Philosophical Questions on the Job of Reviewing

Philosophical Questions on the Job of Reviewing

Introduction

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on the topic of board game reviewing – the past few months of special features have either been largely populist (the top tens) or completely self-indulgent (such as discussing our move to Sweden, our time at Tabletop Scotland and so on). Let’s break that pattern and take one our customary deep dives into the culture of cardboard. Let’s talk about how to do reviews. Not in terms of the nuts and bolts of how you write them, but rather the philosophical decisions you need to make. The secret sauce that makes a review site distinctive.

I’m occasionally asked by people how to go about starting a review site for board games. My first bit of advice, having accumulated the scars of almost four years of site-related trauma, is usually ‘Don’t’. It’s hard to justify why someone should invest this kind of time, effort, love – and hate – into a review site. It will almost never yield a return in any form (compensation, appreciation, or attention) proportionate to the work. That advice rarely dissuades people, and secretly I’m pleased. It’s like the old stories of monks forced to stand out in the freezing cold, refused entry to the monastery until they pass the requisite test of conviction. If all it takes to sway you is the grumpiness of an old curmudgeon like me, then all that happened is that you saved yourself some time. Your failure would have been inevitable.

If you get past that hurdle though, there are a number of things that you need to think about before you get started – and you do need to think about them because if you don’t you’ll end up slipping into defaults that you may not be happy with as time goes by. Or, perhaps, you’ll address them situationally and on an ad-hoc basis with the result your coverage is inconsistent and unreliable. I’ve written plenty about what a review should, in my view, look like. What’s more fundamental though is what a reviewer is aiming to accomplish and it’s you that needs to decide that.

What games are you going to cover, and why?

It’s not possible to meaningfully make progress with a ‘board game review site’. There are over a hundred thousand games registered in BoardGameGeek. If your remit is simply ‘review board games’ you’re pretty much saying you’ll get to all of them eventually. Add in the thousands released on a yearly basis, and you’re facing an impossible task. You won’t be able to even write a sentence of a review on all of them, and you’ll never manage a fraction of even that before you die.

The first question you need to address then is ‘What is my site about?’. Sure, it’s about reviews. It’s about board games. But what’s it about, really?

Most people, to begin with, go with a pretty straightforward scope. ‘It’s about the games I’ve played’. It has to be, because it can’t be about the games you haven’t. As soon as you start a review outlet though, you change the relationship you have to games. Every game you play from this point on is a statement about what you think is worth covering.

An image of some games on shelves

The thing is, your site is a pitch for mind-share. Unless you’ve spent a fair bit of time making a name for yourself in some other manner, your opinion on games that people have likely already played doesn’t have a lot of value to people that you don’t know. What you need is a hook that gets people interested. Something distinctive that will make people pause during their infinite scroll down the content fire-hose they’re facing every day of their lives.

Running a review site requires that you face a hard truth – you buy all of your content with the currency of time, and that’s a diminishing fund. Every single game you discuss is purchased with a sliver of your life, and if you’re sensible you’ll want to get the most out of every spend. Life is, literally, too short to do everything you want to do. So you need to narrow down what your focus is going to be. It’s going to need you to make some hard choices to find a balance between ‘getting traction’ and ‘getting the most value out of your life’. To get the first, you have to be willing to reduce the quality of the second.

Focusing only on the games you want to play means that you’ll get the most out of the hours you spend creating reviews, but at the cost of mind-share. Focusing on the things most likely to get attention means maximum mind-share but it means losing out on a lot of the fun you could have with the time you have remaining on the planet. You might claw some of that back in the process of running the site itself, but rarely on favourable terms or on equivalent timescales.

If you only had 100 hours left to live… which games would you want to spend them on, and how many people would you want to influence with your thoughts? Somewhere in the answer to that question is the balance that will work for you. Hopefully you’ve got more than a hundred hours left in you, but all that changes in that circumstance is the numbers. The core question is the same thing, and it’s a hard one. You might answer ‘I wouldn’t want to spend my last 100 hours on games at all’, and maybe there’s an insight for us all in there.

I’ve been asked on more than a few occasions, ‘How do you decide what games to review, because it looks kind of random?’. And yeah, I can see why – because it pretty much is.

My answer to the hard question of how to spend my life was to stack the deck in my favour. We focus mostly on the BGG Top 500 because that at least means the odds are good that we won’t spend our time on bad games. When we do encounter games we don’t like, it’s usually because they don’t work for us rather than being inherently poor quality. Our focus on accessibility is what gives our coverage distinctiveness, not our choice of games. If you can arrange something like that, then you’re golden. If not, you’ll have to be willing to sacrifice a portion of your life-span to games you might not actually want to play in order to parlay their virality into greater visibility for yourself.

How do you deal with the standard deviation of disagreement?

This is an idle concept I tossed out in a previous review, but it’s important here. Not everyone is going to agree on every game. Fun is subjective, and reviews are doubly so. I believe though that there is an acceptable ‘standard deviation of disagreement’ that has to be taken into account. I might think a game is great and others think it’s merely good. I might think a game is okay and others think it’s bad. I’d say, in the way we do things on Meeple Like Us, that a half a star’s worth of disagreement in either direction is fine. If we think a game is worth three and a half stars, then we should expect a spread of three to four in terms of how other people talk about it. That’s within the standard deviation, and it’s unremarkable. It’s a natural part of the variability of life.

Occasionally though some games are going to fall outside that standard deviation, and you need to know how you’re going to handle that because it’s fundamental to criticism.

The Mind - a polarising game

You’ve got two choices really. You can choose not to acknowledge it – focus on your own coverage and not worry about how it diverges from a critical consensus. That’s fine. Indeed, healthy – to an extent. I personally advocate that reviewers should avoid, as far as is possible, reading the reviews of other people until they’ve formed and formalised their own thoughts on a game. Working in a review silo where you are immune from influence has the effect of ensuring your coverage is pure and free of accidental or deliberate plagiarism of words or ideas.

If you work out how to actually do that as a hobbyist though, please do let me know.

What’s more likely is that you will be aware of the consensus without being able to extract yourself from it. Social media chat, friendly discussion, and simple membership of an online community – those all will immerse you in a flavoured soup that means you know how a game is being received even if you do your best to actively avoid opinions. I’ve never read a single review of Root, but I know exactly what the community thinks of it and why.

That opens up your second choice – acknowledge it and discuss the reasons why your opinion may fall outside the mainstream. And this is the harder of the choices. It means that you move yourself into a position where you’re not engaging with the game independent of any influences. Rather you are participating in a wider critical discussion that makes the context of the game part of your coverage. I believe though that this leads to sharper, more insightful reviews because it forces you to confront what it is about you that has led to such a divergent opinion. However, it also comes at the cost of being occasionally unforgiveably self-indulgent and exposes you to the risk of intellectual contamination.

How you deal with the standard deviation of disagreement is an answer to the question ‘How do you see your role as a critic?’. Do you focus on the game alone, independent of outside influence? Or do you focus on the game in context with the expectation that you can and will audit the cause of your divergences?

Are you on the side of consumers, or on the side of creators?

Next up is another philosophical question. Are you on the side of consumers, or are you on the side of creators? Make no mistake, it has to be one or the other. You can’t possibly serve both at the same time. When they come into conflict, the incentive structures are completely opposite to each other. This is a hobby, unlike many, where the media landscape skews heavily to being on the side of creators. Are you going to follow that, or break with it?

If you’re lucky, you won’t be immediately put in the position of having to decide. You’ll play amazing games and be able to recommend them unquestionably to people without moral or ethical qualm. That kind of luck doesn’t hold out though. Eventually you’ll play a game that you don’t enjoy and be forced to answer the question. Who are you serving with your coverage? Is part of your role to focus on guiding consumers away from bad games, or supporting publishers to reach an audience of consumers? At some point you’ll need to decide whose corner you are planning to fight.

Many sites don’t publish negative reviews. As with most topics, we’ve written about that in the past. It makes sense, especially considering our discussion above about how you buy content with your own spent life blood. It’s not fun to play a bad game, and unless you’re a profoundly nasty person it’s often not a lot of fun to write a negative review. It’s certainly not fun to deal with the fallout that will undoubtedly be triggered as a result. A negative review is a chore to produce, to publish, and to defend.

A picture of branding at the UKGE

A lot of sites in those cases just focus instead on games that will produce positive reviews. A game gets played and isn’t enjoyed, and it’s then put aside in favour of a game that will be more fun to discuss. In a primarily hobbyist media landscape like ours, I think that’s a healthy thing for people to do. When people are being paid for their endeavours though it can also easily be done for the wrong reasons.

The thing is – publishing only positibe reviews is an inherently pro-creator stance. It means that the worst kind of coverage a game gets is silence, and that’s not enough of a market signal to inform consumers. Plenty of amazing games receive very little attention – there are too many games for it to be otherwise.  Essentially this is a stance that minimizes creator discomfort and denies consumers meaningful negative data. Sites that do this are on the side of the creators, intentionally or otherwise.

A pro-consumer stance on the other hand is one where inherent value is placed on the publication of negative reviews because it gives buyers meaningful information. Note here that this doesn’t mean negativity for its own sake, but an articulated case as to why in the context of your coverage a game didn’t work. Your job there isn’t (usually) to steer people away from buying it but to give them reasons why you didn’t enjoy it in the hope it helps them understand whether they will. You’re taking a pro-consumer stance when you publish honest information that could feasibly result in a game receiving fewer sales. Essentially you’re saying that it’s more important to you that your audience spends their money wisely.

You may not have to make this decision with every game you cover, but you’ll have to make it with more than you’d like and it says a lot about where you see your responsibilities when you make a decision.

Are you planning to review on a curve?

It’s fashionable to say that most games out there are mediocre, but I suspect that’s because people aren’t using the word in its technical sense. I think it’s more accurate to say most games out there are average.

The thing is – the average for games these days is actually hovering around ‘pretty good’, and that might even be increasing year on year. Very few games nowadays make it past a publisher without being decent, and most manage greater accomplishments still. But when you’re dealing with thousands and thousands of games – good enough isn’t really good enough.

This leads you to your next big decision – how do you deal with average games when the average floats somewhere around good? Basically – do you review games on a curve?

For those that don’t know the term, ‘grading on a curve’ assigns grades to work based on where it falls in a standard distribution. The top 20% of assignments might get an A, the bottom 20% might receive an F, and everyone else gets grades between based on what proportion of each grade category should be awarded. It guarantees discrimination of quality across an entire cohort of students. In a fashion. On the other hand, it means genuinely excellent work might end up receiving a lower grade just because the work other people submitted happened to be slightly more excellent.

In the context of reviewing – do you withhold your top grades (whether you have formal review scores or not) for those games that are the best out there, or do you award them based on meeting some set, if not formally stated, criteria?

In other words – let’s say you’re looking at ten absolutely amazing games. Games which blew your proverbial socks off. Games so good you intend to be buried with them. Of those ten – which two the As, and which two are the Fs?

Or… are they all As?

Your answer to this question is important, because it sets an expectation for what your reviews mean. It’ll determine whether you see your role as highlighting the greatest games out there, or simply identifying the games that are great independent of how they relate to other games available. Do you rank games against each other, or rank games against some kind of independent rubric?

Essentially here you need to decide to what degree you prize exceptionalism in games, and the extent to which you want to encourage Darwinian natural selection in the games worthy of your attention. If you go down the route of reviewing on a curve, you do guarantee that you’ll have something to enthuse about in every game you want to laud, but it also means that you’ll almost never be in a position to get genuinely excited about anything you play. It’ll mean your praise becomes more valuable, but your indifference a more reliable outcome.

Part of your job as a reviewer is to be a filter for your audience. What kind of filter do you want to be?

Conclusion

There’s a fair amount of stuff out there already on how one should go about writing a review, and I don’t know if anyone would be interested in the nuts and bolts of how I’d advise people go about doing it. That’s why this special feature has a different flavour – highlighting some of the hidden questions that need to be answered in the course of developing a voice as a reviewer. This isn’t anything specific to board games – all of these things need to be considered regardless of what you’re reviewing.

I didn’t really think about any of these much when I began the site – I encountered them organically as time went by and as my opinions solidified as to the best way for me to pursue the site objectives. I wish I had thought about them more at the start though, because I think they would have led to a stronger sense of direction that might have served me better. Some philosophical inconsistencies at the start of the site would have been rendered meaningless had I just taken more care to consider what I was doing.

Hopefully some of you can benefit from this though, because your own distinct voice as a reviewer is heavily influenced by the answers you’d give to these questions.

  1 comment for “Philosophical Questions on the Job of Reviewing

  1. Anitra
    07/11/2019 at 2:42 pm

    I’ve come to a lot of these conclusions organically over the last 4 years as well.

    The one that we didn’t think about early on was the “grading on a curve” aspect. I would say that most games we review are “pretty good, you’ll enjoy them”, with a few stinkers and a few that are exceptional. But even the stinkers (usually) have some redeeming qualities, and the exceptional ones could often still be improved. A game gets a “perfect” score (10/10 or 5 stars) if we think there is no way it could be made better.

    We’ve also found ourselves in the interesting position of *not* reviewing some games we think are absolutely phenomenal because they are “hot” and tons of others are reviewing them. Our resources are limited. We’ll tell people via our podcast “this game is great” and then leave it there.

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