There’s been a fair old splurge of of talk lately on the state of board game criticism. I reacted in a very small way to this with my previous post, where I suggested that the number of times a commentator has played a game risks being over-emphasized in assessing the value of a review.
But now it’s time for me to offer something else.
I’m concerned that this bout of critical introspection will remain too focused on the problems which exist. There are a number. But improving the health of board game commentary isn’t analogous to performing a surgical procedure. It’s not that there’s one concrete malady which has to be tackled in a particular way. It would be possible to spend forever trying to agree what the biggest problem in board game commentary is.
Not only are positive, creative contributions possible before any problems are agreed upon, they are necessary. Waiting for consensus with so many voices involved means waiting for ever. So, today, I want to suggest three thoughts which might contribute to better board game criticism. Some may feel they address problems they have identified, some may not. I also don’t pretend these will suit every commentator in terms of concrete action. We need different voices, and by extension, different means of sounding the right notes.
Address and Embrace a Wide Audience:
No mature cultural sector became so by remaining a niche.
It might feel that deeper, more critically valuable discussion of board and card games, by nature, will address only enthusiasts. This I disagree with. It will also create enthusiasts. If an intelligent, culturally-engaged individual happens across a well-written, higher-level piece on board games (however particular the topic of that piece), it will not repel him or her, but may stimulate this person to look at board games differently.
There is perhaps an issue that board games are closer to the meeting point of the two cultures than, say works of literature, or films. They bear analysis as mathematical problems in a way most would say a novel or poem does not (though metre and rhythm might be considered on this level: Theorists such as Yuri Lotman who almost entirely privilege form over content can become very mathematical in their considerations of the cadences of a work). A scholar of the humanities, however, might generally expect to understand in large part a work from any part of that broad field. There’s a sense that an argument is more useful if it is made in such a way that a diverse audience can react to it.
For this reason, I am cynical towards projects which prescribe narrow and particular terminology for the consideration of board games. It risks harming a commentator’s ability to speak more widely – which, ultimately, we need to if board game commentary is ever to be truly animated.
Write for more readers. This doesn’t mean using Settlers of Catan as an example in every article: to do so would be patronizing. But engage with people approaching board games from other fields.
Board Game Geek is not a Wide Audience:
This may seem like a statement of a problem, rather than a suggestion. To some extent, perhaps it is. But it’s a consciousness it’s valuable to have.
As Jesse Dean comments, again perceptively, the ‘great scope and popularity [of Board Games Geek] give[s] it a level of influence that is unparalleled in the hobby board game world, and thus drives the structure of most board-game-related discussion on the web.’
This is true, I think, but on a deeper level than Dean makes a case for. As a site, Board Game Geek is ugly, confusing, and awkward to interact with. It is very likely no coincidence that the same is true of much of the discussion the site hosts. Because one needs to be obstinate to get to grips with the site’s interface (I do not deny this trait in myself), the same obstinacy shows in the site’s critical conversation. I’ve seldom, if ever, seen comments to the effect that ‘you’ve changed the way I think about that game.’ I do frequently see arch-pedantry, self-righteousness and elitism.
Moreover, a readiness to suffer unnecessary complication shows in the taste in games of the site’s users. The complexity of the site’s most highly-rated games stands as evidence of this. Nine of the games currently in the Board Game Geek top ten have a weight ranking of between 3.3 and 4.1 (out of five). Though weight is an ill-defined metric, the top ten (and beyond) very much fails to reflect the richness of the board game hobby. The top ten is so narrow because it reflects a narrow-minded site (though it is built around an impressively comprehensive database).
It is for this reason, I think broader and richer board game discussion can only take place outside Board Game Geek (at least with the site in its present form). In a reply to Jesse Dean’s first big article on the state of criticism, David Wickes, perhaps not seriously, called for a Cahiers du Boardgames. I said I felt it could happen.
Here I’d like to reiterate that, but more strongly. It should happen. Something comparable, but not identical, to Cahiers should be created. I would like for there to be a space on the web for longer essays to be reviewed for publication, but which isn’t an owned space (i.e. no-one editor should determine the agenda of the site).
I would need help to establish something of this kind. To create a website for it is simple. What would be required would be a diverse board of editors to review, and approve submissions. Contact me if you would like to be involved, and are capable of the work needed.
Related to the previous point, the Board Game Geek top ten does not in itself prove the quality of a game. (In a similar way, that they enjoy places in the IMDB top ten is not compelling evidence to argue that, say, The Dark Knight and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King are among cinema’s finest works ever.) If you believe Twilight Struggle to be the finest board game ever created, this is not in itself an unreasonable conviction, but needs evidence to be useful. What in it, for you, is exemplar?
I wrote elsewhere that a provisional canon could help new players, and would assist critical conversation (No critic of English literature need defend, say, a consideration of Shakespeare or Dickens). But we’re not there yet. Not by some distance.
Moreover there’s not much value in stating that a game is fun without saying why. It’s next to calling a game ‘good’ in being unhelpful. Your opinion will still be only that, an opinion, but show the reader what it is founded upon. It may be that you recognized an aspect of a game thanks to another writer’s article. Credit him or her.
I know that little here is very substantial. To reiterate: different commentators will need to take different approaches towards raising the level of their work. But I’d rather that be the focus: on climbing higher, rather than chastising those who do not follow.