There are several damning points of failure that undermine serious writing and analysis of tabletop games, deep-striking notions such as subjective experience and the sublimation of the media to social interaction threaten to render games criticism invalid or even irrelevant. Although these factors are often not addressed by most self-styled amateur games reviewers, who are content to provide readers with a summary of rules and product qualities bookended by a thin statement establishing credibility and a noncommittal opinion, they weigh heavily on the writer seeking to evaluate games as a viable medium of expression. But how do you critically and comparatively assess a design such as Chaostle, which is a regressive Neanderthal of a rules set, when you have fun playing it and it meets its design goals? How do we value impeccably designed games such as Caylus or Princes of Florence that aren’t fun to play on paper, but your group makes them come alive with trash talk and metagame narrative? How do we account for a game like Castle Ravenloft, where one group completely loves it while another hates it and yet another is split down the middle, causing at least three distinctly different instances of the game to occur?
Some of the challenge in writing about games can be explained by the experiential argument and the idea that who you play games with is more significant than the design itself. The volatile nature of games like Cosmic Encounter or Battlestar Galactica, where the rules serve as guidelines for a highly fluid and player-driven experience, creates dissonance in the concept of providing solid, immutable criticism of these kinds of games. But I think there’s something that cuts a little closer to the quick and very nearly shuts down the possibility (and utility) of games criticism beyond the kinds of bland, objective product reviews that many unfortunately favor. And it’s something that is far more significant than the facile different-strokes-for-different-folks arguments against subjectivity that suggest that what is “fun” for one person may or may not be “fun” for another. If you’re writing objective reviews about subjective experiences, it’s time to put the pencil down anyway.
In the past, I’ve written very subjectively about games as an authorial medium- I do believe that the designer or designers’ marks are evident in any game design, and there are author-level reasons that we can differentiate between a Knizia rules set and a Hamblen one. Yet I’ve also written about how the act of playing games is an alchemical transmutation wherein the lead of process, material, and stricture is transformed into the gold of narrative, player engagement, and entertainment. The players, I’ve stated, are in fact engaging in the creative act implicitly with the author by effectively completing the design through play. Without the act of play, a game is a raw material. It needs us to be completed.
This concept of engaging in the creation of games through play along with the subjectivity of experience and the question of who the players are and how they play punches right through the idea of viable games criticism. Games require a very specific kind of executive spectatorship, which demands a level of participation well beyond observation, internalization, or reception. By effectively completing the design through execution, we are as much responsible for the final product as the designer is. The designer’s role is to provide us, the players, with enough of a toolkit and guidelines to finish their work. How we go about doing this often affects how we receive or enjoy games, and that can make identifying some of the more concrete, “criticize-able” components of a design trickier- or even possibly irrelevant.
The best game of Descent I ever played was with a couple of friends and I was the Overlord. Throughout the entire game, I spoke in a terrible Bill Cosby impression. Rules were flaunted or forgotten but we just rolled with it. We had a blast. But I don’t like Descent as a design, and I somehow doubt that Kevin Wilson intended for us to complete his game in this way. We made the design our own. The worst game of Arkham Horror I ever played was with a group of milquetoast Eurogamers. They didn’t read the text on the cards, instead just skipping right down to the game effect. This undoubtedly undermined Richard Launius’ intent for the game to be a highly narrative, storytelling game. But I like Arkham Horror, and I like the intent of the design. The instance of play was the problem.
So does the responsibility for Descent’s success and Arkham Horror’s failure rest on the design, the designer, or the players? What do you actually review or critically engage? Games aren’t like films, books, or records, which are the same every time you encounter them. Those are dictated experiences that we receive and have no engagement on a creative level with them. They exist even if we do not observe them. But a game session cannot exist unless we execute the rules and complete the creative process. Even most video games are more specifically scripted, directed, and structured even under the guise of open world environments and multiplayer anarchy. Because we help make them exist, a good board game can be played badly, and bad board games can transcend their shortcomings thanks to great players and socialization. Games criticism and writing, quite honestly, cannot account for this peculiarity.
Nor can it account for how a game can be good or bad between every player, every group, and every session. I’ve heard it argued that games shouldn’t be reviewed for literally years after their release, that reviewers should have a hundred games under their belt before putting pen to paper. My argument there is that a game that takes a hundred plays to “get good” was never worth playing in the first place. Most reviewers, myself included, will play a game multiple times before writing about it to try to capture a range of experiences with it. But I’ll be dead level honest- there have been times when I’ve gone back to a game that I’ve given high marks to- or even the Game of the Year prize- and I’ve wondered what the hell I was thinking. But that, again, calls into question where the fault or change of value has occurred. It’s one thing for your opinion or taste to slightly change- it’s another to play a favorite game and have a terrible session where suddenly its faults are laid bare because of how it was played more than how it was written.
So do we write reviews that are ephemeral session reports, ad hoc retellings and analysis of specific instances of play? Is that even useful to a reader? I hate session reports and I cringe any time someone starts to spin off into some descriptive anecdote of a game they played the other day. But the truth is, every time we play a game is another instance of its completion. But the dedication and work that would be required to effectively write a series of reviews per covered title simply isn’t worth it, not even for the rare professional writer reviewing board games.
The best we can do is to approximate a general experience of completing a design through play, which is what I’ve always tried to do in my own games writing. It’s always been important to me to express something of the experience of playing a game and connecting that to language and descriptions that work in explaining the critical successes and failures of other media. It’s always made sense to me to use terms like pacing, dramaturgy, measure, and narrative in describing board games. But even this highly subjective position speaks more to how I, Michael Barnes, play games and engage in that final creative stage than anything approaching a concrete analysis of a game’s more immutable traits.
It may very well be that the reason that there has never been serious writing about board games- no professional press, no academic writing- is that it may not be possible for board games to be properly subject to critical rigor specifically because they are games. You can’t really review baseball, but it’s a game and there are good baseball games and bad baseball games played. No one expects to see a starred or Metacritic rated review of an individual baseball game or of all of baseball- instead, other particulars like coaching decisions, player performance, and drama are what are talked about afterwards. Not the rules, process, or an overall appraisal of the merit of the entirety of the sport. But then again, baseball isn’t an authored product like games are, and playing a baseball game isn’t the same as the reproductive act of playing a board game or video game.
For years I’ve tried to develop my own critical language and ways of discussing board games and it strikes me that the reason I’ve hit certain walls or limitations is directly because of this key element of recreating an experience by enacting a set of authored rules with proscribed components. And lately, I’ve been wondering if games criticism is actually impossible because of how instanced and fluid the alchemical ascension of rules into play is by nature. I don’t have an answer to the question “is games criticism irrelevant or impossible”, but it’s one that I hope to see explored more by other writers and it’s one that I believe will mark my future reviews and editorials. But rest assured, neither I nor any games writer worth reading will give up and write product descriptions with feeble purchasing advice and call it criticism. The day that happens will truly be the day board games criticism died.
38 thoughts to “Cracked LCD- The Day Board Games Criticism Died”
I’m not a board gamer, but that was an excellent read.
I think there’s a lot that could be applied to thinking about video games as well- the degree of participation and this idea of completing the creative process is definitely different, however.
How is it different than, say, a multiplayer focused video game. Would reviewing Left 4 Dead or League of Legends not have the same caveats?
It is a fair point though. Some games I want to play die because it doesn’t ring for our group. Other games we play completely differently than the design. While many ‘serious’ board gamers decry Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne they are some of my groups favorites. We have dug down, found the strategic depths, and now play them our way. Carcassone is a game of one-upmanship for us, and TTR is a knife fight in Paris. For us they are high interaction, quick, engaging games. For other groups they can be completely dull (having played with some of those same milquetoast euro types).
How do you review that? Well write your experience, and view. This is why I like NHS and Tom Chick. Your opinion (even if I disagree) is available. Having read your work, I know how your view will overlay onto mine. I use that to figure where my own opinion stands. For board games there is little correction in opinion, if it plays well for you/ your normal group it will likely fare pretty well with mine. So it isn’t an unsolvable problem. Much like games require input from the consumer (player) game criticism requires input from the consumer (reader). By actively engaging with your work, I can see how that applies to me. If I don’t put that in your criticism is useless to me, much like not putting effort into a game will render it equally inert.
Exactly, I do think you see some of the same failure points in reviewing something like Left 4 Dead. Speaking personally, I’ve had sessions where I would have rated that game one star and then others where it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing video games.
And then, how do you effectively write criticism about Minecraft, an open world game, or something like The Sims at least in terms of the gameplay, when what goes on is so dependent on the player? For me, criticism of Skyrim falls apart because so much of depends on what the individual does in the game, and I think so much of why people like the game has to do with what they do in it- not the design itself, which is really quite crap.
AngryOgre’s point about MOBAs and MMORPGs is well taken here as well…I don’t see how you could apply any kind of critical rigor to an MMORPG other than to give a very malleable, potentially irrelevant precis of events, mechanics, and possibilities.
“The way we played the game”…that’s where a lot of criticism simply collapses.
I completely agree – especially with multiplayer focused genres like MMOs and MOBAs. My college roommates and I would create games out of dungeon runs in WoW – we would try to pull off the tank, take on several dozen mobs at once, top the DPS meters as a healer, and other stupid tasks. It was great fun. However, its difficult to say how much of that was because of the way we played the game or because of the flexibility of Blizzard’s design.
At lot this piece could also be applied to pen and paper RPGs, where the gaming group has a massive influence as to how the game plays out.
For me at least, there is only one imperative, and that is to be entertaining. A review is not a readers’ buying guide, it is a piece of writing triggered by and conveying the game experience.
If you give a good impression of what playing the game feels like – no matter how individual the experience – then you are doing your readers a service. If you choose to impart a judgement on the game, then so long as you provide the audit trail, you’ve done your job.
It seems to me that the reason to review a thing, no matter what the thing, is to compare it to other things from the same category. The ultimate goal being to aid a consumer in their decision to purchase said thing. The most commonly used method is to take elements common to all the things in that category and compare them in some sort of objective fashion.
Look at automotive reviews. They compare tangible metrics like MPG, trunk space, acceleration, safety ratings, and so on and then they also offer more subjective criticisms like “wow factor” and “fun to drive”, which is where the comparison stops being a list of stats and starts being a review. I think there is a lot of room for board game criticism in this model.
The first thing to do is figure out the common metrics that exist amongst board games that can be somewhat objectively measured that might be of interest to a person reading the review. Here are some that I find important with regards to board games:
1. Production Quality. How well is the game constructed? Are the pieces/cards/board/etc made to last or are they flimsy? Is there good use of attractive design elements or is it pretty bland? Is the box going to disintegrate after I open it four times?
2. Set Up Time. The first time I open the box, how long will it be before I can start playing? Do I have to punch out markers? Is there any assembly involved? I’m talking physical preparation to play the game, not learning the rules. How about subsequent plays? After the initial opening does how long to set up the board?
3. Storage. Do all the pieces fit back in the box in an orderly fashion? God I hate it when you are expected to just toss the cards in the flat box or wrap them with a rubber band. Or disassemble large pieces.
4. Completeness. (that word is lame though) Does the game come with everything it needs? What will I be expected to provide in order to play. Pencils? Paper? Dice?
5. Rules/Instructions. This is a big one. Are the rules clear? How many arguments ensue during play regarding ambiguous rules? Obviously rules don’t have to be simple but they need to be well communicated. How long did it take to learn how to play the game? Was it a frustrating roadblock? It doesn’t matter if it is a drinking game or a tactical strategy game, if the rules suck then it will be harder to enjoy.
6. Setting/Playtime. Is this a casual, party game or a serious bizness tactical game? Can a game be completed in 15 minutes or 3 hours? Should I play it at a party or set up a “game night” with friends dedicated to just this game?
7. Level. Who is this for? Hardcore? Causal? Families? There is probably some cross over with number 6 here but I’m just brainstorming.
So these first metrics aren’t meant to have a number that averages together for a “score” but they provide a solid base for comparison to other games. The more editorial part of the review would then be related to the fun factor.
8. The Play. Now that the numbers are out of the way the critic can describe the experience. What group did you play it with? What worked about the game? What didn’t? Was it intense or relaxed and hilarious? Did you feel like the game met its goals? Why or why not?
Then I think you finish up with a much more broad “final answer”. I’m sick of the A-F grading system and I always much preferred the “thumbs up/thumbs down” concept. Did I (the reviewer) like the game? Yes or No. Or if you must, throw in a “mixed bag” option. I don’t think you need to be concerned about your review applying to every player, that’s too much pressure. Personally, I take the reviewer into account when I’m looking at things. I whittle down reviewers due to how much their tastes seem to mirror mine. I give MUCH more weight to a game recommendation from Tycho at penny-arcade than a metacritic percentage because I know that I tend to like the same things that he does.
“Oh, Michael Barnes liked ‘Super Space Cow Dice Game’. It only got a C- from ‘Aggregate Board Game Metric’ but I’ll give it a shot because Barnes was dead on with his review of ‘Goofy Nose Roulette’.”
TL;DR: Uh, yeah, I got nothing.
But what we’re getting at here Sloth is the difference between “product review” and “critical analysis”. I think you can totally write product reviews of board games. The problem is, they’re not really criticism. I don’t write reviews to give buying advice- I never have. I write reviews to express my thoughts on games and to- hopefully- get readers to think about games in different ways and engage in conversation about them.
Most of what you listed are things that can be accomplished in product review. Really, that’s what most people want and to be honest that’s what’s the most useful to the most people.
But comparative analysis and deeper evaluation…that’s really what’s in question here.
That was all wonderfully said, Michael.
Thank you very much.
It gets even more confusing and difficult with the advent of transitions of popular and excellent board and card games for ios, which is fast becoming a workable alternative to physical pen and paper and tabletop settings. A game like summoner wars genuinely thrives on iOS, where the fact it can be played internationally and asychronously make it a poster boy for the iOS tabletop game experience (even if it made me rage more than once, damn you Xmiyux).
Case in point would be Yggdrasil, which as a tabletop game has a terrifying set up and pack up procedure involving tons of counters, dice, tokens, bags, etc. the iOS version eliminates this issue, stripping away any tedium between matches and allowing you to delve right in, arguably resulting in a far richer experience. There’s most definitely becoming a real and viable market for board games on iOS, and that alone may mean a game which was flat in physical form becomes far more alive and interesting in the virtual world.
I just wanted to comment and say as someone who has played way too many games of Summoner Wars to be healthy on the iOS and in person. I would take a face to face game over the iOS version 7 days a week.
I think Summoner Wars is one of those games that thrives when playing in person where Playdeks other games really feel better on the iOS. Since summoner Wars is confrontational and something like Ascension is not.
Which is why several of us have taken to twitter for this. It really does help to be able to go needle a person after a particularly successful turn, or bemoan the die when your units couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.
I agree have done the same thing, still doesn’t replace face to face games. I’ve never once stood up as my virtual self was watching dice rolled to hit in a key circumstance on the iOS version.
I love the iOS version don’t get me wrong but I still prefer the original.
I dunno, I just about punched the iPad a few times.
But this does speak to the differences in engagement and participation that makes F2F gaming something very different. The trade-off for me is that I’ve played Summoner Wars now more in two weeks than I ever had in two years of owning the physical game. And like Ascension, I’m getting into the deeper parts of the game quicker and getting more out of it because of the volume of play.
You should have heard my language when xmiyux ganked me with a junk ambush move, one hit kill and nothing I could have done or planned to stop it. I swore, oh boy did I swear, with a mastery of English her majesty would not have approved of. A day later I’m back into it, and being in the virtual realm is an advantage, it means I can swear and use foul nasty language and nobody has to hear me!
I’d say summoner wars, even in virtual form is very capable of illiciting adversarial feelings and setting up grudges just as effectively as the real tabletop version.
This is an interesting point, particularly because it’s very “now”. As in, today.
How much of this critical quandaray is applicable to IOS board gaming? Is there still the same sense of executive participation and is it, at the point the game becomes digital, different than what occurs on the tabletop and with face to face social situations in the mix? Is the game at that point actually a video game and not a board game?
Your answers, please.
One big differential between virtual and real life gaming, in real life one or more people take on the role of referee or arbiter of the rules, in ios games the rules are hard coded and immutable, this resolves possible disputes over subjective situations since the computer is essentially a perfect judge (or as perfect the rules are coded in). This has natural advantages and disadvantages, for example in solo yggrassil it’s a temptation to cheat or bend the rules, against the computer you must play as the designer intended, no exceptions.
The same applies to any virtual iOS game, and it does mean there’s no possible accusation of fudging or cheating. Clever tricks in ascension work because there’s a logging system so you can see exactly what your foe did, and the code guarantees correct execution and legal play, it means you know that the move is legit and can learn from it rather than argue the toss.
This can be highly beneficial, as in some games an entirely neutral referee means things like even stake tournaments become possible. However for other games, it would be impossible to imagine a game without a human referee or GM to give the game the personality that makes it come to life, any game where the DM is as integral as the players in the creation of the narrative, at this point no computer can hope to match.
Hmm…that’s an interesting way to look at it, the device-as-referee…that does away with this sense of “committee” arbitration and some of that more “gooshy” stuff that goes on in games. It’s why Cosmic is not a great candidate for IOS, but something like Summoner Wars is.
ANd I think with solo games that’s a definite advantage, like what you mentioned with Yggdrasil. Then, you start to get at if perfect arbitration actually gets closer to designer intent or not.
But yeah, you definitely miss the fun kinds of process arguments like chastising some guy for rolling his dice wrong or arguing over whether a die is cocked or not.
Absolutely, and there are a ton of games where a human arbiter is a necessity, there’s also a category where the choice between human and computer arbiter is a toss of a coin, and finally a category where for whatever reason, a computer makes a far better referee.
If I was playing ascension against someone who had a dream machine, cog maw, personal wormhole combo (and others on top) each turn would not only take time to execute, a few times I’d have to double check to make sure it’s been executed right.
Some of the more arcane mtg games I’ve played have dealt in some exceptionally tight interpretations and windows of timing concerning instants and interrupts, the kind of games I’d not be happy with anyone but a professional referee arbitrating over, the computer thankfully is more or less capable of filling this box.
Considering I’m a native blue deck player in magic, I have to understand the timing rules and be able to react appropriately at the right moment, the enforced time window in the computer version means I’m almost playing “snap” with counter spells.
On the matter of computers interpreting rules more strictly and thus being closer to design intent, I would say yes, the computer referee does allow in many cases a game to be played much closer to the designers own vision of how it should have been played to begin with. Though again, I qualify this by saying its only applicable where the computer is strictly an arbiter and referee and not a controller or narrator to the game environment.
Nice work, heathen.
I prefer heretic.
As someone who is a fellow board gamer and tries to be an informative reviewer I want to say great read.
A lot of what you wrote is the reason I despise rating games in general. I have a boatload of friends who can’t understand why I don’t like Planet Steam or Age of Empires (or whatever the heck it’s called now) which is why I’d rather just say what I like and don’t about a game and be done with it.
I find I want to spend most of my spare time working on my own games now rather then playing others.
Rating board games doesn’t work. I’ve never done it. A review that tries to quantify the experience is a failure. Wiz-War is a great example. I’ve played games where I’d rate it a 10, no questions asked. But I’ve played others where I hated it and I’d give it a 1. Does that average out to a 5, objectively?
But the design is brilliant, it’s the volatility and the uncertain experience that’s at issue.
Dune is like that too. The design is a perfect 10. But individual instances of actually playing have a pretty broad range.
And Cosmic…nah, Cosmic is always a 10. With the right people. 😉
Mr. Barnes,of course you’re wrestling with the alchemy of the play group when reviewing board games. Strive on! The control of criticism is won, not given. I’m relying on you to recognize and analyze when your experience was transcendent because, “The monster bops you with a pudding pop, take 8 damage ahhha ahahha hahhhaha,” and when the group is flat because they got together to help you hit deadline, but Charlie’s dog just died. Yes, your language is significant. The tools you bring to bear are keen. But every good scientist knows when to throw away a data point because it’s just wrong, and when to follow up because, “That’s strange…”
I think I follow you here…pudding pop?
Anyway, we’re not talking about data points when we’re talking about instances of play (sessions). We’re talking about very volatile, uncertain experiences that can be affected or altered by two, three, four, five players along a number of vectors including how they play, what their goals are in playing, what they’ve had to drink, how tired they are, how many calls from home they get, what they played before this game, and so on.
It’s not just a matter of determining or isolating anomalous sessions…because you can’t really predict when those are going to happen, at least not reliable.
Apart from playing with this guy called Fred Fredburger, who was the reason I came up with the term “Fun Murderer”. ANy game played with him automatically sucks.
I like the comparison to theatre, myself. You have a script, the technical elements, and the performances. Reading King Lear is not seeing it performed, but so many reviews of board games consider a read through the manual and a couple practice sessions to be experience enough. A really great review would gauge the importance of theme and mechanics as part of a narrative of player experience, much like actors perform a script in a way that is supported by the technical elements of the production.
The only problem is that the players are the audience in this case, or rather the reverse. It makes a review problematic, even compromised, but reviews are already that anyway.
I’ve seen the games-as-theater concept discussed before, specifcally over at F:AT. I think there’s something to it, particularly when we look at it from the players-as-audience perspective, which opens up some interesting ways of looking at how we play games. When the audience is the dramatis personae, what is really going on when you play?
The problem is that I don’t think you can equate all games to following scripts or even following a narrative trajectory, and many games- I’m thinking of something like Cosmic or Diplomacy- would really be closer to improv where you have some parameters you’re working with.
And then there’s the issue of LARPing, which is something I think Bill Abner may know more about than I. I’ve LARPed one time, the very first time Vampire: The Masquerade was ever played in public. Never again.
i hope that all critics in ‘board-and cardgameland’ will change their reviews in a) first impression b) after a few plays c) one year and many plays with different people later d) what about this game after 5 years e) heard about this one (ten years after)
the only problem is that most critics would have to admitt that their opinion can change in the course of time …..
will they ?
I’ve been reading your column for a long while, Barnes, and I think you provide the most interesting, relevant, and informative board game criticism on the net. I agree that board game reviews should strive to be more than just a list of components and a brief rundown of rulesets, and I value that you’re writing columns like these where you question the medium’s critical voice and whether board game discussion is worthwhile. It’s these sorts of examinations that help people grow as writers and as readers.
However, I don’t agree with the conclusions in this article, and I think you’re selling yourself short. What you’re saying here is that board games and video games are an experiential medium, varying drastically based on the specific instance of play, while art, music, and literature remain constant and can be critically examined. There’s some truth to this: board and video games are more flexible, they can be changed by the act of play.
But what you’re ignoring is that *every* medium is experiential. That novel you picked up may seem the same as it always was, but it’s really not. When you’re twelve and you read a Philip K Dick book, that is not the same experience as you would or will have if you read it at thirty-five. You bring your accumulated life experiences with you to inform your reading.
Movies are the same. Last spring, I was watching The Thing and Cemetery Man with a group. These are two of my favorite movies, but I just wasn’t enjoying them, and neither was the group. One person was constantly saying “this doesn’t make sense” and “this is stupid.” He overrode anyone’s chance to really engage with the films. Group experiences were brought in to inform the viewing.
This happens with paintings and sculpture, too. Even though you’re viewing a static work, your life experiences are changing what it is. That particular moment might be different because you’ve just read a book on mythology, or because you broke up with your girlfriend. Every medium, every individual viewing, is experiential, and changes as the world around it changes.
So how are any of those discussed? If they’re always changing, how do we engage them in meaningful discussion? We simply try. We take the parts that stand out to us, for good or for bad, and we try to understand them. It’s clear to everyone that Cosmic Encounter is better for having alien powers. Some people might argue it’d be better if there were only six very deep and well-balanced powers, rather than a smorgasboard of light and random ones, but it’s clear that the design is purposeful and works better than a number of different alternatives. The game doesn’t have to work amazingly every single time, it just has to work great most of the time, and not have glaring faults all of the time.
I get what you’re saying here. Knowing whether a board game is truly great after a couple of plays is difficult. You’re essentially working yourself into a philisophical argument, asking whether you can truly know whether the game was good or your group was simply right. There’s a reason philisophical arguments get tied up into such knots, and that’s because no, you can’t really know.
But the critic’s job is to make an argument or analyze an idea. The critic says “this is what I believe and why I believe it.” Maybe he starts out arguing one side and ends up arguing the other. The discussion, the working through, is what’s important.
So, I disagree with you here, and I think you’re fighting against yourself. But you are fighting, and struggling, and wrestling with the idea of what it means to be a critic, about your role and how much it matters. And I think that’s a wonderful thing, for you and your readers. So keep on trashin’, Barnes.
Interesting article, great response!
Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful, thought-provoking comment. This sort of response is the reward for writing these kinds of things.
Your comment about experience- in specific about PKD- is definitely resonant. I read a lot of PKD when I was a kid and almost none of it was as profound at it was when I read through every novel again back in 2009, because those instances of experience were differently informed and occuring in a different context.
Watchmen is like this too. When I read it in 1986, its meaning to me was mostly tied to its close-to-the-surface subtexts. When I read it in 1999, the part with Rorschach and the psychiatrist was what registered the most with me because of what I was going through at the time- enough that I got the butterfly/dog’s head tattooed on my arm. When I read Watchmen in 2010, after my son was born, it was the scenes with Dr. Manhattan on Mars that had the most meaning.
Circling this back to games, it does speak to this kind of instanced occurence, but I think there is a difference in actually completing a work by enacting it and recieving/interpreting/internalizing it.
The group experience comment really registers for me too…and, believe it or not, specifically about Cemetary Man (Dellamore, Dellamorte thank you very much). I _adore_ that film. When it was released to theaters here in the US, I took some friends that absolutely HATED it and ragged on it the whole time. The experience of seeing a favorite film was spoiled by the hell of others.
And that’s something we’ve all experienced with games at some point, no doubt.
But I still think that a game is unique in that it’s really, when you get down to it, a performance piece. The theater comment above speaks to this, that a game’s rules and material are effectively a script and our interpretive act completes it. But there’s plenty of theater criticism. That said, theater criticism is often about specifically the performance. Nobody goes to see a performance of Macbeth and reviews the play itself- they review the costumes, the players, the interpretation. It’s _literary_ critics that write about the words, so to speak.
And it does go back to what I said- a game doesn’t actually exist without play. It requires play to be complete, even more so than a drama.
I think you are right, that the critic’s role in this kind of situation with board games is to give a “what I believe” kind of statement. You give the reader your experience and enough evidence for them to believe that your experience with it is indicative of an expected level of quality, merit, or value. It really should be the reader’s responsibility to take that and understand that at an instance/session level that even the best-reviewed game could play badly.
Catstronaut is onto something, and he more than covered my sentiments (and much more eloquently too!).
I think this issue that critics face exists across media. At a philosophical level, what it objective vs. subjective breaks down entirely anyway, at which point we can throw our hands up and just get on with saying what we think; which is what is important.
As Catstronaut said, “we simply try.”
Even more so, I think deeper criticism of boardgames is possible because I’ve already seen its existence. Your writing and that of other bloggers/self-proclaimed critics, despite all their differences in style and approach, IS criticism that IS happening. There is no objective right way to do criticism, it’s all possible.
I board game a lot and with many separate groups of friends. In fact I keep all of my games in gallon size zip lock bags (saves space) that I cart around in the trunk of my car for any spur of the moment gaming opportunity that might crop up.
Who you play with is probably the most important thing to determining how fun a game is. I’ve played even basic games such as The Great Dalmuti and experienced hilarity with one group and a kind of strained drudgery playing with another.
Mechanics are always important, but a more flexible creative group can work around sloppy mechanics and create a fun interactive experience. However even the best games mechanically can be miserable if you play them with stern concentration and an almost zealous nitpicking over the rules. Not to say the rules should be bent, but nothing ruins the mood faster than making people upset over them.
I read reviews to see if the game mechanics promote a playstyle I enjoy and might be something I’m interested in. If this turns out to be the case I generally turn to scanning play sessions. More than the typical board game review I find a play session descriptions along with their impressions on the potential of the mechanics to be the most worthwhile. Also similar recommendations help me kind of triangulate where the game falls within my realm of preferences. If I read that Troyas is somewhere in the vein of 7 Wonders meets Agricola than my interest is piqued and I would delve further into peoples play sessions over standard reviews.
This is a fascinating discussion. You’ve raised an interesting point regarding the players engaging in a creative act and the game being incomplete without the players participating in said act. The parallel to theater, as pointed out, is good and a useful idea to examine.
While reading though, I was struck more by the parallel to music performance (probably because that’s my background and the use of the word player is common there too.) Outside of a performance, the music is really just a set of instructions on a page (or in the mind) waiting to be executed by the player(s). It’s only when they engage in the act of playing the music does it exist as sound. (Recordings of music are, on some level, just a record of a performance by some players.)
A lot of music has very specific instructions and will yield nearly identical results every time, given a level of competence by the players. This is very different from a game, where the instructions set up a framework for interaction rather than a specific series of events that unfold the same way every time.)
Some music though, jazz for example, is more like a game in terms of providing a framework that allows the players freedom to engage with the work and affect the outcome. This is the parallel that struck me while reading.
Now, move from this to critical writing. A critic writing about a recent performance of a new jazz work will need to address both the songwriting and the performance of the players. Both are crucial to understanding the event. Writing just about the great solos misses out on the structure that gives them shape and writing just about the songwriting misses out on the performances that bring it to life and make it special (or not.)
The difficulty in bringing this to writing about boardgames is that the audience is almost always the players (leaving aside the World Series of Poker). As you say, so much of the success of a game is dependent on the players. Your Euro friends who missed the point of Arkham Horror are probably great when Agricola hits the table. How to include this in the writing of criticism is tricky business.
(I hope all of this makes sense. I need to cut it short as my baby is waking up and needs to eat…)
Thanks for thinking about this issue and caring enough to write on it.
No, thank you for taking the time to respond and respond well.
The music performance issue came up over at F:AT as well, and I think that’s definitely a valid way to look at this. Take “Tristan und Isolde” and hand it to five different conductors and five different groups of musicians and you’ll get five different interpretations. On more pop terms, you could have five different bands from five different genres cover “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and you’ll get five different versions of it. Heck, if you listen to five different takes of Joy Division performing it, they’re all different.
So there is this notion of performance…playing a game is a performance in many ways, isn’t it? The problem occurs when you’ve got these specific instructions…and they’re given to a group of improv players.
Not to turn this into a discussion of music, but Terry Riley’s “In C” may be a better example. The players are given very specific instructions about what to play, but a very open framework in which to play. The piece is very different every time, while still being true to the composer’s intent (now there’s a loaded word…)
But yes, I think the idea of performing is relevant here. The quality, relationship, and experience of the performers (players) have a major impact on the game and its perceived quality.
Just have to salute you for bringing Terry Riley into a discussion about board games!
If you take “Tristan…” to five different orchestras, there are going to be five different versions of “Tristan…”. Five different versions of one, and only one thing: “Tristan…”, and anyone who knows this opera will tell the same, in any of the five concerts.
I think in boardgames happens similarly. When you play Cosmic Encounter, is always different, and in some way, always the same, because we all agree that we are playing one and the same game, in this case Cosmic Encounter. Then, I think there are aspects that can, and some that cannot, change. I think that the act of a great game reviewer is to recognize and describe these two kind of aspects. And this is possible, because those things are subjective experience, that are very objective, because they are happening right there inside of you. It takes a great effort and practice to be able to tell others those subjective experiences. Here is where we need a good reviewer. And you are an amazing one. I can prove that, because I have been following your reviews for some years now, and me and my group of friends experience most games very much as you and your group do. You have that knowledge and language that is needed in this case.
Thanks for all your game reviews, I was very dissapointed when they took them all out of gameshark.
I am always waiting every thursday to read what you have to tell. Because I know that you are going to be telling a lot of very objective truth about boardgames.