Board Game Criticism And The Future Of Board Games Criticism of Criticism of Criticism

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I originally intended this article to be about effective point scales and the BGG rating system, but a few posts on the boardgames subreddit have diverted my interest into also speaking about board game criticism more generally.

I posted some information a while ago about the BGG rankings, and found that, despite what I had assumed, there doesn’t seem to be very much of a “cult of the new” effect on the rankings compared to prior years, even though quite a few games within the last couple of years are now appearing high on the list (see: Star Wars Rebellion, Scythe, Blood Rage, and Gloomhaven). The general wisdom has been that as board games have grown as a hobby, newer games that have gotten a lot of visibility are getting higher scores that they don’t deserve.

To combat this, there has been a growing sentiment that those who are “actually” gamers should become more critical with their ratings on new games, and sometimes games are flooded with 1 ratings before they are released from people in this camp, and/or by people who fundamentally disagree with something about a game they haven’t even played. I remember Pandemic Legacy got a high number of low ratings by those upset with the legacy aspect conceptually, even though they hadn’t played the game.

These silly behaviors shouldn’t surprise anyone–it’s the natural growing pains of a booming industry. Humans as a species like to be members of social groups, and while I’m not a psychologist, it seems to me that as groups expand, people feel the need to section off into smaller groups to maintain that sense of identity. Being a nerd might have meant something in the 80’s, but now it’s nearly meaningless–what kind of nerd you are is more important.

On Ratings

I’ll talk later about how we as a community can adjust well to these social trends, but I want to identify a particular underlying assumption that I think drives some of the people who constantly complain about high ratings. I see two fundamental philosophies for how things in general should be rated. We’ll use a 10 point scale for now. The first philosophy says that the mid-point of the rating (technically 5.5 in a 10 point scale) should be for mediocre examples of the movie, book, game, etc. This is the perspective I use when I assign ratings. A 5.5 means “it’s okay” or “meh”. Anything above that is varying degrees of fun, and anything below that is varying degrees of un-fun.

By this philosophy, the average rating for anyone should be higher than 5.5, because presumably it’s an activity you tend to enjoy, and more importantly, because the sample of rated games is self-selected. Even the most prolific game reviewers, the people at The Dice Tower, can’t review even a fraction of every game that is released. From what I understand, they can’t even review all of the games that publishers send them. Thus, they have to do a metaphorical smell test and review the games they find most promising. For someone like me, I’m mostly reviewing the games I own and have access to, which is significantly more limited.

The second philosophy assumes that the mid rating is average. This is untenable for reviewers to adopt, as it means rating on a curve, and constantly adjusting scores to keep the average. However, over long periods of time, this will sort of naturally occur anyway. As new and better games are developed, they will shift our perspective of the games of the past.

All of that to say that right now my average rating for the modern board games I’ve played sits just under 7, and I absolutely disagree with the notion that that means I’m not critical enough.

We Want Negativity!

But people seem to want more negativity in their reviews. Granted, I spend too much time on r/boardgames, but I’ve noticed multiple times over the past couple of weeks that people keep asking about who the most negative and critical reviewers are. On a couple of occasions people have even insinuated or outright said that positive reviewers are paid off or scared to anger publishers. Ignoring how awful it is to levy those kinds of accusations against people with no proof, I think what people actually want, rather than negative reviews, are better reviews. Here’s what I had to say on one of those reddit threads in response to someone looking for negative opinions:

I understand what you’re looking for, but I fundamentally disagree with the argument as presented. Purely positive opinions are unhelpful, as they make you suspect the reviewer didn’t bother to think critically about the game.

 

However, unless you think there’s a game that’s actually flawless, your opinion on it is going to be in balance of the positive and negative aspects. How those interplay to create the entire experience of the game is just as important as the individual praises and criticisms. For example, Twilight Imperium is one of my favorite games. However, I think the objective system (even with expansions) for determining the winner is somewhat clunky and anti-climactic.

 

Similarly, I think the point system is Millennium Blades is also clunky and anti-climactic. However, given the experience of the game, I think that hurts Millennium Blades more, because all of the fun parts of the game are pointed at the tournament round, which resolves with that clunky point system. In addition, the other main way to get points is through a completely underwhelming system that seems tacked on for balance purposes.

 

With Twilight Imperium, the objective system is clunky and anti-climactic, yes, but it does focus the game into smaller subsystems of victories, feints, diplomacy, etc. Within each of those subsystems there are brilliant moments of narrative. Furthermore, the game is so vast and every other part is executed so well, that the fun parts overwhelm this criticism.

 

If I was only giving critical reviews focusing on the negatives to games, these distinctions would be completely missed. Good criticism points out pros and cons, yes, but it also communicates the experience of playing the game in a more holistic and nuanced way.

 

And maybe you would weight the different pros and cons differently than the reviewer–that’s fine! A good reviewer should communicate their experience well enough to enable you to make those judgments. That’s the most tricky part of reviewing, in my opinion–figuring out what kind of communication is most effectual.

I don’t think my reviews meet this ideal, but I’m trying, and I will continue to keep improving. As board game critics continue to improve it raises the bar for everybody else. I feel like board game criticism in its infancy has been harmed by the style of review that acts more like preview, where an explanation of how the game works overwhelms actual criticism. But slowly we’re moving past that, and the result should be better, not necessarily negative, criticism.

That isn’t to say that criticism won’t naturally get more negative in the future. As designers and publishers improve their crafts, games will get better and better. As that happens our reference points will change, and a game that we like a lot now may seem more middling compared to a newer alternative. This is natural and fine.

We Want Objectivity!

The call for objective reviews has plagued critics for who knows how long, though it seems to be worse in the video game industry for some reason. I don’t see it a lot in regard to board games, but I do want to nip this moronic argument in the bud right now before the alarms of “bias!” erupt.

First of all, I don’t even know what people mean when they say they want an objective review. The point of a review is for the reviewer to communicate their subjective experience and judge the game from that experience. In that sense it’s a personal form of communication to begin with. But, there are a few ways a sort of objective review could emerge.

Suppose one could mathematically prove that a game is significantly unbalanced. The calculations are there, and unless you’re a radical metaphysical subjectivist, it’s completely proven that the game is unbalanced. I suppose that’s sort of an objective review, although to be truly objective the reviewer would have to then prove that a game being unbalanced is objectively bad, which would then probably have to turn into a more generalized argument of aesthetics. The question of what constitutes an unbalanced game in the first place would have to be defined as well. Instead of doing this rigamarole, we appeal to commonly held valuations. This is fine.

Something like this has come up before with A Few Acres Of Snow, where an objectively unbeatable strategy was found. But something happened there–some people immediately abandoned and decried the game, as you would expect, but many others didn’t really care. Until they found the strategy they were going to continue enjoying the game. Were those people doing something objectively bad? I don’t think you could make that argument.

Another way one could do an objective review is by only presenting facts about the game. But that wouldn’t be any more helpful than a read of the rulebook.

I think what people actually want when they say they want objectivity is soft impartiality (i.e. not paid off) and warranted reviews. That is, when a reviewer makes a judgement claim about a game, people want them to explain why. They want the experience to be truly communicated. It does no one good to say, “I like the way the game plays and how the turns work. It’s exciting.” That doesn’t communicate anything except the preference.

I occasionally coach high school debate. The very first thing I tell my students, and the thing I repeat more than anything is “warrants, warrants, warrants”. If you’re going to make a claim, it must be warranted. To the best of our abilities, us critics absolutely have to do the same. This is better criticism, not more objective criticism.

We Want To Know How Many Times You’ve Played It!

I see this question lobbed all the time at Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower: “how many times do you play a game before you review it.” His answer is always, “enough times”. This is a smart response, and communicates exactly what people need to know. Some games need to be played more than others before you understand the game at a basic level. I have absolutely no doubt that for quite a few games, Tom only needs to play it once to know what he thinks about it.

Reviewers shouldn’t have to disclose how many times they’ve played a game before they review it, for the simple reason that people are terrible and no answer is going to be satisfactory. No matter what number is said, it’s going to be wrong for someone, and they’re going to get mad about it. Reviewers should be judged for their insight and their track record. If they continually make rules mistakes in their game explanations or miss key parts of the game, that’s an indication they’re not playing the game enough. If they are able to write good reviews and consistently understand the game, then you don’t need to know how many times they’ve played it.

I soften this a bit with my system of splitting my reviews into first impressions and reviews proper. This is because I know that games can significantly change in the long run, and that my opinions of games very frequently change after I understand them at a deeper level. This is a product of my personal experiences with games and I’m not saying that any other reviewer needs to do it. Frankly, from a business/marketing standpoint it’s probably a bad idea because it might be confusing and it might diminish how many search engine hits I get. Oh well.

The Future

While board games are certainly not new, what we would describe as modern or designer-style board games are, and their proliferation seems to be increasing exponentially. This means that board game criticism is also new, and it’s trying to keep up. I don’t think we’ve reached a point where we have a Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert of board game criticism, but I’m confident that someday we’ll get there. So what does this path look like?

The two comparisons I know most about are movies and video games. Both, from what I understand, quickly adopted a more corporate structure for production once they started booming as entertainment media. Movies had the studio system, where theaters were owned and controlled by the studios themselves. Video games grew large with the advent of consoles, where the platform and the games were often produced by the same company. Eventually, through the aid of technology, flourishing independent creators have found their niche in both industries. Independent filmmakers were also aided by the “auteur theory” coming out of France which defined the director as the primary creative force for the film, rather than the production company as a whole.

Board games seem to have a different path, perhaps because the auteur theory is a cultural artifact, we universally recognize the designer as the primary creative force. Furthermore, production costs aren’t as much of a barrier, so there are already a ton of independent games. What I suspect is that we’re at the pre-corporate stage–the comparative age of early computer hackers assembling games out of dots before the industry starts to take off.

I don’t know what I think about this. The growing industry means that publishers can utilize better economies of scale to give us flashier games at better prices. But if video games and movies are any indication, it may mean a strong bifurcation between “mainstream” modern boardgamers, and “indie” boardgamers. Video games seem to be coming back around where independent creators are becoming more recognized and accepted. With film there still seems to be a strong split, although streaming services might be bridging the gap.

We see splits more along genre lines with board games. There are eurogamers, wargamers, ameritrash gamers, Magic: The Gathering players, etc. So far this seems to be almost entirely congenial. What I fear, though, is that as the hobby grows we’ll lose that small-town charm and end up in whatever the analog version of console wars is. In the internet age this seem inevitable.

As I said before, humans like to think of themselves in terms of the groups they are part of, and if a particular group gets too big, they go into sub-groups. There’s nothing wrong with this inherently, but at a certain level of division rivalry becomes inevitable. And then all of the hate and pointless arguing happens.

A Plea To The Community

As members of the board game community, we need to fight against this hostility tooth and nail. We need to be ambassadors of optimism and have a welcoming spirit. We need to be helpful to those entering the hobby, and not become to pompous for our own good. I mean, there are two types of responses when someone says they enjoy Monopoly:

  1. “Ugh, what a terrible game.”

OR

  1. “I love board games too! Want to learn one of my favorites?”

I almost feel stupid writing this out, but I also feel like it’s necessary when I look at video game communities. Sure, a lot of the depravity is aided by anonymity, but certainly not all of it. Please, for the love of all that is good in the world, let’s not become like that.

A Plea To Critics

The role of the critic is twofold: to provide a service as a gatekeeper to the consumers by communicating the experience of the game as best they can, and to create and guide discussions about the medium. Simply by having some sort of voice in the community we take on greater responsibility to the community. Right now the state of board game criticism is in its infancy, as I spoke of before, but the critics themselves all seem to be fantastic people.

But if board games continue increasing in popularity as they have, more critics will emerge, and more voices will appear in the community. It’s our responsibility to help guide the culture and guide the conversations that happen within and about it. At some point there’s going to be controversy, squabbling, scandal, etc. We need to resolve ourselves to address that head on and with dignity. We need to push each other to become better communicators and better critics. We need to keep publishers honest. We need to use whatever platform we have to try to make this hobby better.

An Optimistic Look At The Future

What would I like to see in the future of board games, and particularly board game criticism? I would like to see, as I said before, better and better criticism. But I’d also like to see a celebration of innovation, not only technologically, but thematically and mechanically. I’d like to see critics encouraging designers to experiment and push the limits.

I’d like to see fantastic discussions about ethical issues with our games. Of how to use board games as a positive cultural force that continues to bring people together rather than separate them. I’d like to see that combined with innovation to create challenging, exciting game experiences.

Mostly I’d like to see the optimism that marks the board game community to continue. I’d like to see people get excited about amazing games, and excitedly frustrated when a game isn’t able to match its vision. I’m not sure how to concisely sum my feelings up here, other than to say “let’s be good. Please.”

 

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8 Responses

  1. Great comments Marc. While I would agree that the hobby/designer board game market has surged in recent years, the hobby itself is quite old. There are tons of boardgames pre-1979 (Spiel des Jahres), pre-1995 (Catan) so the form of the subject matter has had plenty of time to coalesce. I think creative designers and the resurgence of interest in face-to-face social time has brought about this new wave of boardgame interest. This is also the adult age of the kids who used to play D&D (or Magic: The Gathering) when they were younger. Boardgames offer a similar feel with more compartmentalized, episodic play. As such, the design choices have widened and deepened. It is indeed a great time to be a board game critic. I just want to be sure that board game critics take on the journalistic responsibilities of trying to limit any outside influence on their reviews and take the time to see the complete product. If that’s only one play for some people, so be it, but knowing a reviewer’s methodology is important to understanding a reviewer’s subjective observation of their review subject. Thanks for the article. Good read!

  2. There are so few commentaries on BGG ratings. It is good that you were able to write an article on a topic that was sorely lacking content.

  3. Thanks for a really thoughtful article.

    I do disagree somewhat with the notion that a single playthrough can be enough for a full review – I really appreciate that you and some other reviewers, such as Tom Heath (slickerdrips) and the guys at Meeple Leaf distinguish between ‘First Impressions’ and a full review. I think a single play is enough when a game has big problems that you can see easily – you don’t have to play it over and over again to be clear that it doesn’t work for you.

    My disagreement comes on the other side – on a positive review based on a single playthrough. I think it’s almost impossible to tell if a game has legs based on one play. You probably won’t catch balance issues, or whether the game rewards multiple strategies or simply gets samey for you over time. If a reviewer doesn’t say how many times they’ve played it, I’ll take it with a grain of salt, and assume it’s a ‘First Impressions’ sort of review.

    • Marc Davis

      Good point–I would agree with that. Almost by definition, a good game is one that is still rewarding after multiple plays, so it would be very difficult to know that after a limited number of plays. You could guess at it, which is something I do with my first impressions, but it would be very hard to tell for sure.

  4. B. Wild

    Very interesting and refreshing read. Thank you Marc. I look forward to reading your other posts as this one seems to live up to the ‘thoughtful gamer’ title of the blog.

    My comment is about your description of the future of the industry. Contrasting boardgames to videogames and movies makes sense because they are all entertainment and I agree boardgaming won’t follow their trajectory. I think there’s a limit to their appeal because of inherent limitations of the tactile experience of playing and because of what boardgames demand of their players.

    There are far fewer people who enjoy board games than people who enjoy movies or videogames. The reason? Because boardgaming requires more participation to make it enjoyable. You have to engage your imagination and intellect (to varying degrees depending on game complexity) to have an enjoyable experience. Otherwise it is just paper, cardboard, and wooden or plastic bits. Movies and videogames as a medium of entertainment/artistic expression are designed to lower that bar of engagement as low as possible to create the largest possible market for the product. Just sit down and be entertained.

    We could say that designers are attempting to do the same thing by increasing the production quality of games and flashy theme – or we could say it’s simply the board game industry growing up and creating better games. It’s probably a bit of both, but I think the lasting effect will NOT be boardgaming breaking into a new zone of societal appeal and brand new market.

    While the boardgame industry is booming, there may be a hard cap on its growth because it is counter-culture. The experience of playing a boardgame is largely free of technology (not counting iOS ports which cease to be board games), requires in-person interaction, and requires a long-ish attention span and appreciation for strategic thinking. Call me a pessimist, but I see society as a whole moving away from those characteristics. As a hobby boardgaming could collect the ‘cast-offs’ from the mainstream culture and continue to grow in that way.

    I’m not wholly convinced of what I’m saying here, it’s more just a thought exercise, but I’m thinking boardgames are going to remain a wallflower at the party, even though our social skills have improved and we don’t live in our parents’ basement anymore. More people want to hang out with us but we’re still slightly out-of-step with the mainstream and I don’t see that changing.

    The advent of board game cafes are amazing. It’s so fresh and actually does something to change the conversation and perception of people who play boardgames. It removes some of the nerd-stigma which the hobby will always have to live with to some degree. Cafes are the best avenue for the hobby to grow along with if normal cafes, libraries, colleges, and places people already gather start carrying boardgames.

    The limitation to growth isn’t some previously undiscovered combination of mechanics, theme, and packaging. It’s the perception of the hobby (which we can change) and the ‘bars of entry’ required to play a game (which we can’t).

    • Marc Davis

      I would certainly agree with that–there’s no way board games will ever be as big as entertainment sources with lower costs. My main concern with this article in particular is that board games certainly do look like they’re getting big enough to hit “growing pain” thresholds that we’ve seen negatively effect video game culture, for example.

      • B. Wild

        yes, absolutely. And I think you are right on to highlight accurate and helpful criticism as part of those growing pains. It’s hard to know where to go to find useful critiques. By now I know the bloggers and sites I trust, but how would someone new to the hobby know? BGG is not intuitive for a newcomer.

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