When reviewing games, you look at rulebooks, components, complexity, playing time, illustrations, setting and many other things, but ultimately you focus on the experience you got when playing the game. The thing is, what you enjoy playing changes over time. In this article, I want to look at whether we should compare games against our expectations or whether it would make more sense to check them against some other benchmark. (This topic was inspired by the always wonderful Bez.)
As we probably all have experienced for ourselves, getting a new game is exciting. Unwrapping it, punching out tokens, admiring the artwork or some amazing components and also smelling the "new game" smell all add to a wonderful feeling. There is a certain anticipation when we start to read the rules and start to play the game. We have formulated in our head what the game should be like and are starting to compare it with the reality.
Of course, this comparison actually starts sooner. When we buy a game, we will have certain expectations, based on reviews we've read, videos we've watched or what other people have told us. So as soon as the game arrives and we start unwrapping it, there will be things that we compare against those expectations.
We might find that the box is bigger than we had thought. The printed illustrations may seem a lot brighter and more inviting than we saw in photos or videos. The card stock may seem much lower quality than we had hoped. The screen-printed wooden components might be even more chunky and tactile than videos seemed to indicate. The rulebook might be a lot more difficult than the rules-teach video we watched or the gameplay is a lot more complex than it appeared in the playthrough video we saw.
Whether or not it meets, exceeds or falls short of our expectations will depend on us and the game, of course. Some things will be better, some worse, some about the same and there may even be some things that we didn't expect at all, that surprise us in some way, either positively or negatively.
At the end of the day though and irrespective of how a game matches up to our expectations, chances are that our expectations from now on will be different - to a larger or smaller degree - and with every new game, our expectations will keep changing. We may find that the games from a certain publisher or designer or certain genres of games meet our expectations more often than not, while another publisher or designer or genre of game always disappoints us. So the next time we buy a game, we may avoid those that previously disappointed us and now our expectations go up again. It's a never ending rollercoaster of expectations being fulfilled or dashed.
The same is true for reviewers, like myself. I tend to review games that I know I will be able to play, either with family or friends. That's the basic requirement for me, because I can't review a game if I can't play it. So my expectations will be around how well a game will appeal to my family or friends.
Of course, over time I have gotten better at gauging which type of games are right in that respect and I often turn down games that I don't think will meet my expectations. The problem here is, of course, that I might miss out on gems - and that's a risk. However, I need to balance the time I have to spend playing games and writing reviews with accepting review copies of games that I am unlikely to get to the table.
I don't want to promise a review, when I'm not fairly certain that I will be able to play the game. It's not fair on the publisher (or designer / self-publisher) who goes through the effort of sending me a copy and spends their time and money with an expectation that I will write about it.
It's different for games I buy myself of course, and that's my way of trying out games that I'm not sure about. I've had surprises in the past, positive ones, where I bought a game thinking that my family or friends might not like it, or at least only like it a little, just for them to absolutely love it. So it's games that I purchase that allow me to adjust my expectations and try out games that I otherwise wouldn't have requested a review copy for.
The question remains though, whether it's better to compare games new to us against our expectations that we have fine-tuned over time or against some other benchmark, some sort of market standard.
You could argue that you should look up a game on Board Game Geek and check its rating. If it's rated high, then it's a good game, in the sense of "good" as decided by Board Game Geek users. However, that rating is based on people's individual opinions, which in turn are probably based on their own expectations - and these expectations will have changed over time.
For example, a game I rated 10 stars a year ago, may actually only be 6 stars for me now. I should really go over my ratings and update them ever so often, but of course, I don't have time to do so. However, the point is that Board Game Geek ratings are nothing other than an average of people's opinions as of when they rated that game. It doesn't really reflect some sort of "industry standard".
Yet, there is a kind of "industry standard", at least in theory. I think people coming into the hobby now will see older games as "less good" (whatever that means specifically) than modern games. Designers have a bigger array of mechanisms, components and other tools available to them now than there were a few years ago. Mechanisms and genres of games have evolved over time.
So, as I say, in theory you could compare games to that "industry standard", and I think most reviewers sort of do that. They will know what games are like nowadays and their expectations will reflect that, at least to some degree.
For others, I think it's actually quite nice when they go through the journey of discovery, starting with a game that someone recommended and then working out from there where to go next, slowly adjusting their expectations and learning what works for them and what doesn't.
I don't think it would make sense to someone, who hasn't played any modern board games, that game A is for them, because that's where the "industry standard" is at. It's a much more personal choice and everyone will have their own journey of finding out what's right for them.