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

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.

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