Cardboard Children: Reviewing Boardgames

By Robert Florence on October 11th, 2013 at 3:00 pm.


Hello youse,

Apologies for my schedule this past couple of weeks. I’ve been about as busy as I’ve ever been. Why does that stop me from writing my column? I mean, it’s only a 1000 words or so, right? A superhuman like me should be able to knock that out without a drop of sweat, right? NO, YOU DON’T GET IT. YOU JUST DON’T GET IT.

I think it might be interesting to talk about the challenges a writer faces when writing about board games. Not because you should give one damn about a writer’s challenges, but because it allows us to further understand what makes board games different. Okay, you with me? Let’s go.

THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES OF BOARD GAME REVIEWING

Here’s something you might not know about board games. They change. They don’t exist in any kind of constant state.

I’ve been playing a PC game recently. Shadow Warrior. Great fun. Old school. And having played it from start to finish, I know exactly what it is. I could explain it to someone, elaborate on its mechanics and pace and flaws and high points, and I could give it a score out of ten if I wanted to. I have it in my head, and in my hands, and I could pour it onto my keyboard if I had to.

Board games are different. Board games aren’t things you can rush. You can’t play a board game once and completely understand it. You can’t even play a board game once and be sure that you like it.

The first time I played Cosmic Encounter, I said out loud “This is the best board game I have ever played.” After the excitement had passed, I said “I think that was the best board game I have ever played.” I think. I think, I think. I wasn’t sure. In truth, I’m still not sure. Whenever I get asked what my favourite board game is, I always start with “I think…”

Every board game experience starts the same way – you read the rules. The rules might be brief, or they might be long. They might be beautifully written, or a mess. Short or long, well-written or messy, the rules don’t really tell you anything about the quality of the game. But they might put stumbling blocks in the path of you trying to work all of that out. Once you get past the rules, you enter the “first-play zone”, where everything moves slowly and you’re just trying to feel your way through stuff.

My first play of the brilliant Spartacus moved slowly, but quality always shines through. “Okay, let’s work out this combat stuff now.” Bit by bit, the game emerges, everyone learning it at the same time. “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a learning game. Just roll.”

“Just a learning game.” That’s how board games start. Early plays can’t be properly competitive. Early games don’t even see you playing properly. You’re tinkering with the mechanics. Trying this. Trying that. Double-checking rules. You’re pushing at the edges of the thing. It couldn’t be further from the experience of playing a computer game. Not these days, anyway – when everything in a computer game gets handed to you on a plate.

And then, when you do understand the game, you still can’t fully trust the experience. How can you trust that your experience is universal? What if you just had great fun with your group of friends, and very little of that fun actually came from the game? What if your group made it fun, despite the game itself being a bore? Can that happen? It can. Of course it can. Look how popular Trivial Pursuit is.

One of my favourite board games is a game called Show Manager. It’s an acclaimed game. Lots of people like it. Yes. But I love it. It’s a game where you collect sets of actors so that you can stage theatrical productions. It has some beautiful, simple mechanics. A fine, fine design. But I probably like it more than you would, because with my group of players (we’re all involved in the TV industry, or have been) it’s a hilarious affair, where we relate the in-game actors to people we know and such. It’s a brilliant, personal experience. But personal. Not universal. And you have to look out for that kind of stuff when you cover board games.

Did I really enjoy that board game, or was I just really horny?

There’s another point. I played a board game once, not a great one, and had an amazing experience because my girlfriend and I were staring at each other, playing aggressively with each other throughout. It was a thrill. The game wasn’t doing anything. It was all us. That stuff is tricky. Very tricky.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a classic game. I’d recommend it to anyone. But it says right there on the box that it plays with 2-6 players. I’ve played it 3-player and had an amazing experience. And I’ve played it with 6, and wanted to go straight to bed. Had I only played it with 6, I’d have hated it. But I knew that it was MAGICAL with 3. How is it with 4? How is it with 5? Where’s the tipping point? How long does the magic last for? Does the novelty wear off?

Questions. Constant questions.

Board games are designed to last for a lifetime. When you buy a board game, it’s supposed to be on your shelf until you die and your children fling it into a skip. How do you measure the success of a board game on those terms?

Here’s the one certain thing – you can’t play a board game once, or even twice, and know enough to talk to people about it. You can give some impressions, sure. But come to a definitive “judgement”? I’m very suspicious of anyone who does that. It all takes time.

And that’s why, when life gets busy, reviewing board games becomes difficult. You can’t blow through them in one long session and spit out a score. You need to play a board game more than once, and you need to let a board game settle. That’s also the reason why board games are the best games. They are built to last, and built to transform into something special when the right group of people lay hands on them.

They are things of touch, eye contact and time.

NEXT TIME – Finally, having had time to let it settle, I can tell you about Krosmaster. See you then!

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23 Comments »

  1. razgon says:

    Did you not use to be a tree, not so long ago?

    I like your human version better though!

    • Deano2099 says:

      Indeed, I thought that was the whole point of The Midnight Table – to allow writing about sessions and experiences of games without needing to critically review them and face the problems mentioned in this article…

  2. DapperDirewolf says:

    Nicely put. I’ve been getting into board games more and more in the last year and I’ve found that I often enjoy the experience far more than that of video games. You’re absolutely right, it’s the people you play with and the atmosphere and attitude surrounding the event. If people are being dicks, you probably won’t have a great time, if people start bitching about losing, you’ll probably feel a bit awkward (or chuffed, if it’s you causing the tears), and if everyone is on the same page and up for a laugh, it can be one of the most entertaining group experiences of all. The memories I already have from playing games such as The Last Night on Earth and Game of Thrones: The Board Game are some that I’ll treasure forever, and even though video games can indeed inspire a similar feeling of ‘This was my story’ when you do something that seemed highly unlikely or even impossible (a la Battlefield with buddies), the feeling is better when you’re actually in the presence of friends.

    Or something like that anyway.

    Also, this made me chuckle: “When you buy a board game, it’s supposed to be on your shelf until you die and your children fling it into a skip.” I hope any future children I have will at least get to enjoy those games with me before I kick the bucket.

  3. Big Murray says:

    Wil Wheaton’s TableTop is what got me into board games. Reading reviews of games is one thing, actually watching people have fun with them just makes you want to join in.

    • shadowmarth says:

      Tabletop is OK. It would be better if you replaced Wheaton with someone not insufferable. That’s why I love Shut Up and Sit Down (Featuring former RPS editor Quinns!) Take their reviews with a bit of a grain of salt before you run out and buy EVERYTHING though, because they are incredibly enthusiastic and good at making you buy things. But not every game they love will be right for you or your gaming group. Try before you buy if you’re skeptical.

      http://www.shutupandsitdown.com/

      Oh and if you haven’t bought King of Tokyo start with that.

  4. Advanced Assault Hippo says:

    It’s true that it’s difficult judging board games. It’s an almost impossible concept really.

    I’ve had some great fun in the past playing rather crappy games and I’ve also had some dull times playing high quality board games (even Space Hulk never really got my juices going to the extent the consensus says it should). God knows how I should then perceive those two games, especially when a lot depends on the random factor of who you’re playing with.

  5. LukeNukem says:

    The luck of the dice/draw can make a big difference. Well balanced games can become terrible through very unlikely occurrences and terribly balanced games may become finely poised through chance.

    • Wedge says:

      Generally speaking, that’s really not the case, if the game is in fact designed well. Perhaps it may only happen in a single playthrough, but whether or not that’s a design issue has to do with how long the game takes to play I’d say. Some random nonsense it’s a little more forgivable in a half hour quick playable than a 4 hour mega game.

  6. Solomon Grundy says:

    This is why I think the obsession with rating boardgames (on BoardGameGeek.com for instance) is pretty silly. You can play the “best” boardgame with a bunch of bores and have a crap time, or a “mediocre” game with good peopel and have a blast. Brilliant article, btw.

    • Drinking with Skeletons says:

      It’s still possible to be objective about how complex or appropriate mechanics are, though. My friends and I played the Dexter boardgame one time (they were fans of the show and received it as a gift) and it was pretty poor. We still occasionally mock it, and immediately upon finishing our session we had a conversation about how with a few changes it could be salvaged. Yeah, it’s kind of silly to put a score on board games (notice how so many games at Board Game Geek average out around a 7?) but the forum postings with detailed breakdowns of components and rules are invaluable.

      • skutbag says:

        The point about different players leading to different experiences is one thing – obviously any multiplayer video game has that going for it. Mario Kart & Turtles in Time representing some of the best shared experiences of my life while remaining clothed for example – utterly different experience playing these solo.

        Compared to videogames, board games are instantly and completely ‘moddable’ too- – I can’t think of many that haven’t eventually been tweaked here and there by players, and what works for one group may not work for the others. I’ve started on Magic the gathering (Tragic the bothering) again recently, and it’s always impressive to see how many different variants there are using the same basic tools – ones that eventually get absorbed and accepted by the core design team.

  7. NetsukeMonkey says:

    It’s interesting to see the challenges inherent in reviewing board games. In my opinion you’ve always managed to capture what it is about a game that enchants or excites you and for that I love you.

  8. Retne says:

    Very interesting to hear that point of view. I’ve had similar thoughts on why I enjoy some tabletop games at some times and not other times.

    I find similar experiences with _some_ computer games, of the multilayer variety mostly – games which I’ve enjoyed or not due to who I’m playing with (either pre-existing RL friends, or, as with EverQuest, one RL friend and a bunch people I met in game that I still think about every now-and-again, what, 15 years later?)

    Excellent columns though BTW. I demand more. Stop doing other things.

  9. Shadowcat says:

    For sure, board game reviews are hard to do well; but isn’t that just a specific case of the general statement “reviews are hard to do well”?

    Regarding the computer game comparison, I’d have to say that completing a computer game once and completing a board game once tend to imply rather different time investments (speaking generally — obviously there are plenty of exceptions; but you probably wouldn’t review a very short computer game after one play either). So you might feel confident in writing a review of Shadow Warrior after completing it once, but that certainly took you a lot longer than a game of Cosmic Encounter.

    And it’s absolutely true that lots of board games play differently with different numbers of players, but then that goes for multi-player games of any sort. Also, lots of computer games offer completely different game modes which play differently to one another, which isn’t often the case with a board game. Complexities abound in both cases.

    I think a really good game review of either variety will make clear which aspects of the game are covered in detail and which are glossed over or ignored, as well as enough information about the conditions that the reader can judge whether they are likely to have a similar experience.

    Heck, if reviewing things were easy, figuring out what to buy would be much simpler.

  10. Shadowcat says:

    Poor jadejada816. In only two and a half hours their minimum hourly income plummeted to barely half of what it had been (with a potential maximum that didn’t even reach their previous minimum!). Presuming that trend continues, they’re currently earning between $5.63-$11.25, and by midday they’ll be bringing in about $1. The kids will starve! Everyone please heed this cautionary tale, and don’t click that link. Think of the children!

  11. sass says:

    Very good then. Always happy to see a new ‘Cardboard Children’ article, regardless of it’s focus.

    I’m dead keen to see your review of Krosmaster: I’ve been holding off buying it because I’m not sure that it’s game will be as tasty as the components. Though I want to be wrong.

  12. mrt181 says:

    Dear Robert, you should go to Essen, Germany, to the annual boargame trade fair.

  13. trjp says:

    I’ve been ruminating on Rab’s ever-brilliant prose for almost a day now and whilst I almost entirely agree with it, there is a point I’d like to raise.

    Many of the issues here are shared with online multiplayer games – the fact you don’t always understand how the game works until you’ve played it many times – the fact that the rules are often not clear upfront – the fact that the way the game develops is influence by who’s playing it are all shared.

    and indeed, no-one (that I’ve ever encountered) actually reviews videogames like LoL, HoN etc. – probably for these reasons.

    Games which are more about the players than the gameplay work better in less formal ‘review’ – blogs, diaries, “battlefield reports” etc.

    We need more of that stuff with both boardgames and with online gaming IMO – those stories people post from Eve etc. are always popular…