The Critical Conversation/How I Review

Why?

What’s the point? 

No, really, what’s the point of reviewing games? Why do I do this week in and week out? I could talk about how I get some level of personal satisfaction out of writing about games, which would be somewhat true, but if I was simply writing and filing away everything in a hard drive, never sharing it, I wouldn’t get much enjoyment at all. I could talk about the small amount of money I make from the endeavor, and while I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to make money from The Thoughtful Gamer, it’s not the primary goal. If it was the site would look very different and probably only exist on youtube.

So why am I doing this? Why have I been doing it for nearly three years now? I’ve thought about this question a lot over the past couple of weeks and there are two ways I can formulate the answer: one sounds narcissistic and the other aspirational. The narcissistic answer is that I think I have interesting things to say and I want to spew them out into the world. Maybe they’re not interesting, or I’m not a good enough writer to communicate them, but is it so unreasonable? This thought, to some degree, is a prerequisite to nearly all writing, or art, or creative endeavor.

The more aspirational way of phrasing it is that I love the critical conversation around board games and I want to contribute to it as best I can.

The Vision

This is the better way of phrasing it, not just because I come across better, because I really do believe that good criticism is part of a conversation, not the proposed end of one. I’ve mentioned this idea before on the podcast, but I want to emphasize it here because it’s fundamental to the purpose of The Thoughtful Gamer.

Since my first year of academic debate back when I was 13 years old I’ve been in love with argument. The good kind of argument, where people present positions and defend those positions with reason and intelligence. I saw it in the debates I was having, in discussions I had with my friends, and with other people in some of the online communities I was part of.

That love sustained as I went to college and found myself in life-altering conversations with classmates and teachers. There I started to dig into film criticism, reading a good chunk of Ebert’s reviews, then spinning off to others, pursuing threads as they interested me. Ebert was a phenomenal writer, able to repeatedly pierce through the noise and find the raw, beating heart of a movie. 

My writing is, sadly, unlike Ebert’s, as I tend to meander about before struggling to say what I actually want to say. My writing is informed more by my years writing and speaking in a debate context. My understanding of grammar and language is filtered first through how I’d speak the idea, then I try to retrofit it to look good on the page.

From reading film criticism I gained a new appreciation for criticism itself. As I read about a film, I’d seek out other writings on that same movie, and the critics became players in a dialog in my mind, offering their own perspectives and arguments, refuting others, and shedding light on different parts of the work. It was a grand conversation, even if the authors never directly knew or spoke to each other. It was a conversation of ideas, and I, as a 3rd party participant, was not passive, but active in forming my own ideas about what I was seeing and reading.

That’s the aspiration. Writing about board games is very young compared to writing about other media, but there’s some extremely exciting stuff out there, and that’s what I want to support and contribute to. That’s not to say that reviewing isn’t also about helping people make purchasing decisions. It totally is. But the reviews I enjoy reading are those that entertain and make me think outside of that decision axis. 

My Approach

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I review games after Ben Maddox and I discussed the topic on the podcast. I think my comments there are still accurate. If I had to describe my approach I’d say that it’s mostly formalist. That is, I look at the structure of the game to tell me why I had the experiences I did. I’m also backwards-facing, taking my experience and trying to suss out what about the game caused that to happen.

In doing so I try to eliminate preconceptions I have about the game, though that’s obviously impossible to do entirely. But a game should be evaluated on its own merit, and a case of false expectations shouldn’t mar an analysis. Sometimes a game is so unlike what I thought it’d be that it takes a couple more plays to redevelop my thoughts about it.

I also try to understand the conditions in which I’m playing it. What’s the mood of the group like? How much have I had to drink? What are the odds we got some rules incorrect? Am I stressed, depressed? 

Games are inherently interactive in a more profound way than literature or visual media, and this fact issues some challenges with my “formalist” approach. An extreme alternative would be the “new games journalism” style, which I’ve discussed before on this site. While I’m cautiously sympathetic to NGJ, I don’t see how it can function as the primary way of reviewing games. Matt Thrower, however, is doing a fine job refuting that.

How do I reconcile the fact that multiple people (most of them usually not me) are interacting with the game, shaping my experience, with a formalist approach? It’s not entirely reconcilable, but I’d say that first, I have a decent grasp of the way games and general human psychology interact, though I’m always on the lookout to learn more (I just ordered Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things”). 

Second, I understand board games to be primarily about choice. This may have to change as I play more and more experimental things, but at some point there needs to be player agency for it to be considered a game. Because I hold this view, I tend to evaluate games based on how interesting the choices are for the players. It’s not my only evaluative metric, though I find if a game has more interesting decisions it will hold my interest for a longer period of time. 

There are exceptions, of course. Lighter games like Tokaido, Catch the Moon, or Deep Sea Adventure don’t have the choice complexity of most games I enjoy, but I like them for primarily different, often narrative, reasons.

As you can tell there are a lot of complicating factors, and this experiment to try to nail down my own method has been messy. But some of the best ideas are messy, and through struggling with them we can come to understand ourselves and the idea better. That’s the beautiful struggle of argument, and the world I want to be part of. 

Here’s what I can guarantee, though: my reviews will always attempt to communicate my experience with the game, tying that experience to aspects of the game itself. I may present an opinion or perspective that is fundamentally opposite of yours, but I will always attempt to communicate why I think my arguments are correct. If that sounds good to you, then I think you’ll enjoy my reviews.

Objectivity

I won’t belabor the point, but it seems like every time the topic of reviewing comes up, someone mentions the need for objectivity. This makes reviewers like me cranky. Fortunately this cycle isn’t as prevalent in the board game community as it is in film or video game criticism. I think it’s a fundamental problem of miscommunication. 

When I see people discuss objectivity, it can take on a number of meanings. Here are a few I’ve seen:

Objectivity is impartiality. In this case the person is saying that the reviewer should be impartial, not having any conflicts of interest or significant pre-judgments. This is something I strongly support, and I think all potential conflicts of interest should be disclosed and out in the open. When we start mixing reviewing with advertisement, that’s dishonest and deceives the audience.

Objectivity is the lack of politics. I think this is typically a case of different threshold levels for when political/economic/social/moral arguments are warranted in a game review. For instance, all but the sickest people would object to a “fun” game about gassing Jews. So clearly there’s a line somewhere where people will allow a moral stance to be taken against a game. All that’s left is figuring out where the line is, which is a moral argument in and of itself. So arguing against moral arguments as such ends up being contradictory. If a reviewer consistently makes moral judgements based on presuppositions you have thought about and disagree with them on, find a different reviewer to read rather than complaining. This is all part of the conversation.

Objectivity is consensus. Often I see appeals to the critical masses, where folks get upset at the few naysayers against an otherwise praised game/movie. To that I say, if you want to see an aggregate, just base everything on rotten tomatoes/metacritic/BGG numbers. If all critics ought to agree on everything, what’s the point of having individual critics? If you think someone is using faulty argumentation to defend/reject something you dislike/like, address the argumentation, not the conclusion.

Objectivity is literally objectivity. Occasionally I’ll see claims to actual objectivity–that there is something innate in the movie/game that makes it good, regardless of how it’s perceived. I don’t think this should be rejected prima facie. As a moral realist I’m still trying to figure out aesthetics as a category. If goodness exists objectively, can people make things that are also good? Or perhaps we can make things that are imperfect reflections? The follow-up question, of course, is if we’re able to perceive or make such judgements, even if they do exist. And then you have to wonder about the potentially muddying attributes of our own subjectivity. If objective goodness exists, is it tainted when perceived?

However, these are not the questions I see when people talk about objectivity. Usually, in the case of film, it’s measured in “plot hole” criticism, a particularly nasty bit of internet culture that serves to train people how to be artless bores. The less nasty corollary in board gaming is probably around the concept of “balance”. I’ve become less and less convinced that balance is a clear concept to understand in terms of desirability and I’ve tried to stay away from incorporating it into my reviews until I can investigate further.

Some Things I Think Are True

Here are some things I think are true. I hope they’ll serve to illuminate my perspective.

-Reviewers should be optimistic. They should go into a game hoping that it will be enjoyable.

-Good criticism is aspirationally empathetic–the author seeks to communicate their thoughts and feelings in such a way that the reader can understand on an intellectual and emotional level.

-Because of this, critics ought to read other critics.

-Good criticism is still good when you completely disagree with what they’re saying.

-Good criticism is still good regardless of if you read it before or after you’ve played the game.

-I do not understand the appeal of reviews that spend most of their time going over information that’s easily found on the game’s BGG summary or rulebook.

-I also don’t understand the appeal of video reviews over written reviews.

-I very much realize that I will always be in the minority about that

-The idea that criticism by definition is academic, technical, and obtuse is to ignore a ton of great criticism. I don’t have to fit into a “school of thought” to call myself a critic. 

-The idea that we need a shared language with which we can talk about games before we can do so intelligently is a bit overstated. Communication and language is amazingly pliable.

-That said, the efforts Shalev and Engelstein are making to solidify a shared language around board games are fantastic.

-Humility is fundamental to argument. If you don’t open yourself up to the possibility of being wrong, you’re wasting everyone’s time. I have to remind myself of this a lot.

Call to Action

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably agreeing with at least some of what I’m saying. If so, I challenge you to really think about what kind of board game reviewers you’d like to support, and then do so. Obviously I’d like you to support The Thoughtful Gamer, but if there’s someone else who really digs into games and contributes positively to the critical conversation you prefer more, support them! Give them a shout-out on social media, chip in a dollar or two on their patreon, or just let them know when you read/watch something you find interesting.

Personally, I support Dan Thurot, Cardboard Clash, Meeple Like Us, and the Ludology Podcast, though I may change that up at some point if my reading/listening habits change. I think they’re all fantastic, though, and worth checking out if you haven’t yet.

The main point is that if you find a part of board game media you enjoy, try to lift those people up through your actions, monetary or otherwise. Let’s make the critical conversation more robust.

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