Short Cut to Remote Gaming Forum (29 Aug 2020)
Since remote gaming has now become a significant part of how we play board games, we have added a short cut to this forum in the menu on the left.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
I still have never come back Caylus or Thurn & Taxis and I intend to keep it that way.
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.
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.
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.
I'm talking about stuff like Michael's review of Tigris & Euphrates or pretty much every single forum post from HiveGod.
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:
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.
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.