The Confusing Hierarchy of the Board Game Community – a reply

This is in response to this fantastic article:

I’ve been a journalist for 20 years.

It’s been a privilege to be paid to write for a living, despite not being paid to write about what I love. So I’ve written for free about music, travel and games when I get home at night, because I’m not competitive; I’m not going to fight the ‘careers’ for jobs I don’t quite care enough to fight for. I work to live, not live to work.

But despite that, I’m a reviewer – which means I’m an attention seeker because I want to be heard. I have an opinion, I think it’s worth something, so I put it out there with passion. Every reviewer wants to be heard – so every reviewer is an attention seeker. And that’s fine, it’s accepted, it’s the way of journalism. You have something to say.

I’ve been a game designer for a year or so.

It’s hard. You put your mind and soul into themes, mechanisms, ideas – and they die on their arse. But you stick with them, you nurture them, you iterate them to within an inch of their lives – and if you’re lucky, one of them becomes a game.

Then you show it to publishers and just maybe, one of them bites. And a year later suddenly you’re a game designer. You’re at Essen, walking past the AEG booth, watching people buy/demo/reject/slag off/fall in love with your game. You get invited to present your game on BGG TV and you thank all the gods in all the heavens that you have a publisher meeting for a new game so you don’t have to go and be on the tele because you’re a writer, and a game designer, but you’re not someone who wants to be on TV.

I’m not a pop star. I’m not a movie star.

You might be thinking, “no shit Sherlock”. But think about it – that’s what you’re really comparing here. You’re looking at main stream media and comparing it to board games. It doesn’t work like that.

Actors and musicians do things one way. They love to be on screen. They have EGO to burn. But what about authors? How many of them would you put up for people to recognise? Or screenwriters? The people who are, essentially, behind the scenes doing creative work that is never meant to be recognised in the same way?

PR = expense

Designers are poor publicists because that’s not why they do it. And it’s the same with most publishers. Stephen Buonocore is a rare exception, while some of the French designers are getting more media friendly. But do you think it’s an accident Stefan Feld and Mac Gerdts don’t have their own daily podcasts? No. They’re designers and their reputations will stand or fall on their creations. They’re doing the bit they want to do.

And PR is an expense. You need to put yourself out there. Tom Vasel makes a living from The Dice Tower – but do you think he’d entertain the idea of paying someone to appear on one of his cash cows? Of course not. Why should he? He’s an ego on legs, it’s about him and why shouldn’t it be? He has created a world in his image without any help from the industry beyond a few free games so good luck to him (and I genuinely mean that).

Your game is crap

Which moves us on nicely to dissenting opinions. I’d argue Tom Vasel has become that one guy that can do this for a living because he calls it likes he sees it – and there’s no better thing for a journalist to do. You simply need to be consistent and (mostly) right.

Any journalist, in any industry, who kowtows to the man instantly loses respect. All companies make mistakes and they know when they’ve screwed up; slate those mistakes and a good company will give you a pass. Because they know when they do good, you’ll give them the praise they deserve – and that’s golden from a respected reviewer readers/viewers know doesn’t pull any punches.

I wrote a while back here about video reviewers not being more ruthless; about them not putting the boot in but only reviewing things they like. And predictably they all pointed me to hard to find links to pages/blog posts they’d apologetically written about the games they don’t like – as if anyone finding them to read one review would ever find that page to find out what they really think as a philosophy. Guys, really – you should be linking to those pages on every video you publish as a disclaimer.

Trolls are pathetic – simply ignore them or you’re in the wrong business

Speaking of negativity, the first thing you need to adopt as any kind of artist or journalist is a thick skin. Ignore rude comments: or either reply politely then walk away (which will enrage them hehe), or let people fighting your cause handle the battles you can’t be arsed with (if you made a cohesive point, someone in internetland who has more time than you is likely to back you up).

Opinion is free and if you put anything anywhere someone will disagree with you. If you can’t be bothered to argue (and you can’t) just walk away – it’s not rocket science. I want to reply to every shit 5/10 review Empire Engine gets but do I? No. It would serve no purpose.

And finally, pay to play – really?

Your average journalist does their job because they’re opinionated; give them something to review and they’ll be honest. The ones that aren’t are totally transparent and anyone with an ounce of sense will spot their bullshit a mile away and vote with their feet sooner rather than later.

There will always be someone on the take from publishers; often because they’re sadly small time and can’t quite believe they’re getting something for nothing. But the simple fact is that this is the case in every single industry on the planet; you can’t expect board gaming to be any different.

Board game journalism: The ‘positive videos only’ problem

lego awesomeI’ve written before about my own opinions on not giving negative reviews and how I understand this mindset (it takes a lot of time and resources, so they don’t want to waste it on crap games).

But on further reflection it does create a problem for the increasing number of people who rely almost solely on video reviewers for their opinions: what haven’t you reviewed, and why?

The big issue is we don’t know what they’re not enjoying – and equally importantly, what they’ve missed. After all, there’s a lot of games out there now – how do we know what you’ve played and hated, played and thought was ordinary and avoidable, or what you simply haven’t gotten to yet?

Tom Vasel and the rest of the Dice Tower video gang aren’t scared to give a game a kicking and seem to review absolutely everything they can get their hands on. Whether you enjoy the videos or not, or agree with the opinions, at least you’re left in no doubt as to where you stand with them on most of the significant games that hit the market.

Behind these guys, Rahdo, Joel Eddy (DriveThru) and UndeadViking are probably the most popular straight video reviewers and all stick to a combination of positive and/or preview videos (you could also include Watch it Played here). All avoid ‘wasting time’ on the crap and have no illusions of reviewing but a small percentage of the annually released games. So where does that leave us, the viewers, who want to help ground ourselves through their opinions?

In a word, short. Has Joel ignored Istanbul because it wasn’t Constantinople? Does UndeadViking think Netrunner is a worse TCG than Yu-Gi-Oh, or would Rahdo rather be caught playing Snap than Star Realms? Or will they review them next week – or never at all – simply because they haven’t seen/played them yet?

One solution might be an occasional ‘misses’ video. This could be easy on production values – chat and occasional box lid shots – and include four or five games in one go, linked to each appropriate game’s video channel. This is the important part, as easily finding these opinions is as important than putting them out there.

It could be as short as a few minutes per game, simply stating why it didn’t float their boat and subsequently won’t be getting the full review treatment. Or could of course be a lot more fun. Several video reviewers shooting the breeze together while doing this could be even better. Alternatively, a simple list might work (even if it’s much less satisfying); a ‘Geek List’ of games that won’t be getting a video would be sufficient, for example.

All that said, no one should rely on these guys to form an opinion from and I expect to get a bit of negativity for even suggesting this, but despite the fact video reviewers – like 99 per cent of board game journalists – are doing this for fun, it doesn’t hurt to step back and think about the fact that, whether they like it or not, they are pretty big fish in a small pond.

For links to these video reviewers and more, see my guide to board game videos.

Negative board game reviews: Pros, cons and golden rules

0_out_of_10My recent post on the standard of board game journalism led me to a number of interesting conversations on related topics. One that came up a lot was negative reviews, so I thought I’d put down some thoughts and invite opinions.

I’m not against negative reviews and find them useful when researching possible purchases. I’ve written plenty in my time too, mostly on music, but I’m writing my 25th board game review now and am yet to pen a negative one.

I have a five-play rule for reviewing – if I haven’t played that many times (including online plays) I rarely feel I have the right to give a game a review. The exception would be if a game was clearly broken, and others generally agreed. Obviously if I don’t like a game, I won’t play it five times – hence no review.

There are exceptions. Short games, ones friends are keen on, or that start out seeming solid but huge holes then appear in; all solid candidates and I may dip my toe into those water soon. At ‘Memory Lapse‘ I record every game I play and if I don’t like one, it’ll get both barrels – but in a pithy, 50-word way. But it’s not always enough.

Negative reviews: The pros

  • They can be fun to read, and write. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good vent. Both reading and writing a livid steam of consciousness can be a real joy. Often the more outrageous the content the better, as you posit yourself out on the extremes while entertaining the reader.
  • People need to know. Most of us don’t have an endless stream of disposable income and a board game can set you back £50 or more; it’s a reviewer’s duty to warn people about poor products. There are thousands of games to be narrowed down – knowing what not to buy is as important as what to buy.
  • It shows you’re not just a ‘pro’ reviewer. If all you write is positive reviews, people who read a lot of board game press may mark you as uncritical. Are you just saying nice things to get free games, or make industry friends? How can someone judge one of your reviews against the others when they’re all shiny, happy meeples?
  • It’s an insight into what you don’t like. Following on from the above two points, it is equally important for your readers to be able to position your tastes at both ends of the gaming scale. You the guy who likes this, but hates that; or he likes this deck-builder, but hated these two – what does that say about this one?

Negative reviews: The cons

  • charlie brookerIt’s easy to appear smug. Slapping easy targets isn’t big or clever and if you do it too often you end up looking a bit desperate. Crass can be fine in moderation, but can get old and boring fast. You end up looking like a one-trick pony and, again, people have no positives in which to position your views, essentially making you critically irrelevant (although you may not mind this!).
  • It’s hard to be balanced. It’s rubbish. You hate it. Why bother with objectivity? All you want to do is give this box of crap a good kicking, but then you’ll look as crap as the game – your heated diatribe will look less like a review and more like a child throwing its toys out of the pram.
  • Wasting time you could spend being positive. How many reviews are you going to be producing? If it’s only a few, it is legitimate to just try and help promote the titles you like. But if you start going weekly or daily then you may need to get down on some games too.
  • All publicity is good publicity. While you may think you’re doing the world a favour railing against a game, you can also see your negative review as giving air to a beast that should instead be suffocated. It’s generally accepted that while reviewers may have an effect on a small number of consumers, many will read the box or look at the theme/cover/bits and make their own decision. But if no one mentions it…

Writing them: Three golden rules

  1. Get it right. It’s easy to worry about upsetting publishers or designers, but don’t. Your review may slightly upset some people, but if you’re right then the people that matter will respect you. Companies know. They soon find out when they’ve got a dud and it happens to them all – no one has a 100 per cent success rate. You can be hurt more by being positive about crap games, as your reputation can take a real hit.
  2. Be balanced… When going negative, it’s even more important to address why people do like a game than when addressing complaints on your positive reviews. You don’t need to tread lightly, just professionally; simply back up all your arguments. People are much more likely to rail against a reviewer that’s kicking their baby rather than one saying something nice things about a game they don’t care about.
  3. … or be bonkers. If you simply don’t want to give a balanced argument, don’t go into this half-heartedly – give the thing both barrels and then wade in with your fists and feet. Leave your reader with no doubt about your worthiness, your ability to be rational or your sanity; you can’t troll a troll, so go big, hairy and green or go home. Make people look stupid for thinking you’d even read any kind of opposite opinion.

So what do you think? Let me know. And while you’re pondering, sit back and enjoy this gem from the mighty Half Man Half Biscuit.

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.