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  • Essays
  • Critical Reviews - What's the Difference Between a Reviewer and a Critic

Critical Reviews - What's the Difference Between a Reviewer and a Critic

O Updated
(Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

I always wondered what the difference is between a reviewer and a critic, or even a review and a critique. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, sometimes they're describing two different things, but very often they seem to be used for things that have a lot of overlap and are very similar in many ways. In this article, I'm trying to grapple with those terms and decide for myself what I think they mean.

Let me start with review and critique, which I think are quite clearly defined – even though it’s not quite as simple as that, as we’ll see in a bit. Anyway, both are a way of evaluating and assessing a piece of work, which could be a piece of art, the product of someone’s creative work, a scientific discovery or something else. Reviews and critiques alike both look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the piece of work in question.

The main difference is, that a critique is written by an expert in the field, who will assess the piece of work much more objectively and usually from a more technical viewpoint, often with the aim of offering constructive advice and suggestions, while a review is often written by a layperson, which isn’t meant in a negative way, but simply describes that the person hasn’t had any formal training in the field, and a review is often more subjective and often results in an overall summary of the piece of work, usually a grade or rating of some sort.

In the context of board games, a critique could be something a game designer tells another game designer after a playtesting session. It could also be a game developer explaining to a game designer how to improve their game or how to make it fit into a publisher’s catalogue.

A review, on the other hand, is something I write about a game, where I explain how the game made me feel when I played it, what bits I liked and what I didn’t – and why.

Of course, some reviewers know so much about board games that they are experts, but in the end, they’re still writing reviews, not critiques – except, of course, when they don’t. There are people in the board game community who could probably be board game designers, that’s how much they know about it. They actually create critiques of board games and not reviews. They explain how a mechanism works really well, for example, comparing it to similar implementations in other games and really analysing the game from a more functional viewpoint. They draw conclusions about why a game was, or wasn’t, enjoyable based on that much more objective analysis. So even though these people often call themselves reviewers, they’re actually experts in the field and what they write, or the videos they make, are critiques and not reviews.

Yet, for the person reading or watching them, they’re still very useful to decide whether a game is for them or not – and I think that’s quite an important point. As a consumer of board games, a review and a critique can be equally useful to me. Both will allow me to decide what’s good or bad about a game and decide if I want to buy it or not.

Now, I’ve already talked about reviewers and basically defined them as those people who write reviews. Yet, that doesn’t mean that critiques are written by critics. To me, what differentiates a critic from a reviewer is whether they do it professionally or not. Of course, that’s not completely true and the phrase “everyone is a critic” doesn’t help here either.

Yet, on the whole, someone who writes reviews professionally is going to be a critic. That would imply that everyone else is a reviewer, and I think many people would actually not agree with this, at least not fully, when we think about people writing reviews for a product they bought – and I don’t mean the so-called influencers or professional review writers who get paid to write a review in order to boost a product’s sales.

I’m talking about you and me who just bought a new set of headphones and who have fallen in love with them – or really hate them – and then take to the reseller’s website and leave a glowing – or passionate – review. Technically, that would make us all reviewers, but I think many of us wouldn’t call these people as such. I certainly don’t consider myself a reviewer just because I left a sentence or two on a reseller’s website.

However, someone who regularly writes, or films, a review of a game and shares it with the world is, in my view, a reviewer. If they do that work professionally, I would call them a critic – but that doesn’t automatically mean they also write critiques, because even critics usually write reviews.

So, there you have it. That’s how I’m trying to grapple with the terms, and I hope I haven’t confused things further. What do you think about those terms? How would you define them? Does it matter to you if something is a review or a critique? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear how other people use these terms.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #313474 25 Aug 2020 09:48
When they write the history of "The Rise & Fall Of Boardgaming from 1990 to 2020" I hope they do a chapter on how every boardgaming nitwit suddenly felt empowered enough to consider themselves a "reviewer." In the good old days people self-policed their area of expertise & didn't attempt to present themselves as almighty scions of knowledge across all aspects of human endeavor. In the 90's I wrote punk rock record reviews because in the 90's I was punk as fuck. But I never decided to deem myself a reviewer of jazz just because I bought Miles Davis Birth of the Cool.

Tom Vasel's enthusiasm for gaming & cheery demeanor has gone a long way towards propagating the BGG mentality of "just say something nice!" where generally genial people decide to "review" what they buy, and SURPRISE, it's all super duper awesome! Like O.K. wrote above, there is unfortunately no professional licensing agent for reviewers with actual critical experience, so we live in an age of "reviewers" who are far more aptly described as "enthusiasts with time on their hands."
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #313475 25 Aug 2020 10:57
One reason that I rarely visit BGG anymore is the rampant hostility there towards negative reviews. The prevailing attitude there is that you should either say something nice or nothing at all, and that's just one more big reason why their site is of limited utility. Sometimes a game deserves a negative review because it has significant problems or even just fails to offer any particular reason to be on the gaming table.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #313476 25 Aug 2020 11:08
I think the phrase should be "influencer" versus "critic" because that's more accurate for 99% of the field. That shouldn't be pejorative, either. An influencer serves a role as long as they are honorable and put their preconditions out front, easily accessible and understandable, so you know where they are coming from.

But..... there are also entertainers. The gentleman who posts those throwback-motif videos here (whose name escapes me, my apologies) is an example of that. Super entertaining and also has good information. Same with that guy who did the Dragon Strike video (et al), Board James.

Meh, I don't care anymore. At this point the critics have lost and have all gone PODCAST (see: So Totally Wrong...) and the video guys are mostly all influencer/salesmen. And that's fine. I'm glad they can make money doing what they love, and I wish them all the luck in the world. I just don't think I'd take a recommendation; I could mute the video and watch it and get the information I seek.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #313487 25 Aug 2020 16:45
I'm not sure how universal the use of those terms are.

For me - review = consumer advice, critique = analysis (which will involve usually putting the work in a wider contextual analysis too).

There are probably a handful of people writing boardgame critique. And of the reviewers there are a very large proportion who are essentially shills - consciously orbs unconsciously.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #313490 25 Aug 2020 17:22
In my view a critic should have something more significant to say than whether the product is good or bad. The critic should be making an artistic or cultural judgement. I think its hard to pin down what that may look like precisely. This is fairly common in film or videogames. In boardgames because it is a lower value market the product review is still the dominant form.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #313491 25 Aug 2020 18:25
To me:

Review: analysis of the thing itself and how or poorly well it meets its goals.

Critique: much broader in scope. Analysis of the thing, how the thing fits into the historical and cultural context of similar things which have come before, how well or poorly it meets its goals, whether its goals are worth meeting or not, and why. Et cetera.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #313495 26 Aug 2020 10:37
There's not concrete definitions, otherwise we wouldn't have this conversation in the first place, but:

review: information about the thing that ascertains the quality of it, generally presented to assist prospective purchasers/consumers

critique: offers more than the above, often using review as a springboard to a specific point

I'm dumb as hell though so idk
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #313506 26 Aug 2020 15:46
So is there any game that merits "critique" using dysjunct's definition? Is there any boardgame that has the reach, cultural impact, and social commentary like a film, book, or documentary?

I'd guess chess, go, maybe DnD? Poker? Something that reflects the culture from which is was created and can change the player and the audience. Probably not Power Grid or Tiny Epic Tactics. Not to say those are bad games, far from it, but if "critique" has a loftier aim than just "is it any good?" and should inform and appeal to folks outside of the game clique, then I'm not sure many games qualify.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #313507 26 Aug 2020 15:51
I think games like An Infamous Traffic or Angola open the opportunity for a broader discussion. You can question whether they bring insight into the moment in history they present, but that question, regardless of answer, is warranted.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #313514 26 Aug 2020 16:27
You could also include something like Greed Inc. in that, or Food Chain Magnate. There are a number of games that I would argue are a critique of their subject. John Company implictly is, as well, but Sagrilarius brings up the similar Infamous Traffic.

Games can be good at answering the question of "why?" for things that tend to be inexplicable if viewed from outside the system or from the future.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #313516 26 Aug 2020 16:33
I mean, the wider context can still be the context of boardgaming - it doesn't have to be like, where does the game fit into humanity or whatever (not that it can't include that either). I think that you can critique a souless euro with no trouble, you can critique a party game, and absolutely, you can critique games like Wehrle's which are trying to make a statement/argument - particularly has he has been quite vocal about that.

Review of the next deluxified soulless euro game: there's a few things to like here; there are so many different ways to get those points and the components, wow. If you like a point salad this one is for you, etc etc.

Critique of the next deluxified soulless euro game: we've been here before - what's new? Nothing here is pushing the boundaries - it's just like the last one. nothing much. And why are we so slavishly beholden to deluxe components? What does that say about boargaming today, really? Is this papering over the cracks of a lack of innovation? Let's compare this game to the much maligned XXXX which has arguably the same basic structure but was released 10 years ago.... now, 10 years ago, this designer was designing games like YYYYY, so why have they taken a backward step here?
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #313517 26 Aug 2020 16:45

dysjunct wrote: To me:

Analysis of the thing, how the thing fits into the historical and cultural context of similar things which have come before

The "similar things" in this context is other games, not necessarily any kind of broad cultural context. Discussing the game design within the history of game design and the current state of game design. Often by deconstructing it to determine its influences and what makes it tick. Then assessing whether aspects of its design are innovative, derivative, a variant, an iteration...Assessing its importance in the evolution of game design and its potential influence on current and future design. Then reconstruct it and assess if the whole is great than the parts or less than, and why.

Ask and answer the "why." Why is it better or worse, more or less popular than the designs that influenced it? Or is it something completely new? Or is it just more of the same? Will people still be playing it or discovering it 5 years from now, 10 years from now. Or will it be forgotten in 5-10 months?
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #313524 26 Aug 2020 18:55

I do think that there are opportunities for the wider context to come into it as well at times. I think that it's possible to do that for any games, but I understand why that doesn't happen and that most people probably aren't interested. But there has been some terrific critique of games written that do it - there were a great series of articles written last year on the back of the "Struggle for Africa" game that GMT dropped, for example, which looked at how the medium has treated colonialism over time and asked questions about what that all means for us as a society.