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There Will Be Games

On the value of the Top 10 list.

Last week on Reddit’s boardgaming page, Codenames—a game maybe 6 months old—overtook Twilight Struggle for the number one spot. I think many of you would agree with me when I say that that’s total insanity. There’s a slim, slim chance that Codenames is anywhere near as good as TS (as of this writing, that error has corrected itself and TS is back on top by a razor-thin margin).


There’s a vocabulary problem inherent to the notion of the Top 10 list—it can’t figure out what it means when it purports to be listing the best games. I would like to propose that the best games might not be the games we like the most, and our favorite games might not be that good. Take the BGG Top 100 for example. That list represents the weighted aggregate ratings of all users’ collections. But there’s a pretty glaring issue: a rating of 9, according to BGG’s suggestion, is supposed to simultaneously represent that I consider something to be an “Excellent game” AND that “I always want to play it.” But those aren’t the same thing at all. Look, I think Archipelago is an amazing game. I am impressed by it at every scale, and my knowledge of the development of eurogame mechanics over the past 15 years only makes me appreciate it more. But I certainly don’t always want to play it. In fact, most of the time I’d rather play a dice chucker with wonky rules but lots of player conflict that will wrap up in an hour and a half.


It turns out that T.S. Eliot, of all people, wrote an essay titled “What is Minor Poetry?” that weighs in on this very issue. In the essay, he sets out to explore the difference between a Great Poet (Shakespeare, Milton) and a “minor” one (O'Shaughnessy, Campion). He never actually manages to define those terms, but his discussion makes a powerful observation, which has really shaped how I approach all of the arts and media I consume. He writes: “I should be inclined to doubt the genuineness of the love of poetry of any reader who did not have one or more of these personal affections for the work of some poet of no great historical importance: […] This poet may not be very important, you should say defiantly, but his work is good for me.” In other words, to have any real credibility as a poetry lover, Eliot says that you have to like some poems because they agree with your personal taste, critical reception be damned.


You may disagree with his viewpoint, but by arguing this way, Eliot creates a useful distinction between Good in a critical sense and Good in a personal sense. In other words, there is—or should be—some disagreement between a list of the best poems and a list of my favorite poems.


I think it would be worthwhile for those of us in the boardgaming hobby to adopt and adhere to this distinction. So many people in our community are quick to shit on Munchkin for not being very good—and by most critical standards, it isn’t—but they also can’t seem to allow for the idea that someone might like it anyway. That might be an extreme example, but I see these sorts of discussions on TOS all the time. Everyone is quick to defend their favorite games from all critical remarks, as if someone else not liking Wiz-War or calling Caverna derivative means no on else is allowed to like them either. Likewise, much as I might bemoan the hype over yet another “simple and elegant worker-placement” euro hitting the shelves, my distaste for that genre doesn’t determine whether they are good or bad. Here too Eliot has some wise words: “It is hard to ask the two questions, ‘Is this good, whether I like it or not?’ and ‘Do I like this?’ at the same time: and I often find that the best test is when some phrase, or image, or line out of a new poem, recurs to my mind afterwards unsummoned.” With so many new games coming out, maybe it’s a fool’s errand for us to even bother to try talk about whether they are good or bad. Only time, along with both critical and popular support, can make that determination. Wouldn't we all be better off just worrying about whether or not we will want to play them more than once? I think most of us on this site are of that mindset, but is there no way to spread the view within the hobby at large?


I’ve been toying with writing this post for a few months, especially after seeing the how the Dice Tower People's Choice Top 100 included barely anything more than 5 years old. But what pushed me over the edge was Mad Dog’s F:AT Hall of Fame thread. It’s seems like some of us posted a list including just our favorites (the route I took), while others included some games that they thought deserved it regardless of where they might fall in a Personal Top 20. I think it would be a really cool exercise for us to come up with two different lists based on the good-vs-favorite distinction. What is our community’s collective opinion on what the Best games are? How different would that list look from our cumulative list of Favorites?

Note: T.S. Eliot, 1946. “What is Minor Poetry?” The Sewanee Review 54: 1–18. Available on JSTOR.

There Will Be Games
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Black Barney's Avatar
Black Barney replied the topic: #213480 27 Oct 2015 15:29
This is a really good point you're making.

In movies, my "favourite" movie of all time is Aliens. However I think the 'best' movie might be Boyhood. I always feel like I'm betraying Aliens when someone asks me what I think the best movie ever is.

If I had contributed to Mad Dog's list, I would have tried to make a 'best' list and not my favourites
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #213481 27 Oct 2015 15:30
I was once talking about a band with someone and said, "Their best album is (album1) but my favorite is (album2)." and they reacted with, "That doesn't make any sense." I had no idea how to even proceed at that point.
Chapel's Avatar
Chapel replied the topic: #213486 27 Oct 2015 16:06
I didn't think Codenames was all that. It's a cute and clever little game, but really, there isn't much there. It's a filler game, and one that got old after a few playings.
Chapel's Avatar
Chapel replied the topic: #213489 27 Oct 2015 16:11
As for the BGG rating scale, for the life of me, I have no idea why the hell they decided to come out with a "suggested scale" on such a subjective usage. I'm sure a high percentage of users who actually rate game ignore the rating scale legend all together, as it doesn't even make any real sense. I think it's easy to say ignore what you're reading in the legend as it just confuses the issue with the rankings.
jeb's Avatar
jeb replied the topic: #213491 27 Oct 2015 16:21
I included a metric in my post to Mad Dog's list to account for this. I think it ends up being "Favorites" by your definition, but there's a lot of overlap there for me.

@Chapel, the BGG obsession with filler games is well known. How else can 7 WONDERS make to the top?
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #213493 27 Oct 2015 16:26
Yeah I don't understand people that are unable to distinguish between favorite and best.

If I'm making an all time favorite movie list, then Big Trouble in Little China comes in at numero Uno. If I'm making a best movie of all time list, Big Trouble in Little China is gonna fall further down....prob off the list. It's an awesome movie, but I'm able to recognize that there are movies that are technically better than it.

This is sort of off topic but sort of related...but I hate how consumer report-y and metacritic driven people have become. I have friends that when I tell them about a beer I like will go on Beer Advocate and poo poo it because it's not the highest rated beer on there. They literally haven't even TASTED it and they're like "it's only rated a 3.4 out of 5 on Beer Advocate!" Um, SO WHAT?

People will use these arbitrary ratings in place of their own actual opinions. Same thing with videogames, books, movies, boardgames, music etc... I can't stand it. If something LOOKS cool and interesting then GO see it, buy it, experience it. Don't let some other person's opinion sway you against it. Figure out for yourself if it's worth it. Now I understand people don't want to waste money and that's fine. I'm saying only do this with stuff you're VERY interested in.

It's infuriating how people will spout off these ratings as gospel and expect me to be impressed. I'd rather make up my own mind.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #213495 27 Oct 2015 16:37
People that understand the difference between "best" and "favorite" understand that their personal tastes and preferences have no impact on the larger cultural or critical uptake of a movie, game, record or whatever. "Ziggy Stardust" is clearly the best Bowie record. But "Diamond Dogs" is my favorite.
Black Barney's Avatar
Black Barney replied the topic: #213507 27 Oct 2015 17:37
Egg shen, I think exceptions can be made. For instance, the movie Pixels, we all know that's trash. We don't have to see it

BTW, the movie The Squid and the Whale is something I think you'd like. It sort of gets into this. The son is brutal at doing it.

Girl: I really like that book.
Son: it's a lessor work.
wadenels's Avatar
wadenels replied the topic: #213510 27 Oct 2015 17:46
The thing that separates participatory media like board games from consumable media like poetry is the interaction with other people. Don't underestimate how fun it can be to play someone else's favorite game, even if you aren't among the game's fans. My enjoyment of a board game is directly proportional to how much fun everyone else at the table is having. I'm talking about the kind of fun that comes out of threatening, bargaining, debating, joking, and laughing. Not that heads-down advanced application of a game's mechanics to achieve a favorable outcome within the confines of a strict ruleset type of "fun".

...the best test is when some phrase, or image, or line out of a new poem, recurs to my mind afterwards unsummoned

I've found myself laughing or telling a story about games I don't even like, because the players made the experience fun. I even own a couple games I never suggest but I can't honestly remember having a bad time playing. The result is a lot of the games I do like probably aren't good, but they deliver a social experience that is worth having.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #213514 27 Oct 2015 18:08

Legomancer wrote: I was once talking about a band with someone and said, "Their best album is [a] but my favorite is ." and they reacted with, "That doesn't make any sense." I had no idea how to even proceed at that point.

Sadly, it is very common. And no, I don't have any idea how to answer that, either, it's just confusing and weird.
Cambyses's Avatar
Cambyses replied the topic: #213524 27 Oct 2015 21:02

Egg Shen wrote: People will use these arbitrary ratings in place of their own actual opinions. Same thing with videogames, books, movies, boardgames, music etc... I can't stand it. If something LOOKS cool and interesting then GO see it, buy it, experience it. Don't let some other person's opinion sway you against it. Figure out for yourself if it's worth it. Now I understand people don't want to waste money and that's fine. I'm saying only do this with stuff you're VERY interested in.

It's infuriating how people will spout off these ratings as gospel and expect me to be impressed. I'd rather make up my own mind.


This hits at the heart of what rankles me about the very endeavor of making a rating system that lets you pit 3 month-old games against Tigris and Euphrates. Just because everyone is losing their shit over the most recent kickstarter doesn't mean you'll still be playing it in a year (Dead of Winter, I'm looking at you). By allowing the "Top 10" to include the soup of the day, we can't ever get a good sense of what the true classics are.

I realize that I'm writing into an echo chamber among the members of this forum, but every time I go look at Reddit or the BGG forums it's like I can't believe I'm even talking about the same games, let alone the same hobby.
mutagen's Avatar
mutagen replied the topic: #213525 27 Oct 2015 21:16
Lots of people can't distinguish between favorite and best, they simply can't muster the objectivity to do so. This is more prevalent in politics and religion, areas in which people have invested a lot of identity. I don't know that I've ever had an entirely rational discussion on either subject, there always seems to be too much at stake.
Bullshit of course. In fact, I've invested more time playing board games than researching political policy. My purchase history has had a greater impact on the gaming scene, then my voting record has had on the political climate. I shouldn't be annoyed that Obama won a second term, I should be annoyed that people still like TI3.
I guess that I just don't identify as a gamer. Now walk into any game store/convention and see if you can figure out why that is.

To get back on topic, if a list of "best" games were to be compiled, I would suggest extracting out a number of the more obvious titles into a "Games of the Ages" category. Nobody wants to read a list filled with the likes of Risk, Diplomacy, Axis and Allies, Chess, and so forth.
jeb's Avatar
jeb replied the topic: #213526 27 Oct 2015 21:24
Trying to decide if "Cool your jets, turbo," or "Lighten up, Francis" is the better line here...

Vistula Lurker's Avatar
Vistula Lurker replied the topic: #213536 28 Oct 2015 06:31
As far as i'm concerned every game (and every work of art for that matter) has a very large number of different traits. This multitude makes it very hard or even impossible for one person to perceive them all. The approach from the perspective of "the best" values such traits as innovation, coherence and other ones that share one common thing - the majority can agree that they are the positive ones.

Meanwhile when we take "the favourites" approach we can put on pedestal traits we value the best. It can be anything from "game about cavemen", through "game with pretty pictures" or "confrontational" up to "game in which evil is rightly deafeated just like God intended".

This however doesn't make our choices purely subjective. While we may claim that the all the best games have to include cavemen it is not likely that we will gain much support for our claim. When I say that i choose my favourite games instead of the ones that are widely considered the best it means that I put my personal values before the other ones thus making some statement reflecting on personal beliefs but also knowledge and experience.

Just some incohent babbling on my behalf.
Chapel's Avatar
Chapel replied the topic: #213552 28 Oct 2015 10:31

jeb wrote:
@Chapel, the BGG obsession with filler games is well known. How else can 7 WONDERS make to the top?


Definitely, now so more than ever. The rankings used to be a lot more meaty several years ago. It has evolved quite a bit over the years, not to my tastes. I blame Vasal.
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #213564 28 Oct 2015 12:00
Not only do I not care about what is the best instead of favorite, I am incredulous that any non-omniscient person can objectively say what best is.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #213569 28 Oct 2015 12:47

Black Barney wrote: For instance, the movie Pixels, we all know that's trash. We don't have to see it.


Sure we do. If not we're just depending on the tastemakers to tell us what we like. There's a difference between "I've heard it's bad" and "it's bad." The minute you start using the latter when you have no personal experience on the subject you throw your credibility away. "Didn't see it" is a much better response.

I'm due to watch Pixels with the family on Friday night by the way. They loved it when they saw it in the theater.

S.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #213572 28 Oct 2015 13:23
Codenames is a great game. It allows for a lot of creative thought and creates a lot of tension in a short time with a very limited set of rules. Most game designers that I've played it with or talked to about it have been very impressed (and jealous). Then again, I'm perfectly happy to play the same "filler" all night, provided that it's one that I like.

It seems like best is just the collective favorite of critics.

So what's the best Final Fantasy game? 7 is a lot of people's favorite, but I thought it sucked because the characters felt too similar and the plot was boring after the first 5 hours. If people make a list of the top 100 games in some magazine, I imagine that 7 is the most likely to be in that list. My favorite was 4, but I think the consensus is... that 6 is the best? I liked Chrono Trigger and Xenogears better than any of them. I don't think I could sit through Xenogears now though.
Black Barney's Avatar
Black Barney replied the topic: #213573 28 Oct 2015 13:25
I dunno Sag, I think life experience can give us intuition on what we like and won't like. I know if there's some sort of new dish that includes a lot of blue cheese, goat cheese or fesces, I won't like it. I don't have to try it.

For me, that's like Pixels. I look at the ingredients of that movie and see a few shots of the finished product and it's a "nope" for me.

When I say "that's trash" about something subjective like a movie, it should be obvious that I mean "that's trash to me" since no one can speak objectively about something art or what is personal taste.

I would hate for common sense to leave normal conversation to the point that you have to pull 'safeties" like that in your normal speech. Political correctness is bad enough, but this would be just way too much.

Hope you enjoy Pixels. I bet you won't.
Deleted's Avatar
Deleted replied the topic: #213578 28 Oct 2015 13:49
It's very hard for some people to be objective about things. I can see why many people see "best = their favorite" and have trouble seeing things as they are, not just as they wish them to be. That's part of the reason there's so few really good reviewers out there, although it's getting better. With the internet being the internet, it's getting even harder to put yourself in others' shoes.

I think the key to the best/favorite conundrum is to simply remember that if someone says anything on the internet about anything, tack on "in my opinion". It's not like any of us are spouting objective "truths", especially about such a subjective field of interest. It's not easy with anything, but especially on entertainment stuff. For example: My wife loves Jerry Springer's and Steve Wilkos' shows. I cannot stand them; I think they are horrible, exploitative shows. She thinks they're some of the best, I think they're definitely some of the worst.

Who's right? If you base it off of Nielsen ratings (which, incidentally, are better than BGG ratings in many ways) or "overall entertainment value", then she is closer to right than I am. I have to admit, seeing two trailer trash sisters pull off each others' wigs is certainly entertaining. If you base them off of cultural value or quality of show design, however, they are both horribly derivative, have no artistic value, and add nothing to culture other than displaying stupidity. So, I'd be right.

Thus, there is no "Objective Best", and cannot really be, because the beauty and utility of anything is wholly subjective.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #213587 28 Oct 2015 14:21
I think Vistula hit the nail on the head a few messages ago. What I like the most, and what the world thinks is the 'best' are usually two completely different things. Who is/was the best rock band? The Beatles would be a pretty good consensus choice. Hits, songwriting, innovation, they were monsters back in their day. Who do I like the best? I was seriously giving thought to scrounging up enough cash for a trip to see Black Sabbath when they come back to North America. I'm not stupid enough to think that Black Sabbath is the best rock band EVAR, or at least not since I was 18 or so.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #213594 28 Oct 2015 14:55

sagrilarus wrote:

Black Barney wrote: For instance, the movie Pixels, we all know that's trash. We don't have to see it.


Sure we do. If not we're just depending on the tastemakers to tell us what we like. There's a difference between "I've heard it's bad" and "it's bad." The minute you start using the latter when you have no personal experience on the subject you throw your credibility away. "Didn't see it" is a much better response.

I'm due to watch Pixels with the family on Friday night by the way. They loved it when they saw it in the theater.

S.


"Don't drink that milk, it's gone bad."

"SCREW YOU, YOU DON'T DECIDE MY TASTE!" *drinks milk*

"I told you it was bad!"

"I ONLY DRANK ONE SIP! I CAN'T REALLY FORM AN OPINION UNTIL I DRINK THE ENTIRE THING!"
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #213597 28 Oct 2015 15:30

Black Barney wrote: For me, that's like Pixels. I look at the ingredients of that movie and see a few shots of the finished product and it's a "nope" for me.


That's a whole different statement from "we all know that's trash."
Black Barney's Avatar
Black Barney replied the topic: #213598 28 Oct 2015 16:05
for me, they're the same but that's just cuz of the binary way I view things and speak. For me, it's implied that I don't presume that i speak for the entire planet when I say a movie looks like (or is) trash.

Looking forward to an update on what you think of that movie.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #213605 28 Oct 2015 16:29
A weird flip-side version of the best-vs-favorite debate I see on BGG is people who are incredulous that someone would ever enjoy a game that isn't highly-ranked. Actually, in truth this happens more on reddit, since those gamers tend to be a lot younger and a lot more tied to group consensus. It is unfathomable that someone would like a game against conventional wisdom.

I was thinking recently about how much this hobby has grown lately. When you're a bunch of krusty old gamers like we are, it's easy to miss that board gaming has exploded over the last few years. That's probably why Essen buzz seems to be revolving around lighter games. The percentage of new gamers is way higher than it's been for a long time.