Board game journalism: Seven ways to raise the bar

scoopAs a long time journalist/editor by day and board-gamer by night I’ve spent the past few years immersing myself back into the hobby with the aid of the best reviews, podcasts and videos I can find.

There are some truly outstanding written reviewers out there (Ender Wiggins and Neil Thomson spring to mind), while the cream of the board game videos and podcasts are a great watch/listen. But overall, as is common in niche media, the average standard on offer isn’t quite what it could be.

Our great hobby is starting to get more mainstream media attention and I think the majority of us would like to see a continued rise in the number of new gamers. But if we want to be taken seriously, an improved standard of board game criticism would go some way to helping achieve this.

Now before you rush off to find the myriad typos you’ll find in my posts, I’m not calling for perfection. When no one is being paid you can’t be expected to triple check every sentence and have a team working on every headline. But there are some basic rules which could really raise the bar.

1. Know your history (if you want to review, commentate, debate)

If you have a lack of depth in terms of board game experience; plus a clear lack of respect for popular opinion, don’t go near a microphone without first couching your opinions within the context of your experience level. While each of these on its own can be thoroughly entertaining (see below), together they’re journalistic suicide.

If you have a lack of experience and knowledge, do not pretend to be worthy of listening to. Your opinion is in no way elevated above that of anyone who has played the odd game, so get off your high horse and stop peddling your opinion as anything other than what it is – one quiet, ordinary voice in a very big crowd. Full of loud, clear voices. With megaphones.

When I interviewed for my first job in a record shop as a teenager, I was given a really tough music quiz. I showed it to friends later and some couldn’t get any answers right; because they wanted people who lived and breathed the topic. Similar happened at interview when I went for jobs with specialised media outlets.

This is no bad thing; just because you’re an amateur commentator it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set yourself the same high standards. Try and play the top 50 games, or at least the best games in every genre you go near. Build an opinion based on something other than liking the sound of your own voice, then come back and gob off about games.

This way you’ll avoid the embarrassment of telling us about that “unique mechanic” that’s been around for 20 years, or comparing three totally unrelated games to the same one game you’ve played in a single episode (“Yeah, this one also really reminded me of Agricola. It had a board, some wooden bits, victory points…”).

2. Do your research

pronounciationUnless you’re one particular guy, it’s unlikely you’ll have played every game ever – and why should you? Many of them are terrible, derivative, or simply not to your tastes.

However, if you’re going to be doing a video or podcast on a particular game or class of games, why not avoiding looking stoopid by spending a minute before you record making some notes? Really little things can save your bacon: jotting down the game/designer’s name for example; maybe even learning how to pronounce it.

Or you can go that extra yard and spend 10 minutes looking at other games the designer has released; or is on the way; or came out that year; or from the same manufacturer; or what it ripped off – or what it inspired. If you’re recording in a live environment with co-hosts, you should expect and relish follow up questions, not see them as an excuse to laugh in embarrassment and don the dunce’s hat once more.

3. Give both sides

If you’re giving something (ANYTHING) a good, or bad, review, then give both the designer and your audience the small courtesy of at least glimpsing the other side of the coin. Understand that if you give a universally bad review of a game, then I go and read it has an average 8/10 from 10,000 reviews, I am – without doubt – going to think you’re an IDIOT.

And I’m not talking, “Some people will like this game I guess, but it’s so boring”. That’s you not controlling your inner troll (says me…) and it isn’t helpful. Instead, see what prominent players/reviewers who like the genre say and report those sentiments; or give the overwhelming view of a game you disagree on, before explaining why your opinion differs.

Otherwise, give away the games you simply know you can’t review fairly to someone else; share the love, let them review it. Or at least have the balls to discuss your odd views live with someone who better represents the opinion held by a good number of other gamers.

4. Play the game a few times

The Blitzkrieg LegendOn a small number of occasions, I think its OK to review a game after one play. The first is if the game is so unbelievably bad that bringing yourself to play it again would lead to self harm. However, in this case, only review it if it really is the game’s fault and not yours.

We’re talking ones you’d grade 1 or possibly 2 out of 10 here. Otherwise, bin it or (as above) give it away – why give it air, unless you can make a genuinely funny review by being incredibly mean to it? Even then, don’t do this too often as it gets old fast.

Second, I’d say it’s OK if you genuinely feel you can make an honest opinion of the game from one play. There are several ways this could happen: re-release of a game you played another version of; a retheme; an expansion; an incredibly simple game; an incredibly long game. I’d still try and avoid it though.

It’s amazing how much even a second play can change your opinion of a game. And remember, its not whether you like it that’s important; you’re asking – and we want to know – is it any good? Factors on one play WILL come into play. Who did you play with? How many people? Did you win/lose? Were you drunk/tired/full of cheese?

Remember, every time you say: “But I think it might be better with three players”, 1,000 gamers are standing up in their homes and screaming at their MP3 player, “THEN PLAY IT WITH THREE BEFORE YOU REVIEW IT YOU %&*£**!!”

5. Make clear distinctions between played and previewed (the latter are ADVERTS)

Almost every time I listen to a show now it makes me hate Kickstarter that little bit more. Great, I’ve just downloaded by favourite podcast! An hour of audio pleasure awaits! Except that 10 minutes in I’m still listening to adverts for games that are not only unavailable, but they’re not even out of some first time designer’s bedroom notepad, let alone on a boat!

If I could retire tomorrow and spend my days mining old podcasts for their future predictions (enquiries from venture capitalists welcome), I’d love to know the percentage of crap, failed, delayed or otherwise pathetic and embarrassing Kickstarter projects they’ve bigged up – and are continuing to do so.

What makes it worse is that these boring, pointless segments are not only EVERYWHERE – but because these games aren’t out yet, they’re just reporting poorly written teasers for them, rather than opinions. “Well that one sounds good, doesn’t it Bob?” NO! No it doesn’t! It sounded crap on the three other podcasts I heard it on this week and it still sounds crap now!

And what have they replaced? Real news about games about to hit our shelves from manufacturers with experience, a development team, a production schedule, an army of playtesters, a history of good titles. Yeah, why would we want to hear anything about those old guys. Boring…

6. Know your limitations

Evel KnievelAs I mentioned about 1,000 words ago, neither a lack of experience nor a lack of knowledge is a bad thing on its own in terms of journalism; in fact it can be quite the opposite. If you’re severely lacking in one of the other, you simply need to aim and craft your content in a certain way.

In my experience, no one writes ‘how to’ and ‘beginner’ content quite like beginners; as long as you have a knack for journalism, you’re likely to do a great job. The trick is simply to be honest and couch your experiences in the correct context.

Boardgaming is a a growing hobby, so there’s never been a better time to be introducing others to it. This way you not only get to do the learning processes that are so important, but you get to record about them as well.

Alternatively, if you like to be funny or controversial, you can play the ignorant card for shock or laughter value. But if you do, just go for it – don’t pretend to be a reviewer who knows what they’re talking about if you’re reviewing your first euro game – you’ll sound like a fool. But if you come in all ignorant guns blazing, instead you’re likely to turn some heads for the right reasons.

7. Or finally… fix it in post

When I finish this in a minute, I’m going to go to the pub. Then tomorrow I’ll have another read through it, hopefully cut it down in length a little and catch some typos. Finally I’ll print it off, read it with pen in hand, and mark up more mistakes. Then maybe I’ll post it. And there will still be errors.

In audio and video, this is called post production. Just like sub-editing a piece of written text, it’s difficult, time consuming and very much the boring part of the job for most people. Which is why many people rush it, ignore it, or seem to not bother at all. The fact many podcasters say they never even listen to their track back before it goes on air baffles me.

When you’re in a room and someone presses record, you’re likely to say some stupid shit – just like you’d make a typo or grammatical error. We live in a world where people get upset when others use abbreviations in a non-business online chat environment (QFT I mean WTF?): do you really think these same people think its OK when you’re saying the wrong game, the wrong tense, the wrong rules, the wrong designer, the wrong EVERYTHING on your video or podcast? It’s only charming the first few times.

In conclusion…

I think what annoys me most about the kind of journalism you sometimes see in the audio/video space is that there really isn’t any need for this lack of commitment to quality. Sure, it takes longer to make your thing shiny (editing, lighting, cutting etc) but the very last thing that should be overlooked is script quality.

Nor is it space – an argument oft thrown back by TV stations reporting news in a throwaway fashion in five-second sound-bites. We’re talking two-hour-long sprawling podcasts here people; you’re not losing the depth on the cutting room floor.

And finally, I LOVE BOARD GAME VIDEOS AND PODCASTS! I live on a steady diet of Drive Thru Reviews, The Dice Tower, Boardgames To Go, Rahdo, The Spiel and On Board Games – plus newer titles such as The Game Pit, Push Ur Luck Podcast and The Discriminating Gamer. And not forgetting the Plait Hat Podcast, Rolling Dice and Taking Names, Not just another Gaming Podcast, Flip The Table, The BoardGame PirateCast, Ludology, The Long View, D6G, Boardgame Babylon, The Game Design Round Table… and that’s just my current regular roster.

I just had to let off some steam about some of the misleading, uninformed content I’ve listened to in the hope we can move our hobby forward journalistically.

13 thoughts on “Board game journalism: Seven ways to raise the bar

  1. Great article Chris. I think reviews, positive or negative, are not going to be of much worth unless the reviewer has played the reviewed game a number of times – it depends on the reviewer but I would not feel comfortable writing a review with less than 5 plays under my belt.

  2. Really great stuff, Chris! I totally agree about pretty much everything you’ve said here (and have made many similar points myself in the past).
    Nothing bothers me more about a new podcast (and some old ones, for that matter) than when they share their obviously uninformed opinion about something that either ignores a very well-known aspect of the game, shows a total lack of preparation/research, or is obviously formed from just one play.
    And my personal minimum number of plays before reviewing a game is 3. Usually, it’s more like 5 or 6, but I simply will not review any game with less than 3 plays.
    By the way, if you’re looking for one more podcast to listen to, might I humbly submit Exploring Games to your queue? Other than trying to limit my post-production time, I try as hard as I can to adhere to your guidelines above…

  3. Well said. I don’t know if I hit saturation over the past year with board game podcasts but I’ve stripped most of them out of my circulation for failing at many of the above reasons. I accept that they are often started and maintained as a hobby, but even hobbyists should consider standards of quality as a goal of their podcast.

  4. I have a website, in romanian, boardgamers.ro. When I started it, i said to myself that I would not review a game with less then 10 plays. I found out that it is hard to do so, so I went down to at least 6 plays. In one of the newest issues of Spielbox magazine it says that they don’t review games with less then 6 plays, and they do that after an almost 30 years experience! So I’m sticking to this, at least 6 plays, more to be preffered. You cand do a first impressions article on 2-3-4 plays, but absolutely no review! No way! Never!
    Oh, and great article! 🙂

  5. Another pet peeve is that reviewers/commentators sometimes make the statement – ‘there is no game there’ or it’s not ‘game enough for me’ without defining what a game means to them.

  6. Unremitting positivity from certain reviewers causes problems. I can think of two in particular who are almost always “oh gosh, wow!” about almost everything. Yes, every game published *ought* to be playable, well-presented and generally at least “quite good”, otherwise the designer, developer, playtesters and publisher all failed to do their job properly. But far from every game published this year is going to be able to compete for attention from either the cash in my wallet or for table time when compared to the *great* games I already have on my shelves from the last 20 years, and I’m not helped in my purchasing decisions by overly-enthusiastic ravings from people who either don’t know any better (sometimes because they haven’t been playing games more than a few years), or worse don’t have to part with their own funds for their games. There’s only so much praise a reviewer can heap on *every* game that they review before I start to tune them out.

    Though I think that the greatest sin is the rules re-hash disguised as a review, with two sentences of (often unmeritorius) critique at the end. These days I just skip to the last couple of lines – or skip the review altogether.

    • I agree with Richard – I think a few ‘celebrity’ reviewers have a very low pain threshold for games – their hobby is playing new games a few times and moving on and so long as the reader recognizes that their needs might not match the reviewers its not a problem. It took me a while to realize that though 🙂 Which Is one of the reasons I enjoy Chris’s reviews as he looks at games from a few different stand points.

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