Anxiety? It sucks. 0/10. Do not recommend.
Oh, wait, I’m reviewing the game called Anxiety here. That’s a different story.
I first heard of this game from a thread on r/boardgames where the designer, David Libby, talked about how he made a game to help him through his anxiety. This immediately piqued my interest as I had just been thinking about how much I’ve been craving new and novel game ideas. Additionally, long time readers will know that I struggle with mental health issues and try to talk about them constructively and empathetically. While a solo card game about anxiety might not be the next new best seller, it’s these kinds of ideas that will keep board gaming fresh and interesting and alive as the hobby grows.
So after reading David’s designer diary and finding it inspiring, I went over to DriveThruCards and ordered a copy. Given that it’s a design from someone who doesn’t yet have an officially published game about a niche topic, I was a bit worried about its quality. I wanted to review the game but really had no idea what to expect. Fortunately it’s pretty good.
The main conceit of Anxiety is that you’re trying to manage three symptoms without panicking too much: sleeplessness, difficulty breathing, and intense worry. When you set up the game you’ll position four cards into the image of a brain. Below that is the panic track, which charts how much panic you’ve accumulated. Reach 20 points of panic and you fail. Each turn you’ll draw a card and see which symptoms are increased. As the symptoms intensify you’ll add cards face down from the deck above your brain. It’s a neat visualization of the harrows of anxiety hovering over one’s mind like a spectre. If you ever need to place a fourth card in one of the categories, you instead increase your overall panic level. Most of the cards will provide some kind of benefit to you, if you choose to use them.
The decision of when to use those cards, and how, forms the meat of the game. A good number of them will have options in how you use them, and some require you to discard other cards from your hand. So if you have a card that lets you shift cards from one category to another, do you use that to try to buy some time, or do you save it in case it can be used to remove cards later? If you’re sitting at three cards in Sleeplessness and have a card that can remove one from there or two from the Worry category, do you hold on and try to get full value from that card or make sure you have more of a buffer in the Sleeplessness category?
Two cards in particular I found quite interesting. One gives you the choice of either removing a card from any of the harm categories or discarding three cards from the top of the deck. Given that you’re trying to get all the way through the deck to win the game, you want to use the latter ability. But if you don’t manage your symptoms well enough you could get hit with a critical amount of panic. The second card actually increases your panic level by one but wipes the entire slate clean at the same time–you get to discard all of the cards from all three symptoms. It’s normally a bit of welcome relief from the constant barrage of harm befalling you. But in one game I drew it when I had already accumulated 17 panic. Deliberately raising the panic level by that single point was nerve-wracking. Moments like those are when the theme shines through and you actually feel a tiny sliver of anxiety.
After playing the game a few times I realized that the theme isn’t as unusual as I had originally thought. I’ve been pretty vocal over the past year in my reviews that one of the most important characteristics for a game to have is tension. Games live or die based on how much you actually care about what’s going on, and that care is frequently generated when you don’t quite know what will happen next. Maybe you’ve run calculations and think you’ve put your opponent in a corner, but have that nagging feeling that you might have missed something critically important. Maybe you need a particular card to show from the top of the deck or the dice to roll anything except that one particular number. Maybe there’s hidden information and you need to make an educated guess of what your opponent has in hand to determine your course of action. All of that is tense and suspenseful and exciting! But tension and suspense and excitement are kind of in the same emotive family as anxiety. Games are good at that.
Anxiety the card game takes the uncertainty from turning a card over from the top of a deck and simply drops it into the theme of anxiety itself. Combined with a sort of race against time (which at their best are also tense, etc.) the game does successfully evoke the feeling of helplessness and struggle that people with anxiety are familiar with. A bit.
The problem with Anxiety is that I think it plays it too safe. The mechanical backbone is there, but it’s very simplistic. There’s a bit of push your luck and a bit of decision making, but a lot of the game feels like you’re simply flipping over cards and seeing what happens. The hard part is that while you want to evoke a certain amount of helplessness to make the theme work, you also want decisions and agency in there to make it a good game, and those two goals are easily opposed. The cards that give you tough decisions to make are great, but some just do a positive thing, so you end up using them without any thought.
The art and presentation are good–the dark lightning imagery above the brain works well and the minimalist iconography makes sense–but I’d absolutely love to see what a publisher could do with really selling the anxious theme with some custom art. I also want more flavor on the cards. I want to be able to see a story develop as I progress through the game of a person trying to manage their lives, struggle through awful symptoms, have good days, bad days, support from friends, times of isolation, etc. I wish the cards were at least named in a thematic way to help create that emergent story instead of only giving out mechanical game information.
Not that I’m blaming David for not creating a blinged out Fantasy Flight-level production, as it’s clear he wanted to make this for himself and wasn’t even originally planning to sell it. That kind of development, art, and polish takes a lot of time and money. But I do think there’s the potential here for a genuinely intriguing solo game that might help people who don’t struggle with mental health understand a bit of what it’s like. For a solo card game I think something like Friday has more interesting decisions and more robust mechanisms, but I love what David is trying to do with Anxiety. Give me more bold experimentation and difficult themes!
Check back Friday to read my interview with David Libby, designer of Anxiety. We had a delightful chat!
+Successfully evokes some anxiety
+Some of the card decisions are difficult
-Wish the art and presentation was more harrowing
-No thematic explanation for the various cards
-Sometimes feels like the game is playing you