaxed way is admirable, and that it enables families to connect with those people and spend time with them in a fruitful manner is to be applauded. The sheets included in the game also enable carers to flesh out the lives and interests of those they care for.
Pricey or priceless? You need to decide!
So what are the negatives? Well, it is impossible to ignore that Call To Mind is very expensive for what it offers in the box. A spinner, a board and a set of cards should cost less than £38 and many quality modern board games offer much more in terms of components and game design for much, much less. The latest cutting-edge Euro designs come packed with quality cardboard and innovative mechanisms and often cost significantly less than this, so in terms of material value it cannot be denied that Call To Mind is pricey. However, that is probably to miss the point of the game, as this is certainly not intended to sit alongside the latest offering from Martin Wallace or Bruno Cathala. Even so, there are games around that fall into a similar category, inspiring conversation and communication, and although some might think it something of a leap to link Call To Mind with a game such as Dixit, I feel that the comparison is valid. Both games provide ample opportunity for interaction and discussion, but Dixit, full of colourful and inspirational artwork, won the Spiel des Jahres award in 2010 and costs much less for a game of far greater quality. Call To Mind’s images look more like clip art and I could imagine purchasers being disappointed with what their money has provided for them upon opening the box.
Not much in terms of components for a high price, but the experience could be well worth it.
But, but…much as a game like Dixit might be hugely enjoyable, you will rarely come away from playing it with a significantly improved understanding of your fellow players. This is what Call To Mind is setting out to do, and I can see that it could achieve that in spades. It offers families and relatives a chance to spend quality time with those they love, and to share in memories that could otherwise easily have been forgotten, in which case you could easily understand why the price of the game could be seen as insignificant in the face of such profound benefits. Some might even say that the opportunities it provides are priceless. In fairness, the games designers do themselves say that Call To Mind is aimed at memory cafes, care homes and the like, so it is organisations rather than private individuals who would be most likely to invest in this, and in terms of realising value over multiple plays I can see that it could easily turn out to repay the initial investment handsomely.
Is “Call To Mind…” value for money? In the right setting!
In conclusion, Call To Mind is assuredly not the kind of board game to find its way onto shelves across the country, nestling next to the ubiquitous copies of Cluedo, pick-a-version-any-version Monopoly and maybe (if you’re really lucky) Risk, and it it highly unlikely to find its way into a hobby gamer’s collection, but that is not what this is about. Instead it should be seriously considered by those with relatives in care who suffer from dementia, and the organisations who care for them. It provides an opportunity for carers to interact with those they care for, and for families to communicate with them. Perhaps most importantly, those who have dementia will feel that their opinions, their tastes and their stories matter, and that they themselves have value and worth. Whether that opportunity is worth the high price of entry is up to the purchaser.
These cards are where the real value lies.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.