About a week ago, Jesse Dean posted an exemplary article on Board Game Geek, ‘A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence on the Biggest Flawed Game of 2011,’ discussing the weakness of much board game criticism. As an example, he highlighted the fact that celebrated reviewers have failed to address a problem in Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow, whereby the player playing as the British can (it is said – I haven’t played the game) always win by attacking the city of Halifax in a particular way – a strategy first highlighted by Michael Fritz.
While other examples may have helped Dean’s case, the article argued well that a focus on early reviews can allow serious design flaws to go under-acknowledged.
Many good points were also made in reply. With 313 responses (so far), there’s no way I can summarize everything, nor would I want to do so. One interesting strand which arose in the discussion, however, concerned the number of times reviewers play a game, and how many they ought to, before reviewing it. A line of reasoning argued that, had reviewers played A Few Acres of Snow more before writing about it, they may have discovered the Halifax Hammer, as it is known, and therefore been able to highlight it in their reviews. More generally, reviews written after multiple plays were widely seen as better: One contributor, Tim Seitz, highlighted his own review of Dominion written after 200 plays as something of an example.
I cannot follow Seitz in viewing this as the answer, though. I do not wish to mischaracterize his point by suggesting he implies all games should be played such a high number of times before being reviewed: this I presume not to be the case. But, if repeated play were to be valued too greatly, discussion of games would either stagnate, or become pernicious: there really would be a critical silence about new games, and any commentator who broke ranks to speak early would face chastisement for addressing a game before he or she could legitimately claim to have understood it (whatever can be meant by that).
Nevertheless, there is a problem that speed of reaction is, often, valued more than quality of reaction. The most lauded reviewers tend to be those who react earliest, whether their early views match later consensus or not.
(This said, I stand by an earlier post in which I celebrated the fact that the board game community is particularly open to comment on older works, it is true to say that the earliest reviews of a game are often celebrated whether they are well expressed or not.)
In short, I share the desire of Dean and Seitz for better criticism, but do not tie this to reaction speed to the extent each apparently does. There is scope for a well-expressed, insightful early reaction: Scott Nicholson’s in play videos stand as evidence of this, for me – even in this on-the-fly format, his analytical ability and communicative talent are clear. Obversely, some of those who produce the weak early responses in question would still lack clarity and insight if they commented on a game later: Not all possess the talent for lucid explanation of their thoughts and feelings.
The answer to this is not to disregard entirely those whose primary interest is in providing an early reaction: though often these analyses are superficial, through gauging a breath of early comment, I think it’s possible to reliably gauge (though not unfailingly) if a game is likely to suit my tastes. That, though, is a skill which it has taken me time to acquire: finding the thought through the noise is difficult.
Instead, I think those with an interest in producing deeper criticism need to celebrate and support one another, rather than criticizing speedier and more superficial commentators. Building on, referencing and commending one another’s work would be a start – it would let credit for insight find the correct recipient, while allowing commentators to push one another further, rather than continually restarting from first principles. Of course, this depends on those commentators knowing one another in the first place: a problem I’m working on means to address.