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Subject: Open Letter to Tom Vasel Regarding Theme rss

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Jean Gagnier
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Dear Tom Vasel,

Your accomplishments in the gaming world are equaled by few. You have taken the practice of reviewing and have relentlessly put out reviews with a consistent attention to detail, a strong editorial line and a very personable style. For that, you must certainly be commended.

However, with high exposure comes high responsability. Combining strong opinions and a keen sense of spectacle will often lead to caricature, and when done with the frequency of Tom's intervention, its strength will only be enhanced.

Tom dislikes certain themes, which he's made very clear. Trading in the Mediterranean, medieval castle building, anything Ancient Egyptian, etc. While it's true that these themes are very well represented, and I can certainly see how people who dislike such themes would find them way too frequently put forth, there comes a point where repetition just becomes abrasive. Having such a theme does not lessen the game - I feel like a reviewer should make an effort to respect games for which he doesn't very much care for. When I see a reviewer (and I mention Tom do to the ubiquity of his interventions in this sense, but it can be anyone else) dismiss a game, throw down a box and shouting about these themes being too present, it angers me. I see it as a bullying attitude. I think that it not being his cup of tea doesn't make it okay to dismiss it, and to taint the rest of the review. Several games berated this way seemed totally unappealing after watching a video, yet were quite interesting to me when I did play them.

All of this is annoying on its own, but what gets to me is the dismissive special treatment given to the "boring Euros", as if they had the monopoly on recurrent theme. Why isn't the same logic applied to science-fiction, fantasy or horror themes? How many games have zombies, dragons and witches in them? Anything fantasy-related will have a very hard time getting my attention, but for some reason it has perceived general immunity from boring thematic. To me, these themes are way, way more over-represented than Mediterranean trading.

It seems to me to be faulty logic: dismissing games displaying a certain theme you hate due to the ubiquitous nature of its theme is all right only if you dismiss equally games displaying a certain ubiquitous theme you like. Basically, if you say "Another boring Euro theme I hate" in a review, you should probably say "ANOTHER zombie game (aren't there like a million already?), but I like it nonetheless" would be more respectful.

It's okay to be spectacular. Hey, I laughed when Vasco de Gama was thrown off a roof. It's okay not to like a theme. It's okay to be subjective in reviews. However, I find myself getting less out of a review that is so much tainted by the reviewer's view of theme. I expect a person who likes historical themes to do a more enthusiastic review of Caylus than a sci-fi aficionado, but I expect the sci-fi guy to at least do an honest job when reviewing Caylus. That's what separates a reviewer from a commenter.







To end, here's a thought to all: yes, there are a lot of Mediterranean maps, and it's not everyone's cup of tea, like there are many games about dragon slaying. I'm just hoping for a more balanced view, and more earnestness from everyone. I can't stand zombies, but if I were reviewing a zombie-themed game, the least I could do is to respect the people reading the review and the people who brought the game to fruition, who might enjoy zombie games. This makes for a more civil environment, and a better pool of reviews.

My zombie-loving friends, let's hold hands




(Note: Tom's merely an icon of this sentiment, I quite like following his videos and subscribe to three podcasts of his baby, the Dice Tower network. He's an easy target, but it goes for everyone ).
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Josh Bury
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Though you make some valid points, is a review not, by nature, subjective? Evidently Tom's style is popular and accessible, but if he hates a theme and can't get past it, is he obligated to pretend that he can?
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If a reviewer cannot put aside his/her own subjective biases and give an "objective" opinion on a game (recognizing that this is not completely possible in any event), then s/he should make clear to their audience wherein their biases lie.

The fact that Mr. Vasel has made those biases clear enough that one can write such a detailed post about them suggests that to that end, he has succeeded.

I do not always agree with Mr. Vasel's (nor anyone else's) reviews, but I find them generally thoughtful and entertaining. Whenever he is turned off by the theme, he generally makes it clear and is able to separate that from an opinion on the game mechanics itself. See his review on "Chaos In The Old World" for an excellent example of this. In that review, he makes it clear that the game is solid as a game, but that the theme is just too dark for his tastes.

And there is nothing wrong with that at all.

For clarity's sake, I love the theme of Chaos In The Old World, in an over-the-top, Bruce Campbell Army-Of-Darkness kind of way.

But I see were Mr. Vasel is coming from.

And kudos to him for challenging game designers and game players to consider more original and/or broad based themes, without disrespecting those who choose to patronize such themes. It's people like that which nudge this hobby into new territory.

I have no problem with Mr. Vasel's reviews nor his fully-disclosed prudish taste in theme, as long as he continues to clearly demarcate where is opinions addressing theme versus mechanic lies. Besides, I sometimes play with my family, and it helps to know which themes would be inappropriate (though with a name like "Chaos In The Old World," I would hope it would be obvious that certain age groups need not apply).

My only real criticism for Mr. Vasel is that I have little sense how many of his reviews are from games he has purchased versus given complimentarily. Even if he takes great pains to be objective, I would still like to know as I am watching/reading the review, from where he got the game.

But overall, I find his reviews entertaining and informative. Certainly they are subjective, but he explains his biases enough that I find that I can predict his theme opinions accurately before I even see his review most of the time, to Mr. Vasel's credit.

Oh. And zombies. I love zombies, too. But not "ZOMBIES!!!."

There. I said it and feel the better having said it.
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Clem Fandango
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Dear Jean

While understanding your viewpoint I'm with Tom.
Tom is reviewing based on his views (IE re VIEW ing).

I too disagree with him on some of his opinions. I think he has missed the point of some games and their background. But I love how engaging his reviews are.
I am pleased he threw Vasco da Gama off his roof, even though i like the game. We need more colour and passion.

I'm always pleased to see new themes used. There are many games on some topics - one of my groups calls one category of them 'dungeon pervert games', train games, trading on boat games (around 39% of games here maybe), games on maps with small cubes....

So I'm interested when I see Nuns on the Run, Junta: Viva el Presidente!, and Power Struggle.

I also think Tom is doing us all a service, and a service to newbies, so asking him to change who he is may only badly affect a winning formula.

Many of our game players are aspiring to be pocket calculators, let's pray our reviewers don't follow suit

cheers

Sam
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Alex C
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Dear Jean,

Your letter makes no sense. If you don't like Tom's reviews or his point of view, don't watch his videos. Simple solution. What exactly did you hope to accomplish? Should Tom change his opinion now on themes he dislikes based on your opinion of how his reviews should go down?

I have an idea for you. No, no, hear me out. I think you should begin reviewing games....by the hundreds. Create a recognizable "reviewer brand" for yourself, such that you receive a review copy of most every game. Then, and this is the best part...wait for it....create your reviews in a way that please everyone. I know, I know, its genius. Let me know when you get around to it.
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Jean Gagnier
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Count_Bezukhov wrote:
Dear Jean,

Your letter makes no sense. If you don't like Tom's reviews or his point of view, don't watch his videos. Simple solution. What exactly did you hope to accomplish? Should Tom change his opinion now on themes he dislikes based on your opinion of how his reviews should go down?

I have an idea for you. No, no, hear me out. I think you should begin reviewing games....by the hundreds. Create a recognizable "reviewer brand" for yourself, such that you receive a review copy of most every game. Then, and this is the best part...wait for it....create your reviews in a way that please everyone. I know, I know, its genius. Let me know when you get around to it.


But... I do like them! I'm pointing out the one thing that I don't like about them. And, no, he should not change his opinions.
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Donald X.
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jgag wrote:
Tom dislikes certain themes, which he's made very clear. Trading in the Mediterranean, medieval castle building,

Well I'm not up on these things, but Dominion, a game which I called Castle Builder when I first made it, won Tom's game-of-the-year. So if he dislikes medieval castle building, I'm not sure how much of an issue that is.
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Karen D'Agostino
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I understand what your saying Jean, it irks me to no end when Tom disses Egyptian themes. I love Tom's reviews though, even when I disagree with him.
Note to any designers out there, make more games with Egyptian themes.
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Damian
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donaldx wrote:
jgag wrote:
Tom dislikes certain themes, which he's made very clear. Trading in the Mediterranean, medieval castle building,

Well I'm not up on these things, but Dominion, a game which I called Castle Builder when I first made it, won Tom's game-of-the-year. So if he dislikes medieval castle building, I'm not sure how much of an issue that is.

Aaaand I think we're done here. Last one out of the thread turn off the lights.
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Paul Nowak
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Time for an open letter to open letter writers.
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Scott Everts
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"Nobody gets me. I'm the wind, baby!" - Tom Servo
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He doesn't like post apocalyptic themes either!

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Derry Salewski
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Edit your open letters a little more closely.
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John

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And whilst Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead has been well received in many circles, it was not as well received by Tom despite the zombie theme.
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Clem Fandango
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jgag wrote:

But... I do like them! I'm pointing out the one thing that I don't like about them. And, no, he should not change his opinions.


Fair enough Jean. The worst thing would be as Tom does his reviews he thinks about comments on theme and try and change what he does. I've noted he's loosened up a lot in his reviewing, and I like that.

I've reread your original letter and I think it did come across from the heading as a critical piece, which softened as you read but I was still reading it from the perspective that you were saying 'something's not right'.

On a total tangent your post made me think most of the modern games we have owe their gaming theme DNA to Gary Gyjax, toy soldiers, blocks or battleships.

The last two aren't right, and I struggled to think of a 30+ year old space game equivalent and one where goods are transported.
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Steve Duff
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The thing about Tom's disliking of themes is that it's totally irrelevant to anyone that isn't tired of them. It affects how he rates the games, but is useless to most eurogamers (such as myself), who really just want to know how the game play is.

I think it's well over a year now since I've watched a Vasel review for an opinion.

He also lost a lot of credibility when he tried to cover up the Mayday crokinole board flaws instead of comment on them.
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Chris Sessoms
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You know what I like? I like cheese. There should be more games with cheese in them.

Once again.. the only person that has to like the game is the owner. If a game is called Cheese Dealers of the Holy Roman Empire.. as long as the game is fun ill like it.. but if other people don't like the theme.. thats their 2 cents.
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Ryan Langewisch
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Drew1365 wrote:
Tom's a prolific reviewer, so if you're just coming into the hobby and looking for reviews, Tom's name is going to pop up a lot. And you might find yourself thinking "Hey, Tom Vasel likes this, so it must be a good game, right?"

Eventually you figure out that Tom's taste in games probably doesn't match yours at all, and his glowing review of a particular game will no longer cause you to leap for your credit card, but may, instead cause you to smile and shake your head in a knowing fashion. Oh, that crazy Tom Vasel! cool

Or I have found that my tastes are extremely similar and his glowing reviews have led me to some of the best purchases I have made and hours upon hours of enjoyment with my friends and family. whistle
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Sean P
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Good thread. Lots of laughs.

A whine that a prolific reviewer is not a huge euro-BGG Top 10-kind of guy? Really?

Fact is Vasel's top 100 is WAY closer to mine than the one here.

Maybe I should start a new thread-

"I AM TOM VASEL"

Why post an open letter, anyway? Were you hoping for an outpouring of angst ridden emotion? Why didn't you just write him?
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James Sitz
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If you don't like his reviews, don't watch them.

It seems like what he's doing is working out for him.
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John Clark
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When I wrote an essay at school I would write, for example, "In my opinion farm subsidies are bad". My teacher would always cross out the "in my opinion", on the basis that you don't need to to tell the reader its your opinion - if it was not your opinion you would not be writing it!

Likewise, Tom Vasal and others don't need to state that their reviews are "in my opinion".

I think its pretty clear when a statement is intended to be a fact - e.g. "this is the sixth game this year with a zombie theme" and when its opinion - e.g. "there are too many boring zombie themed games!" Sometimes its a bit ambiguous but its up to you to do some research.
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Michael
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ScottE wrote:
He doesn't like post apocalyptic themes either!


But he sure does love dumping expensive game components onto the floor! I cringe every time I see him do that, even if it happens to be a Euro...
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Markus
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So this is my new overtext ? Hmmm...
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Nerdrage ! Now I'm curious. What game did he smash this time ?
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Lizbeth
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So wait...

I could get if he sort of secretly nudged down his opinion of the game without overly mentioning why.

But honestly, I think he's doing the RIGHT sort of behaviour here. He finds said themes dull and repetitive (unlike sci-fi, which he seems to like and as such does not find them repetitive/over saturated because he probably wants to play MORE of that theme) and says so, very obviously, very bluntly, letting everyone know exactly where his bias lies.

What your suggestion seems to come down too (and I apologise if this seems harsh because you seem alright enough ) is along the lines of: I like something that someone else doesn't, but when someone who doesn't like my something says so explictly while at the same time bringing a brilliant service to me which I enjoy, it ruins that service, why can't that person also say he doesn't like something he does like so that I can feel comforted?'

Which is kinda... well... yeah whistle

For the record, I don't 'get' euro themes, some of them just don't strike me as interesting and none of them draw me in so I'd be happy if they re-themed settlers of catan to be setting up space stations and hyper express ways around various planets while trying to avoid the nasty space pirates. And no, I wouldn't then go 'we have too many space empire games' because to me, space empire is actually an awesome theme as opposed to 'some dudes harvesting sheep on an island'.

I suspect Tom has roughly the same view, he wont mention repeated themes in themes he likes because he LIKES them.
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Ted Duby
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This thread leads me to another question: Why does Tom even review the games with themes that are boring to him? Seems like a waste of time to me.
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Pieter
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I remember from his Hansa Teutonica review that Tom said that it was the same boring theme all over again, but that it was a really good game, and that he enjoyed playing it. So he actually does what the OP wants him to do: he does not dismiss the game based only on theme.

But theme might be sufficient reason to dismiss a game. If I play a mediocre game with a boring theme, I throw it out. If I play a mediocre game with a fun theme, I might like it enough to keep it. Theme is not the only element to judge a game by, but it is an important element.

And as for Hansa: I too think it is a good game, but the theme is really putting me off. I seldom bring it to the table, just because that theme bores me out of my skull. And I can imagine so many fun themes that the same mechanics could carry.
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