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  • Essays
  • Under Pressure - Board Game Reviewers and Content Creators are Feeling It

Under Pressure - Board Game Reviewers and Content Creators are Feeling It

T Updated
Pressure
There Will Be Games

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pressure a reviewer can put on themselves. More than any other year I’ve been feeling that this year. Got to put out an article weekly, got to keep the podcast on track, got to get those games reviewed. It has felt like a lot from time to time.

My job, I work in a bike shop, has been incredibly intense, as people turn to two wheels instead of public transport. During the first lockdown in Scotland, which began in March this year, I was pretty much exhausted for weeks. Exhausted or not, the site was still there and a podcast had to be wrangled. I could feel the pressure of it bearing down on me.

A quick caveat before I get into this proper. As most readers, and listeners, will know I am not, nor are any of the team, reliant on The Giant Brain for their income. I could shut everything down tomorrow and it wouldn’t have a financial impact on me or the team. What I am about to say needs this caveat as I can’t speak to, nor can I imagine, the additional pressure from making this your job.

That said let’s ask this question: How do reviewers cope with the pressure to keep producing, stay relevant, and most importantly stay sane?

Quality over quantity

In the long, long ago The Giant Brain was a solo effort. Ignoring its history as a design site for now, when I first started critical writing I aimed for two articles a week. I did OK but it lasted not more than a year before I tamed it down. I lifted the pressure from myself and as a result the writing got better. I was happier writing, so the product improved. I got in touch with how I felt about games more and gave myself room to play and think about them.

I kept a schedule, weekly now, as I found it helped me focus. Now however I no longer felt beholden to it and have frequently taken a break of a week when I have felt the need to relieve the pressure even further. The first time I did this I felt really nervous and apologetic to my readership. Turned out that it didn’t really matter and the world did not fall on my head. Here is the lesson then: schedules are good, but don’t let yourself become beholden to them.

It Takes a Village

As I wrote, and wrote better, I started to think about what the site might look like as it grew. I’ve always wanted to bring more people onto the site, to allow those who wanted to write but didn’t have even my small reach as a platform. I’d be the first to admit that hasn’t really happened yet. I am really grateful to those who have put pen to paper and contributed to the site thus far: Peter Hopkins writing about Warcry, Jamie for his Megagame report, and Iain and Jamie for various contributions throughout the last year.

The team idea really came to the fore when I started Brainwaves. Most successful casts I listened to had a strict schedule and they always hit it. Now I can’t pay anyone and life will get in the way in unexpected ways, so my solution was to put a team together that could weather the storm.

To have a news cast I wanted at least two presenters to have a good back and forth. In order to have that happen regularly I got a three person team together allowing someone to drop out from time to time without affecting how the cast sounds. Whatever you are doing, if you need a team for it, go bigger than you think you need.

Beyond the podcast team, I rely on Jamie and Iain, and Sam before Iain joined, to bounce ideas off. They look over drafts, gather news, and basically keep me in check. Friends outside of the core team get involved from time to time and I am grateful to anyone who gives feedback to myself and the team.

Although boardgaming is a social hobby, reviewing can sometimes be a lonely affair. I would advise anyone getting into it, or in it, to surround themselves with people willing to give you honest feedback. Without good feedback you can’t improve, and it’s always good to have a support network.

Letting Down, Letting Go

I’ve let people down this year. I feel that strongly. I got a bunch of games just before lockdown and I’ve barely touched them. Without my regular group to play with, getting games to the table is borderline impossible.

To be clear, all the companies whose games I have in my review pile have been 100% understanding about the situation we all find ourselves in. That doesn’t stop the feeling of letting people down. I established some principles, you can read them here, and one of those was that I would review every game we take on. I can do this because I’m a small fry in a big pond. I don’t get 20-30 games a month. I get 20 - 30 games a year, if I’m lucky and not including games I buy myself.

I especially feel that I’ve let someone down when it comes to small companies. We have always been focused on smaller publishers and I feel a great responsibility when they entrust me with their products, whether I end up liking them or not. I don’t know how big reviewers manage the expectations of those that send them games, but for me the commitments I’ve made weigh on me.

To counter this feeling I’ve gotten myself more organised this year. I’ve got a spreadsheet with all the games I’ve got for review with dates received. I’ve also said no to anymore games until I’ve got my pile down, there is no benefit to me piling new pressure on pressure. I’ve found this little bit of admin has really helped me get my head straight on what needs done. A little organisation can go a long way to keeping the mind straight and I personally find that relaxing. With administration I can let the computer take some of the mental weight.

Keeping relevant

I’m going to keep this bit short. I don’t stay relevant and I don’t think you need to be reviewing the latest and greatest to be a fantastic reviewer. That said, if you do want to pursue this as a career that calculation greatly changes. You’ll want to keep up with the latest releases, post your content on BoardGameGeek and chase the numbers as hard as you can. I don’t want any part of that at the moment and am happy helping out the smaller publishers where I can, and reviewing games that have already passed the hurdle of persuading me to buy them. Bigger reviewers than me can tell you how to stay on top of things more than I ever can.

No One must fall

There is a certain irony to me writing this piece on a day when I skipped putting out an article on the site. I wanted to say this out loud as the other side of pressure is that it lessens when shared. When written aloud, we can realise that others feel the same way and the pressure ebbs.

To my fellow reviewers out there: I feel the pressure the same as you. It’s been a weird year to say the least. Our capacity to review has been diminished but the releases keep on coming. I hope that some of you will come and talk to me about your own experiences, or at the very least reach out to a friend to share the burden you feel. In sharing the weight, we ease the pressure, and all of us stand a little taller.

There Will Be Games
Iain McAllister  (He/Him)
Associate Writer and Podcaster

Iain McAllister lives in Dalkeith, Scotland with his wife Cath and their two dogs, Maddie and Gypsy. He has been a keen member of the local gaming scene for many years setting up and participating in many of the clubs that are part of Edinburgh's vibrant gaming scene.

You can find more of his work on The Giant Brain which publishes a wide range of articles about the hobby including reviews, previews, convention reports and critique. The Giant Brain is also the home of the Brainwaves podcast, a fortnightly podcast covering industry news that Iain hosts with his friend Jamie Adams.

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Articles & Podcasts by Iain McAllister

 

Iain McAllister
Associate Writer and Podcaster

Articles & Podcasts by Iain

 

 

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ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #316606 26 Nov 2020 11:08
I just want to say a big thank you to Iain and all our reviewers and content creators who share their work and talents with us here at TWBG. I know how difficult it has been for all of you, yet you still find the energy to keep writing and creating. I feel like every article, video and podcast is a gift that brightens my day, and feel honored to be part of this amazing collective of board game writers, vlogers and podcasters.
We-reNotWizards's Avatar
We-reNotWizards replied the topic: #316608 26 Nov 2020 11:21
This rings true for a lot of things. Especially when talking about people you were used to playing games with for reviews. Now it's no longer a case that someone can't make a night, but more that they aren't even allowed to visit if they wanted. I've had to play more games in shorter periods of time, even to the point of playing something to get a feel to within a tight schedule, which I think effect your mood to playing. Difficult times for a lot of people.
Ithayla's Avatar
Ithayla replied the topic: #316614 26 Nov 2020 13:01
>I’ve let people down this year.

Mood.

Thanks for the check in Iain, it feels good to know one is not alone.
whowhatwhycast's Avatar
whowhatwhycast replied the topic: #316621 26 Nov 2020 15:20
Well said here. It is immensely important to keep in mind what your goals are to keep the pressure from overwhelming you.

Honestly, before the pandemic I considered letting my Libsyn subscription lapse and ending my show after about 10 years of podcasting. My day job eats up a lot of my time as do my 2 kids, and since I am back to being a solo act, if I'm slacking, then the whole show slacks. The pandemic and working from home actually let me refocus my time and gave me more drive to podcast. I've put out about 50 episodes since April.

I want to echo your call for bringing in other people. I've found that podcasting with a group has helped generate content in a more natural way without worrying that I need to find a specific game to talk about. I've also been bringing some of the same people back for episodes, which has been fun. And I've been reaching out to more designers and publishers from Asia because these are voices that don't necessarily have as much reach in the US (where I live).

Good luck on getting through your pile to review. I've kept away from that pressure by being only an interview show, so I'm not in any rush to "review" anything.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #316622 26 Nov 2020 16:18
All the feels here. I've stopped asking for new games to review, and the queue is currently about twenty games long. I publish one every fortnight, so that'll take me about two-thirds of a year to get through.

A while ago I made a decision not to review every game that I'm sent. That's why essentially you no longer see negative reviews from me. Games that don't make the grade after a couple of plays only get a short write-up on Patreon. The release schedule is so packed that I feel it's more important to boost games worth your time than warn you off those that aren't. Sorry if you feel I'm not doing my job properly, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

The pace of releases also adds a pressure to get in their fast. I'm sat looking at a copy of The Shores of Tripoli as I type this, the fast-playing new card driven wargame from Fort Circle. It looks great, but I don't have time for it right now, which means it won't get written up probably for a month. By that time, the spotlight will have moved on.

I feel like I'm letting both publisher and audience down not covering games when they come out, but it's just not possible. Not with a day job and a family at the best of times, and especially not during a lockdown. It gnaws at me.

The one thing I'm tired of in game reviewing is learning new rules. I want to learn a game, play it, repeat it, try to master it like I used to. There's no hope of that any more. Even scaling a moderately complex rulebook seems a mountain nowadays, and I've given up trying longer and more complicated games.

And still the releases keep coming. I have no idea how the big hitters keep pace.
thegiantbrain's Avatar
thegiantbrain replied the topic: #316624 26 Nov 2020 16:53
I wanted to be open and honest about how I was feeling and let others know they weren't alone. It's really heartening to hear from other writers in the same position who also feel that pressure, let's me know I am not doing something drastically wrong here.

I totally get what you are saying Matt about having to draw a line. I personally review everything I get, but that pile is much smaller than yours so I can do that. I try not to take on anything I won't review, but that is my choice and I can totally understand when someone goes a different way. Under normal circumstances the GB team would be meeting up to play games once a month which allows me to try out lots of things and get plenty of fuel for the fire. That's just not possible right now and probably won't be till Spring 2021 at the earliest (assuming our government doesn't royally screw this up).
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #316626 26 Nov 2020 17:55
Very timely article. After submitting an article a week for the past 30+ weeks I'm feeling pretty fucking spent. I was actually pretty unhappy with my last review and I think I need time to re-evaluate the whole 'self-imposed schedule' especially when I have competing priorities with other projects and my day job commitments. I love being a part of this community and I love the opportunity to have a voice here but there is an element of stress rearing its head when I look at my collection and 'to review' pile that is a mile away from the joy and sense of escape I seek from the hobby. Looking at the 'Nexus Infernum' box on my shelf now I'm not thinking about the fun time we had playing it, more that I feel like I failed to articulate it properly because I felt compelled to get to print, so the box conjures up echoes of late night rewrites as I wrestled with a hook that never quite emerged. I'm actually going to be spending a week in a cabin next week as a kind of 'writers retreat' so I can finish some work on the games I'm writing for and hopefully take advantage of the clarity that isolation affords.

These are all self-imposed issues though and go back to the whole bugbear many of us wrestle with whereby our self-esteem and sense of self is perhaps unhealthily entwined with our 'productive output'. That's perhaps a whole other kettle of fish for another discussion but it's very cool to hear from Iain in regards to this sometime struggle in what is ultimately a 'hobby'. I do want to say though that I truly appreciate everyone who reads or comments on my little fripperies here, not to mention all the great content you all create that I get to read. And all for free! I'll perhaps be submitting with less rigid frequency, especially over the coming holidays and as we surge to the pointy end of our current game creation but I want to make sure that what I submit is worth your time to read as it was my time to write. Love you all.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #316631 26 Nov 2020 23:46
My first published game review was sometime in 2002 or 2003 so I’ve been at it for getting up to 20 years. It’s just been over the past year that I’ve cut back on doing at least an article a week. I used to try to keep up with the trends, releases, noteworthy titles...but you know what, it’s just not worth it and for about the past five years it’s been just demoralizing to try to do so...it puts you in contact with so much mediocrity. When we were doing Review Corner was the last time I really was keeping up...but it was exhausting. If I weren’t getting paid at that time, there’s no way I would have kept it up.

This article speaks to a lot of the unspoken things about being a games writer, particularly in an ecosystem where neither publishers nor audiences think that what you are doing is worth a dime. And there is just so much cruft to cut through, how do you even figure out what is worth your time as a writer and commentator?

What I’ve learned, and this is going to sound super arrogant, is that when you do this long enough and consistently enough, your audience comes for YOU most of the time. Most of the folks that read the Black Rose Wars review were probably more interested in reading my review than the game itself. Who gives a shit about that game, really?

But that level takes time to get to. Nearly 20 years. But when you do get there, I feel like the pressure slacks off and you feel sweet FA about it and then you just write about whatever you want. I picked Black Rose Wars, I thought it looked kinda cool. It wasn’t. But I was obliged to provide the review, and I did. As soon as I opened the box I realized that had erred in requesting it.

You know I remember a couple of years ago when I got Ike 4 review copies in the mail...for a lot of folks, that sounds like a jackpot. But I remember thinking about how much work and how much pressure those “free” games created. And it got to where I dreaded getting review copies unless it was something that I sought after because I really wanted to write about it.

I’m going to level here- my interest in writing about board games now is pretty limited. I’m much more interested about what is happening in the RPG space because it is where all the exciting ideas, themes, and concepts are happening. I’m excited to write about Free League’s games, the Melsonian Arts Council stuff, and so on. The pressure there is also lower because fewer people are really reviewing these things. Honestly, it feels much less like a waste of time then covering a new to retail Kickstarter that everyone was excited about two years ago.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #316632 26 Nov 2020 23:53
Matt mentioned that he doesn’t see how the big hitters keep up...well, here’s the horrid, secret truth. NO ONE is playing most of these games more than one time. Because if you are a reviewer of any skill level, all it takes is one play to form an opinion and it is extremely rare that a modern game reveals anything past a single play that is likely to change an opinion. If I’ve played a game more than twice, especially some of these big Kickstarters, then I already like it and that’s pretty set. Today’s designs do not reveal hidden depth or quality over time. The only exception would be games where each scenario adds more detail, but even then it’s detail and not core mechanisms.

The idea that these high profile, high volume content creators are playing titles, especially bigger ones, more than once or twice is laughable.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #316634 27 Nov 2020 07:53

Michael Barnes wrote: The idea that these high profile, high volume content creators are playing titles, especially bigger ones, more than once or twice is laughable.


Yeah I'm aware of the low bar for posting reviews nowadays. I was more following on from my comment about learning new rules. Like, how can you keep motivating yourself given so much churn? It's exhausting enough learning a new one every fortnight
WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #316651 27 Nov 2020 21:39
I don't know if I have ever stated it publicly, but writing reviews (for me) is usually what I do to relax and decompress. Even then, earlier this year, I had at least a three month stint where I was just not even enjoying playing new games and writing a review about another middle-of-the-road game wasn't something I wanted to do. I'm sure it had plenty to do with COVID but stepping away and coming back when I had some experiences with games that I truly wanted to write about made all the difference to me.
And, of course, the world didn't stop turning because I didn't put out a new review every week.
GrantLyon's Avatar
GrantLyon replied the topic: #316652 27 Nov 2020 22:12
Thanks for writing this! Very interesting read and you're definitely not alone in how you feel.