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There Will Be Games
I'm increasingly uncertain as to the future of critical board game content. As the board game industry continues to expand and the number of released games increases year after year there has been a massive shift in how games are marketed and sold. The endless assault upon the seemingly perpetually open wallets of prospective customers comes from all angles. Traditional publishers stagger their line throughout each year, timing it to grab as much of the convention season market as possible. Smaller, slower scheduled publishers unleash a torrent of marketing leading up to their releases to ensure that they don't get lost in the churn. A new Kickstarter campaign seems to go up every day. Remarkably, all of these methods are successful. More games, more games, and yet more games to feed the ever hungry audience.

This fuels and is also the direct result of another significant shift, this being in the audience itself. The majority of "board gamers" are no longer looking for the best in their favorite genres or simply waiting to try the next game from their favorite designers. Rather, they are looking to have as many new experiences as possible. To learn, play, experience, and consume the new. Newness in and of itself is the desired quality in a game, and newness has a expiration date that rapidly approaches the moment the shrink wrap is ripped from its box.

Publishers have recognized the desire for newness and have responded with more. Consumers consume, then demand yet more. The cycle continues. And somewhere in all of this, there exist relics of the previous era. Critics.

Modern board game coverage has shifted from the review to the preview. Consumers simply want to be made aware of upcoming titles so that they can place another $100 order at CSI and receive their serotonin rush when it arrives months later. To look at a game that is already out, or has been out, is useless to them when they're considering how many games to purchase rather than considering if they should purchase. Many content creators and networks have adapted to this trend and have shifted their content in this direction, providing preview commentary for games before they reach the hands of buyers/backers.

Of course there exist popular reviewers that cover games in a critical manner, but even they are often restricted to the top of the BGG hotness in order to maintain relevance with their audience. To cover a game that isn't the focus of the zeitgeist? That way madness, and poor metrics, lie.

There has been a cultural shift against criticism. Nowadays it is often viewed with skepticism rather than an open mind. To say a game is mediocre or worse is not something that is useful to the majority of modern board game media consumers. They are looking for attractive objects. Why would you bring something poor to their attention, or worse, tell them that their upcoming acquisition is a poor game? To do so is an attack on everyone involved in that game's success, which now includes themselves as board game creators and customers become ever more financially intertwined. To critique a game with any degree of harshness is to tell them that their judgement was poor, that their eye was not keen enough, that their money was wasted. It's no longer a warning against a purchase because the game is already bought - it's an insult. And a direct one.

Publishers have no reason to send games to a self-professed critic when they can commit their press copy budget to outlets who vow not to speak an ill word of their product, sometimes for a nominal fee. This feeds the trend of content drifting ever earlier from the game's release date. A critical reviewer cannot compete with a game previewer, some of whom even sport the same title of reviewer, who makes a show of legitimacy with their preproduction copy and assures consumers that their money is well invested. By the time the game actually exists the publisher's needs are already met and all prospective purchasers have already either shelved the game or loaded it onto the sell pile. Either way, a critical review no longer helps as the game is no longer going to be played.

I have seen board game critics of various means and mediums, many of whom I respect, contemplate abandoning the persuit. If they have a financial stake it's often no longer worth the time put in. If they do it for validation it's often giving them the opposite. This leaves the people that simply do it for themselves, and as one of those myself I can tell you that our output varies wildly depending on what we're able to play when. We're outsiders, competing with a massive network of publishers and their established media personalities, penning reviews for games that just came out and yet are already too old.

I wish I could say that the pendulum is at the end of its swing. That as the board game bubble bursts, board game consumers will once again become board game players and critics will once again be able to serve as the quality filter that all entertainment hobbies need. But I am no seer and I don't want to lie to you. I don't know where things are going or what the future of games criticism is and I won't claim to. Instead I'd like to wrap up with a bit of homework. I know, but bear with me. You might enjoy it.

Pull up your favorite reviewer's site, blog, Youtube page, whatever. Check their content from a year ago today. Then a year before that. Go back in large jumps like that and note the changes. You may start to notice that what brought you there in the first place is missing from what they're producing now. Alternatively you may find that they are as sharp as ever and you can still trust their word. Either way you will have gained insight into where their work has gone and if it serves your needs. I hope you find it lands in the latter category. Audit your board game media feed. You may be surprised at just how much of it is opt-in commercials.
There Will Be Games
Demetri "Vysetron" Ballas
Associate Writer

Demetri has an unhealthy obsession with cards and numbers. He gripes because he cares. You can read his less organized thoughts on his BGG blog or on Twitter.

Articles by Demetri Ballas

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hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #293922 16 Mar 2019 09:57
Well put. I personally find no value whatsoever in the “Kickstarter preview” style of video. Someone is paid to produce a preview. If the preview is negative, it’s not going up on the KS page, so all you will ever find is glowing praise.

I can’t fully appreciate a reviewer who never demonstrates a negative review.
Colorcrayons's Avatar
Colorcrayons replied the topic: #293930 16 Mar 2019 16:07
I recall reviewing the D&D boardgame wrath of ashardalon. Matt Loter wrote a gushing review about how it was the second coming of Jesus.

I took his review and made a parody of it. Replacing glowing remarks with negative ones. Otherwise, my review was identical.

It was an interesting study in human psychology, since the same people who fawed over Loter's statements reacted with pure unmitigated rage at the exact same comments Loter made that were not even twisted by me.

Very few users seemed to notice, and even fewer called out the hypocrisy of the negative reactions in light of it being a mirror image review.

That experiment essentially proved your point.

But hardly anyone wants to be challenged. All we want is our cozy echo chambers to be safe, warm, and comfortable in validating how great this next thing is before moving on to the one after that.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #293952 17 Mar 2019 16:58
Bam!
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #293970 18 Mar 2019 10:54
As I've said a tiresome number of times, nerd hobbies are now in an era where the goal is not to be a fan of something, but to be a fan of being a fan of something. Being into board games is insufficient, now you have to be into being into board games. And that means you have to acquire or at least play all the new stuff. You have to have an opinion on whatever is currently being discussed. You have to stay on top, otherwise you fall behind and can no longer play the game of fandom.

I don't consume much content anymore. I don't follow the hotness, I listen to very few podcasts, and I unfollowed a bunch of people on Twitter who seem like very nice people, but are still just pushing games at me to get me to play or buy, but not with any real depth of analysis. If I want to play a game for the sheer sake of playing a game, I have so many already. If I want a new-to-me board game experience, I have groups who bring stuff I've never played before and usually am not crazy about because it's this same-old incremental euro stuff that has no reason to exist other than being something new and different.

I'm old and feeble and grouchy and I have plenty of games I like. I've been paying games like this for over two decades now and the thrill of playing a slightly different point gaining exercise is long gone. I want a fun experience, and don't give a crap about who the designer is, what their game design theory is, or how exquisite a mechanism is. Is it fun to play? That's hard to articulate, but few seem to care enough to try to tell me.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #293972 18 Mar 2019 11:09
They don't tell you because it doesn't matter to them or their audience. Most games are disposable now. Their newness makes them inherently valuable until it's gone. They aren't meant to stick around or be played in any depth. You look at the nice object, enjoy its mild mechanical difference from the last 10 games like it, complete 1 game of it, and move on to the next. The work of many designers has been cheapened to the point of being little more than a selling point on a box.

I just want to play board games. Ideally good ones. It's increasingly difficult to find them.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #293983 18 Mar 2019 13:13
For me, the worst part was my own naive and stupid belief that boardgamers would be able to see past the inherent shillery of KS "previews." I thought for sure that the first time some minis-laden Kickstarter tossed up a YouTube video where some anonymous paid talking-head spouted sunshine & rainbows about some "new hotness" dreck that the boardgamer chorus would rise up and issue forth a direct & passionate rebuke not to let our hobby turn into a hive of basic consumers with all the honesty of your typical fake Amazon product review.

Well... imagine my surprise when that chorus was not only quiet, but instead swelled in the other direction, demanding more shill "reviews" and more anonymous dewy-eyed folk getting hard/wet over some game they barely know. And, as has been said, anyone uttering a discouraging word would be immediately shouted down as a heretic who needs to "get on the hype train."

It's been a sad end to what was once kind of a nice hobby.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #293986 18 Mar 2019 13:26
My biggest bummer out of the churn has nothing to do with my concern about rubes buying things (and they are!), but the ever increasing natural fragmentation of any discussion about board games on the internet. The OP touches on this, but it is extremely difficult to maintain much momentum on any discussion with others about any given game beyond the 2-3 other people (at TWBG) who have played it. So discussions (including social media discussions, not just a forum problem) become big conglomerations of good intentioned people who don't play the same games.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #293988 18 Mar 2019 13:33
That's been my problem for a few years now. People were talking about new stuff that I hadn't even heard of, much less played, so I had no place in those discussions at all. Now I'm a bit more back on board, as I've played things like Spirit Island and Root. But there was a time when I wasn't posting about anything here other than Hearthstone and movies because those were the only connections I had with what was happening in the modern day. If you didn't keep up with the churn (and I didn't and mostly still don't), you were left behind quickly.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #293991 18 Mar 2019 13:36
Folks, it's not the case that people are being duped by shills and previews and paid "reviews" and so forth. No one is being taken advantage of, and there is no crisis on that front.

These people want to buy games. Period. They absolutely do not care otherwise. The paid previews and reviews aren't fooling them into buying stuff, they're simply giving them permission to feel even better about stuff they wanted to buy anyway.

I spent a big chunk of last year on the fringes of that world and there is little to no concern other than "looks gorgeous!" "I know the designer!" "love the theme!" "this mechanism looks cool!" That's it. Everything else is just lagniappe that pushes them not to make a decision but to feel like the decision they were already going to make anyway is justified.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #293993 18 Mar 2019 13:40

Legomancer wrote: Folks, it's not the case that people are being duped by shills and previews and paid "reviews" and so forth. No one is being taken advantage of, and there is no crisis on that front.

These people want to buy games. Period. They absolutely do not care otherwise. The paid previews and reviews aren't fooling them into buying stuff, they're simply giving them permission to feel even better about stuff they wanted to buy anyway.

I spent a big chunk of last year on the fringes of that world and there is little to no concern other than "looks gorgeous!" "I know the designer!" "love the theme!" "this mechanism looks cool!" That's it. Everything else is just lagniappe that pushes them not to make a decision but to feel like the decision they were already going to make anyway is justified.


Yup yup yup. This is what I'm trying to get at. I worry about critique because it's become increasingly clear that it isn't what the modern landscape wants. Eric Twice said it best when I mentioned this before - for them the hobby is the purchase itself.

fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #293995 18 Mar 2019 14:56

Vysetron wrote: Eric Twice said it best when I mentioned this before - for them the hobby is the purchase itself.

And it's another black mark against "geek culture." I was just having this discussion last week: People grow up seeing consumerism surrounding them, and they act like it won't affect them. "Pfftt... look at all these squares and their dumb, American consumerist behavior... pffttt... they are SO SO dumb!" Yet... all the producers of the world had to do was slap a Batman logo on it, or a Star Wars logo on it, or a Harry Potter face on it... and suddenly it's open season on filling your life with stupid tchotchkes because you want to be known as a superfan. Same with boardgames now.

KS exclusives?!?! Gotta have 'em!
Latest Stonemaier Game?!? Gotta have it!
Warhammer 40k Underoos?!?! Do they come in XXXXL?!?!?!

At one point people honestly thought the old days of corporations taking advantage of people ended with Exxon and Ford and Mellon Bank. But the slimy sleaze of today (Amazon, Facebook, Cool Mini Or Not) are arguably worse because they con you into thinking you're part of the kool-kidz-klub by putting a happy geek-culture face on their anti-consumer shenanigans, then lie to you about what they're doing.

At least Standard Oil never pretended to be anything other than earth-raping capitalists driven by nothing more than shareholder value and the almighty dollar.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #293996 18 Mar 2019 15:09
I don't trust anyone who tries to sell a game on anything but the game itself. Whether it's being in the cool kid's club or proving that you're a good person, there are a lot of people in this community who would love you to believe that you can make real change if you buy the right games. These are typically people who directly benefit from selling said boxes. If you just buy enough games made by the right people, somehow that will affect positive change elsewhere. Don't think too hard about it. Just get that early bird pledge.

This is tipping my hand and shifting the subject slightly, but this whole thing reminds me of this clip and a quote from it.

"You can remain just a consumerist because your altruistic nature, solidarity, it's included in the price."

boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #294004 18 Mar 2019 18:03

Vysetron wrote: I just want to play board games. Ideally good ones. It's increasingly difficult to find them.



This. I add one or two games to the shelf a year - And they are usually 2 to 3 years old or older titles that I've played a couple of times and enjoyed - often I'm purchasing the "fixed" version that includes the whole game (the big box that has the useful expacs) or the revised version with the map printed correctly. But bully to the people that are buying all this regurgitated crap, because just like Monkeys at a type writer, eventually with this much churn, a handful of transformative or smart well tuned games get turned out every year, and the truly good games get talked about after the echo chambers have moved past the new hotness. But you're right - I am not the target market - I'm not a voracious consumer that wants a token for my coolness.

It's not really different than how I consume electronic media - Never have I ever....payed full price for a video game or bought any AAA title on launch day. Let alone pre-releases.
Joebot's Avatar
Joebot replied the topic: #294007 18 Mar 2019 20:49
Good article, and nicely written! I read it, and I thought, "This seems so familiar ..."

I had just read this article on the AV Club:

theconcourse.deadspin.com/netflixs-brigh...sions-dim-1833056161

It's written by a TV reviewer complaining how Netflix churns out too much content, too quickly, and it's impossible for the critical community to keep up. Here comes another 13-episode season blasted out all at once! And just when you plow through that one, here comes 5 more, all designed to give the masses more of what they want. More! More! More! You don't have time to THINK about what you just watched.

So yeah, exact same problem. The boardgame industry is hardly unique in this regard. Instead of Netflix, it's Kickstarter, or it's Asmodee -- that giant behemoth who keeps churning out endless piles of content, most of it shitty, some of it good, even less of it really great. Trying to keep up with all of that just sounds exhausting. That's why I don't bother.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #294010 19 Mar 2019 03:41
I've opted to not even consider promotional material in the industry anymore. If a game isn't out I likely don't know about it, even skipping reviews here for games that are recently released.

I'm not a typical buyer though. I'm looking for Goldland at the moment instead of Gloomhaven. Don't trust the new.