I’ve been playing games and sharing my opinions on them for many years. I’m almost always moving on to the next game system, the next adventure setting, the next optional rule book. I love to get my fingers on a new product, in part because I have the attention span of a young dalmatian in a shopping mall, but mostly because I just really love it when a game surprises me. That feeling of first-time wonder is outdone only by the feeling of sharing that wonder with another.
It’s not often that a gaming product surprises me. But Top Ten Games You Can Play in Your Head by Yourself, from Minnesota author D. F. Lovett and Corridor Digital‘s Sam Gorski, did exactly that.
The book presents a series of mental exercises that allow its reader to step out of their own life and into one of 10 games. Each game is presented with a sequence of prompts that set the stage for a story. If this sounds to you like guided daydreaming, well, that’s because it is exactly that. These games borrow heavily from Choose Your Own Adventure novels, tabletop role-playing games, and even our favorite movies and plays.
These prompts usually come in the form of questions, asking you about your character’s backstory, occupation, or motivation. Other prompts ask you to choose a nemesis, or draw a map in your head, or pick a truck to drive or a ship to fly.
Once the prompts are finished, you receive a final prompt to set the stage, and only one more instruction: go.
And that’s it! The rest of the game is up to you. Its twists, its turns, its rise and fall, and its eventual conclusion are all defined by you and your imagination. The prompts are inventive and detailed, and likewise force the reader to be inventive and detailed in answering them. The backbone of this experience takes place not in the prompts or the flavorful text, but in the imagination of the reader.
Games like “Adventure,” which tasks the reader with stepping into the role of a treasure hunter in World War II Egypt, are built on familiar tropes that most of us will quickly recognize. Even the cover of the book bears a familiar red and white motif that Dungeons & Dragons players will greet like an old friend.
But not all of these games are as simple as “Adventure,” and the more I worked through, the more I found that the most familiar stories were the least interesting, and stoked my imagination only for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, more complex games completely took me by surprise. “Chess,” for instance, sets up a chess match between the reader and one of four opponents of varying difficulty. It sets a backstory for the reader involving a dead mentor, who may or may not be a ghost. It even introduces a number of optional chess pieces to make the chess match more complex and strange. And then?
When I first received my review copy of this book, I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of the games. It didn’t really click, and honestly, I approached this with a degree of hubris that I am not entirely proud of. Who am I, a person who imagines things professionally, to require prompts to help me daydream? What could I, writer of words and maker of worlds, possibly get out of this?
But a simple game called “Space” fed me a lengthy session of planetary exploration that was very low in stress and very high in finding crazy aliens, built only by my mind, and my hubris was defeated. “Chess,” my favorite of the games in this collection, challenged my assumptions about what a daydream could be, and knocked me down a few more pegs. These games are a joy to play, refreshing in their uniqueness and genuinely challenging to the untrained mind. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to review Top Ten, because I may not have found it otherwise.
Top Ten‘s games were written by a mysterious author known as J. Theophrastus Bartholomew. I use the word “mysterious” because, as editors Gorski and Lovett state in their foreword, they have never met or communicated with this person, and only became aware of his games after finding some of them in a box in a garage sale. I’m not entirely convinced that J. Theophrastus Bartholomew was ever a real person. It is, after all, entirely possible (and perhaps even somewhat likely) that Bartholomew is another game, another more subtle possibility presented by this odd collection of stories and their unknowable maker.
But perhaps, as Bartholomew would no doubt tell us, it doesn’t really matter either way. After all, in the case of these games, the author of the prompts that frame them only did a fraction of the work. The rest is up to the real author, the real game master: you.
Top Ten Games You Can Play in Your Head by Yourself (Second Edition) is available in digital and print format.