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Cardboard Children: Reviewing Boardgames

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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Robert Florence

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