Archive for Commentary
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
I am currently riding the Amtrack between Philidelphia and Lancaster. The ride is pleasant enough but each time I travel to the WBC I am reminded how much of a pain it is to get there and this time is no different; I suspect it will be another few years before I visit the convention again. This is not to say the convention is not enjoyable. It is. But the travel annoyances are such that I would generally prefer to visit conventions that do not require as much for my attendance. I suspect that the next US-based convention I visit besides BGG.Con will be Gen Con, to see if the board gaming situation has improved since I last visited.
On the bright side I will be seeing friends both old and new very soon. In addition to Kurt and John, both of whom I have gamed with at least a handful of times before, I will also spend a few days enjoying the company of Geof Gambill, host of the Long View podcast. There has been some discussion of us recording an episode on site, but we will see what happens.
Speaking of The Long View, a previously recorded episode on which I was present as a guest, for the game Brass, was released this week. You can check it out over at www.2d6.org. It was definitely fun recording the episode and between this and my recent guest stint on Wooden Cubes. I am starting to both feel comfortable with the format and appreciate it. In addition to these two podcasts I also have been listening to the Dice Tower (due to its reach) and Ludology (because I enjoy some of their topics). The Long View is definitely my favorite though. If you like podcasts at all I highly recommend checking it out.
I still do not see myself changing my opinion about the general utility of video reviews. While I admit that they are useful for those who want a rules explanation that is not something that generally interests me. As you may have guessed, I prefer slightly more in-depth fare that is difficult to get across in video regardless of the commentators intent. The fact that I do most of my Internet consumption in situations where video is not appropriate only deepens my disinterest. For those of you out there who do appreciate the commentary that video supplies, what is the appeal? Is there something I am missing?
Anyway, my train is getting close to the station so I must bid you farewell. As you might imagine there will be no article this week. Hopefully I will be able to return with a fun convention report. Have a good week!
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
In my article A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011, I talked about how the incentives of board game reviewing discouraged individual commentators from exploring games in depth, explaining in part why A Few Acres of Snow was not identified as broken until much later, as fans of the game began to explore the game in more detail. However, the desire to get reviews out early is not the only factor that can compromise the quality of a commentator’s work. Both relationships and material considerations may impact a commentator’s ability to provide authentic content, but I think relationships have a much more interesting and pervasive effect, and one that directly leads to a lot of the material benefits that commentators can receive.
One thing that separates the board gaming community from other entertainment communities is its small size. Publishers frequently have only a dozen people, at most, working for them full time, and there is very little social separation from the top echelons of the industry to the bottom. It is very easy for the community at large to meet some of the more prominent names in the board game industry; a lot of the time, it is simply a matter of attending one of the conventions they also attend. Commentators in particular have an easy time of it, as they usually have had digital contact with designers and publishers in the past, and thus a basis for interaction. It is only natural, and really, unavoidable, that with this level of interaction, commentators and industry people will forge friendships based on mutual respect and shared interest in games. Unfortunately, these friendships can also introduce biases into the commentator’s work.
Designers and publishers are in the business of selling their board games, so it is only natural that, in addition to sending copies of a game to the most popular reviewers, who have the widest influence, they will also send them to commentators with whom they are friends (or, at least, with whom they have a history of positive interactions). If these friends are also popular commentators, all the better. Because each review copy is part of a publisher’s advertising budget, they figure that someone who is already favorably inclined towards them will be more likely to write a positive review, or at least less likely to produce something damaging. This also helps out the commentator, as they do not have to purchase the game, and it helps them to build their audience, as people tend to be most hungry for news about games immediately prior to or following release. Early copies allow commentators to time their review in such a way to maximize this impact.
Even when a close relationship does not bias a commentator towards producing positive commentary for a game, producing negative content can still induce guilt. Writing a poor review of a friend’s game is tough enough, but having to write something negative about a game that a casual acquaintance (or total stranger) sent you for free can also be tough. Because of the relatively small size of the hobby, most game designers are enthusiastic amateurs, and producing a negative review for their game can feel like kicking a small puppy. There is also a strong audience bias toward positive reviews of games, particularly on BoardGameGeek, that tends to reward positive reviews unless the negative review is presented particularly effectively.
I am not immune to the effects of these pressures. When I produced my first “Gamer’s Games of Essen” geeklist in 2010, Vital Lacerda, the designer of one of the games I discussed, messaged me and offered to send me an early copy of the Vinhos rulebook. I looked it over and offered some suggestions, and we have since become involved in various discussions, about gaming and otherwise. While not as many people read my reviews in 2010 as do now, it made sense for Vital to send me a review copy, as I was obviously favorably inclined towards him and seemed excited about the game. Luckily, I ended up liking Vinhos, but if I had ended up disliking it, I would have been in quite a quandry. Do I not write about the game? Do I try to hold back some of my negative opinions? I think the answer to each of those questions is no, but I do not really know, and will likely not know until I am put in a situation where I am forced to answer. I can definitely say, though, that I hope Vital continues to produce games I like, because I would feel bad writing a negative review of one of his games.
None of this changes the responsibilities commentators have to their audience and the board gaming public. However, it is very easy for commentators to get put into a position where there they have to decide between being a jackass to someone they know personally or lying to a generally faceless audience. Odds fall more heavily on the side of the people they know personally when these people are also providing them with material favors that could potentially help them grow their audience. However, these materials also add to the risk that a commentator may damage their credibility to the point where they are useful to neither their audience nor the publishers.
For those who provide analysis, both of gaming trends and games themselves, it is important that they provide authentic opinions, informed by the quality of the product rather than their opinion of the person making the product. If they fail to do this, they lose their value to their audience, as they become proxy marketers rather than fellow consumers. Arguably, they also become less useful for publishers, providing them with less–than-honest feedback and failing to encourage them to do better.
This is why it is important for analytic commentators to maintain a separation between their opinions of a game and the people involved in making said game. Even if it feels like you are hurting a friend or kicking a puppy when you write (or speak) negatively about a game to your audience, it is still important to be honest in order to maintain your credibility for your audience and to provide effective feedback for the people involved in producing the game. Nobody is served well by you praising a game that you do not believe in.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Like many members of our wonderful species, I enjoy novelty. I like to try the new, limited edition ice cream flavors that are offered periodically at Publix (right now we have cartons of Pina Colada and Cherry Cheesecake in our fridge), I like to watch the latest and greatest in cinema, and I like to check out new and different board games. This desire for the new and interesting is what has driven me to play 347 different games since February 2008. This translates directly into my own particular version of the cult of the new; I enjoy experiencing these new games, but typically in great detail and only if they bring something new to the table. Of course, not every game will introduce major innovations, but there is a certain level of “newness” that a game has to offer in order to provide the hook to draw me in. I am still working out what level of innovation works for me, but three recent works, 1989: Dawn of Freedom, Ora et Labora, and Titans of Industry have done a good job in helping me to further delineate what I need.
There appear to be four main levels of innovation in board games: influential innovations, incremental innovations, reimplementations, and retreads. Influential innovators are genre-defining games that have ripple effects for years to come. Incremental innovators produce small scale innovations that push forward particular genres, and create new problem solving spaces, but have neither the importance nor impact of the influential innovators. Reimplementations take an existing game’s core concepts and present them in a new way. Retreads reassemble ideas presented in previous games in a new configuration, without doing much, if anything, to introduce something new.
Influential innovators are games that introduce a mechanic or structure that has the right combination of originality and influence that it causes reverberations throughout the industry. Dominion is perhaps the most recent examples of this sort of game, but even within the last decade we have seen games such as Caylus, Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition, and Puerto Rico have a similar impact. For me, these are all quite exciting to play and explore. While I do not end up loving all of them, they are usually interesting enough to at least investigate because they help me to better understand why the game is important, and what its impact has been on further games.
The vast majority of games have more incremental levels of innovation, and their level of importance is less based on how effectively they are able to diffuse into the overall consciousness of the gaming public. Many of the innovations introduced by these games, such as the escalating number of workers of Agricola or the two dimensions of area control in Dominant Species, are interesting and fun but not nearly as significant as the ones introduced by the gaming public by the games in the first class. I am sometimes interested in trying out these games because of potential innovations, but these tend to be played much more frequently according to my general preferences; I am much less likely to try out an incrementally innovative light or medium game then I am to try one of a greater degree of complexity or depth.
The third class of games, reimplementations, is a smaller one that I have really only warmed to recently. These are the sorts of games that feature a very strong similarity to previous games, frequently by the same designer, but are implemented in such a way that they produce a different experience. My earliest real experience with this particular type of game was the Command & Colors series. I was looking to get into a tactical miniatures game, and its prominence in the BGG rankings was enough for me to become interested in the series. My focus at that time was more on finding an individual entry in the series that suited my particular desire for a game I could explore in great depth, rather then a desire to explore the series as a whole. Of course, this ability to find a particular game to suit my needs, in this case Command & Colors: Ancients, itself speaks to the strength of this particular brand of reimplementation. By making it so that each of the games in the series is significantly different, it gives opportunities for both dabblers to find a particular game that is right for them, while still allowing those who grow to appreciate the overall Command & Colors system the opportunity to either explore it in more detail or have the ability to play the Command & Colors game that best fits the needs of a particular moment. I have not personally felt the need to dive deeper into Command & Colors, though the Napoleonic game does look interesting, but I do appreciate what Borg has been able to accomplish with the series. It is an impressive body of work.
I have been less impressed with Martin Wallace’s new implementations of older games, and for many years his attempts clouded my impressions of reimplementations in general. Lancashire Railways was reimplemented as New England Railways and Australian Railways, while Age of Steam was reimplemented as Railroad Tycoon and Steam, and Brass was reimplemented as Age of Industry. While I am not that familiar with the Lancashire Railways line, having only played Australian Railways, I found the Age of Steam and Brass reimplementations to be less than impressive. The first reason I think is largely thematic. The reimplementations that I find to be most successful are those that take a flexible basic system and then fundamentally restructure how the secondary aspects of the system work in order to allow the game to successfully implement the new theme. With the theme being fairly consistent within each of Marin Wallace’s reimplementations, there are fewer opportunities for the raw creativity seen for games where the designer forces himself to adapt the game to an entirely new thematic structure. The second reason is simply that I think they are worse as games then previous entries in the series, lacking the brutality and depth that made the originals so engaging and exciting.
So based on my looks at Martin Wallace and Richard Borg’s designs, it seems that in order for a reimplementation to work for me it needs to feature both an attempt to adapt the game structure to a different theme, and the innovation that comes from this adaption, as well as to retain the general depth and effectiveness of the original designs. The Command & Colors series of games is able to effectively accomplish the first part of this equation. Whether it accomplishes the second part or not is something you will have to ask individuals who have more thoroughly explored the series, but there are two very recent games that I believe manage to successfully accomplish both goals: Ora et Labora and 1989: Dawn of Freedom.
Ora et Labora is essentially a reimplementation of Uwe Rosenberg’s well-regarded 2008 release Le Havre. This is disguised better than it is for the Command & Colors games by the simple fact that the dedication to thematic conversion is far more complete then it is in the Command & Colors series of games. I suspect that this is simply due to a desire to maintain a more obviously consistent central mechanism throughout the Command & Colors games; more significant changes in the service of theme would probably change the game enough to reduce the ease of adoption for those who are interested in trying out another title in the series. Regardless of the reasoning, Ora et Labora’s shifts from Le Havre are significant enough to be interesting, and fulfill both of my criterion as to what makes a good reimplementation. It is so effective that Ora et Labora actually exceeds Le Havre in my eyes, though their differences are such that I could easily see playing either of them if it was not for the greater popularity Ora et Labora has in my local play group.
1989: Dawn of Freedom is not the first reimplementation of Jason Matthew’s Twilight Struggle, but I find it to be far more interesting then 2007’s 1960: The Making of a President. This is because, while 1960 is able to successfully achieve the first of my two criterions, by being a reimplementation that uses a new thematic setting to drive innovation, it fails the second one, by failing to be as challenging and rigorous as the original. 1989 successfully achieves both of these criterions; though I am less certain it is a clear improvement like Ora et Labora is over Le Havre. The similarities between Twilight Struggle and 1989, which are mechanically closer than Ora et Labora and Le Havre, have allowed the designers to include some level of refinement and helpful streamlining that is not quite possible with more extensive reimplementations. These are mostly positive but they attempts also reduce some of the tension in the game, and at first I suspected the games were thematically similar enough to make the reimplementation less effective. It ended up working for me, but I imagine there will be people who find that it is not worthwhile to have both games.
Retreads are games that largely feature mechanics introduced before with either slightly different combinations of previous mechanics and generally minimal levels of innovation. Some of these are similar on the surface to reimplementations, but typically they do not display the level of understanding of the original design, and ways to tweak it in interesting ways that reimplementations have. Titans of Industry is a recent example of this. At its core it is a fairly basic worker placement game, with spaces to collect resources, convert resources into money or VPs, get workers, and the like with the only real twist being that acquisition of buildings is handled by a money-based draft at the beginning of the round. While this is marginally interesting, it is not enough of a separation for me to even count Titans of Industry as even an incremental innovator. The game could quite possible by enjoyable, but it does not do enough for me to even consider justifying it as worth purchasing. Unfortunately a lot of games are like this. While retreads are not the biggest category, it is probably the second biggest, with incremental innovators making up the largest categories of released games.
My views on what makes a good or bad game have evolved at a consistent pace over the course of my four years in the hobby. I have gone from wanting lighter games that were easier to teach to my friends and family to being mostly interested in the more deep and challenging games in the course of this time, and I have no doubt the specifics of my preferences will continue to change. My shifting opinion of reimplementations is an example of this and I fully expect my overall opinions both on this subject, and others, will continue to be refined as I think further about what is a good game and about games in general.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Discussion About Board Game Criticism
The amount of discussion on the state of board game criticism has exploded a bit in the last couple of weeks, so for those who have might of missed individual parts of it, I am going to highlight individual articles and post my responses, if any, to each of them.
First off, Tamburlain questioned,
That game design is a form of art is a given. But from a culturally normative perspective, not all art, including popular art, is considered worthy of the same kind of attention. There are reasons why there aren't journals devoted to the appreciation of butter sculpture, and even better reasons why there aren't salons for the appreciation of those who appreciate it.
Before I read a 3,000 word essay on The Transformative Hermaneutics of Auction Mechanisms: A Critical Comparison of 'Zombie Zits!' and 'The Merchants of Nostalgia III', I want to know what kind of insight I can expect in return for my time and attention that I couldn't get from a less formal enquiry.
Please don't get me wrong. I'm writing this as a person who has enjoyed your game reviews but is puzzled by your latest blog posts calling for a more academic approach to criticism. Without knowing more about the specific subjects you feel are worth exploring that presumably aren't being explored (here on BGG, in gaming podcasts like Ludology, etc.) and without knowing the methods you propose for exploring them, then it's difficult to tell if what you are calling for is greater depth or just greater bathos.
Sure, there are not journals devoted to those topics you have noted, but I think that there is a basis for intellectual and cultural analysis of board games then there are for butter sculpture or things along those lines.
What I am generally pushing for is simply for those people who are interested in discussing board games topics in greater depth to do so, and for those whom want to see this sort of discussion to occur to support those who are writing about those topics through attention of the style I described in my article. I do not really even care that much what the particular subjects are about, though broader topics are of course more useful than the more specialized ones that you particular example provides. I am honestly not even sure that an academic approach is quite what I want. I think academic support would be a helpful intellectual tool to have in the goal of producing effective board game content, but ultimately what I would like is something a bit more in-between. Matt Thrower stated in the comment section of his wonderful article over at Fortress Ameritrash that,
...I think there’s a third way in between consumer reviews and academia. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s the sort of writing you see in book and film reviews in quality newspapers. It informs the consumer, but also gives them a great deal to chew over. However it’s possible that this styles relies on a basic knowledge of academic criticism amongst the target audience, and those fundamentals have yet to be established when it comes to gaming.
This is essentially what I want to but extended not only to reviews but also articles in general. Luckily, I think there is more room for this sort of discussion and these sorts of articles in general both on and off BGG, and I think some recent articles by Nate Straight and Martin G., not to mention a large number of articles by Matt Thrower, have been excellent examples of this. If we had more authors writing to this level of quality and approachability I would be a pretty happy man.
Speaking of Matt Thrower, he has written a second excellent article on board game criticism and journalism. I agree largely with what he has to say, and want to encourage everyone to go read it, but I did find one point to quibble with and that is his statement that,
The final barrier is the extraordinarily wide polarisation of taste in the board game community. In other areas of criticism there is a general agreement over what is genuinely great, and what is not. If you picked a critic’s list of top ten video games for your platform of choice, for example, the chances are you’d enjoy the majority of them whatever your particular tastes in games. Likewise if you sat through some recommendations of a film or literary critic. But in board gaming, one man’s meat is genuinely another’s poison. The standard geek lack of empathy exacerbates this problem, a seeming inability to see what constitutes “fun” in a board game varies very widely depending on the player and the resultant preaching that playing one type of game or another is somehow wrong, and that this point can somehow be proved beyond doubt with a scientific analysis of the mechanics.
I think Matt is overstating the amount of agreement that is found in other areas of criticism. While I can’t speak too heavily about video game or literary criticism, both film and music criticism seem to have some pretty sharp divides in what the is particularly “best” the best music or movies of a particular year, and individual critics lists reflect this. Sometimes there is general agreement about a particular piece, but just as often there are some pretty sharp divisions about whether something like the “Tree of Life” is a great work of art or merely pretentious crap, not to mention the divides between “rockists” and “popists”, not to mention fans of the gigantic number of musical genres, among those who critically examine music.
I do not want to overstate my case here, and I suspect that there probably is a bit more of an agreement about what makes a great piece of art in film and musical criticism then there is in board game criticism, but the divisions are real in film and music criticism. I also think that the polarization goes back in part to the relative maturity of the different fields of criticism and the greater access to intellectual tools that film and musical critics have. As the field of board game criticism matures, I suspect that even with the divisions we will see some works applauded as being great even among those who sharply disagree on games otherwise, as we saw this last year with Mage Knight Board Game.
Mark Taylor wrote a pair of articles on his blog Painted Wooden Cubes.
The first article discusses the importance in not focusing too much on the number of plays as a barometer of the quality of review, a point which I think is a good one, though I do think he exaggerates a little bit in his discussion of what the potential impact of this would be. We are not going to see a halt in first impression or shallow reviews, simply because they are valued. Even if we end up persuading some people that more in-depth or nuanced reviews are more effective and better, the vast majority of people will still appreciate these sorts of responses. In fact I still value these sorts of reviews simply because even if I prefer content that is produced from someone whom has a more experienced view of the game, an effective early review can still serve as a great conversation starter. Of course many early reviews are not effective, but that as much a problem with the reviewers than the reviews themselves, as Mark ably points out.
His overall points seems to be that rather than criticizing speedier reviews, those who are interested in it should focus on supporting and celebrating those that are producing deeper works. He says,
Building on, referencing and commending one another’s work would be a start – it would let credit for insight find the correct recipient, while allowing commentators to push one another further, rather than continually restarting from first principles. Of course, this depends on those commentators knowing one another in the first place: a problem I am working on means to address.
I think this is absolutely correct, and is something I hope to do with my future work. I also look forward to whatever tool it is he is working towards creating that will help address the problem he sees.
His second article follows along with the first and focuses on how it is important for commentators who want better discussion to work on raising the level of their work rather than chastising those who do not follow. He also brings up the idea of producing something along the lines of the Cahiers du Cinema for board games and suggests that he wants to establish something along those lines for board games and asks for help establishing something along those lines. So if this is something that interests you, please contact him!
Nate Straight, whom I consider perhaps the best blogger on BGG right now, wrote a rather long article on the subject of criticism and board games and how criticism has changed with the advent of the internet and where he would like to see criticism go from here. I do not have any particular comment on the content of his article, as he posted it this morning and I am still digesting it, but I found this quote to be particularly good,
... in order to improve the state of board game criticism, we need critics who are willingly to look beyond a game's rules and mechanisms, into the styles and dynamics at play in the game. How does it feel to play the game? What other games [not what other mechanisms] is it like? How does the game present historical, sociological, political, or economic truths or theories? What species or types of decisions do you make in the game? How does the game make expected value ambiguous enough so as to present real choice? What is the relationship of the game to the state of the hobby and to the designer's other output? How does the game seek to interact with and improve the player? These are really interesting questions that would provide true substance to a review.
Martin G and Oliver Kiley have both made posts that have focused on a number of excellent topics, but also focus a bit on trying to slow down and more deeply explore particular board games, focusing on a “Cult of the Slow” rather than a “Cult of the New”
There are a number of people who are making a visible and concentrated effort to play fewer games more times. The whole idea aligns well with the "Slow Movement" (emerging from the Slow Foods Movement), in that it would encourage everyone to slow down on their consumption of new games in favor of deeper exploration and more plays of already known games. This is a little different from the this slow games concept of being more deliberate and less hurried when playing big strategic games. Others, such as Qwertymartin have taken it upon themselves to only play old games in as part of the NaNoNeGaMo event in June, or to play a few games 100 times or more. Ultimately, the "slow games" movement is about cherishing and getting the most of what we have, rather than adding more fuel to the hotness.
I do not see anything wrong with both consuming both new games and exploring existing games in more detail at the same time. In fact for those of us who find that the last few years have been particularly favorable to their game tastes, I think it is very worthwhile to explore these new works coming out in great detail. While you could perhaps wait until enough detail comes out to identify if a particular board game is going to fit your tastes that does not quite work for me. I guess I am part of the Cult of the New since I greatly enjoy diving into and being part of the conversation about these new releases, but that does not stop me from exploring games in great detail. It just happens that most of my in-depth exploration is of games that were released fairly recently. Four of my five most played games in the last six months are all 2011 releases (Mage Knight – 34 plays; Ora et Labora – 26 plays; Kingdom Builder – 24 plays; Sentinels of the Multiverse – 20 plays; and Race for the Galaxy – 16 plays) and if you look back at my Essen to Essen plays in 2010/2011 you will probably find that I played games released in that time period a lot. I absolutely think it is good to explore games in great detail, but I do not think there is any particular reason you have to only explore older games in great detail. There are perfectly good games being released today that are worth exploring.
A Slight Slow Down In Writing
I will probably be writing a little bit less in the next couple of weeks because we have a new arrival at my house. This weekend my partner decided to adopt a stray 1 year old kitten. He has been a delight so far, but in order to keep him a delight we need to spend a bit of time playing with him to keep him active, and making sure he is both comfortable with the apartment and realizes the sort of behavior we expect of him.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
In most mediums when an interesting new work is released, it generates a wave of discussion as its effects ripple through the critical world. The work is dissected for its relative value, and, if it is particularly noteworthy, what it meaningfully says about the current state of that medium. Newspapers, journals, blogs, and academic papers are all fundamental parts of this discourse, whether the work is a book, movie, or video game. However, board games do not have this same sort of critical infrastructure and this absence, and particularly the features of the board game hobby that have contributed to this absence, have helped shape the current state of board game critical discussion. While I do not have a definitive answer to this question, I believe that it can be narrowed down to three primary factors: the relative youth of modern board gaming, the size of the board game market, and the dominance of BoardGameGeek (BGG) in board game discussion.
The first factor is the relative newness of modern board game culture. The historical lines that have resulted in our three primary styles of games are well-documented elsewhere but their effects on game criticism has not been. The most important thing to note is that in the 60s and 70s a divergence occurred in board game styles resulted in very different sorts of games being developed in America, where the focus was largely on big games with science fiction and fantasy theme featuring asymmetric starting positions or conflict simulation, where in Germany the focus was on shorter games with symmetric starting positions and small, efficient rules. These lines converged with the release of Settlers of Catan, a game that proved to be a big hit first in Germany then in the United States. While the mechanical impacts of Settlers of Catan on other games were minimal, its presence increased awareness in the US of an entirely different hobby board game paradigm than the one that had dominated the market. At first this resulted in an increased presence of German board games in the American market, but as time went on cross-pollination began to occur and the different styles of games began to influence each other and merge in interesting ways creating an explosion of available games that both made high level critical analysis more viable as well as more necessary.
Holding this back has been, as Matt Thrower explained in his excellent article on the function of criticism in games, “...criticism of all sorts of games is a relatively new phenomenon. In the video game sector, progress has been held back by a pathetically patronising long-time perception that games were for kids, and kids didn’t need proper reviews, although it’s finally starting to come of age. For tabletop games, a stubborn celebration of amateurism seems to have become entrenched, no doubt partially due to virtually zero professional coverage of the genre. And without a professional attitude, you can’t have the self-examination necessary to ask what the purpose of a review is, and thus how you might go about improving it.” There has been some increase in the amount of high level critical analysis applied to board games, but the development of infrastructure necessary to facilitate this higher level of critical analysis has been slow. It is easy to assign blame for this to the relative youth of modern board gaming as a subject worthy of critical study compared to other mediums, but video games, which have had an even shorter period of existence and have suffered from the perception noted by Matt, currently have a more effective critical infrastructure then board games do. So the youth of modern board gaming is only a partial contributing factor to board gaming’s current lack of critical infrastructure. So what does video game culture have that board game culture has lacked? Sufficient demand for critical analysis.
Video games are a massive industry, in a way that board game publishers can only imagine and envy. While hobby board games have been making headway into more mainstream sellers, such as Barnes & Noble and Target, these are tentative steps towards cultural expansion, as opposed to the cultural domination video games have achieved. Of course, market size does not in itself ensure any sort of critical infrastructure, but video games’ profitability and cultural saturation do enable people to make money spending their time thinking (and writing) about video games. Some universities have PhD and Masters degree candidates performing research work related to video games; major media web sites and magazines run articles that discuss video games; and video game culture comes with a large enough audience to financially support individuals who build dedicated websites or blogs based around the critical discussion of video games. However, while there are individuals who make money on the academic or critical study of board games, the number of people who are able to do so is extremely small, and as far as I know, there is no one who makes enough money to do it full time.
While you do not need to make money in order to produce effective criticism, board games have a unique feature that makes it so being able to devote your attention to them full time is much more valuable than it is for books, movies, or video games: the need for other people to be involved in the experience. Exploring a board game generally requires you to have one or more other people to participate in the game experience with you, while other mediums can generally be explored as a solitary experience. While this need for other people to experience a board game does not reduce the quality of board game criticism, it does reduce the rate at which it can be produced. It is not simply a matter of finding a suitable amount of time to yourself, but also to coordinate your schedule with others so that you can spend time with them playing the game a sufficient number of times to truly understand it. For amateur board game critics this can be difficult, and requires a particularly understanding group, and creates a difficulty that critics in other fields do not have to worry about. Of course this means, that a professional board game critic would either need to be one in a larger group, or be in a gaming environment where they could guarantee that they could quickly and effectively play and critique newer games. The cost of paying for a full group of full-time games critics and the unreliability of needing to rely on people who are not paid to focus just on playing and analyzing games is such that the emergence of a true class of professional board games, like you see for other fields, is unlikely even if the board game market increases in size such that it even warrants them.
Books, film, and video games benefit from a rather wide variety of source of critical information, in which there are numerous bigger players and a thriving ecosystem of smaller ones that create a relatively healthy marketplace of ideas. In contrast, board games have a single hulking titan that dominates board game discussion. This web site, BoardGameGeek (BGG), distorts how hobby board game analysis develops, not out of any malice, but simply because of how it organizes the communication tools it provides. BGG combines elements of a social media site with a database, and its particular combination results in a great deal of focus being applied to areas that I feel discourage real critical discourse until recently. This would not matter much if BGG was simply one site among many equals, but its great scope and popularity give it a level of influence that is unparalleled in the hobby board game world, and thus drives the structure of most board-game-related discussion on the web.
BGG was started in January 2000 by Scott Alden and Derk Solko, just as eurogames were beginning to pick up momentum in the United States, in an attempt to create the definitive site on board games. They largely succeeded, in a way that has had both positive and negative effects on the development of critical discussion of board games. BGG’s initial influence was entirely positive; before it came into existence; most board game discussion took place on virtual bulletin boards, private mailing lists, or on other small web sites. BGG provided a consolidated web location that first served as a database for board game information, particularly for the German-style board games that were still fairly new to the United States, and then slowly added functionality such as forums that enhanced the means that individuals had to communicate their opinions on board games to each other. The site’s structure, which created discussion communities focused on individual games, was extremely helpful in the early days of critical discourse on board games. However, as time went on, this structure limited the attention given to content that discussed multiple games, or content with a scope broader than discussion of specific games, simply because of the sort of discussion BGG was designed to encourage.
If BGG was not the centerpiece of so much of the hobby’s board game discussion, its structure would have less impact on the critical community, as secondary web sites would provide alternative means of communicating critical content that was not game-specific. However, because of BGG’s dominance, it is difficult for these sorts of sites to get entirely outside of BGG’s orbit, and much of the content that ends up on other sites ends up on BGG as well, reducing game enthusiasts’ need to explore any site other than BGG. Only the Opinionated Gamers, Fortress Ameritrash, and a few scattered blogs have been able to avoid this particular fate; in each of those cases, there are specific reasons why the creators choose not to share their content on BGG, much of it related to a particular dissatisfaction towards BGG culture or its particularly central place in the world of board games.
The youth of the board game hobby, the size of the board game market, and the limited number of channels for effectively bringing attention to content are all major contributing factors to why critical analysis is in such a poor state in the board game hobby today. If the limiting factor in the production of effective critical analysis proves to be the size of the audience for hobby board games, and the accompanying financial resources that can be expanded to develop critical infrastructure, then efforts towards a professional critical community may end up being ultimately irrelevant. We are unlikely to see the cultural infusion of hobby board games required to see regular articles appear in academic journals or magazines in the near future and it is equally unlikely that BGG will lose its hegemonic influence over board game discussion. This does not mean that those who wish to see a greater level of analysis and discussion in the board game community our powerless. There are ways that individuals who are interested in a greater depth of critical discussion can work to help facilitate its expansion and on the whole I think there is a great deal of potential for positive movement in that direction both by producing new technical and intellectual tools, as well as by taking greater advantage of existing ones.
One of these existing tools is the BGG blog feature. BGG’s central position means that feature upgrades can have a positive impact on critical discussion, and two related changes since the beginning of 2011 have improved the quality of discussion in the larger board gaming community. In late 2010, BoardGameNews (BGN), one of the major secondary sites outside BGG, was partially folded into BGG. The majority of the news content, as well as pieces of journalism by W. Eric Martin, were included in BGG, while much of the editorial content and reviews were spun off to form the Opinionated Gamers. This was a positive development, both because BGN’s prominence on BGG drew more attention to journalistic and general-purpose articles, and because BGG implemented new blogging tools for the BGN feed which were later extended to the rest of the BGG users. The blogs, which allow authors to attract the attention of those who are subscribed to games in BGG’s database, have served to effectively introduce new voices to BGG and also to provide older voices with a new method to effectively convey their ideas.
The key to ensure that effective amateur critics continue to produce content is to ensure that they are aware that their content is valuable. For amateur content producers, one of the most valuable commodities is attention, and by making sure that people who produce content you value have your attention you ensure that that they will be motivated to continue to produce it. How you do this will, of course, depend on the particular medium that they are using to produce their content, but providing feedback, more abstract indications of appreciation such “thumbs up” on BGG, and using social media tools to bring the article to the attention of others who might enjoy it.
Despite our current lack of critical infrastructure, I think there is a strong potential for the development of effective critical analysis of board games. I believe that there is enough latent desire for effective board game critical analysis that now it is simply a matter of ensuring that those who wish to consume the content are able to find those that are producing it and that there continue to be new, effective intellectual and technical tools that help to enable the success of this content. I plan to do what I can to ensure that this happens, as I want to see quality board game criticism succeed. Do you?
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Lords of Waterdeep
My Lords of Waterdeep review is up. Summary: I played Lords of Waterdeep so you do not have to. Essentially it serves as a fairly effective distillation of previous, more complex worker placement games, with just enough there to give a hint of these other games while failing to capture what makes them special. It feels fairly hollow as a result, but for those whose preferences run towards the lighter end of the spectrum it should be fast and entertaining enough that that might not matter.
Critical Infrastructure Series
My next article in the “Critical Infrastructure” series should be up later this week. I expect it to have three parts in total. As with A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011 this one will be posted on www.2d6.org 24 hours before I post it to “On Gamer’s Games.” I expect that it is less likely to break the blog feature then the last one was.
Is there any interest in an “On Gamer’s Game” microbadge? If so is anyone interested in making one? Unfortunately my skill set does not include making effective, yet tiny graphics, so if there is some interest I will have to find someone who has both the capability and willingness to construct one.
A lot of blogs in the broader wilds of the internet allow people to link to various websites, mostly blogs. Since that is not a real capability here, I will instead provide a list of spots I generally go to when I conduct my daily board game reading:
While I am quite jealous of his relatively low blog number (46!) I am able to overcome that in order to read Martin’s generally very good content. Lately he has been talking a lot about pushing for a more effective focus by playing previously experienced games and is going to be leading a book discussion group on “Rules of Play – Game Design Fundamentals.” I plan on participating and if this topic interests you, I encourage you to do so as well!
One way to describe the project of this book is to say that we are working to establish a critical discourse for game design. We agree with veteran game designer Warren Spector that "It is absolutely vital that we start to build a vocabulary that allows us to examine, with some degree of precision, how games evoke emotional-intellectual responses in players." As a nascent field of inquiry, there are not yet well-developed ways of talking about games and how they function. What is the point of establishing a critical discourse? Simply put, a critical vocabulary lets us talk to each other. It lets us share ideas and knowledge, and in doing so, expands the borders of our emerging field.
Straight Talk on Strategy Gaming
Nate does not post frequently, but when he does it is always worth reading. His posts tend to be large, well-thought out and extremely comprehensive covering both modern and classic games. He occasionally posts reviews, to but most of his articles are on general topics. My favorite of his articles, and the one that originally brought his blog to my attention is Agriconomics where he examines whether or not Agricola is really an economic game. It is really exceptional, and I highly encourage that anyone who is even remotely interested in the topic.
Over on Fortress Ameritrash (www.fortressat.com) are three columnists who I try to read whenever they post. They do not have links that specifically connect to a collection of their articles, but they if you poke around on the site you should be able to find their articles. They are:
Matt Thrower with “Bolt Thrower”,
Ken B. with “Next of Ken”, and
Michael Barnes with “Barnestorming”
There are some differences about their columns. Matt tends to write a lot more general article beyond his column, where Mike and Ken mostly seem to write articles directly related to the column itself. Matt and and Mike both write a bit about media in addition to their discussion on games, where Ken seems to be laser-focused on games, but in general I find them all to be worth reading, both for the reviews themselves as well as for the frequently insightful discussion that occurs in the comments section. I know that Fortress AT has a bit of a bad reputation on BGG, but for those who are looking for intelligent criticism of games, then it is probably a good idea to keep up with their articles. I tend to read them regularly, it was Barnes’ column that brought Cave Evil to my attention, even though the games they cover are outside of my area of interest.
The Opinionated Gamers (www.opinionatedgamers.com) is also worth reading mostly because they have a large stable of reviewers who all contribute to what is ultimately a group review of the game they are discussing, and frequently have other articles that are worth reading including, arguments about the merit of particular designers, interviews with particular designers, convention reports, and more. They tend to prefer euros that sit outside my general area of interest, but the articles are typically worth reading, if only to provide some enjoyable annoyance. I do not even bother reading the comics any more though.
My current plan is to write a comparative review of Hawaii and Pantheon. Both are middle to light weight Hans im Gluck eurogames which typically means I am going to be predisposed to disliking them. Surprisingly enough one of them worked for me, and I am going to write a comparative review of the two games, exploring why exactly one of them worked for me while the other, sadly, did not.
Since it looks like we are hitting a bit of a dead zone in interesting new games after that I am thinking of writing a comprehensive review on a lightly reviewed classic. Five geek gold to whoever is able to guess which one it is. No more than one guess per person!
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
In mid-2011, A Few Acres of Snow was released to great critical response. It rapidly received a plethora of good reviews and, in short order, won the 2-player awards for the committee International Gamer’s Award and the voters’ choice Wargame Golden Geek award.
Of course, before these awards emerged, A Few Acres of Snow’s reputation began to be sullied. On 25 September 2011, Michael Fitz posted a thread on BoardGameGeek entitled “Can France Beat Britain's "Settle Halifax, Besiege Louisbourg, Besiege Quebec" Strategy?” This created quite a bit of uproar, resulting in a thread with over 867 comments as various people began to argue about whether the game was broken and what to do if it was, as well as numerous secondary threads discussing the same topic. Eventually Martin Wallace promised a fix, and on 30 December 2011, he provided one. Soon after, the main people who denounced the so-called “Halifax Hammer” strategy as broken determined that A Few Acres of Snow remained just as broken as it was previously. Martin Wallace seemed to agree, acknowledging on 25 January 2012 that, “Yes, it is flawed. It is not something that can be fixed absolutely. The best way forward is to keep changing the rules, with scenarios, to present new challenges.” In a later interview for the Three Moves Ahead podcast, Wallace went a step farther, stating that his intended fixes were largely designed to ensure that less skilled players would still be able to enjoy the game; he also stated that two player games in themselves are fundamentally flawed such that players who try hard enough will ultimately break all of them.
While my feelings on this topic are fairly well known, particularly by those who read my work regularly, what surprises me is how little discussion A Few Acres of Snow’s flaws have generated amongst individuals who are arguably the top reviewers, critics, and pundits in the board game community. This is even more surprising given Martin Wallace’s comments. In most other media or art criticism communities, a prolific and well-respected artist releasing a work that was both initially applauded and later acknowledged as fundamentally flawed would result in quite a bit of discussion and articles. In the board game community? Almost none.
Why is this the case? Why is so interesting a topic not being discussed by those with the biggest podiums in the hobby? After some thought and discussion, I came to the conclusion that a major component of how the more prominent voices in the hobby determine what topics to discuss is how they perceive themselves. I sent out a survey based on this theory to a variety of bloggers, podcasters, and textual and video reviewers, and got an impressive array of responses. However, I now believe the reasons are more complex, and are related to a number of other, interlocking issues. These surveys still ended up being valuable, simply because the respondents provided thought-provoking answers to my questions. What I intended to be a single article about how a voice’s perception of their role affects what they write about is now going to be a number of articles covering a variety of topics that emerged as a result of these surveys.
The primary reason I think that we have seen such minimal discussion on the implications of the fundamental flaws of A Few Acres of Snow and Martin Wallace’s follow-up comments is simply a matter of incentives. The most popular reviews, both in thumbs for a site like BoardGameGeek and for views and comments on other sites, are highly positive reviews about the newest games. Since board gaming is a very consumer-driven hobby, players are constantly looking out for new games to provide them with both a new experience and a way to share the enthusiasm that comes from trying out a fun and exciting new game. Newer games, by nature of being unknown, allow consumers to create an idealized view of the enjoyment that can be derived from the game. Many consumers particularly appreciate reviews that effectively communicate to them that their original enthusiasm was well founded. Any reviewer or commentator who seeks to maximize their positive attention (and that is true of most of them, including yours truly) will tend to focus on the topic that provides them with the most attention: enthusiastic reviews of new games.
By the time the issues with A Few Acres of Snow came to the attention of the larger community, the game was well past the point where it was new enough to maintain the attention of the more prominent reviewers, who had already moved on to newer and hotter games. The fact that the fall of 2011 was a particularly exciting time for new board games did not help either, as most reviewers were already looking to the hot new Essen releases. The written reviews section on BoardGameGeek for A Few Acres of Snow bears this out, as all but two reviews of the game were posted before the balance issues were first observed. Reviews for A Few Acres of Snow on both Fortress: Ameritrash and the Opinionated Gamers also appeared before the problems were observed. However, positive reviews certainly appeared after the initial problem surfaced, not to mention Top 10 Lists towards the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 that credited A Few Acres of Snow as being one of the best designs of the year. So while the timing of the discovery did have an impact on the amount of discussion that took place in the wider review community, this is not the only explanation. Other factors also impacted why later discussions and reviews of A Few Acres of Snow only minimally touched on the game’s problems.
One of these additional factors is that, to produce a truly critical take on a particular game, a reviewer would need to explore it in enough depth to be able to identify underlying problems, like those eventually discovered in A Few Acres of Snow. But the rewards for producing fast and effective takes on games discourage thorough exploration. Even if a reviewer did identify underlying structural problems, any negative review of a game would likely be controversial, and thus turn off potential readers. Why explore the game deeply to find potential flaws, when an initial enthusiastic review is likely to work much more effectively for a reviewer’s fan base? When you add to this the fact that the most prominent game reviewers tend to be constantly trying out and reviewing newer games, the likelihood of a particular game getting enough play to identify game balance issues is low.
Another reason, beyond simple ignorance of the game’s flaws, is denial that the issue was a problem in the first place. In many instances, this skepticism is reasonable. In my history of gaming, I can’t count the number of times I have heard claims that a game is broken by people I respected a lot less than the designer of said game, and the naysayers turned out to be wrong. Of course, commenters have been correct often enough that I have learned not to completely dismiss complaints about balance issues, but it is natural for those who are playing and enjoying a game to assume that those who are complaining are simply wrong. This is particularly true with fans of Martin Wallace because of the general level of divisiveness that has followed him, first with his conflict with Winsome games, and then with FRED Distribution. These conflicts make it easier for fans of Martin Wallace to dismiss those who are complaining about one of his games as another person with a particular axe to grind against him, and thus not actually relevant to the quality of his work.
Martin Wallace’s late December rules revisions initially seemed to resolve the issue for those who were less involved in analyzing A Few Acres of Snow’s mechanics, including me in Part 1 of my end of year list. At the time, I considered it fixed. However, the same community that originally identified that A Few Acres of Snow as broken was able to quickly prove that the fix was largely illusionary. Martin, to his credit, followed up with an acknowledgement that it was flawed and, less to his credit, with his statement that all two-player games are broken. Yet, despite this, there was still no discussion about the topic among the prominent voices in the board game community. On 25 February, Larry Levy of the Opinionated Gamers released an article about their annual Designer of the Year award, with Stefan Feld winning and Martin Wallace coming in second largely on the strength of A Few Acres of Snow. When I questioned him about this, he said, “I realize that there are some who think it’s broken and out of whack. But the game is played and greatly enjoyed by an awful lot of people. You can try to analyze why they like it despite what some feel is a dominant strategy, but I’d rather take their opinions at face value. When you combine that with the IGA award, it’s got to be one of the bigger titles of the year.”
While I generally find Larry’s criticism to be interesting, and value his contributions to the community, this sentence highlights what I believe is the next reason why we have not seen much discussion about the implications of A Few Acres of Snow and Mr. Wallace’s statements: a lack of willingness to subjectively judge whether a game is good or not in any criterion beyond whether people enjoy it. This also expresses itself in a similar lament about the game being fine if you just ignore the broken strategy. Both lines of thinking ignore the implications of giving a designer a pass for releasing an easily broken game. If the game continues to accumulate awards, climb the rankings, and enjoy good sales, what sort of message does this send to designers? That it is okay to release games that are initially pleasing and work as long as you do not attempt skilled play, because the customer base does not mind games that are ultimately broken? That effective playtesting is not important? I like to think that Martin Wallace has learned some important lessons from this, but the lack of accountability does not bode well for the future of our hobby.
So, the primary reasons that we have seen so little discussion on the implications of the fatally flawed A Few Acres of Snow are: the way that board game consumers reward quickly produced enthusiastic reviews; the general tendency to not play games exhaustively enough to identify balance problems; an inclination to dismiss those who claim a game is broken and trust that prominent designers will not make a flawed design; and a general desire not to dismiss the enjoyment that players derive from the game. I also think a broader reason is related to the low level of development of board game articles in the review community. There are very few articles providing any sort of critical analysis of board games or the community as a whole, and without this infrastructure, there is little in place to create a real dialogue about the many interesting topics that A Few Acres of Snow and Martin Wallace’s comments bring to mind. We do see some of this sort of analysis scattered around the BGG blogs section, Fortress: Ameritrash, the Opinionated Gamers, and a few podcasts, but this is relatively small compared to the volume of discussion on board games as a whole.
I have a few theories about the current lack of critical infrastructure, some of which are related to the topics I noted above, but that is going to have to wait for my next article.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ben (chally), John Broky, Joel Eddy, Larry Levy, W. Eric Martin, and Matt Thrower for their help in this article. It was great discussing this topic with them, and they really helped me crystallize my thoughts. The views expressed in this article are entirely my own, and while some of them will probably agree with my points and my ultimate conclusions, I suspect that some of them will have very different conclusions from me on why this has occurred and if it even matters.
Edit: This article first appeared on www.2d6.org. Since I have been kindly added to their set of staff content producers and they are pretty excited about this series of articles I have agreed that this set of articles will appear on that web site first. I encourage everyone to check out the site!
Thu Mar 22, 2012 11:53 am