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Is there room for a new kind of boardgame review?

There’s something missing from the boardgame review landscape. This is what I think it might be – and what I am going to experiment with to fill it. 

Why even bother with more reviews?

I’ve wanted to do more reviews for a long time, but I’ve not had the courage to even make the effort.

It’s not just that the space seems saturated; everyone seems to have a review-oriented youtube channel or a blog these days. But that the prospect of trying is genuinely daunting, because so many of the reviewers out there are doing what they do so well.

While most reviews may still only be exploring their subject at a relatively basic level,  as the recent editorial from MeepleLikeUs wonderfully explores, many of them fulfil the utility they provide; giving solid buy/don’t buy recommendations to consumers. At the top of the video game in particular, the likes of No Pun Included and Shut Up Show have honed their skill into making content that is not just useful, but insightful and genuinely entertaining. In the written art – closer home to what I would want to do – the most sophisticated practitioners are smashing their goal of genuinely evoking the specific experience of playing particular games. Writers like Charlie Theel and Matt Thrower are are successfully creating a new genre of experiential reviews that are joys to read in themselves. Already, their writing is looking more and more like the best criticism in more mature spaces like theatre or food. In short, the best all over are getting down the business of the what matters for the buyer when they engage with a game review: how will I feel when I play it. Into all of this, it’s difficult to feel I have much to add.

And yet, in all of this there is something I sense that is lacking from it. More specifically, something of the kind of discussion I get when I analyse the workings of a specific game with a fellow game designer; the kind of nuggety and specific insight into the exact how of how a game functions. Essentially, what I’ve been searching for since the beginning of this blog, but have always struggled to work out how to get to.

I am not talking about the application of glossary terms or the description of mechanics with basic comparisons to systems in other games here. To me, that kind of thinking is responsible for what appears to be an endless list of new designs based on “known mechanic + other known mechanic/theme”.  But rather the how that really matters. How exactly a specific game generates a specific quality of experience; its emotional, social, cognitive and imaginative landscape and even the story it engages the player in. Right down to specific, critical technical decisions that transmogrified a bunch of cardboard, wood and rules into a wave of thoughts and feelings.

It’s not so much the painting of the emotional effect I want specifically; though I would love to see more reviews focused on the experiential quality. What I want to read is a much deeper dive into what gave life to the painting; which experiential reviews tend to mostly only flirt with or imply at the borders. What I am envisioning is more like the tabletop equivalent is the exploration of the actors method for getting into character, the specific brush strokes that make the Rembrandt, or the musical theory behind the music.

A little while ago I wrote about my desire for objectivity in game reviews. For all sorts of reasons, trying to achieve objectivity is ultimately a fools errand. But, as I began exploring in that piece and am beginning to realise now, what that desire comes from is the interesting bit. It’s not that I demand or need objective facts in these cases but, rather I want what matters most about objective facts that they also have in common with less epistemologically demanding types of understanding: useful knowledge about how things work that can be applied to general cases. Ultimately what I really want are heuristics, patterns and know-how that can help me be a better designer. The capability to do better work and better predict the effect of a design before it’s even tested. Essentially,  I am looking for reviews that will help me attain that  kind of knowledge; “functional boardgame reviews” that focus on what I need to know about them.

What would this “functional review” look like?

I won’t be entirely certain until the first one is under my belt. But to more precisely illustrate, I imagine them being concerned with these kinds of questions in a hypothetical game: How much tension does a particular of form bidding generate?  Does it provide for additional decision possibilities or only balance out how options are priced elsewhere? Why are those particular decisions pleasant and the others not so?  To what extent is the tactile nature of a component enhance the feel of the game in a deep way that complements other parts of it or merely provide a jazzy but superficial addition to the overall experience? Is the strong alignment of a mechanic to theme important to usability, or merely incidental? How do underlying dynamics shape emotional rhythm and if they fail to, why precisely does this game run flat in the last 1/3? Is that even a problem at the game’s length?

These questions are already partly considered elsewhere, but, in my personal experience, frequently not all that closely. This is doubtless, in part, about time and word count constraints. But I also wonder if it’s because if your audience are not primarily designers, it’s not necessarily that useful. If your main goals are to provide a persuasive recommendation (one way or the other) in the format of a piece of content that is enjoyable in itself, then so much of what might interest me is surely heading for the cutting room floor.

But for a designer, a review which us, in essence, is a reverse engineering of an entire game (or at least it’s most critical elements), could be very useful: for all the reasons I’ve already cited. And when everyday there are more and more people who want to design boardgames, it doesn’t seem such a mad idea. After all, it’s getting to a point where it feels like almost everyone has one. My fellow designers might hate me for saying this; but ‘having a boardgame design’ knocking around in your draw is the new ‘having a screenplay’ there.

Risks and challenges

Of course, with any new enterprise there are risks – I could just be terrible at this kind of writing.

Among the more specific issues facing this concept, the largest and most obvious is that I may be completely wrong in thinking that there is a deeper level of analysis which the best reviewers are not exploiting. There’s a big possibility here that all I am going to end up doing, is making longer, more boring versions of the best experiential reviews. It could be that the “designer’s eye” ads length from the description of minutiae  but not enough insight to be worth it. It might just not that be different to a regular review for all my high-falutin’ chatter. There’s no way to know this yet.

Another challenge is that the reviews themselves may end up being either too long to be practically created for my blog posts or too short that they fail to capture the subject adequately. I certainly have previous for writing pots who’s length poses, perhaps ,an unnecessary challenge.  But the art of good writing always entails the balancing of the comprehensiveness of scope with importance. Even if I can’t do it that well, I am sure it’s possible someone can and this is just a proof of concept after all.

The third challenge is that there are just so many avenues to take that I might get lost doing it. Even some of the early experiments I did on a review in preparation for this piece have ended-up going in lots of different directions. For any type of writing new to you, this is to be expected. But it’s even worse when it’s something that – you believe at least – is fairly uncharted in general. To help here, I am going to continue to study other academic literature on game design and experiment with using my own theoretical model as a guide. It already informs some of my thinking and I think it could be a useful tool to work my way through it in a structured fashion. If you have anything else you think I should read to help me prep, do let me know.

Where to now?

All that remains is the produce the first one.

I have a game I have been researching that is neither a favourite nor something I particularly dislike; a reasonable middle ground that will hopefully lead me away from the twin traps of over-exuberant praise and unjustified bile on the first outing. With my trusty theoretical model as a drill, and my knowledge of boardgames at my side to map my course, my plan is to venture into this’ game’s core in the hopes of extracting valuable insights for other designers. If I am fortunate, it might actually be useful, if I am not, it could be a pompous waste of time,

Wish me luck.  I am really going to need it.

11 Comments

  1. There is indeed room for this sort of reverse engineering type of review. I wonder if one of the challenges might be that in so doing, some of the enjoyment of games may be lost?

    In regards to length, there are certainly some shortcuts available in well known mechanisms. You don’t have to reverse engineer deckbuilding, for example, because at least for your target audience, this is a commonly understood term.

    The sense I’m getting from this piece, is that you want to explore why a specific game evokes a specific feeling for players? What mechanisms lend themselves to, for example, the thrill of narrow success despite likely failure, and how that occurs.

    Not sure what your background is in, but it could be interesting to team up with a psychologist and get a bit into the science aspects?

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    • This was another risk / challenge I considered but decided to cut actually. I guess because even if it works, it could suck the fun right out! A great point.

      That’s true. I want to be careful not to gloss stuff and group things that have critical differences with broad-brush terminology. But deck-building is a great example where you don’t need to expand everytime – it’d be a ngihtmare if you did.

      Yes, that’s it. It’s like how you engineer the experience; the meeting point of the technical with the “event” of the game. I have a product background but I think your idea of bringing a psychologist in is great! A more formal way to talk about realyl specific mental states would be useful. For instance, people talk about engagement a lot, but does that mean experience of tension of watching others take their decisions, because of how they will affect you. Or does that mean the pleasure of weighing-up multiple options and exploring lots of avenues in your head? Does it actually refer to the joy of watching your tableau grow, perhaps because of the sense of progression it imparts? All engagement, all so different. Tiny mechanical choices will shape those emotions.

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      • A notion that might be useful is Umberto Eco’s “two levels of reading”. (From Six Walks in the Fictional Woods). First level reading is reading the book from beginning to end and hopefully enjoying that journey. Second level of reading is trying to figure out how first level of reading was created. Some writers will also give some material that only second type reading will decode.

        I’m always engaged in this second type (for 22 years at least). In contemporary dance usually first and second level are often the same level as one tries to figure out how to watch and what to watch (contemporary art is fun this way). With boardgames second level comes to me after I’ve played the game, so it has no effect whatsoever on enjoying the game. But I ask myself – if I enjoyed it, why? If I didn’t enjoy it, why? Why did I enjoy it more than last time with a different group? Why did I enjoy it less than with a different group? What were we doing differtently? How did game shape two groups?

        Often there’s quite an effort – I would come home after the session, open BGG comment section and then through writing force myself to articulate what I felt and experienced. With this I would enter “second level”. Sometimes, this is interesting, I would like the game more, the more I would think about it. Sometimes, the more I would think about it, the less I would like the game. Because I would through this process start to separate this particular experience with this particular group from the overall potential of experiences the game has. Sometimes the game I really liked would seem to have reached its ceiling in the first play, hence my lower interest in playing it again. Sometimes there would be promise of depth or some treasures there and sometimes these promises would be just never fulfilled illusions.

        The call for psychologist is nonsense. Are you a human? Do you have psychology? Do you enter gameplay with your brains and your emotions and your social habits and your personality and your psychology? If yes, then that’s all that is needed. The trick is to learn how to understand oneself – to distinguish between what the group brought to the table, what you yourself brought to the table and what did the game bring? How did this game make me behave, ac t, emotie, think, respond, socialize, psychologize differently than another game? How did the group shaped this experiences differently to another group? It’s all about millage and experience, really. The more you read experiences – gaming experiences or art experience – the more you understand yourself and your part in co-creating them and thus the better you become in reading the part of the experience the game created.

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        • Another comment regarding “psychology”. In reviewing the thing that matters is the part of the experience (of watching a film, visual art, of listening to music, of reading a book or playing a game) that’s caused or shaped by the piece. The part where the interaction between the piece and the person (or a group) happens. Parts of experience that are completely subjective don’t matter.

          It’s not really that hard. If you check workerplacements – main type of investment is via internalisation or rules and bits and optimising the hell out of them with utmost efficiency. The emotional part mainly comes to players emotionally investing in plans (and/or in the win) and being emotionally upset if “their action” was taken by somebody else – i.e. if their plan they emotionally invested in was disrupted or if they’re tense as they’re not sure if they can pull it off. More or less that’s the only psychology needed with such games. Yes, maybe some illustrations or themes bring more positive emotional reaction, but that’s on the level of advertising (i.e. making the outside pleasant so that people will buy the game).

          Or check DoaM games or similar type of multiplayer attacking games which balance themselves via bashing the leader dynamics. To get the most out the game, players need to first understand that it’s the leader they should bash – as this will keep them in the game, attacking players in weak position won’t. Then they have to figure out how to spot a leader or spot when somebody is in a superior position and needs to be stopped. Of course there could be negotiations, intimidation, promises, whining, many many things could happen in the social space of the game. But it doesn’t really matter (for designer or the game) how this works as long as the group understands they have to keep in other in check and do so.
          As for designer – they can probably understand that it’s possible to create a game environment that’s player balanced and that this will bring “leader bashing” as balancing act, which will open the game to negotiations. The trick to these games is that most people will bring their weird social habits of whom to attack that has no connection to what will benefit them in the game (it takes time and perseverance to push people (as a co-player) into understanding that one is supposed to always attack the player in the strongest position). Which is why some games try to create some kind of workaround – pushing players outside of their habits. Chaos in the Old World for instance puts players in roles – to block a certain side/role, other roles need to behave in a certain way. In this way you’re not attacking George, you’re attacking Nurgle.

          Of take the simplest of social deduction games “”Win, Lose or Banana”. There’s 3 players, one’s the “winner” who needs to figure out which of the other two is “banana”. The other two (“lose” and “banana”) try to convince the win player they’re the Banana. If “winner” picks “banana” they both win, otherwise “lose” wins alone. Now, the game is basically ALL about face reading. Players can discuss things “why are you banana?” “why is the other player not banana?”, yet it’s just additional information for face reading. (Or if you’re “banana” or “lose” it’s about controlling one’s appearance, adapting to other players, figuring out the ideal persuasive strategy – maybe it’s logic, maybe it’s being relaxed, depends). All sorts of things can happen, but what matters only is that people’s skills of persuasion and reading of people enter gameplay.
          One could possibly structure this – for instance when I moderate Werewolf I insist that all accusations need to be followed by a one sentence reason, so that werewolfs don’t just hide in the herd.

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  2. Wow, that sounds interesting. I’m not sure I fully understand exactly your suggested approach, but I do want to read your first review when it’s ready. My interest is certainly piqued!

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  3. Sounds like a fascinating concept. It sounds similar to some of the discussions we have at board game developer meetups once we have done a playtest. Just applied to published games. In theory it should increase some understanding around game theory and how mechanics tie together. As you note, it could be difficult to nail down concisely though. I suspect that too many words will be more of an issue than not enough words. It also seems like the kind of thing that might work better as a discussion between two people, bouncing ideas and reactions off each other.

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    • Ahh great! That’s interesting. Another possibility (an extension of one of the risks) is that this might always be better in a discursive format. I’ll keep that in mind.

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  4. Hi James. I’ve read the latter part of the post kinda diagonally, but just some basic feedback (that I suspect will be long-ish).

    I’m just from a contemporary dance festival, where as a reviewer I’m doing exactly what you say you’d like to do as a reviewer of boardgames – I discuss stuff with authors and/or performers. The reason is that I’m drawn to more altternative/off-mainstream types of theatre where there’s always a will from both sides (authors, reviewers – well at least me) to articulate the practice. Articulation brings actually an ability to understand more what’s goling on, so one can deal with misinterpretations/misunderstandings and also an ability to dive into smaller not-yet-articulated details. Plus – every art/entertainment is a dialogue, dialogue happens between dance piece and dancers and audience (all 3 parties) as it happens between the game, the designer and the players. So it’s nice to have some sort of idea what’s going on – what is it that it’s being generated.

    I agree that the level of “this is how it feels like to play” is just a starting point. Why does it feel this way? With what means did the game shape the experience of players to feel this way? What did players have to invest (bring to the table) for evoking the potential of the game so it could feel this way?

    Good starting points to delve into a design is for me good ol’ comparative review approach:
    – Comparing groups. If you playing the same game with different groups and it flops with some, but works with some others: Why? The difference being what players bring to the table. This is a good way to figure out “what game expects from players”. It’s also good to be aware of this in the playtesting stage – if you want players to have a certain kind of investment in the game (emotional, negotiation, psychology, narrative creation), pick people who can invest this way.
    – Comparing similar games. Often I can tell much easier when something doesn’t work than when something does – seeing situations when games (or other artforms) tried something similar, but were not quite there, helps.

    I’m all against “objectivism” though. Things that work in one game might not work in another. Each piece, each game is its own entity with its own idea of “what it wants to become” (i.e. it has a certain spark of potential that through creative process can be brought to light). I see a game as an organism, there’s a sort of whole that then gives roles to its “organs” – in some games theme is crucial, in some it’s secondary and plays a particular supportive role, in others it’s tertiary and is there merely to sell the game.

    Possibly an interesting path would be connecting “game parts” (not necessarily mechanism) with different investment types. There’s a big difference between games Modern Art and Ra – open auction brings player driven economy and thus opens doors wide for groupthink patterns entering game state. Psychology and observation are crucial in MA. But this confuses some players as they are lost in the openness. They expect “correct values” and narrow playing paths, where there is open landscape. So Ra solves the issue by bringing once around auction with pre-set values and eliminates most of player driven economy – the game turns into a push your luck thing where scoring chart printed on the board determines this dynamics. There’s still psychology in push your luck, but a different one than in shared incentives and spotting and ridding/exploiting the groupthink.
    What I’m saying is: both work, but need a different type of audience investment to make them work.

    A good question for designers should/could be: what do you want your players to DO? What is it they “should” enjoy? What kind of vibe should there be while playing this particular game? (Most of designers, I feel, simply design games in the way how they would engage them. Unfortunately game designs that ask less of players – “idiot proof designs” – will be more widespread simply because almost everybody could play them and get them immediately. Which means for many designers this type of gameplay – “executing rules” – will be what they’re use to. ) Surely it’s a good idea to suggest designers playing different types of games – including kids games (there’s memory, there’s dexterity, there’s speed, there’s roll and move that works and there are magnets, many many magnets, for some reason).

    A question – what’s the overall “vibe” and “investment type” the game strives for and then making sure all parts of the game support this general direction (it’s common to mess it up with visuals and graphic design). In graphic design there’s for instance a tension between having a practical readable design (design as a user interface) and atmopspheric “thematic” visuals (design that creates emotional response). WotC is for me more on the side of keeping stuff practical whereas FFG gets occasionally lost in their evocative baroque and horror vacuii (compare games like Lords of Waterdeep and Elder Sign on the level of visuals).

    Often small design decisions can have a very different outcome. I play a lot of speed reaction games.
    – Spot it! / Dobble – It’s has a flat, equal structure. Each card is connected to every other card and all differences between cards are equal. What this means is that the game has not learnign curve, one doesn’t really get better at it, the more one plays, making it ideal for one-off situations. Great for newbies, great for in between other games.
    – Jungle Speed has a structuralist web where cards are related by similarities and differences. There’s 5 pattern families and then different patterns within families. Which means it’s easy to separate families, but harder to notice difference between one family. The more one plays, the easier this gets. The game rewards internalisation of patterns and thus rewards repeated play. There’s an expansion that’s basically a kit with which you can ramp up difficulty according to your group’s level (you can pick just 3 families which makes the game much harder). Then JS has another trick, common in speed reaction games, namely special cards that reward a different skill. Namely speed recognition games have speed on two levels – physical reaction and pattern recognition. Often cards are added to reward one over the other, and give the game some “texture” (and hope for players who might be good in one or the other). JS has “colour matters” – rewards physical reaction; “all arrows in” – rewards physical reaction; “everybody turns their cards simultaneously” – rewards speed recognition.
    – In conclusion JS, as an older game, is designed for a long term playing with same group. Dobble on the other hand fits better with “I want it all now” and “I can’t devote to one game” of current gaming ethos. And if somebody asks me for recommendation regarding these two (or other speed games) I’ll ask in what situation do they intend to play it?

    (There’s also the matter of Dobble having simultanous gameplay with all attention all the time, whereas JS is a game of “pouncing” asking for a bit of different type of attention. Duels in JS mean one is not always competing with the best player at the table – so it gives newbies an easier benchmark to measure their improvement and thus makes it easier for them to stick around and play another game of it. The pouncing also means nobody is focused all the time the same way, so it’s easier to play it for a longer time. This just underlines JS is made to be played repeatedly. Dobble is great for an intense one-off.)

    [This above is basically a sketch for a comparative review of speed reaction games I never ended up writing. Heh.]

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