The three dimensions of board game reviews

Whenever I find myself with too much time on my hands, or my head is subconsciously working out some issue or another and keeping me up until the middle of the night… I end up thinking about board games. And when I do I inevitably end up thinking about how we talk about board games. Because how we talk about something is sometimes just as important as what we’re saying. Just ask Michel Foucault. But I’m getting sidetracked. (It’s a thing with me. Apologies in advance.)

Basically, what I ended up thinking about was how board game reviewing seems to move within three conceptual axis. That is to say, there are three directions that reviews of board games can move into. Three general ways in which we talk about board games and which inevitably shapes what our talking about board games brings to the table.

For ease of reference I tried putting names to them. As prosaic and descriptive as I could, and I would recommend ignoring any connotations those labels bring with them. The terms were not chosen based on what they imply, but merely on their simplest definitions.

I think that board game reviews move along three dimensions: the Experiential, the Analytical and the Contextual.

The most common, and fundamental of the three is the experiential. This is the kind that aims to express and relate the experience of playing to the audience. What does it feel like to play this game? This can be based on purely the reviewer’s own experience, usually over multiple plays; but it can also take into account the experience of other members of the reviewer’s gaming group. The experiential dimension is the biggest appeal of DIY criticism in board games, film or TV. The kind that was popularized with scoop sites like Aint-It-Cool-News or Dark Horizons and on amateur video platforms like YouTube. Its biggest strength lies in its accessibility. Everyday people express their emotions directly to you. The closer it gets to unfiltered and unredacted expression of emotion, the better. Reaction videos are a direct offshoot of this approach for TV series. In board games live playthroughs seem to exist in a similar way. Which is one of the reasons why I consider paid playthroughs on the same level as paid reviews. This is also why “not being afraid of disliking a game” is so often held up as a virtue for reviewers. With these reviews it’s the delivery that sells the experience of play as much as any coherent argument or explanation. And since it often lacks the sheen of a professional production, it further emphasizes the authenticity of the review, and therefore its trustworthiness. The review is raw and unpolished, therefore there can be no ulterior motive.

One of the reasons why this type of review is so appealing, is that it suggests that we need not engage critically with what we see.

We do not need to question the soundness of the reviewer’s argument. Their authenticity, likability and compatibility with our own preferences are sufficient to let us only pay attention to the review’s tone and enthusiasm. Which is tragic in a way, as I believe the vast majority of reviewers put great care and effort in producing more than just energetic and entertaining promotion material for games. But looking at the responses and discussions said reviews generate, I am not entirely convinced that their audience appreciates or engages with those reviews in that way. A cogent argument or well articulated critique is quickly disregarded in favour of simple, straight-forward emotion. It’s hardly surprising then, that established reviewers find their audience clamoring for simple Yay-or-Nay verdicts on the hottest and most talked about games on the market. A nuanced critique or hint of ambivalence does not seem to fit with the reception of predominantly experiential reviews.

The analytical dimension on the other hand is more concerned with game design, rules and presentation. It delves into the why of the gaming experience, in that it looks for the causes of it. What about the game’s design leads players to have a certain experience? What is the clever design decision that elevates this bog-standard worker placement game above the rest? What makes this particular social deduction game succeed, when so many others failed with the reviewer’s group? To some extent asking these questions is inevitable with any serious reviewer who wishes to move beyond simply reiterating their own preferences with each review. In part because of a desire to be logically consistent, they seek to differentiate between superficially identical games that still led to notably different experiences. Since it is far easier to compare two rulebooks with one another, than the social dynamics, personal history and psychological profiles of their gaming group at two separate points in time, talking about rules and design becomes the natural focal point of an experienced reviewer. It pays off in two ways. On the one hand it serves as proof to the audience that the reviewer’s criticism is based on (some) analysis and evaluation. That care and effort was put into understanding the game’s dynamics and laying it out for the audience to get a better understanding of the game, and by extension the experience that it provides. It delves deeper into the intersection of rules and people.

It’s also a fantastically gratifying puzzle to solve.

Finding the one piece or one element that differentiates this game’s experience from others of its genre, is a challenge that simply playing those games doesn’t quite deliver. It’s a little like trying to figure out how a magician pulled off a great trick. The drawback here being that it’s usually only of interest to aspiring and established game designers. (Even if getting the rules right is only one part of making a game.) But those looking to just get a purchase recommendation, may award such arguments some appreciative nods, but rarely find them much help in making a decision. Most gamers don’t pick up a game because it cleverly subverts common design tropes. For most people, it’s the experience that sells them on it.

Finally, in the third strand, I would see the contextual dimension. These are reviews that look at the design craft and gaming experience in the context of the people playing, and the hobby itself. Namely, it looks at the game and asks to what end do these elements work together? What’s the point of this? These questions show up most often when games tackle unusual ideas or settings, like Fog of Love or The Grizzled. The contextual dimension appears when a reviewer looks at the gaming activity in general and us gamers as a group in particular. This is where questions of representation are brought up, socio-economic concerns or cultural criticism. Like how board games play down the excesses of colonization, imperialism or capitalism. Topics and settings that are commonplace in board gaming, yet it seems churlish or even pretentious to openly question them. As if having pointed it out once was enough, and asking for more than non-committal shrugs would be inappropriate. But that is why reviews engaging games along those lines should be encouraged. They normalize a critical attitude towards the media we engage in. A medium that means so much to people, that they are willing to create hundreds of hours of media about it each week for free, giving the lie to the claim that it’s “just a silly game”. It shows that attempting to trivialize the hobby is nothing but unchecked anti-intellectualism.

Gaming is a form of social engagement, and thereby culture; and all culture must be critically examined by those that love it.

One such question should probably be why board games are so deeply imbued with the fetish of optimization? Why do we take it for granted that everything must be efficient and optimized? Is optimal use of resources and perfect efficiency really the only and best approach? Is that how we want the world to work, too? Should public institutions also strive for optimal efficiency? Is our society’s approach to housing, health care, education somehow failing because it runs at a loss? Should we attempt financial balance, instead? Or even profit? And haven’t the last 25 years proven beyond a doubt how utterly ridiculous and toxic such a belief is? Of course, I’m not saying that board gaming is either cause or effect here, but board games aren’t made in some sort of cognitive bubble. They do not exist in a cultural mirror universe with only accidental connections to the real world. Board games are cultural artifacts that express – intentionally or not – the biases, assumptions and beliefs of those making them. And it is those biases that people find reaffirmed when they sit down to play a game that “simply clicks” and “intuitively makes sense” to them. Starting from the game’s setting to the implicit assumptions about player behavior as expressed in the rulebook. It is these biases and assumptions that are worth pointing out in games. And sometimes they may need to be criticized openly, clearly and loudly.

Now all that is well and good, but what exactly does that mean? Are experiential reviews bad? Are analytical reviews a waste of time? Does anybody but me care about contextual reviews? I’m fairly certain the answer to all those questions is a resounding “NO!”. I think anyone who is invested in doing board game reviews needs to balance those three dimensions to the best of their ability and ambition. I think there is no way to successfully review a game without paying due diligence to the experiential dimension of it. On the other hand, I’m far more drawn to reviews (or articles) that explore games on the contextual axis. Like this one. And I can’t deny that writing an analytical review is great fun to me. I seriously doubt I could write one that doesn’t at least try to do that.

Maybe the point is this, if dimensions like these do exist in board game reviews, it’s worth thinking about where we find ourselves on them and where we want to be. Both as those making reviews and those consuming them.

Or maybe I just need a good 8 hours of sleep again.

It’s one or the other, I’m sure.

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