Game design

What can a negative review tell us about the lure of objectivity?

Some people hate Ticket to Ride; people who do not appreciate its brilliance. I hate the United Kingdom expansion as much as they hate the basic game. But unlike them, I’M ACTUALLY RIGHT… right?

I like to think that I am a pretty positive person. Generally, I don’t like writing about things that I dislike – there are enough things that I do like to write about and enough to say about them. And I’m not a reviewer really, so I’m not here to save you money from games that you might not enjoy.

But like a moth to a flame, I am constantly and mysteriously drawn back to writing about TTR: United Kingdom. Not to bathe in its glow but, utterly unlike a moth, to give it – this evil twin of the Pennsylvania map – the absolute beating of its life.

The urge to resist is over. The gloves are well and truly off. There’s so much to hate here and so little time to hate on it, so I will get right down to this brutal business. It’s all about the technology cards that you have to buy to improve your railway.

Sadly they suck. They suck the big one – objectively, of course!

Technology is not the future

Everyone’s experience of these cards is surely at least somewhat similar. “Technology advancement in one of my favourite games?”, they say, “why, that sounds intriguing!”. Poor fools. For as sure as can be, the crushing realisation will follow that these cards are not actually expanding their game in any meaningful sense of the term. Half of them are things that you can just do in previous versions, that you must now jump through an extra mechanical hoop to get. Want to build a 3-link route? “I’m sorry sir, you’ll need to buy a card for that.” What about a 4- or a 5-link route? “That’ll be a further card again, unfortunately.” What about those train ferries? “Sorry madam, you need to research Propellers first. But doesn’t that sound tremendously exciting?”

In this game players are not even allowed to build in much of the map without buying a so-called “concession” card first, which is itself an increasingly definition-strained use of the word “technology”. While the crude crowbarring of these particular “concessions” did give me some pleasure with their wonderfully unintentional implication that merely building anything in Scotland is a technical marvel in of itself, they are thematically bonkers on every level. It’s not just that – speaking as a pedantic train geek – there is absolutely no historical basis for such concessions (the “France and Ireland” concession?!). It’s that it’s all terribly inconsistent with the approach taken elsewhere. One the one hand, the game tries to be historical by naming some of the technology cards after genuinely important railway innovations. On the other, it slaps you in the face with a load of ahistorical weirdness. All of which just comes across as very lazy when on the other side of the board, effort has been taken to name every single one of the Pennsylvania railway companies after a real equivalent.


Is researching Propellers at least fun?

No. Much like the awkwardly inserted technology card itself, it’s just a strange extra step; not another action but just something that you can also do on your turn. There’s little in the way of building up resources to work towards some powerful late game technology. Instead there’s just a step using the same cards that would be less easy to forget if you had to choose between it and the three classic actions: taking cards, placing trains and drawing tickets.

Even when the technologies do add more interesting effects, their implementation tends to get the balance of power wrong or break other things that worked perfectly well before. One of the genuinely useful cards grants players the staggeringly powerful ability to draw three random cards per turn rather two. In a game in which you can play any set of 4 cards as wild (yet another card reduces this to 3!) this gives players a pretty much straightforward 50% card draw advantage. Even more amazingly, in a game with 3 or more players there is not enough for everyone to get this superpower.

Even some of the better-balanced cards find a way to ruin the party. While gaining an extra point each time you build a route after the card has been purchased sounds like a sensible upgrade on the surface, it prevents players from using what is probably TTR’s most-used house rule: that you don’t bother scoring the routes during the game but tot them up at the end. This house rule is one that I see used more often than not for the simple reason that they are too easy to forget and you’ll have check them anyway as a result. Even the rulebook specifically acknowledges this retrograde step asking only that you “prompt players to remember instead”. Or in other words; we’ve made this game worse and now we’re telling you to just live with it.

Indeed, even when exceptions are being made to its often woeful technologies, strange balancing decisions are taken. A great example is the single overpowered New York liner route that scores 40 points and does not obey the requirement to research technology first. When compared to the 21 points available for the longest route in the Europe map – one that includes a tunnel and is relatively harder because no one needs tech for long routes – this seems crazy.

I could go on… could I?

Even, even, even! Every part this game seems to find a way a new way to disappoint me. For all of it’s comparative artistic charms, I am looking at it thinking ‘how did it get this far’? Its badness – especially in the context of the comparatively super-slick engineering of its sister titles – seems so real, so concrete, so undeniable.

But then I face facts.

Lots of people like it. At time of writing it held a very respectable 8.1/10 on Boardgamegeek, which is unlikely just to be because of its superior Pennsylvania B-side however much I’d like to believe that. When I played it with people at my old job I was sure that they, discerning folk that they are, would also dislike it. But they didn’t. Sure, they didn’t rave about it to the extent that I have ranted about it here; no one that I have yet seen would claim that it was a work of staggering genius. But they actually liked the technologies, partly because they liked the tech tree progression which meant that you had to work your way up to more stuff.

They are not alone. Tom Vasel’s review says much the same thing. At the time of the review he said that it was his favourite map pack and specifically praises the way that action is initially limited to a smaller area by the concession cards. While I would never expect Tom Vasel to rip into anything with an acerbic A. A. Gill-style wit even if he didn’t actually like it (that’s just not the Dice Tower style of 90+% of game reviewers), I had to admit that he made a good point on that front. But I can’t agree that that dynamic is executed well or that it even begins to make up for the games’ many other failures.

Surely this feels objectively bad – I must be onto something, right?

Problem… dissolved?

On the one hand there is no problem here and it’s very easy to offer a glib answer: game experience is subjective and however compelling subjective experiences are, opinions just differ. Shrug and move on.

After all, if you’ve been reading recent twitter threads between tabletop media legends (or articles like this), you’ll hopefully be already convinced that so-called “objective reviews” aren’t just problematic, but oxymoronic. An actually objective review wouldn’t be a review in any meaningful sense at all, but would rather be an exhaustive list of what we can be absolutely sure are facts: what the rules are, the components, and so on.

At the stretch, these descriptions (that is all that they would be) might include other information like how long the game takes to play. But even this far there are clear methodological problems. Even game time is very player-dependent itself. How often have publishers indicated a play-time which seems far from the reality that we experience? What about when you’re learning? Playing with someone with an impairment of some kind? How would you measure this? Who would you pick as your test subjects? Pretty soon we have something that more closely resembles the heavily caveat-ed report of an experiment; something that is also absolutely nothing like a review.

Dr Michael Heron goes further. In the article that I mentioned, he puts forward the theory that the deeply participate nature of tabletop games makes even achieving an academic critical consensus, of the kind common to other artistic disciplines, a unique challenge. He strongly argues that the sheer amount that we, as players, are responsible for making the game experience means that we can’t even hope to achieve the limited aim of judging games as better or worse within the context of a specific academic school’s framework. On this analysis, the claims that we see all over Boardgamegeek like “this game is objectively bad” or “this thing is just BROKEN” are not only a crass and questionable stretch but downright insanity.

A gaming culture war?

There is quite an allure in simply bathing in the postmodernity of it all and shrugging off this urge for objectivity completely.

This is not only for sound logical reasons which the hobby’s more sensitive and sensible commentators have re-iterated, but because to embrace this is to resist a deeply negative aspect of gamer culture that we have all experienced: the overwhelming desire for establishing the universally best thing for cosmically certain and separating it from the intolerable crap that must be everything else; the obliteration of varying people’s varying experience and the replacement of it with a single measure of “goodness”; the belief that a standard, like the Boardgamegeek ranking itself, can be developed which will mathematically prove that Gloomhaven is the best game of all time; the trust in brutality and negativity as sure signs of honesty above all other virtues in the giving of an account of a game; the distrust of the casual gamer and the smug condescension of their lack of taste for failing to appreciate the games that are actually better – all loudly and arrogantly pronounced across forums, naturally.

If it meant never having to put up with such pointless and negative crap again, it seems that a reasonable bargain is to simply let everyone get on with it and ignore the pull of the objective difference forever: to accept that we are all islands, with our own beautiful and mysterious preferences in which no game can be better than any other.

Do we really care about being certain about any of this?

And yet, I find this vaguely utopian ideal deeply unappealing too. I cannot believe it. And I’m not sure that anyone actually thinks this, day-to-day. If games cannot be made better or worse, then all game design is a total crapshoot: if all preferences are mysterious and infinitely varied then it’s not possible to know how to make a game that consistently provides pleasure in certain ways. It’s not possible to predict what will work or not work. It’s just a random button-pushing exercise.

But while it can feel a little random at times, design iteration actually only works because it moves closer by a process of inspiration and elimination to an intended reproducible effect. That intended effect on people is usually fairly predictable. There is much that we can know about people’s preferences and experiences which is not at all controversial and never bumps up against any epistemological barrier for actual, real-world practical purposes.

Indeed, here are a few very simple examples of things that are actually very consistent across time and gaming groups:

  • People generally only have so much time play games.
  • People generally can only call to mind so much at once (staggering less than a computer) and most of them don’t like being forced to remember more than this.
  • People like colourful things.
  • People like to have clear objectives to given them direction.
  • People like to not be sure who will win until the end.
  • Lots of people like trains.
  • Lots of people don’t want to learn a complicated game and lots of rules make their brain hurt.

All of these reasons are why the Ticket to Ride series has sold many millions of copies. None of them is mysterious.


If you apply this knowledge to a new game design, with the intention of creating similar pleasures, you will find that the game does in fact produces similar pleasures: but, specifically amongst the very large number of people that like this sort of thing but not the people who don’t like it. It has nothing to do with discovering an objective standard. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with a critical framework in an academic sense, but rather understanding that there is actually a fair amount of consistency of subjective experience across time and between groups of people – or at least enough of it to make informed decisions in search of a better experience for the target player’s preferences.

For me at least, those discoveries are what is behind the lure and promise of the actually unobtainable objectivity, not to find or agree on a non-existent and unobtainable “truth” but to find things that are useful, whether or not they meet a scientific or epistemological standard. Ultimately I just want to find out what tends to work (or not work) for people with given preferences. I think that we all want that for the very simple reason that it helps designers to build better games which people enjoy more and writers to produce better reviews which more effectively inform spending decisions.

Reflecting on my preference

And this is where, for me, it comes back to the question of my critique. It’s not that I am wrong, it’s just that what feels so strong for me is just an outworking of personal preference. I don’t actually hate technology cards for themselves; not really. I feel so strongly because the purity of TTR is so important to me; a simple, inclusive gateway game that manages to be strategic without being too taxing. The expansion for me was cluttered by its extensions, not enhanced. It did things that I observed were somewhat frustrating for a lot of players that went a lot further and angered me a little bit because of my own expectations of the franchise and what I am looking to get out of the game.

For others though, what I thought of as clutter was actually positive. It provided new pleasures by making a meatier game out of one that I found light, and creating a sense of progression that I wasn’t feeling the lack of.

When we look, not with the false light of cool detachment but empathetically in the context of players’ actual experiences, it is clearly not the piece of crap that I cast it as in my review. But this does not mean that this is all just ‘swings and roundabouts’, or that the game can be said to be as effective as any other that is competing to be played. The causes of these different feelings that players have and the preferences themselves are not opaque but observable and have relatively predictable outcomes. They make a meaningful impact on the success the game for its players. From a product perspective, that is crucial.

The people that did like it, from my observations, consistently liked because they like heavier games; or, more exactly, because they would rather play a heavier one than a light one when given the choice. But people’s responses are very telling: while some of the people whom I have played with have enjoyed it, none of them was thrilled by it. Much of the online commentary that I see is the same. After all, if you do like greater complexity and technology progression elements, you are still far better served by playing other games: Civilisation, 4X or numerous Eurogames that simply do that better. On the other hand, if you need a gateway game to play with your non-gaming friends, or just want something simple because you’re tired, you’ll also likely turn elsewhere because this adds an entire layer to the TTR experience that complicates things for new players. If you don’t like it for the same reasons as me – the ‘fiddlines’, the oddly unbalanced nature of several rules (even in the pro-camp, these were recognised as issues, especially by the player who won by these methods) the extra work for little extra instant action – you have little reason to ever play this over something else. And everyone that I observed suffered a little bit from how easy it was to forget to do the technology action because it was not just one of the things that you can do on your turn. These conclusions – and the general assessment that it is a strange concoction which falls between other games for these reasons and is held back by them – are evidenced things that I will robustly argue for and stand by. They are not just a subjective matter of my personal preference.

There’s no such thing as objectivity, but if its lure can cause us to reflect on our own preferences and the preferences of others, then there really is insight out there.

By James Naylor

I’m James. I’ve always loved boardgames: playing them, analysing them and most of all, designing them. Now, I’m trying to publish my own games.

15 replies on “What can a negative review tell us about the lure of objectivity?”

There is objectivity. It’s real. There is subjectivity too, and it is also real. The problem, which faces all critics of all arts, is _how do we get a subjective experience_ out of phenomenon that have an objective existence. (If you are getting a subjective experience out of something else, we generally call them delusions, hallucinations and the like.) But we worked an example of this one, earlier, with TTR Europe. You and I are in perfect agreement as to what the station mechanism does, and how it impacts the gameplay. That’s objective, and we agree on that. But on the subjective end, _we disagree about whether this is a good thing or not_.

As long as neither of us concludes that the real objective facts of the matter, which we agree on, compel or ought to compel us to have a particular subjective experience, and that those who have a different one are _incorrect _ for having one, discussion progresses perfectly well. Once somebody gets the idea that their subjective experience is the only valid one, it is time to leave the discussion.

However, as a critic, one of your functions is to inform and educate others. This will influence the subjective states they reach in the future. Ignorance really is bliss in many cases — if your 4 year old loves CandyLand, you have a problem, but I am reasonably confident that he or she will get over it as soon as rolling dice is no longer seen as something very, very cool in itself. But before that happens, there is no point in having a discussion about why CandyLand is a boring game — he or she will quite properly see you as deluded, because _it cannot be boring when rolling dice is so exciting_!

Which is a pretty good place to figure out the subjectivity arising out of objectivity question. The small child who disagrees with you about the fun in CandyLand won’t be satisfied with a ‘different people like different things’ explanation. He or she thinks that dice rolling is objectively fun, not only fun-for-me, and if you cannot see this, then you are deluded. There is something objectively wrong about the way you perceive things. It will only be later that he or she will be able to understand that your objective perceptions are fine — they just can no longer support the sort of subjective experience that he or or she is having.

Re: I feel so strongly because the purity of TTR is so important to me; a simple, inclusive gateway game that manages to be strategic without being too taxing.

Congratulations, you are nearly to the point of making a style manifesto, for what is a TTR-style of game. (Which is probably the wrong name for it, TTR just being an example of the sort of game that fits the style). We have other styles — have you read Oliver Kiley on ‘different design schools’ (which I think of as different design styles) ? I think your criticism of the United Kingdom expansion for TTR is largely based on your belief that it violates the TTR-style. It’s an ugly game, offensive to your aesthetic sense. If your game, (the one you are working on), is another in this style, you are more likely to have your style manifesto accepted should you eventually come up with one. It has happened that manifestos have been started by critics and then accepted by the artists working in the field, but it is more usual for the people working in the field to come up with manifestos to direct other artists wishing to work in the same style. Or exclude the stuff they don’t like, which I suspect is even more common.

One advantage about arguing about style is that you are spared a huge number of pointless arguments. A large number of people may argue with you about how this or that mechanism makes TTR UK a better game, but what they really mean is that they find TTR boring. The objective mechanisms are not enough to support a rich subjective experience (for them). Once you have got the ‘I don’t like this style of game’ from them, you can stop arguing the details. You either decide to go your separate ways, or embark on your next project, educating people to appreciate this sort of game.

But don’t give up on objectivity. The utter democtratisation of the arts (“This is my uninformed opinion, and it is every bit as good as your informed one, and if you disagree, you are just a snob.”) has been hard on excellence.

Ah, the anglophone coordinates. I wouldn’t say subjective and objective are as real as you make them seem. The subjectivity is colonised by society – from an early age we’re shaped in the society’s mould. This is why it’s possible for us to share on the same culture at all. Had we been “truly subjective” we couldn’t see the same film and talk about it later. Heck, language would probably be entirely impossible as well. Existence as such is never solo existence, its always co-existence. We are in relations and these relations shape us. Objectivity on the other hand is basically “lowest common denominator” (collective average of subjectivities).

The trick to understanding cultural artefacts is understanding dialogue. In culture it’s made evident that the viewer is shaping the seen, the reading is shaping the read, the player is shaping the game being played. Now, this is true for all our experiences, including experiences of “things objective”, but our culture of shared habits usually hide this active part on the side of the viewer. (Sometimes by indoctrinating us into correct responses/answers).

So to answer: “how do we get a subjective experience out of phenomenon that have an objective existence”
is to admit the experience isn’t subjective and phenomenon isn’t objective.
The experience isn’t subjective as it’s experience OF something outside of it, it’s an experience of co-existence and therefore dialectic by nature.
The phenomenon in question is, as all cultural artefacts, MADE to be engaged by “subjectivity”. The “objective” part (the material obvious bits) are merely material manifestations of protocols which come to life when being engaged by “subjectivities”. As cultural artefact is but a potential for dialogue, its ontology is thus dialectic.

Your solution confirms the dialectic nature of boardgaming.
i would translate it this way:
“style” = investment type inscribed into the structure of the game, what kind of involvement does the game expect in order to fulfill its potential. Or what kind of dialogue partner does the game need.
“taste”, “I like X” = investment preference of an individual gamer. How does a player enter the dialogue with a game.
(check my long post bellow for elaborated explanation of “investment” and how does it relates to boardgames)


But there’s a more interesting dichotomy hidden in this opposition of “subjective experience” and “objective existence of a product”. I’ve just read Varoufakis’ book “Talking to My Daughter About the Economy” where he poses an interesting paradox between two different types of value.
– “Experiential value” is value an object obtains from experience. A shirt might have an experiental value because it belonged to my grandfather. “Experiental value” is related to the value we get by experiencing objects (or other things).
– “Exchange value” is a monetary value of an object. A value we get if we sell it, buy it, and it’s completely alienated from experiential value.
How to assign value to experiences is a paradox for all publishers and producers of cultural artefacts. It also has a sub-problem: what does it take to access the experience we try to sell?

Mainstream culture in all cases trends towards works/artifacts that are easy to access and ask little on the side of the consumer. The dialogue between the work and its audience is still there, but the process of audience’s involvement is minimal or automated. In films these types of investments would be “mimetic realism” (accepting that “film” is “as real life”), “identifying with protagonist(s)” (emotional investment in the outcome based on a character in the centre of the story), story matters more than visuals (let’s just say video art works differently). If you watch films that ask more of the audience (one that are shown in visual art galleries for instance) the effort of the audience to enter dialogue would be more significant and most of all more conscious. Would not be automatic. The audience would need to figure out for instance the relation between things shown in video and a political or historical reality – they would need to connect the dots on their own, the film wouldn’t be forcefeeding them. They might need to decide how much meaning does the visual layer of video adds to the overall effect, and what kind of meaning. Such works turn the viewer into a reader of cultural signs, but as this takes a certain discipline or skill, it’s less popular. (Though admittedly it can be marketed as “elite”, some people are into this, I guess.).

With boardgames the paradox is that people want to buy objects, but what they buy are experiences. So there has been a trend in hobby gaming to trying to make a sort of equation between “object” and “experience” in an attempt to converge “exchange value” and “experiential value” into the same thing. A case of disconnect would be when people buy KS game with miniatures (object) and it creates mediocre or bad gaming experiences. The way hobby went about it (by the wisdom of herding instinct) is to minimise the impact of the player on the overall experience. This has been going on since early 2000s. Games where players co-create the game’s economy ask of players to have a vague idea what they’re doing and the game might fall flat if people just cluelessly wander around (Modern Art, Container, stock market games). Many games will fall flat by people “Not getting it” – not understanding that BaHotH or TotAN are about the journey not the results. Not understanding that Citadels is firstmost about the double-think element arising from the Assassin card (it’s not a resource engine game foremost). And so on. So, the publishers went into promoting and designing games which are “idiot proof” – they’re not likely to fall flat because what you do in games is very controlled. In essence what you’re doing is executing rules – this is the minimal investment into a boardgame.

To illustrate this. I’ve once tried to play Condottiere with eurogamers used to investing into the game and winning from figuring out the system. So, when they’ve realised their hands of cards are bad they just threw the game to me. What they didn’t understand is that Condottiere asks for investment into playing the opponent, it’s a game of passing the buck and let other players deal with it. A bad hand is usually the hand of a person who can shrug and smile “eh, I can’t do anything here, why don’t you chaps sort this out”? However for the eurogamers in question the shift in investment type was too great for them to figure out. And if you publish a game in an environment where most people are used to this type of minimal investment, you need either to figure out how to communicate this and hope somebody “gets it”, or locate the (niche) audience that understands this and target them.

There’s a sort of compromise between asking for more involvement from players (creates more fulfilling, richer experiences, but narrows the potential audience as the game “falls flat” with people not investing as the game hopes for) and asking for minimal involvement (broader reach for potential audience at the price of a lower ceiling). True, the way our economies are shaped, cultural products will lean towards mainstream culture – getting the reach of a wider audience by asking for less involvement.

But there’s also the monetary side to this. Games where players invest a lot, are in a sense collaborations with their players as players are significant co-creators of their gaming experience. This also means such games get replayability from the players. When you lower investment from players into just a small part of what creates the boardgaming experience, the focus shifts from people sitting around the table playing the game with one another, towards the object, the game altar sitting in the middle of the table, with each player mostly interacting with the game first. This then shifts the main relation of a gamer from a link to their gaming group, towards being primary related to content provider – the designer and the publisher.
In games which are targeted towards thinking challenge it’s a shift from games where the other players are the main challenge (traditional abstracts like Go, or games like Tigris and Euphrates) towards games where the game is the main challenge. As the game needs to now invent the complexity previously provided by other players, the euros in particular have in recent years trended towards being more and more complex, including more and more mechanisms into its clockwork like structure (Think of games by Feld or something akin Terra Mystica). By doing this they’ve raised the ceiling, but the ceiling is still there (whereas with games where players create the complexity the sky is theoretically the limit.)
In games that are story driven players are now less likely to create stories themselves (RPGs, storytelling games) as these ask for a significant skill. They’re also less satisfied with “adventure books” – games that create stories by random encounters players then try to make sense of by connecting the dots in their mind (TotAN, Arkham Horror). So what we get are “One-off” adventures where a coherent story is being writen by the publisher for the price of replayability. Something FFG tried to market for a while, like the Mansions and Madness 1st ed. Now the current format are “legacy games”. Where it seems 15 plays is the compromise between playing a game multiople times and following a prewritten story in the current market.
(See also: escape room boardgames)

Thanks for this thoughtful comment Laura! I like the idea of it being almost a manifesto.

With my product hat on, my prediction is that it will be a problem for lots of folk not because of a broader aesthetic incompatibility but because it’ll likely be a bit of a mess for them because of it’s fiddliness. I think it’s neither “fish nor foul” thing is a problem.

But yes! I think it’s fruitless to discuss “good or bad” as if they are objective judgements. What is much more interesting is to look at how it fulfils preference.

Hi James,

Another great read. I haven´t played TTR:UK (and aren’t too much into TTR either, for that matter), so I don’t have any opinion on your examples. But I wholeheartedly enjoyed. The first part for the obvious joy you took in bashing TTR:UK, the latter for your reasoning.

I’m also impressed that you find the time to write these columns. And I’m glad that I’ve found them. Thank you!

Hah! Thanks Erik. I think I only have time right now because I’m taking the time out of work to focus on the game for a bit. I am in awe of bloggers who produce deep, quality content regularly and have a full time job.

A friend alerted me of your article. As a person familiar with boardgame hobby culture and being a theatre critic from the continent (europe) the issues you’re talking about are nothing new. And yet I’m constantly surprised how some basics of art interpretation and criticism need to be explained to anglophones. (To paint with broad stokes: anglosaxon philosophy embraces common sense, yet has a tendency falling into the trap of universality (“objectivity”). “Continental philosophy” on the other hand understands that everything said is contextual, related to certain historical or geographic context. And doubts common sense with a passion.)

I completely agree with your conclusions, but I though I’ll describe my own path (and methodology) how to get there.

Experience of playing a game (or reading a book, watching a film, whathaveyou) is not subjective, it’s dialectic. While it’s “my” experience, it’s also an experience of something unrelated to me. And the nature of every artistic/entertainment experience is a dialogue – between the book and a reader, audience and theatre play, players and a game. Boardgaming is a bit specific in that dialogue is primarily between a group playing and the game, not each individual player (there are exceptions though). So when I play a boardgame I’m partaking on the collective experience of the group playing – and it might happen that for some games you need “the right kind of group”. You need a group who understands how to engage in a dialogue with this specific game. One creative player is unlikely to drag 3 players afraid of being creative into a rewarding storytelling game session.

When I plunge into a work as a reviewer I will trust my subjective taste – as a starting point. It doesn’t matter so much whether I liked a game or not, but: why? What was in the game that triggered my response? I will try to figure out which part of the boardgame experience was created by the game. A game is in a sense a potential for creation of a gaming experience – to manifest it, it needs a collaboration of players. Players on the other hand need to invest in the game in a certain way to evoke this potential. (A negotiation game doesn’t work if you’re not negotiating. A bluffing game needs people to bluff. Some game asks for creative players, some ask for players not to game the system or to focus more on the story than on the outcome.) In theatre we would ask “how does a performance sees its audience”. In boardgames it would be something akin “how does a boardgame play with its players?”. And this is the primary focus of a review/critic: what does the game bring to table within the dialectic dynamic of the boardgaming experience? (What is this part that all experiences of the same game will share?) Alternate way to ask the same question: What does the game DO? What is the game’s effect (on its audience, the players)? Secondary question would then be: what do players need to do to get the most out of this game? (i.e. what’s the target audience).

There are additional subtleties to the art of interpretation through the dynamic of the dialogue. Like – audience (and reviewers) will also come with biases and expectations. Ideally through the dialogue people would become aware of these expectations, at least of those counterproductive to the endeavour in question. A reviewer should ideally be, through millage, become aware of their tastes, making it easier to “substract” them from the experience. What I mean by this is to be able to separate which part of the experience was caused by my expectations alone (therefore my monologue) and which part of the experience was co-created by me and the game (a dialogue).

So this would be the initial inquiry: what does the game try to achive? And whether or not it manages to achieve what it set out to. Or maybe it needs a particular type of players (players acting in a particular way) to achive it.

The next level would be contextualisation. Here you can say “well the game does achieve what it tried to achive, but…”. Maybe compared to similar games in the field the achievement isn’t that notable. Or maybe the effect of the game might be problematic in broader terms, maybe regarding the development of boardgaming culture, boardgaming hobby or social context in general. For instance – “this game is a good solo boardgame, but do we currently need solo boardgaming?” – questions on this level are not reviewing in the narrow sense (analysis of game), but are social and political.

So from your negative review of TTR UK I already understood the context. Namely boardgaming hobby has in last half a decade moved into a specific type of gaming, favoring eurogame model of a specific kind. Namely engine building, often with action selection and a type of interaction called “indirect interaction” (or MPS from people who don’t like it). This is linked to another idea, nicely explained in an old Michael Barnes’ article “Fun-first design” (from 2012). Barnes proposes a difference between hobby gaming and causual gaming. In hobby games there is a significant effort, first to learn the game from a hefty rulebook, then to internalise the rules and the bits and then to form a perfect plan (usually within optimising the engine building paradigm). What Michael correctly points out is that for hobbyist this work IS the fun, it’s the attractive bit of the game. It goes even so far that you’ll hear eurogamers explain they like to “explore the system” (the puzzle laid by the designer) and don’t care for playing the game once across that threshold, once the “working” part is over. Casual gamers and casual games on the other hand want to get rules and overhead away from the table as soon as possible (this is what Michael calls “fun-first design” – as opposed to “work first, fun later or never”). Accessibility is seen as virtue of game design for causal gamers (the kind that get SdJ award). But for hobbyists it lacks “crunchiness” (i.e. puzzling out their way through the system). So what happened with TTR UK it seems is exactly this line of division in preferences between casual gaming and hobbyists. As hobbyist’s preferred method of investing in the game is “system puzzling” and “working to get somewhere” additional steps in between what used to be a simple action is seen as desirable, it’s what these people expect and want out of a game. For you, used to accessibility of TTR line it seems as decadence. I guess one of big attraction points of TTR is that overhead is light (as you don’t need to make a decision every turn) and socialising is possible – chatting while playing. Possibly the UK expansion doesn’t allow this anymore? Anyhow – the question arising from this inquiry are: Does the shift in target audience makes sense for TTR line? (Is the hobby market important enough? Big enough? Are hobbyists the primary audience buying TTR expansions.?) I think King of New York taking a casual gamer game and buffing it up to appeal to hobbyist was a failure (but hey, maybe it still sells, i dunno). Another question is then – if TTR UK takes a causal game and makes it a hobby type of game, is it good in doing so? You said – not really, and I’m not going to play it, so I believe you (heh). What would be similar hobby style games addressing the similar type of gaming experience as TTR UK? (7 wonders?)

Then there’s an angle related to your interest in game design. How does the logic of dialogue fit into this? The practice I’m familiar with is related to creative process in theatre (devised theatre, contemporary dance). Basically as we work on a piece we try to see it not as “authors”, but from outside as spectators. We would start with rehearsals, trying this and that, till we see something emerge that was not in anybody’s original plan. This would be what we’re after – some logic the performance creates on its own. The continuation of the process would then try to extract this thing, expand on it and make it such that every spectator could experience it. (This process is usually called dramaturgy). What’s crucial here is that we see the piece of something on its own, that nonetheless develops in parallel with being watched/experienced. A similar process in boardgaming is called playtesting – game develops through being played. Now, an important part of any feedback – from test audience or test players – is recognizing whether it is useful. Sometimes a playtester or test audience will complain that the work doesn’t fit their pre-existing habits and expectations (not in such words, they’ll say it’s “wrong”, “bad”, “missing something”). The role of authors is to understand they (or what they’re developing) is about something else and that such feedback isn’t useful. Useful feedback is one that understands the general idea of what is trying to be accomplished.

So, yes, of course the effect of the work or art/entertainment isn’t a crap shot, but something developed. The effect on audience isn’t random. Ask any advertiser.
A nice theory that tries to explain this relation is Umberto Eco’s “model reader” (which could be transfered from literature into “model audience”, “model gamer”). The core idea is that in literature the reading strategy is already inscribed in the text’s structure, the text anticipates a certain type of reader (a certain type of interpretation). In boardgames it would means that the game anticipates a certain type of investment from the group playing and that the investment type is already inscribed in the game’s structure. Individual reader (or a gaming group) can of course pursue other paths, but as Eco says “not all interpretative strategies have a happy ending”. I tend to frame it that some interpretative strategies or investment strategies do not engage in a dialogue with the work, but are instead de facto a monologue.

Thank you for this very in-depth comment Samo! A *huge* amount to unpack there. I apologise now that I am probably not going to get to all of the subtleties you have posted in both of your comments here. But thank you nonetheless for adding to the debate.

You’ve said quite a few things there more eloquently than I and put me in the direction of some excellent reading about the differences between hobby and casual gaming.

As you say, inside established art forms, this is not even really a debate. For me this is a particularly interesting point. You could put it down to the lack of maturity in the space. That would be a fine and reasonable theory. But I wonder if this difference is also rooted in the culture of gaming as somewhat fundamentally different. I don’t think there was ever a time when there were substantial voices in the theatre demanding objectivity in the manner gamers talk about or looking to find mathematical consensus on what the “best” play is. Historically hobby boardgames have attracted many people with an engineering mindset; for exactly the reasons you outline. Things are black and white; they are fixed. or broken – the popularity of that word in boardgame circles is very telling. Much of the joy comes in two things, exploiting the bug or optimising the machine. Many of them will often position a game as an engineering problem first and an experience second. Objective ‘hard’ truths are valued above everything. On the other hand, in my fairly significant experience of mixing with people who both work in the arts and consume them voraciously (especially actors), what is valued is very different: moments, relationships, the texture and feeling of things. In that world, it would only be natural to start from that textured, subjective experience and explore from there. That is a hugely crude generalisation, of course, but it is difficult to do otherwise here.

Personally – as I often am – I am pulled by both theses forces. I have no philosophical trust in the engineering mindset; I think the hard truths that some people seek are irrelevant. I find exploration from the subjective more real because it captures the critical nuance – and the most important thing of all; how the experience actually is. But the idea we can know ‘facts’ about games is massively seductive. Having that knowledge is like a design superpower. It can help us more quickly cut-to-chase of what we will enjoy and potentially, predict what will be successful. Establishing even a limited number of facts will never stop being something the gamers will be very interested in. So I wonder if this world will forever be different.

Uhm, yeah, “let’s drop 60 years of art/literature theory on a person and hope it doesn’t kill them.” Well, it’s worth a try. 🙂

Being an art critic (well, mostly theatre) I am very much driven with figuring out how it all works, and yet I have no need for “objectivity” or “hard truths”. They simply don’t produce much insight or get decent results. It really helps that I’ve been involved in creative processes in theatre in various roles – assistant director, director, dramaturge, performer, videast, I can even do basic light design and write PR. This experience provides me with good understanding of the logic of a creative process. At the end of the day, we’re creating experiences (for the audience). Yet it’s not like we’re controlling the experience or forcing it onto the audience, nor are we as performers or authors necessarily sharing on the experience of the audience.

The theory I like best describes my favorite type of working within creative process as “dramaturgy with the material” which is a fancy word to say “messing with stuff”. What you mention as “hard-truths” would better be understood as tools. We would use tools to get certain effects or results, but the same tool might not fit every performance or every boardgame. So what we actually do is “try stuff”. Even as a critic or dramaturge when I give feedback it’s mostly at the level of suggestion. I have no idea what will work, but I suggest, “hey why don’t your try this and see if it works”. (Theatre really has a luxury in that you can just rehearse a scene very quickly and observe the changes made.) “Messing with stuff” means you try different approaches on a rehearsal – let’s do it this way, that way, maybe we try with this task. What is crucial then is to observe what is emerging (it’s nice to have somebody who’s not performing, usually director or dramaturge or both, or you can film the rehearsal).
The crucial skill is one of observation. The more arcane logic to “dramurgy with the material” is understanding that material has it’s own logic. The whole process is in finding this logic and then developing it so that everybody could access it. (Material can be physical things, but also means theme, topic, theory – in a game material would also be the theme, the interaction, everything that’s being part of the creation)

In a sense it works like this:
tools -> material -> effect
tools = “objective”, “facts”, but really, nobody knows whether or not they’ll work this time
material = the unobservable mess of a mystery with its own logic, you poke it and something happens, or not
effect = how does the audience “subjectively” perceive it

The real trick here isn’t just to abandon the “objective”, but also to abandon the “subjective”. Focusing on the experience a work creates isn’t focusing on the subjective – it’s focusing on a dialogue. It’s not rocket science – if want to upset or insult you, it’s pretty easy how. If I want to make you laugh, well maybe there’s some fine tuning, but trying out certain jokes and witty comments is a start. If you check stand-up comics – material (their show) is often developed in front of the audience and then fine tuned on while touring. Because – if you want to develop a dialogue the best way is through practicing it as a dialogue. (What would be playtesting in boardgames).

But I’ve met various types of artists. There are those artists/performers/authors who will have a “bag of tricks” they’ll use with any creative process or piece, either their own or when working on somebody else’s piece. This would be kinda similar to what you’re talking about. Whereas I subscribe to the opposite kind of thought: I’m not interested in “what works”, I’m interested what is in this particular piece, material or a text that makes it unique. I would say “helping it become what it wants to be”.

The benefit of the “bag of tricks” approach is that gets you started really quick. It’s the kind of advice one would give to new artists, people just starting out. The minus is that such advice makes all the pieces end up being pretty much the same.
My “what it wants to be” approach on the other hand embraces and supports uniqueness of pieces. But it’s harder to start with – I cannot see something that’s not there, if the potential is low I cannot push it to become something bigger.

(But of course, I’ll use some general advice. When I’m helping 10 year olds make their first 2 minute dance solo, the advice would be very basic – work on the story, or work on the character, or work on relations to objects – depends on the dance number (Wife has a dance school)).

I recommend watching a recording of Stewart Lee’s show (“If you prefer a milder comedian…” or “Carpet remnant world”) for the parts where he addressees audience’s reception and tells them how they should properly invest in his show. (whether or not it’s your thing)

Also – I’m not sure how much sense you could make out of it. But here’s an example of my review where I talk all about how a performance achieves a certain type of effect or experience, but completely avoiding my subjective experience. I’m talking about “how” not “what”. And it’s about a show that emphasises the principle of “messing with the material”.

Well, possibly a side issue, but what a lot of games promise is a chance to be clever. And they deliver on this promise. A large number of people live their childhoods and early adulthoods in a world that rewards being clever very, very much — perhaps more than anything. So you optimise yourself for cleverness — and suddenly it just doesn’t matter any more in your life. Not that it isn’t better to be clever than stupid, but your life just doesn’t provide that much in opportunities to excel because you are clever — as opposed to wise, or experienced, or connected to the right people, or some other factor. If you are working in a competitive field, then being clever will not be enough. If you, instead, have opted for a life that isn’t all that competitive, then you may not get much in the way of competition, at all. Both of these states can leave you feeling somewhat disappointed in life when your childhood anthem was always ‘I am better than you, because I am smarter than you – ha ha!’

Too many doctors, for instance, are optimised for being smarter than the other students in their class, and discover that their lives are now supposed to be spent taking care of sick people. But they aren’t optimised for that at all, indeed they may be particularly unsuited for what their lives actually entail. The engineers and the computer programmers have an easier time of it — their lives do give them chances to be clever. (And sometimes, we wish that it hadn’t, because they took a chance to be clever, instead of wise, and produced something that fails in the field …)

But lots of people end up in a life where they wish they had more opportunities to be clever. A good many games seem to scratch this particular itch. You have to be smart to do well at them, but you only have to use your native cleverness — it’s not like Chess or Go where, to get great, you will need to do some serious studying.

I think that’s a fascinating point. I wonder whether automation (specifically more powerful machine learning) will actually make this worse in the future – and maybe make games even more important?

I’m not sure I agree with you, Laura. In terms of me being exactly the nerdy kid who now loves to use my native cleverness in games, but the hobby games do not allow me to! Instead, for me the hobby games aren’t clever enough, the ceiling is too low, the path to solving the path predictable. In particular what bothers me is too much rote learning and work – but unlike the examples you mention (Go, …) the work in these puzzles is a solitary work. All you need to do is figure out the system and optimise your part through it, the math is very basic arithmetic. There’s no jump to higher form of reasoning or other capacities of observation or abstract through. In a sense the “rewarding of cleverness” does not ask for much cleverness. It’s a type of work you can do at home, come to perfect solution regardless of what other people do and then impress everybody at the gaming session.

To link this with your “profiling” I’d say it’s not about people who want to be clever (I can tell you some really clever observations playing speed reaction kids games). It’s about people used to be rewarded for finishing tasks set by the teacher and the process involves internalising simple procedures and then delivering the correct answer. As with all such issues the core isn’t about knowledge or cleverness, but emotions. What you describe is people who use “knowledge” for the purpose of getting an emotional confirmation from the others. The cleverness here isn’t used as the aim in itself.

It’s a very narrow type of “cleverness”. If I want to be challenged I’ll play something like Diplomacy – because I’m pushed against figuring out individual psychologies of people, their group dynamics, and different levels of understanding the game’s logic (actually it’s sometimes harder to outwit newbies than seasoned players). What Diplomacy offers, and many other games too, is that the challenge are other people. If a game allows for this, the sky’s the limit. Instead we got these hobby contraptions, basically puzzles, which all have a ceiling. There’s only as much a mechanical puzzle can do. Possibly by design – hey, if you’re finished with this puzzle, why don’t you buy an expansion or another game?

There’s another facet to this. What happened with modern eurogames is that the collective enjoyment of playing a game is excluded. Psychology, group dynamics, doublethinking, all these are too subtle or chaotic for the score optimisers. So instead of the group dynamics being the focal point of a game session -. be it the group interaction or the collective narrative ride or just shared silliness, the focus is now on interaction between the game and each player on their own. Everybody stares at their player sheets and deals with the game system primarily. Which means the core relationship a player has isn’t with other people, but with the game, and when core relationship is with the game, it’s also with the content provider (designer, publisher), thus making such a player primarily a consumer.

I see no cleverness in this. Instead I see the achievement focus.

I’ll need to elaborate on this. For me the soul of playing (games) is linked to freeplay. Freeplay is about autonomy and social skills – kids play on their own with no oversight of adults, instead they need to figure it out on their own. And this means developing empathy and social inteligence. The goal of freeplay is to play again, but in order to be invited to play again you need to compromise and adapt to others. Freeplay is community centred – it’s older kids adapting to capabilities of younger. It’s about everybody having a turn at playing a princess. And so on. In this way freeplay is essential for growing up.
Instead there’s been a trend lately to not allow kids to play on their own (too dangerous! they cry) so they have after school activities and like in school these activities are organised by adults and are focused on achivements as framed by adults, i.e. as framed by somebody else. So what we get is kids who are incapable of empathy, because they’re dependant on achieving correct results. They seem self focused as the “me” focus is the absence of “us” focus.
more on freeplay and the dangers of its absence here:

What Laura describes isn’t cleverness, but the need for controlled environment where correct answers are possible and they are rewarded. To me this is closer to “obedience” in terms of making players dependant on others. House rules are verboten, the focus on the group playing right here right now and the joy derived from it ignored, instead players are dependant on content providers, be it puzzles or pre-baked narratives.

I could see why this could be framed as “clever”, but there’s more to cleverness than just “correct answers”. 🙂

I suspect that I just know too many people who think that ‘getting the correct answers’ is exactly what cleverness is. 🙂

Leave a Reply