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.