Cribbage is Jarod Gengler's go-to game, a way to connect with others and focus on something fun, especially during the time of change that was 2020.

But cribbage is more than a game to Gengler, 31, of Prior Lake. Living with bipolar disorder for about a decade, Gengler realized the power of the game to boost his mental health. Now, he's working to make sure others can benefit from cribbage, too.

As of April, Gengler had donated more than 20 cribbage boards that he has collaboratively designed to hospitals and recovery centers, including Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, Avivo Village and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Gengler has connected with places like Zuckerberg Hospital in part through the Stability Network, a nonprofit that supports workers with mental health challenges.

He plans to donate a total of 52 boards in a year's time.

Gengler has sold cribbage boards that include logos for different breweries or combine his passions for cribbage and disc golf, with some featuring professional disc golf players' logos. Donated boards have included inspirational quotes, such as, "You are doing the best you can," "Communicate your needs and hopes," and "Recognize you are more than your illness."

A design made in collaboration with Hazelden Betty Ford includes the serenity prayer, one often used in recovery programs.

"I just want people to know that there's support out there and you can get through it, [whether] it's by playing a silly game with friends and family, or making that call to reach out [for help], or doing something else in a positive fashion," Gengler said.

In 2019, Gengler was hospitalized for 17 days. He played cribbage every day as a way to connect with other patients and to stay entertained when friends and family visited.

"I knew that this was going to be something bigger than just playing a game," Gengler said.

The game of cribbage involves a deck of cards and a board that pegs are moved around as players earn points. The objective is to reach 121 points before opponents through point-earning card hands. Organizations like the American Cribbage Congress provide ways for cribbage players to get together around the country.

It's also a game that can be easy to learn and played by all ages, said Gengler's sister, Caitlyn Heimerl.

Her brother, she said, wanted to provide others with a mental health outlet that helped him "have fun and not have to think and worry and talk about the dark things that are happening in your life," Heimerl said.

"I think it's nice that he's in this spot to say, 'When I was in your situation, this is what I needed, so hopefully it can help you.' "

The game has also been a way to connect during the pandemic. When Heimerl and her husband moved into her parents' house, where Gengler also lives, for part of the pandemic, the family played cribbage almost nightly. They were even able to continue playing when Heimerl contracted COVID-19.

"I was secluded and quarantined to my room for almost three weeks," she said. "So Jared and I started playing virtually, like over video, or we would play on a cribbage app on our phone, just kind of keep each other company, really."

Playing games can be an important piece of mental well-being, said Anna Lynn, Minnesota Department of Health mental health promotion coordinator.

"There's evidence that the people who are thriving, who are flourishing, do certain things every day, and having fun and finding joy is one of those practices," Lynn said.

"I think there's all kinds of opportunities or strategies. I think everyone has to kind of develop their own toolbox for what works and what's helpful for them," she added.

Games tap into problem solving, thought organization and impulse control, said Annette Pinto, psychiatric occupational therapy department director at Zuckerberg Hospital.

After receiving six cribbage boards from Gengler, Pinto said the next step is teaching patients how to play and encouraging them to consider incorporating this and other games into their lives as a way for social connection and distraction.

"People need leisure in their lives, in order to live rich and meaningful lives," Pinto said. "Games are part of that."

While there's work being done to end the stigma around mental health struggles, Gengler understands how difficult it remains to reach out for help. He hopes that by sharing his story, others will have the confidence to seek help, too.

And maybe learn a fun new game in the process.

"I just think it's really cool that he's taken into his own consideration that it's important to help others when they're in need," Heimerl said.

"And he's kind of gone out of his way to seek those things because he wants to help others."

Imani Cruzen is a Twin Cities freelance writer and frequent contributor to Inspired.