A little while ago I played Small World for what had to be the fiftieth time. I’ve enjoyed Days of Wonder’s best game since it came out almost five years ago, across a handful of expansions, all sorts of player counts, and a completely alternate version of the game. After you play any game for that long you begin to notice all of its little peculiarities. I began noticing these in Small World a while ago. For one thing, it seems strange that the victory points are totally trackable, since one of the elements that arises in the game is convincing people that they should attack someone else. That shouldn’t even be an ambiguity, because what people score each turn is open information. I also noticed that turn order becomes kind of important, especially in the late game. The people going first have to do a little bit of defense so that the later players aren’t able to just cherry-pick everything, since the last player doesn’t need to worry at all about positioning in the final turn.
These elements of Small World are well-documented, and tend to show up in a lot of similar games. In particular, trackable information that is then hidden from the players is an irritation for more analytical gamers, who perceive it to be an advantage for players with a good memory. I won’t deny that these issues exist, but the odd thing is that they have never once been an actual problem in practice. They exist in a theoretical realm, but they have never been an issue in any game I’ve played. No doubt this is a function of the groups with whom I play Small World. That game in particular is a casual one. I like to introduce it to people who aren’t game night regulars. Throw in the fact that I am most certainly not one of those analytical gamers, and the problems with Small World become completely irrelevant.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in reviewing board games is figuring out how much of a game’s success hinges on your group. With any other form of entertainment or art, there is an element of objectivity. You may bring your own experience and bias to the new Captain America movie, but you are responding to essentially the same experience as everyone else, whatever that response may be. (I’m generalizing a bit, but bear with me.) In board gaming this is far more ambiguous. A game is nothing more than a pile of components until someone reads the rules. In other words, understanding the rules dictates the experience. Miss one thing and everything changes. Gamers are always tweaking games to make the experience more enjoyable. Combine that with a group of people who are each far more complex than the game they are playing, and the variability of this particular medium is boggling.
If a critic isn’t careful, he or she can walk into a buzzsaw with this aspect. This is especially true of board game criticism, because for good or ill it has grown up on the internet. No board game article exists without a list of comments where people agree and disagree. Not only is the game itself variable, now the entire discourse is shaped by the biases of every reader. Many times I have commented on a game, and then I’ve read a response that wondered why it didn’t work for whichever group out in Utah or Poland or wherever. I will sometimes try to craft a response, but it’s hard to type anything beyond “who the heck knows?”
So how heavily should this kind of thing figure into a review or a discussion of a game? Because taken to its logical conclusion, are we really just reviewing a game group more than the game itself? In an informal setting, the response to complaints like those I mentioned from Small World is usually something to the effect of “don’t play with people who do that.” That’s a dismissive answer to a legitimate question, but on another level it’s silly to point out what doesn’t work in a game. I mean, any game can fail with any group. I’ve played some crappy games of Cosmic Encounter in my life, and I’ve had fun playing 7 Wonders. Both games rise and fall on the strengths of their groups.
Perhaps the key here is that even if I had fun playing 7 Wonders all those times with very good friends, I would have still preferred that we played something like Nexus Ops. The game facilitated some social interaction, or at least didn’t get in the way of it, but I sensed that interaction would have been much better if I’d been better engaged with the game. At least on a personal level, I sensed something objective in the middle of that experience. It’s hard to qualify, but even as I had fun it was in spite of what we were playing.
Of course I’m speaking almost totally in a theoretical sense here. No critic worth their salt will get bogged down in such ambiguities. You pick your own viewpoint, and make your biases and situation clear through your voice and words. But as I played with those Heroic Leprechauns, I realized that the game I had enjoyed for five years was perhaps working better than it had the right to. And then I started thinking of how many games function that way, and it made me thankful to be in such a rich hobby. The human element is what makes games interesting in practice as well as in theory.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.