Solitary pursuits such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku or even online and app-based games can help you stay mentally sharp, but there’s something special about joining friends or family for a fun board, card or tile game. 

These real-time, in-person gatherings ratchet up the brain-­boosting effects. And regularly engaging in such games and other intellectually stimulating pursuits has been linked to lower rates of dementia. Chess, checkers, bridge and Scrabble are all good contenders—there’s no strong research showing that one nonsolitary game is better than another. But to try something different, consider… 

Mahjong

The game that originated centuries ago in China and caught on in the US in the 1920s is enjoying a new wave of popularity here. This four-person game is played with domino-style tiles. Rules can vary, but the most common American version is played much like the card game rummy. 

What you do:Players are dealt a set of tiles—including “suits” decorated with dots, bamboo and Chinese characters —and have chances to discard and pick up tiles, with the aim of collecting sets and pairs. The first player to collect a winning hand calls out “Mahjong” and wins the game. A game typically consists of four rounds of about 45 minutes each. A mahjong set can cost less than $50 to more than $100. When you play mahjong, the mental muscles you exercise include…

• Attention skills. You need to keep track of your own tiles (typically, 13 to 14) and what the other players are doing.  

• Short-term memory. As you play, you must keep in mind not only the tiles you have in front of you but also the ones you need.

• Planning and strategizing. Each time you hold or discard a tile, you weigh its future value in creating sets and pairs.

• Mental flexibility. You need to adjust your strategy as the game
progresses.

• Long-term memory. If you are a veteran player, you draw on strategies that worked for you in the past.

SET

The card game SET, which was designed by a research scientist, isn’t widely known, but it will give your brain a good workout. You can buy this game online for less than $10.  

SET consists of a deck of 81 cards, each of which displays four features—a color, number, pattern and shape. Each feature comes in three variations. So, a card can be red, green or purple…with one, two or three objects…with shaded, unshaded or striped patterns…and with diamond, oval or squiggle shapes. 

What you do: You lay out 12 cards at a time and race other players to find groups of three cards that make a “set.” A set consists of three cards, each having one feature (color, number, pattern or shape) that’s either all the same or all different. At the end, the player with the most sets wins. 

The concept can be tricky to grasp, but you will get better with practice—a sign that your brain is carving out new neural pathways. SET works your… 

• Attention skills. To identify “sets,” you must be attentive to the distinguishing features and variations on each card.

• Flexible thinking. Because there are multiple features (color, number, pattern and shape) and variations on each card, your thinking must be nimble enough to move back and forth from one feature and variation to the next.  

• Visual perception skills. These skills help you identify the features and variations on each card.

• Processing speed. The time pressure involved in this game helps build faster mental-processing capacities.

Bonus: SET is a great game to play with kids and groups of varying sizes. You can play solo, too, but the biggest brain boost occurs when you play against others!