Stop Writing Flat Reviews

I think a lot about how to review board games. It’s what I do. I’m a bit obsessive. This particular topic has been on my mind a lot over the last few months. I fully admit that I often fail to meet the standards for which I’m about to argue, but please allow me to make this humble plea: stop writing flat game reviews.

What’s a flat review? It’s one that has no perspective; no conviction. It’s the kind of review that tries to be everything for everyone and therefore fails to be anything at all. I’m not thinking of any people or any reviews in particular, so please don’t think I’m “subtweeting” here. I actually waited until I forgot any specific reviews that upset me to write this because I didn’t want to attack anyone in particular. 

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a wonderful article/rant a few years ago imploring film critics to actually write about filmmaking itself rather than the content of the film. He writes: 

“During any given week it’s possible to read tens of thousands of words of evaluation and analysis about this show or that movie, in reputable mainstream publications with strict editorial standards and on personal blogs where writers are theoretically free to write about whatever they want, in any manner they choose, without ever coming across one sentence that delves into form in any detail.”

Board game criticism suffers from a similar problem. While there is a good amount of discussion about the form of games–the pieces that combine to make it what it is–there is hardly any analysis about how those pieces impact the experience of playing the game. Typically the relationship between the game and the experience is stated plainly: “there were a lot of worker placement spots and therefore a lot of decisions.” I believe the problem isn’t recognizing form, but an anemic understanding of it.

I don’t think anything illustrates this problem better than the lazy “if you like x you’ll like this game” statement. As with most lies there’s a kernel of truth. Certainly people often have genre or style preferences, making them more likely to enjoy a game with those elements (or more willing to overlook other flaws). And certainly there are many games that are reminiscent of other games, making the comparison natural.

But I’ve heard nonsense like “if you like auctions you’ll like this game!” because it contained auctions. What absolute drivel. It’s insulting; worse than just saying the game contains auctions because you then presume that all of your readers who like auctions will like any auction game regardless of its other qualities. 

The core problem is the assumption that your job as a reviewer is to try to predict what people will like, which is an impossible task. It’s also approximated better elsewhere. Sales numbers and BGG ratings are a better indication of what’s broadly popular. Previews, the BGG page, or the rulebook will do a better job of providing facts about the game. Space for the critic is elsewhere, in the rich ground where you poke and prod at “why” and “how” instead of “what”.

A throttling framework is another sign of flat reviewing. Why handicap yourself from the start with a points system that assigns certain values to art, rulebook quality, “fun”, and mouthfeel? Or, even worse, give them all the same numerical weight? Is that actually how you perceive games? Have you never played a brilliant, ugly game? Have you never had the experience of playing a game that’s pedestrian by all measures, but nonetheless manages to charm you? If the quality of a game is merely the sum of a number of criteria, why play games at all?

The final bone I have to pick is with those who advocate for relentless positivity, to the point of what I would consider deception. I’ve seen the following question multiple times among an online group of board game reviewers: “what do I do if I absolutely hate the game?”. And I’ve seen the following answer each time: “find pros and cons as best you can–there’s an audience for every game, even if you dislike it”. 

Three problems: 1. A review is not merely a list of pros and cons out of context. That’s incomplete information. 2. You do not have an obligation to spin your review for those who would potentially enjoy the game if they played it. 3. Why hesitate before giving a negative review in the first place? Isn’t that valuable information?

The core motivation for hesitancy is important, of course. If it’s a conflict of interest with the publisher, that’s a clear problem, and one I’ve discussed at length. If it’s simply feeling bad about the idea of speaking poorly about someone’s creation–I get it. It sucks. But it’s part of the job. 

But if you’re hesitant because you think that every review should be positive to a degree, either because you’re dedicated to the idea of “positivity” in the abstract or because of the nameless, hypothetical reader who would enjoy the game, you’re sacrificing truth and honesty to a lesser god. You’re flattening yourself down to an inoffensive caricature. Fight the timidity! Hold yourself to a higher standard!

Overreaction in the opposite direction, where you court controversy and spew negativity for its own sake, is equally bad. It’s cynical and self-serving, an attempt to push a brand and make people feel bad in the process. Seek joy.

There’s space for great criticism that’s beyond a product description. Board games engage the mind and body in such a wide variety of ways. At their best, games create some of our fondest memories. I’ve learned more about who I am as a person and a thinker because of board games. I’ve learned more about psychology, economics, history, and philosophy because of board games. They deserve better than a soulless list of qualities. I say this to myself as much as any of you: stop writing flat game reviews.

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3 thoughts on “Stop Writing Flat Reviews”

  1. Good stuff Marc. I agree. I think this is one of the things that attracts me to most reviews by Shut up & Sit down; they usually take some time out to try to figure out what the emotional result is of the mixture of mechanics, theme, quality, etc. If I want to get a quick idea about a game and have an expert opinion, I’ll go Tom Vasel, with its rigid formula of intro, obligatory component-drop, gameplay, components & thoughts. SUSD’s form is much more free and that’s important – some game-reviews need to be handled differently.

  2. Hey Marc, I love that you’re pushing us all to be better. But I don’t think a review is flat merely because you can offer positives to a game you didn’t like.

    I think most people who review games regularly already have a bit of self-selection going when you play a game. Most of us are not even going to play a game if we’re not at least somewhat interested in it. So something attracted you to that game, and I think it’s fair and valid to share those points, even if the end result was a game you didn’t enjoy. And you should absolutely share those reasons as well.

    1. I don’t think we disagree. Ultimately I think you should speak to the experience you had, not speculate about what others might like about it. So if you anticipated something being great but it wasn’t, talk about that. If there’s one aspect of the game that’s really cool but it’s overshadowed by the flaws, tell me.

      What I’m talking about is forcing yourself to shoe-horn in positives you don’t actually see in the game for the sake of positivity. That’s refusing to take an honest position.

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