The question flying around basically comes down to this: do game reviewers spend enough time playing games before they review them? As a reviewer myself, I felt it worthwhile to write a response to these questions.
Board game reviewers have a uniquely challenging position in the world of critics. First of all, the obvious: unlike movies, books, or even most video games, you can’t really play a board game by yourself and give a fair critique. You can just flop down with your two hours of spare time and watch a movie. You have to arrange a gathering of friends, all with conflicting schedules, to get a game played. Add to this your friends’ desires to play a variety of games, not just the same game over and over, and it can be difficult to play a game you’d like to review in a timely manner.
Add to this the fact that there are far fewer paid critic positions for board gamers. While most newspapers and relevant magazines have paid movie and book reviewers, the demand for a board game columnist is pretty limited. This means that a high percentage of game reviewers have full-time jobs to work their schedules around, and you have even less time for playing a game to review.
In addition, each game experience is affected not just by the game, but by the players, and depending on who you play with, your view of the game’s balance and fun factor can be skewed.
So why bother? Why push through all these obstacles to write reviews? The fact is, we just love board games, and as reviewers, I think we have three major goals.
1. To serve the gamer
Most people have limited budgets to use for board games. Buying one game usually means not buying another game. If we can offer even a smidgeon of insight into a game someone is considering, we can help them make a more informed purchase. Hopefully they will end up buying a game that they will love.
2. To serve the game
While we’re not attached to any particular company, if we really like a certain game, we want to get that knowledge out there. If a game is great, it deserves to sell, and it will sell better if people know it’s great. If it sells well, it increases the chance of expansions or more great games from the same company and/or designer.
3. To serve the hobby
Board gaming, while a growing hobby, is still a small-timer. We want to see it grow more and more. Every game sold contributes to this growth, and every game that is enjoyed encourages future purchasing. When someone discovers a game they love, they will probably play it with as many people as they can, talk about it with people, and get more people to play (and possibly even purchase) the game. If someone buys a game and then hates it, unless they’re an established gamer, they’re going to think less of board games in general. If we can help close that gap—and help people find games they will enjoy and avoid the ones they won’t—this will help the hobby in general.
Now, the major critique of the linked posts above is that reviewers often do not play a game enough times to offer an accurate, critical view. They may miss critical flaws or see that only certain strategies are viable. Reviewers are also accused of jumping on the “cult of the new” and just posting on what’s hot to pull in more hits on their blog. While these accusations carry truth, I think that they fail to offer a complete picture.
First of all, due to the aforementioned limitations on playtime, it is extremely unrealistic to play every game you review 50+ times. Most of the games in my collection have seen
The fact is, most gamers will decide their opinion about a game within three plays. If they don’t like it by then, it is highly unlikely to hit the table again (unless a friend in the same group likes it), and if they do like it, they will probably play it a dozen more times even if a few of those plays go sour.
So, is it really unrealistic for us as reviewers to play a game three times and offer our impressions? We certainly try to play a game more often than that, but it just doesn’t usually work out that way. True, we may miss some flaw in the game that we might have discovered later on, but if we have a solid impression of a game and reasons to back it up, is it not legitimate to post those thoughts for others to consider?
Even if the game carries a critical flaw—a flaw that isn’t discovered till you’ve played the game fifty times—would not most gamers have gotten their money’s worth out of that game by the time they reach that point? If I have played an hour-long game fifty times, having spent between $40-$50 for that game, that comes to less than $1 per hour of enjoyment. If I’m not enjoying the game, how would it ever have gotten played fifty times?
Continuing on, I will be honest: as a reviewer, it is much more beneficial to myself to review games that are “hot” or “in the new.” The fact is, like it or not, these games attract more attention. Posting about them puts our voice into the mix and hopefully attracts new readers. Increased readership also increases the number of people reading our reviews of older or lesser known games, as well as increasing our chances of receiving review copies from companies looking to get the word out. Like it or not, these things are necessary for us to continue spending our time playing games for the purpose of reviewing them, as well as spending time on the review itself.
There’s also the important fact that a game’s biggest selling period is usually in its first few months. If we wait a year to review a game and tell people we like it, it’s already too late to make a difference. That game has already either done well enough or is considered a failure. As part of our #3 goal, serving the hobby, we want games to sell quickly and sell a lot (if they’re good).
While we may not catch every flaw or figure out every overpowered strategy, we can, with only a few plays, get a decent impression of whether or not we will enjoy a game. Is it possible, over time, for our opinions of that same game to change? Yes. Just as repeated viewings of a movie over time do not carry the same emotional weight, or reveal significant plot holes, things can change over time. Maybe we’ll play a new game that does something similar that we just prefer; maybe we’ll grow to favor a particular mechanic over another. There’s no guarantee; but we can’t review the whole life of a game.
To be at our most useful, we have to share our reviews as quickly as possible. We want to give thoughts on more games, and do so in a timely manner. So we can’t do a full critique up and down of a game; flaws may pop out over time that we couldn’t see. But our goal is not to write a scientific paper on each and every game; our goal is to let you know if we think you’ll enjoy a game or not. There’s no guarantee that you’ll agree with us at any point in the process.
We hope that our dual-opinion “nemesis” reviews offer even greater insight with the limited plays we have—at the very least, you get impressions from two people who sometimes agree and sometimes don’t. In some cases, we will make mistakes. In some cases, the allure of a game will fade over time. But hopefully we can help you find games that you will get a worthwhile amount of enjoyment out of before that game grows stale or gets traded away.