Monday, January 5, 2009

What Happened to Game Reviews?

When I was editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine, I was sometimes accused of being the "guy who kept the fun out of CGW." There was some truth in that. I didn't like seeing the adjective "fun" in the magazine for one simple reason. "Fun" isn't very descriptive because it means different things to different people. I believed that it was necessary to describe the games as precisely as possible in order for readers to determine if the game was going to be "fun" for them.

There were some other ideals to which I aspired as editor of the magazine (and later, as group publisher of lots of magazines). One ideal was that reviewers should play the game all the way through. I discouraged the use of "walk-throughs" as provided by the game publishers because I felt that playing a game according to a "walk-through" was equivalent to taking a state-escorted tour of Moscow during the Cold War. One would only see what "the party" wanted one to see.

Another ideal was that games should be evaluated on the basis of what they were trying to accomplish and not on the basis of what the reviewer would have preferred. I believed that many so-called "reviewers" suffered from "designeritis." They wanted to be designers and used their reviews as "bully pulpits" to describe the game they would have designed if they had the discipline, talent, and opportunity to do so.

Another ideal was that games would not be reviewed by people who hated the genre or style of a given game. Some rival publications regularly ran reviews that said, "I don't like this kind of game, but if I did like this kind of game, this particular game wouldn't be the game I'd like." Such an approach is simply silly.

Yet another problem review that we used to see was the review which began by inventorying the various components in the box. I know that used to be common in board game reviews and with the freelancers who came from the board game magazine background that I angered in my early years because I excised those portions of their reviews (and they were paid by the word). Yet, I'm not sure that it ever benefited my readers to know that there was a code-wheel, a 155-page manual, a cloth map, and six colored markers (or whatever) within the game box.

Worst of all were those reviewers who accepted the assignment to review a multiplayer game and reviewed it on the basis of its single-player mode alone. To be sure, it was often difficult to find an online opponent in those days of custom set-up files, memory managers, and early online services, but it wasn't fair to review an online game on the basis of its tutorial mode.

Today, I am embarking on a new phase of my life. I'm publishing an editing a magazine for those of us who love strategy games played on the table-top. In this new venture, tentatively entitled Reroll & Replay magazine because it is like getting to "roll again" in a game whenever you've rolled poorly, I want to address some fallacies that I'm seeing in board game reviews on the web and elsewhere.

The first fallacy has been with us for as long as I can remember. It is what best-selling novelist Michael Stackpole once described as the "shrink-wrap" review. In this type of review, the critic barely breaks the shrink-wrap of the package and takes inventory of the components before writing the review. At most, one or two turns of a game will be played before the "critic" attacks the keyboard. In fact, some reviewers even justify this style of "criticism" by stating that game consumers are actually "collectors" rather than "players." Right! And lovers of fine wine only need ratings numbers so they can show off their cellars just like bibliophiles would never think of cracking a cover to read their treasures! There may be some gamers, oenophiles, and bibliophiles that fit the profile, but I can't believe they constitute the majority.

The second fallacy is similar to one I listed above from the electronic gaming world. I recently read a review of a card game designed for up to six players. The reviewer stated that he had only played it as a two-player game. Now, this game, like most multiplayer card games is full of neat little dirty trick cards, gimmick cards, and defense cards, just like you see in Naval War, Modern Naval Battles, Jaunty Jalopies, and Illuminati (to name a few in the genre). The trouble is that dirty tricks cards aren't near as fun when you can't direct them at your buddy who howls the loudest when you pick on him (Yes, I WAS thinking of Terry Coleman here!) or play the "Don't Tread on Me THIS Turn" card when four or five players are ganging up on you (Yes, I WAS thinking of Alan Emrich here!). Games with nasty consequent cards are a lot more fun when you have multiple targets from which to choose. There is a reason why Junta isn't a good two-player game, but I'll never forget some of the dirty-dealing we did at various game conventions over the years when we had all the positions covered. I'm glad I never read a review of Junta as a two-player game. I never would have experienced the joy of double-dealing (even better than in Shanghai Trader) that makes certain multiplayer games transcend their role as a game and become an "experience."

Finally, I've always believed that reviews serve the reader more than answering the question, "Should I buy this game?" A good review should be entertaining, enlightening (possibly adding some real-world knowledge or background material that the reader might not be privy to), and efficacious (helping readers to master the game or figure out new ways to play it). If a reviewer can't bring any expert knowledge (whether from extra reading, dedicated playing, or general gaming and design experience), he or she should not be reviewing a game.

These are the ideals from which I've always tried to work and they form the strategy with which I'll work in the future. I hope you'll join me on the trek.

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