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Critical Faculties

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Critical Faculties
There Will Be Games

The role of a critic is an interesting one and something I’ve had the pleasure of embracing in my own way over the last couple of years. From the beginning I’ve wanted to get to a place where I felt confident writing a review as I saw it: Not a fluff piece, not negativity for the sake of it but an honest take on each game that comes across my table.

Every now and then a debate comes around about the value of writing reviews of games you don’t like versus the effort required to produce those reviews. I’m firmly in the camp that thinks there is value in creating reviews with a negative view point and I think it is worth diving into why critics should do this and their role in the community.

Critical Role

What is the job of a critic? Is it to promote? To denigrate? No, though those things do come with the territory. To my mind it is the critic’s job to hold a magnifying glass to the hobby, to provide comment, feedback and constructive critique. That is not to say you shouldn’t love your subject, it would be kind of odd to be a critic of something you don’t have an interest in.

Critics must be careful though. If our love turns into veneration, we risk losing perspective, dismissing negative thoughts as not worth the time expressing. We can ride the wave of hype if we are in a position to do so, but must make sure it doesn’t drown out all other games. We should experience the depth and breadth of the hobby, its highs and lows, the rough with the smooth. That is not to say we should play everything.

Iains CollectionI filter my collection as well

The Filter

With so many games coming out it is difficult, nigh on impossible, for an individual critic to play everything that comes out, nor should they attempt to do so. This leads us critics to filtering out some games when deciding what to review. For instance, I am not the biggest fan of worker placement games, so I naturally accept less for review.

This curation of the review queue carries out unseen from the public eye, but it doesn’t mean you should dismiss any given critic. You’ll find someone whose tastes align with your own, for the most part at least, and you will take to following their lead. Maybe it will be a mix of critics. We all do this. The only way to know whether a critic’s tastes align with your own is to know their likes and dislikes.

Take the time

Boardgames take time to review. They are not unique in this fact: books take time to read, films and TV time to watch, art time to learn about. My wife watches a review of running shoes and they run 60+ miles in each shoe before committing to a review. Good criticism takes time. Just because you don’t like a game at first flush is not a good enough reason to dismiss it for reviewing.

If all you ever do is say everything is great, then I don’t think you can really call yourself a critic. A cheerleader for the hobby, an advocate for games for sure. No one person can like all games, that’s unrealistic, it smacks of marketing not criticism. If you want to be in marketing then I have no issue with that. If you want to be a critic, you owe it to your readers/ viewers/ listeners (consumers) to take the time to review games that aren’t necessarily for you.

In diving into games that we don’t like, getting to the core of what really rubs us the wrong way, we learn more about our own tastes. We become better critics as we learn how to express what we hate as well as what we love. The critic has a responsibility to guide their consumers even if they ultimately disagree with our opinion on an individual game.

Yes I have terrible hand writingYes I have terrible hand writing.

The Craft

Adjacent to an argument about not wanting to take the time to review games you don’t like, is that some people don’t like the act of creating these reviews. For myself, the act of writing a review is almost as much fun as playing the games, sometimes more so in the case of games I didn’t like.

In order to be a good critic you have to enjoy the craft of your chosen medium. I love writing. It doesn’t really matter what I’m writing, I just love putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboard to turn words into opinion. If you get to the point where you feel confident enough to review a game, but not the act of creating the review no matter what you think, maybe being a critic isn’t for you.

Being a good critic means giving your honest opinion. No matter how big your following, how small your signal, learning to express yourself in your chosen medium is a joyful act in and of itself.

I understand that some people worry that negative reviews get less traffic to a site but I think that is rubbish. Outside of the Beyond the Veil articles on my site my Star Trek Adventures review is one of my most popular articles. I hated that game, and said so in no uncertain terms. As we’ve already touched on, your consumers will thank you for your critique if they believe it is honest, even if they don’t agree with it. A negative review can be just as useful as a positive one in this regard.

Critical Mass

The hobby is growing at an incredible rate. New companies form all the time, Kickstarter is soaked with tabletop games and there are literally thousands of new releases every year. Gaming is more mainstream than it has ever been and as it becomes more ‘normal’ the kind of criticism that is levelled at books, films, TV, art, sports or any other form of entertainment must be brought to bear on tabletop games.

As it grows the hobby needs critics to say when a game doesn’t live up to the hype, to lift the lesser known games they love up onto the pedestals that the latest plastic filled Kickstarter finds itself on by default.

My Favourite Critics

I would like to end this piece by recommending several critics to you. Each have their own style and I follow each of them for different reasons.

Dan Jolin

Dan Thurot

Owen Duffy

Matt Thrower

Michael Barnes

We’re Not Wizards

Unlucky Frog

No Pun Included

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.

Articles & Podcasts by Iain McAllister

 

Iain McAllister
Associate Writer and Podcaster

Articles & Podcasts by Iain

 

 

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DavidNorris's Avatar
DavidNorris replied the topic: #305186 17 Dec 2019 07:22
I think it's excellent subject to cover, and one that people don't think about enough. There's a lot that goes into writing a review, and it's something you can do at multiple levels. From saying you like/dislike a game, to writing pages and pages on why Argent: The Consortium is the best game ever.

Critical Role:
You've talked about veneration here, but I also think the other side is equally important. While you may think a game is bad or disappointing, you also need to realise that human beings may have spent months of their life trying to develop this game. And saying this is shit lol, doesn't help them to become better, and could cause them some real pain.

So to me it's both. You need to understand both what's good about a game, and what's bad about a game. And as someone who's probably played over 500 of them, I've yet to see a game that's irredeemable.

Take the Time:
This is always a topic amoungst reviewers. How many times do you play a game before you write a review? It's a tough question, as people will judge you on the response. But in truth the answer is you play it enough for you to feel comfortable about your opinion. For some games this is 1 play, for others it's 10-15.

I think you dismiss the marketing aspect too quickly here, but it speaks to what you want to get out of reviewing. If you want a million dollars, you're in the wrong hobby. But if you want to gain popularity, and get free games in the hopes that one day you can break even. You don't need to be a shill, but it helps to be helpful. What I mean is publishers are hoping for a postive review and in lieu of that they're looking for a soundbyte, that text that they can put on their site and draw in more consumers. So it does help to write with that in mind - as long as it matches your opinion and isn't just there for marketing.

The Craft:
While agree with what's written here, one thing I'll add is that it's better to be persistant than it is to be good. Unless you manage to strike a gold mine, it takes a long time to build a voice and then an audience. Being persistant, absorb any and all feedback, find ways to improve, do all that and you're golden.

As an aside I think positive reviews generating more likes, and therefore more traffice is largely true.

My belief is that there are two types of people who read my work:
* Those who enjoy my stuff and read everything (I love these guys)
* Those looking for a specific review on board game.

This later group can be broken down again by people who are wanting to buy the game (because of the current I need everything culture) and learn more about it. And people who already have the game and are looking for someone to reaffirm their opinions.

Usually, in both these cases, people are usually looking for a positive response.

(In my experience, people are quite accepting of mediocre board games - because they're still fun! They're just not as fun or well designed as others)

That being said there are exceptions.

Sorry if that was too long a comment, just a bit of a mind dump. Thanks for the article.
thegiantbrain's Avatar
thegiantbrain replied the topic: #305187 17 Dec 2019 09:34
Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

I agree with all reviews you have to remember that there are human beings behind each game who have poured their heart and soul into it. There is a way to be criticise a product without personally attacking those behind it. That said there will always be those who take a negative review personally no matter how well you write it.

What I was trying to get at with the comment about marketing is that if you are calling yourself a critic and are just relentlessly positive about every game, I can't really bring myself to trust your opinion. My favourite critics, some of whom write for this site, have likes and dislikes and I know what those are because of the way they write. I agree that if you want to build a 'name' for yourself then the easiest way to do that is to put a positive spin on things as it will definitely get more publishers wanting to work with you.

One of the things that drove me to write this piece was a debate I got involved with on twitter about whether you should take the time to write negative reviews, that they didn't drive traffic to sites and where therefore a waste of time. I hope I got over that I think that isn't true and can demonstrate with stats from my own site about what is popular and what is not. If we, as critics, are afraid of writing pieces with a more negative take on a game because it won't result in some bigger numbers, I think that is a sad state of affairs.

I'm not sure what you mean by the persistent comment? Do you mean posting regularly? It is one of those pieces of advice you see a lot about getting better at writing which is 'write more'. I would go a step further and say try different types of writing. I have gained a lot from doing some creative writing courses and some of those techniques filter into my critical writing.

Glad you enjoyed the piece!
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #305188 17 Dec 2019 09:41
This was an excellent read, Ian. Well done!


This is a subject that not only do I have a lot of thoughts on, I’ve kind of gone on my own journey with. I used to write reviews somewhat on and off. I went through a period of writing about anything but games and I think that helped me out when eventually returned to them. Yet the entire time there was something bubbling below the surface of what I was doing, a feeling that I just could not shake even once I had a firm grasp on what I liked in game criticism, what I didn’t like and what I wanted to put forward in order to fix it. Turns out that feeling was futility.

I don’t want to disparage anyone here who does write reviews, because many of you here are doing good, worthwhile work in the moment.. However, I do believe that it is ultimately a futile endeavor, or at least one that did not have as much worthwhile impact as I was comfortable with.

Let me back up a little bit and call out something you touched upon that is the most important point here: Negativity. I used to say that you could learn more from a negative review than you could a positive one. In some cases, this is still true, but it requires a certain skill set, an ability to read between the lines and a knowledge of the reviewer. This is a very difficult thing to lineup, and, call me a pessimist, I don’t think the majority of the hobby has this skill, is willing commit to learning it, and I don’t think anything is going to change that.

The often missing component on both sides, the reviewer and reader, is context. If it were just one type of context, this would be a much easier topic to address and I would walk back what I said about futility, but it isn’t. It’s an impossible amount of context to ask of the reader and the writer to be aware of. The writer needs to consider how much experience do they have with a certain type of game so that they can properly take in what a game might be doing differently or better than its peers, did they give a game enough time to properly assess if perceived flaws were in fact intentional design limitations, did they play the game with an audience who would be the target audience for the game and if not, did someone at the table sour the experience, the list goes on and on. There are several unfortunate practices in popular game criticism that work against these considerations, namely the expectation to review every popular release and to do it in a timely fashion.

Meanwhile, the audience has an entirely different set of barriers between them, the reviewer and how effective the review will be for them. The only one they have any control over is their previous knowledge of the writer. Is this person a good fit for their tastes? However, there is an even bigger problem here, one that I alluded to before and that is the time in which the review was written.

One of the most pivotal moments for me as a gamer and a reviewer here on this site is when someone called Michael Barnes out for changing his mind on a particular game. I hadn’t been in the hobby long enough to go through such a change myself, yet his handling of it was the most beneficial (or detrimental, depending on how you look at it) moments for me as a writer and my outlook on game criticism. He simply stated that opinions change.. More so, we are allowed that. That’s it, that’s the big undoing of criticism of any type for me. No body is going back and changing their reviews as they play better things or they play that one game that puts another into context. I might find out about an older game that I’m interested in, look to see if one my trusted reviewers had anything to say about it and if they did, I can guarantee that there will be a HUGE amount of context that I’ll be missing.

I’ve seen game design change a whole lot in the relatively short time I’ve been immersed in the hobby, my tastes have now changed, the games that brought me in are entirely unpalatable, games I once wrote off now make sense to me and I enjoy them. The sheer amount of variables made me feel like anything I had to say as a critic would be nothing more than temporary and even the moment, too prone to being lost in translation. I’ve found my own way to weigh in on the hobby with It Came From the Tabletop and perhaps I’m nothing more than a cheerleader, but I do think that digging into what really works in a game in a non-review format, episodic to better capture evolving designs and opinions, to at least be more fulfilling to me, and hopefully, at the very least, gets people thinking/talking more about what parts of a game they enjoy and why.

Again, great piece, can’t wait to read what others have to say. Hope we get some good discussion out of this!
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #305189 17 Dec 2019 10:53

Josh Look wrote: One of the most pivotal moments for me as a gamer and a reviewer here on this site is when someone called Michael Barnes out for changing his mind on a particular game. I hadn’t been in the hobby long enough to go through such a change myself, yet his handling of it was the most beneficial (or detrimental, depending on how you look at it) moments for me as a writer and my outlook on game criticism. He simply stated that opinions change.. More so, we are allowed that. That’s it, that’s the big undoing of criticism of any type for me. No body is going back and changing their reviews as they play better things or they play that one game that puts another into context. I might find out about an older game that I’m interested in, look to see if one my trusted reviewers had anything to say about it and if they did, I can guarantee that there will be a HUGE amount of context that I’ll be missing.

I’ve seen game design change a whole lot in the relatively short time I’ve been immersed in the hobby, my tastes have now changed, the games that brought me in are entirely unpalatable, games I once wrote off now make sense to me and I enjoy them.


I have no idea if it was the same post or moment but there was a Barnes post or review here, I don't remember, where I had almost exactly the reaction all the way down. And realized my tastes change---and that they're *allowed* to change and I should embrace it.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #305190 17 Dec 2019 11:20
I’ve made a habit of revisiting things that I initially had a very strong reaction against. It’s kind of a joke that I make with myself now after playing something that I utterly detest, “Well, this will probably be my favorite game in 6 years!” From Agricola to Twilight Imperium, some of my all-time favorites just did not land at first. I had to play a lot of stuff both before and after some games to really appreciate what they were doing, plus I had to be in the right place. Even this week, I just ordered Xia with the expansion, a game that I was entirely underwhelmed by when it came out. I have no idea if I’ll like it this time around but I’m excited to find out.

I still have never come back Caylus or Thurn & Taxis and I intend to keep it that way.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #305191 17 Dec 2019 11:21
^Hansa Teutonica for me.
thegiantbrain's Avatar
thegiantbrain replied the topic: #305193 17 Dec 2019 12:04
Thanks for the kinds words about the piece.

I totally understand the thought process that would lead you to thinking your opinion is just a drop in the ocean, but for the readers of your blog/followers of your podcast/ viewers of your video that opinion will resonate. I don't expect everyone here to agree with my opinions on boardgames, but I do hope that for those who find my tastes align with their own a little more those opinions will help them filter the wheat from the chaff.

I don't think I've ever gone back to change a review after more plays, or playing games that put it better in context. I tend to only review something when I feel I am ready to do so and I think the immediacy of those experiences are what make reviews worth reading. I can totally understand those who want to do deeper dives into games over a longer time and I definitely think there is merit in that level of analysis.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #305195 17 Dec 2019 13:32
I feel like board games are objects that by their nature, as Josh said, shift over time as they intersect with the critic in different ways, be those social contexts that are always slowly drifting in and out of trends in the appreciation & construction of game experiences, or the writer's own increased critical experience in genres that might have once been foreign and either off-putting or new & fascinating, either of which can enrich but skew criticism in hindsight.

This may be true of other media, but many of these seem more static and less ephemerally group-dependent than board games.

Words as printed and filmic images don't seem to have the malleability of a board game table dynamic. To put it another way, more traditional media are conveyed through an apparatus that, at its physical baseline, replicates the same prompts to the reader/consumer in the same sequence. In the enactment of games, players are such a variable part of this "apparatus" that the game itself as a critical object is much less stable. This makes the act of game criticism that much more situationally specific, creating a half-life of relevance that can outpace pop music reviews.

Sometimes I look back at something I posted and it might as well be a Tibetan sand mandala, an artifact of an activity, fulfilling its role at the time of completion but not a valuable object unto itself anymore... because the activity has shifted. My reaction to this has often been to overwrite the old material or ignore it altogether and move on. It might actually be more valuable to allow the "before" and "after" to stand independently, or to even try to describe how the frame shifted over time. This requires a certain level of humility that can sometimes be hard to swallow, though: acknowledging that your act of criticism is tentative and requires the nearly constant work of revisiting, reframing, and replaying. I think it also touches on aspects of authority and the analysis of one's own experience that can collide with some critics' assumptions about the critical enterprise in general, beyond the "product review" angle that seems to be the obsession a large swath of board game writing.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #305196 17 Dec 2019 13:39
Reviews are ephemera. They are meant to be thrown away with yesterdays newspaper. They reflect a reviewer's experience, knowledge, taste, and opinion at a specific moment in time. They have an expiration date.

It is important to not only find a reviewer whose tastes align with yours, but also whose experience with games is not too far ahead or behind of your own. I advise new gamers to read current Barnes and Thrower because they are good writers, but to not look to them for advice on what games to play or purchase. After playing games for 30+ years what they find derivative and dull is often fresh and exciting to a new gamer. That's one reason I am always trying to recruit younger and/or less experienced gamers as writers and associates. They are better able to meet new gamers where they are.

This is also why I don't trust board game reviewers who have been writing for a decade or more, but whose reviews haven't matured. Their writing (or videos or podcasts) don't reflect their years of experience or the 100's of games that they have played, and how that's changed their tastes and even how they approach, play and understand games. They appear to me to not be authentic.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #305197 17 Dec 2019 13:51
Great posts in this thread, love you all.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #305199 17 Dec 2019 14:20
I think a review can certainly be timeless, but only if the critical apparatus stretches beyond a perspective on tastes and buyer's guide. Usually these pieces concern classic games or particular newer releases that reach for a specific sense of artistry.

I'm talking about stuff like Michael's review of Tigris & Euphrates or pretty much every single forum post from HiveGod.
ModelVillain's Avatar
ModelVillain replied the topic: #305200 17 Dec 2019 14:34
I agree that there isn't enough thoughtful and well written critical analysis of most artistic media, boardgames being only one (and perhaps perceived as the least among them). There's an apparent allergy to real critical boardgame reviews for some reason, my reckoning being that it stems from a longstanding perception on Another Site that reviews should be objective, dammit! An assertion that I find totally absurd -- if you want objective, read the box contents.

If you create in the entertainment business, then you know that being able to surgically deconstruct others work is a key tool in understanding success and failure. It's a skill I've honed over my career, despite having no journalistic interests in parlaying it.

My great lesson in good critical analysis was from (of all people) Roger Ebert. The basis for any critical review is, in essence, "how well does something deliver on what it's trying to do". Certainly any commercial creative endeavor can be assessed this way, and it's exactly what the individual critic brings to that assessment that makes reviews uniquely interesting, and gives each critic a voice.

Increasingly people are saturated as "entertainment consumers" with vastly more options than could be conceivably taken, and in the internet age have to be at peace that in our lifetimes, "we will never see everything".

When asked to part ways with their disposable income, I think many people are naturally and rightly inclined to assess that investment up front, on some basis of quality. As one of those people myself, it's why I'm a regular reader of whom I find to be solid critical reviewers, and I think it provides both an audience and an opportunity for games reviewers.


PS: As a footnote, and study in "negative" reviews, here's is one of my all time most memorable film review:
www.rogerebert.com/reviews/north-1994

To quote:

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #305201 17 Dec 2019 14:34
Tigris & Euphrates is the Moby Dick of board games.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #305204 17 Dec 2019 14:42
ModelVillian, I agree with you on the objective nonsense holding us all down for a while.

But I also think board games also suffer from the very real problem that nobody is playing the same things (as you say) so even the meaning of the review can be somewhat lost without some context. Investment to learn a game and do a game night is much higher than watching a movie. Same with downloading the most recent triple A release, though increasingly the video game discourse is fracturing like board games because of the quantity of releases as well.
thegiantbrain's Avatar
thegiantbrain replied the topic: #305207 17 Dec 2019 15:05
Firstly I'd like to thank everyone so far for contributing in such a mature manner. It's really given me a lot to think about.

One of the topics I was trying to drive at with this article is that context is king when it comes to a review. I wanted to address the idea that negative reviews weren't useful to you as critic or a site and how much I disagreed with that. I think putting out those kind of reviews helps readers understand the kind of critic you are, even if they disagree with you.

I've never been a AAA site and probably never will be. I don't get sent a lot of the new releases so I have chosen to concentrate on the smaller publishers where I can, lifting up games in my own way as best I can. I would always encourage any reader to sample a few different critics, reading only 1 will lead to a bit of a bubble where you just get your opinions confirmed rather than questioned.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #305209 17 Dec 2019 15:16
Absolutely, negative reviews reveal a lot about the reviewer. Even negative bits within an overall positive review is revealing. But it also means a reviewer has to devote play time to game that they don't like. Just the simple act of choosing which games to request or accept for review sets up a greater probability of a positive review.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #305213 17 Dec 2019 21:35
What a great piece.

The longer I do this, the more I feel like I can either do quick reviews, or I can do good reviews. I don't know if I can do both. So much of how games sit revolves around life WITH that game. That's why quick turnaround takes on enormous product lines are so disingenuous (not that people mean to be that way, mind). I mean, learning a new system in any game is a little like learning a new language. You have to make room for it, practice it, and utilize it as a conscious choice. It's not just another title you can throw in the pile.

Even smaller games require time to mature. I rewrite reviews about games quite a bit. Part of that was the drive during the MM days to get content on back catalog games, but I think the big appeal to me is that it's just more interesting to think about the long-term appeal of a game. Games are more interesting to me when I stop discussing them as an immediate reaction, and more about what they mean years after the fact. In fact, the reviews I wish I could get back most of all were those rapturous ones for games I liked immediately, but that didn't stick with me in the long-term. We need to revisit our favorite games, because it's a way we get to know ourselves.

I really don't want to denigrate people like Charlie who do amazing work on new releases. But I have had to realize that for my part I can't maintain that clip and continue to enjoy the hobby. It's just not in the cards.
thegiantbrain's Avatar
thegiantbrain replied the topic: #305217 18 Dec 2019 02:46
Yeah it is a tricky issue that all reviewers will filter which games they review leading to what looks like a bias towards positive reviews. That's because there is bias, there kind of has to be.

3000+ games released this year. Assuming you aren't churning out back of the box style reviews and actually taking the time to write something decent you are maybe putting out a review a week? Perhaps a little bit more often. Even if you put out 100 reviews in a year you are basically only scratching the surface of available games.

I see reviewers newer than even me asking how they keep up with the churn of games, stay on top of the new. Although that content will undoubtedly get you more clicks on your site, keeping up with the Joneses is just going to make you unhappy. I think we will see a lot more specialist reviewers emerge in the next few years who have chosen to filter down to a particular subset of games: wargames, solo, party etc. I also think we will start to see more opportunities for full time reviewers independent from the need for crowdfunding, or at least I hope we will.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #305223 18 Dec 2019 08:42
Just a short response on my way back in from New Orleans:

I find that negative reviews are also easier to write. However, I don't tend to write them because I don't play many things that I don't like or I can pretty casually dismiss them on a first- (and usually only-) time play because I just don't want to take up my time playing stuff that I don't like. I get few enough opportunities to play. That's why most of the "deep dive" stuff that I do or that I do with Wade is overwhelmingly positive, because they're about things that I/we really enjoy.

The issue of there being too much for any set of eyes/lifetime is pertinent. TV and film reviewers also have this issue. It also leads to them covering just what's popular and/or what they truly enjoy because that's what attracts eyeballs and what they're willing to put real time into, respectively. But that's also a corollary of that other issue: money. For all of their increasing popularity, boardgames remain something of a niche and until there are more people willing to pay for the courtesy of being both informed and entertained by someone like Vasel, it's going to be difficult to have more voices in said niche that are more than just "This is cool!" (Due credit to people like Charlie, who are making it work as they are.)