Choosing creativity over money: One small step…

creativitySo today I got confirmation that my adequate five-day-per-week salary is going to be reduced to a squeeky-bum-time four-day-a-week salary, starting on April 1.

Its going to mean cutting back on luxuries, but you know what? I think it’s for the best. Well, I certainly hope it is – as it was my stupid decision to ask for it in the fist place.

Truth be told, I’m not the well-est person on the planet. Its all my own fault I’m sure, but the net result is I don’t have the energy I once had – and I don’t sleep well (my brain simply doesn’t switch off). The net result is evenings tend to be short-lived things in terms of productivity much of the time, which isn’t much use when you have a hobby such as game design.

So, being the genius I am, I figured one solution would be to give myself an extra day a week: use it to be creative and try to make back a bit of money in the process because you know what? I’d rather have less on the table than think about what might have been.

I recently received an invoice for a payment for Empire Engine (hopefully some actual money will follow reasonably closely behind). It’s not much, but it’s proof I can make a little something out of this. But I feel I need to dedicate some proper ‘9-5’ time to it, so that’s what I’m going to do. Oh my.

Coincidentally, it was great to listen to ‘Mice and Mystics’ designer Jerry Hawthorne on the Plaid Hat Podcast today. That man oozes enthusiasm and I wish I had his drive and dedication – but not at the cost. There he is on the show saying he works two jobs and the only game he’s played in weeks is his own new prototype.

When I get home I usually want to play a good game (or watch TV. Or crash out. Or have a beer and a chin wag. Or play computer games. But then there’s the washing, and the washing up…). I mean I’d back a few of my prototypes to be good games one day, but not tonight! I LOVE playing games, as well as designing them – I want to do both.

Then there’s this website, which I could probably monetise a little. And I should be able to chase down some leads to get some free games to review. And I’ve seriously contemplated writing a book for years now. But when do you have the time? Well, now I have the time. No more excuses.

Something had to give – and frankly, disposable income is the thing I’ll miss least. Thankfully I’m a man of inexpensive tastes and my better half is much the same – time is more important than new this or new that. We’re lucky to be in good jobs in a first world country and I don’t want to take that for granted by wasting it – so I’m taking a little gamble.

Wish me luck, eh? I’ll just pass this hat around.

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.