Reviewers: Describe The Game For What It Is

If there’s anything I’ve become more aware of in my nearly five(!) years of reviewing board games, it’s that I don’t need to feel obligated to cover every single aspect of any game. If the point of reviewing is to communicate the experience I had playing the game, some parts are simply irrelevant to that task. Even when I started out with the intention of doing game reviewing differently, I still felt like I needed to provide a comprehensive view of the game I was covering.

I think I also had an idea that if I wrote long reviews I’d be taken more seriously. I definitely don’t care about that much anymore.

I say this as a prologue to our topic today, which concerns how board game reviewers ought to describe the games they’re reviewing. This came up for discussion a couple of weeks ago on twitter, where someone noted that it’s boring and too inside-baseball to describe a game as a “set collection worker placement euro” and instead should say something like “you’re a viking setting off to pillage and plunder!” (not their exact words but I don’t feel like digging through twitter to find the exact quotation).

If you’re a publisher, yeah, you should definitely not make your game sound dull as a rock to anyone not really into whatever particular sub-genre your game is housed within. But a reviewer isn’t doing advertisement, so what makes the game sound most appealing is irrelevant. (And if you are doing advertisement, perhaps reconsider your self-description of “reviewer”). If the review is supposed to communicate what the game is, then describe the game as it is not as it wants to be. 

The fact is, some games are simply theme-less even if they, through the art and whatnot, are supposed to take place in a setting. If you never think about the theme while playing, then why describe the game that way? It’s simply inaccurate. Let’s look at two examples from my own writing on two famously theme-less games (and boy is it painful to read my old writing). 

One of my earliest reviews was of the bland hit Splendor. Here I turn the discussion of theme into a poorly-executed joke when I describe it and then say, “I’ll ignore all of that, much like you will about 10 seconds into the game.” If I were to re-review Splendor I probably wouldn’t mention it at all, like with my review of Castles of Burgundy, where I instead describe it as a game of “genius mathematical symmetry”.

Because the fact is that if someone said Castles of Burgundy puts you in the shoes of an French aristocrat they’d be simply misrepresenting what the game is. Okay, maybe they do get drawn into the theme of the game, somehow. Disclaimers for subjectivity and all that. But it’s like summing up Hitler as “cranky”. Yeah, sure, you’re not technically wrong, but you’re wrong in all the important ways.

That said, being too inside-baseball and technical with your jargon can certainly be a problem. I made the decision when starting The Thoughtful Gamer that I wouldn’t worry too much about hobby-specific terminology, both because of the game I knew I’d be focusing on (mostly those primarily “hobbyists” only play) and because I’ve gained a lot of knowledge in this life looking up a word or phrase someone wrote that I hadn’t heard of before. For others, being more language-accessible is the right choice.

I suppose this entire issue is somewhat unique to gaming. You go to an epic pirate movie and it may be debatably epic but it’s probably not going to be a stately courtroom drama where everyone just happens to be wearing pirate costumes. The next game I’m reviewing, however, is supposedly about fighting fantasy dwarves but it’s really just a bidding game where you’re collecting colors and numbers.

I’m rambling on. The point is that if there’s anything we’re doing here as reviewers it’s trying to describe the game as it actually is. So do that. Pay no heed to the marketing copy; they’ve got their own thing going on over there in marketing-land. We cut past the nonsense and find the truth of the thing. That’s the goal, at least.

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