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Play Matt: The 2018 Not-Awards Show

MT Updated
best board games 2018
There Will Be Games

When I sat down to write this, it was going to be an awards piece. Something to celebrate the very best games I've played this year. It was all planned out: I had a series of categories, a winner in each and an overall game of the year. A pleasant exercise in rewarding excellence to cap off an excellent year of releases.

But at the point of starting to type, it wouldn't come. My fingers just stalled on the keys. Sure, I could tell you my favourite games of the year. But I'm not going to, because it's not fair. It's not fair on publishers or designers or other writers. Most of all, it's not fair on you.

At a guess, if I were to canvass opinion from gamers, the top-rated game of the year is Rising Sun. A quick search of the internet suggests that Lords of Hellas and Everdell have done very well, too. Newer releases riding high include Detective and Chronicles of Crime.

I haven't played any of them. I also found an acclaimed game called Deep Madness that I haven't even heard of.

So, given that I know next to nothing about six of the most popular releases of the year, what right do I have to judge others against them? None, really. I have a list of the best games I've played this year. But if I tell you what they are, you might rush out to buy and play them, and miss out on Rising Sun or Detective or Everdell which might be even better. That's in no-one's best interest.

Of course, this has been true every year when I have handed out a game of the year pick. But in previous years I was too worried about what people might think of me if I spelled that out. I'm not worried anymore. Not because I'm suddenly brave and rebellious. It's because I'm tired.

At Essen this year, there were 1500 new releases for attendees to look at. If you played demo games all day, every day of the fair, you could barely make a dent in that. And that's just at Essen itself. With all the Kickstarters, print and plays, traditionally published games this year you could play all day, every day of that year and barely make a dent.

I can't keep up. No-one can keep up. It's just exhausting.

And it's having a profound impact on the extreme end of the gaming culture. A few years ago, there was a fad for doing challenges for a hundred plays in a year, by playing ten different games ten times each. It was a good challenge because it forces you to dig into each of those ten games, find out more about them, get value. Now, I'm seeing people set themselves a hundred challenge of a hundred different games. Learn a different ruleset, experience one mechanical play through and move on a hundred times. I don't see the value in that, let alone any pleasure.

What's questionable though is whether it's a problem for gaming in general, away from the extreme end. After all, more games ought to mean more good games too. When I see people defending the glut of games, they often make a comparison to books, and this is a good, fair argument. The number of novels published each year runs into the high tens of thousands, and each demands as much, if not more, of your time than a good board game. Yet the book industry doesn't seem to be full of people hand-wringing over that number.

Actually, it is. Well, maybe not full of it, but if you search there are plenty of anguished critics and publishers pleading for it to slow down. And they're making the same kind of arguments I'm making here. So if you look at the extreme end, again - book nerds and game nerds - it's not so different after all. But books have a key advantage over tabletop games: almost everyone reads. That means more books get read and reviewed on book sites. That means there's a thriving industry of full-time literary critics and academics. Between them, they help sort the wheat from the chaff with moderate effectiveness.

There's no such equivalent for games, and this lack of direction has insidious knock-on effects. Most designers and publishers are passionate gamers themselves, and they want to put out great product. But when it's your livelihood, the temptation to cut corners is also great. If you know there's no chance in the short term that minor flaws in the design are going to come to light, why bother to fix them? Why bother to even look for them? Why, for that matter, bother to risk innovating? Slick marketing based on fear of missing out can already ensure the success of a by-the-numbers game.

Calvin Wong, content director of the site boardgameprices, made an interesting observation about this. According to his site's analytics, the biggest sellers of the recent past are Scythe, Gloomhaven, and Root. All are excellent games, of course, but so are many others. What do they have in common that's different from other hot titles? Calvin's theory is that the answer is visual and narrative. All three have very distinctive art styles and create striking, believable worlds.

I find it hard to believe it's as simple as that, but at the same time, it feels compelling. In a world where so many games come and go in a characterless blur, it makes sense that games with real character would stand out. Especially if they communicate some of that character through art which can be rapidly assessed and digested. In such an overwhelming release schedule, games need something to catch the eyes of consumers as fast and as hard as possible.

However much this seems a problem to me, and to some other folk on the sharp end of gaming, there's no real solution. As long as there's a market, people will cater for it. And there's little sign of that market slowing up. CMON took a big loss this year and some have heralded that as signs of the market slowing. Others, though, point out that the accounting period was between big releases, making the numbers deceptive. Only time will tell. Either way, there are still plenty of people who don't care, don't know or who actively defend what's happening as a good thing. So I have little choice but to ride the wave, and on that wave, handing out awards seems pointless. 

In June this year, I went to the UK's biggest convention. On the Saturday night I took a walk around the open gaming area. I saw a lot of gamers enjoying a lot of games including Modern Art, El Grande, even Catan. But not once did I see a copy of Rising Sun. It was everywhere early in the year, so inescapable that I saw people playing it in pubs. Now it's vanished. I might not be sure what games among the glut might be worthy winners, but I'm pretty certain who in this scenario are the losers. 

This article, like everything I post here, was written for free. If it's made you re-evaluate the importance of good, unbiased criticism against the value of actual games, or even just enjoyed it, please will you consider donating to my Patreon to ensure I can keep on doing it?

There Will Be Games best board games 2018
best board games 2018
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


Articles by Matt

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SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #287815 09 Dec 2018 19:58
That says it so well.

Critics’ “best of” lists don’t matter because there’s no way they played everything
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #287817 09 Dec 2018 20:19
Great article. The glut is real, and it is difficult for anybody to sort through all the mediocrity to get to the good games. I think that the art theory is valid, and absolutely the best explanation for the popularity of an epic compromise like Scythe.

I played Rising Sun, once, and feel no urge to ever play again. It isn't a bad game, just a very forgettable one where the setting is diminished by the structured and arbitrary gameplay. Rising Son is an assymetrical area control game that play out like a vaguely themeless Chaos in the Old World. The appeal most likely comes courtesy of the nicely sculpted miniatures. I could say similar things about Root, except that Root is more boldly assymetrical, to the point where certain factions are obviously better than others.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #287818 09 Dec 2018 20:22

SuperflyTNT wrote: That says it so well.

Critics’ “best of” lists don’t matter because there’s no way they played everything

Absolutely. I think the only thing that makes sense these days is a "best new to me." Very few critics play enough to have a legit top 10 that could credibly encompass a good portion of major games coming out... maybe like Charlie Theel? Not many others.

Good article matt, but I still want to hear your best plays of the year. I promise I won't call it your best games of the year or use it as a buying guide. ;)
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #287821 09 Dec 2018 21:25
I see nothing wrong with a "best games I played this year" list. It's the truth. These are the best games YOU played this year. Nobody plays everything.

My favorite game of all time is Neuroshima Hex. I didn't play all abstract war games before declaring it my favorite.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #287823 09 Dec 2018 22:16
Thanks for not making a list. Lists are the epitome of lazy writing and is the weapon of choice amongst the clickbaiters.

EDIT-No offense to Jeff and his list, aside from it being wrong.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #287824 09 Dec 2018 22:51
Dig the article Matt and it's a bit sobering.

I will say though that I feel it's somewhat obvious that a critic or reviewers top release list is based solely on their experience and not definitive. Nothing we can ever say in a qualitative sense could be definitive, whether about new releases or old. That's just the way it is, we can talk about our own experiences and that's it.

But let's imagine we could play every new release. So what? We'd still disagree on selections for a top releases of the year.

If you're looking for a top list or awards show to find any sense of truth, you're missing the point I think.

These lists exist as a discussion piece and a spotlight to bring certain games into the greater conversation. Taking them too seriously is a path that will only lead to disappointment.

Your readers won't possibly buy or commit to every game you recommend. You're merely providing another data point they can bring into their net. Furthermore, many won't even be reading your best of list for purchase advice, maybe we just want to see you write a few words about games, glean some of your thoughts, and take a break from the daily grind.
WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #287825 09 Dec 2018 22:52
Just for the record: When my best of 2018 list comes out, I'd like everyone to know I had no idea Matt was planning this article.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #287832 10 Dec 2018 05:06
Thanks all, glad to know the piece struck a nerve.

Gary Sax wrote: Good article matt, but I still want to hear your best plays of the year. I promise I won't call it your best games of the year or use it as a buying guide. ;)

It's not just because people see it as a buying guide but because I feel listing them would really undermine the impact of the article.

hotseatgames wrote: I see nothing wrong with a "best games I played this year" list. It's the truth. These are the best games YOU played this year. Nobody plays everything.

My favorite game of all time is Neuroshima Hex. I didn't play all abstract war games before declaring it my favorite.

Here's the thing though: I know that and you know that and, in theory, everyone reading a list article knows that. But in reality, that's not how people behave when they read them.

Same goes for Charlie's reply, really. It's about perception, not about the facts on the ground. And if all the critics could play all the games and all come up with entirely different lists - which is unlikely, but plausible - at least they'd all be honest and properly considered. As it stands, the risk is that what we likely end up doing is - deservedly or not - re-hyping already-hyped games. Which is a key part of the problem here.
BaronDonut's Avatar
BaronDonut replied the topic: #287838 10 Dec 2018 09:16
Nice article! You make some great points about how year-end lists can contribute to groupthink and a myopic focus on a few big games, especially when the glut of releases means trying to get a handle on a year's output is downright impossible. But I have to say, I love the year end list format and always have--even though I know it's flawed, it creates a great rhetorical space for a writer to wrestle and compare things and make grand hyperbolic statements. I mean, any kind of hierarchical, numerical ranking of art is a totally dubious and inherently failed task. But sure do I love it as a way to generate conversation.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #287843 10 Dec 2018 10:16
I'm not interested in playing all or even most of the stuff that is firehosed out every year. I like playing new stuff, but only with an eye towards finding out if it's something I'll enjoy in the long haul. I'm not interested in playing a new game for the sheer sake of playing a new game.

I'm in the minority at the moment. My interactions with others (some even in my group) show that a large portion of gamers love learning and playing new games and aren't bothered if they then move on to something else. The current environment is great for them, so they see nothing wrong. There's always something new and therefore exciting coming out.

For me, though, it's a hassle, for a few reasons. First, if any game will do then every game will do, and so much chatter makes no attempt to speak to the quality and longevity of a game. I'm told how beautiful it is, I'm told how fun it is, I'm told how interesting it is, how novel it is, how complex or simple it is, and (laughingly) how some randomized setup element allows for tons of replayability -- it seems on the surface this is all I need -- except that every single "review" makes the exact same points over and over for every game. Everything ends up a 7 or 8 and never gets any long-term look (by which I mean more than just "I played this 7 times in one weekend") and so none of these assessments ultimately mean anything. It's not a review, it's a ritual.

I do the "Best New To Me" thing, though I shouldn't (not because I think best of lists are bad or lists are bad but because I'd really not like to add to the fetishization of 'new') but I try to not just look at how much I enjoyed my play of this game but how much I'd like to get future plays out of it and how well I think it stands up to that. But I'm no writer.
xthexlo's Avatar
xthexlo replied the topic: #287845 10 Dec 2018 10:24
This is an excellent piece, Matt. One that really resonates with me.

One of my (many) personality flaws is that I feel compelled to run counter to hype. If everyone is into something, I tend to avoid that thing. That’s why I’ve never watched Game of Thrones and have no desire to see Hamilton. It’s also why I will likely never seek out Blood Rage or Scythe or Conan or any other highly hyped game. In fact, the greater the hype, more I think, “Well, they certainly don’t need me!”

Sadly, there are reviewers that seem to gravitate to hyped games and popular titles. Perhaps theirs is a conscience decision fueled by the belief that following hype will lead to increased readership. There are others, such as your yourself, Michael, Charlie, Dan, etc. who I believe go out of their way to discuss games they have found interesting for reasons other than popularity: quirkiness, excitement of children, behavior of their play group, etc. I find these discussions to be clever, insightful, and honest. And they don’t make me feel marginalized for not being a member of the Cult of the New.

In my opinion, the greatest damage a review can do is cause a reader to feel left out, bypassed, or somehow ill-advised in or by the choice of games they purchased, played, or loved. This is seldom deliberate, but often implied by poor writers and newly minted critics.

Carry on, Matt. I’m with you.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #287853 10 Dec 2018 13:41
Best of lists and awards always represent a specific slice of the board game market. They usually reveal more about the reviewer/awards committee than they do about the games.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #287854 10 Dec 2018 14:05
Lists are fun, and there are two ways to digest them.

1. Find the game that's on all the lists, and then go play that. Root will be everywhere; I still want to try that.

2. Find the game(s) that only show up on one or two people's lists, but sound interesting to you- maybe it's something you might have missed and is a genre standout.

xthexlo wrote: That’s why I’ve never watched Game of Thrones and have no desire to see Hamilton.

I've read the 5 books that are out but seen scattered episodes plus the first season. With Hamilton, just find the soundtrack (or part of it) and see if you like it. We still haven't "seen" Hamilton but count it as one of our favorite musicals in the house. It, along with some noisey articles and This is America caused me to go back and look at rap for the first real time in my life.

I found out about some of those 2000s Rio Grande titles because of the groupthink (Dominion, Power Grid, Race for the Galaxy) and still enjoy them over a lot of the now-new stuff, and I'm still excited for my occasional D&D 5e session.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #287880 10 Dec 2018 20:10
Great article, Matt. I agree with others that there's value in doing a "best of" list, if only so that your regular readers can get your perspective on the games that you played. I know that there's never been a Top 10 of the Year list that I've ever seen in which I've played all 10 of the games listed. Sometimes I haven't even played a top 5, since I'm almost perpetually behind the regulars and/or the Cult of the New. (I only played my first game of Blood Rage a few months ago.) No compulsion, but I wouldn't let the lack of comprehensive knowledge prevent you from writing whatever you want.
jur's Avatar
jur replied the topic: #287937 11 Dec 2018 17:56
While I do agree with Matt on the impossibility of playing all the games that are published in a year, that problem is as big now as it was 10 years ago. Once there's more than 100 games published, playing them all is hopeless. And nobody did 10 years ago. All the lists back then were a sham too.

I guess if you really wanted to do a GOTY, there's several ways, most of which require selection and hard work. If you wanted to do a best of for 2018, you should have started a year ago and hunted for it. Pick the games of good designers well in advance, and keep an ear out for games in the outfield. There's a lot of games coming out, but you can dismiss 90% on first sight and another bunch on a 30 minute read through.

Limiting your scope (I would have loved a list on the best Ameritrash games of 2018) makes it a lot easier. And most reviewers do this implicitly by crossing of kids games and wargames wholesale. But even then it's still a lot of work, quite possibly undoable for a part time reviewer. And you would have to give up playing older games, which would suck out the fun of the whole excercise.

You could wait with the list until the end of 2019 and let others do a lot of the selection for you. Actually, to do a GOTY2013 now is probably not a bad idea. The hype has gone and it should be possible to say which ones have stood the test of time.

And all that only if you think a GOTY is a good idea in the first place.