On Playing Well, and its Relationship to Reviewing Well

In November, the UK qualifying tournament for the Agricola World Championship takes place not too far from me. I toyed with entering, but ultimately don’t think I would very much enjoy the experience. My game play is foremost social and playful; I certainly play to win, but through play I’m ultimately aiming either to establish or strengthen relationships, or to learn something. I don’t think I’d enjoy the kind of play the tournament environment necessitates.

What keeps the idea live in my head, however – what keeps me thinking about a tournament I’ve decided not to enter – is the meaningful knowledge it would bring. Agricola is a game I believe myself to play pretty well. But I don’t have solid evidence upon which to base this suspicion.

When playing with my most regular playing partners, certain facts suggest to me that we play to a pretty high level. For example, my playing partners and I have learnt to recognise certain sequences of moves as potentially indicative that a particular occupation card is about to be played – the steps which suggest an opponent is preparing to whack down, say, the Lover. Such familiarity with the game allows for pre-emptive defensive manoeuvres: the collection of food necessary to pay for the Lover could be frustrated, for instance, by yoinking the food from the Fishing action space a round earlier than might normally be considered justifiable.

But, because I tend to play with players from the same small pool, I’ve little context by which to measure what we do. What appear sophisticated strategies to me might show serious flaws when tested against strong opponents with whom I’m unfamiliar. I wouldn’t fancy myself likely to win such a tournament, but the frame of reference for how good I really am would mean a lot.

And there’s a thing. A while ago, I put a review of Agricola onto this site. A little later, I also put up a piece offering some thoughts about strategy. Because it ranks well in a Google search for ‘Agricola strategy,’ that article continues to be my most read, receiving more hits on almost any given day than anything else on this site. In effect, then, I’m informing a great many people how great Agricola is as a mental challenge, and how best to play it, each without any substantial grounds to be confident I’m a capable player myself.

To write a strategy article of some kind does in inself imply that author believes himself or herself to have a depth of understanding of the game in question. I guess, with respect to Agricola, the fact is that I believe myself to be good at the game, even if I do not know that concretely. To write a review of a game without necessarily being good at it is a rather different case, and in many respects, I think, poses more interesting questions.

Much criticism of board games obfuscates how capable the critic is as a player (or how often the critic has won or lost – which is related, but not analagous: a win in a game of Agricola is a rather more reliable indicator of skill than a win in Fluxx, say). Most reviews which I’ve read or watched, or to which I’ve listened, do not disclose how well the critic plays the game in question, or how often he or she has won or lost.

This is also true of most reviews I’ve written. I restrict my commentary on this site based on my familiarity with a given game (I haven’t written a review of a game I’ve played less than five times – most I’ve played considerably more than this before writing about them); I do not, however, restrict my commentary based on my ability at a given game. I’ve reviewed games at which I seem to be particularly bad (Kakerlakenpoker Royal comes to mind), and I guess I’ve also reviewed games at which I’m particularly good. Seldom have I highlighted how well I seem to play in the review in question. In the case of the Kakerlakenpoker Royal review, I did note my poor results, but this constituted an exception.

Witholding information about one’s results might partly be a critical defence mechanism (both in my case, and in the case of others): I’ve certainly seen negative thoughts I’ve offered here dismissed as the sour grapes of a loser. I think I’m better than that – I believe myself to be level-headed enough to offer commentary which doesn’t project the flaws in my own play onto a game. The fear, I guess, is that making clear how much I’ve won and lost might appear to confirm these dismissive assumptions about me as a critic. In other words, admitting I’ve lost a lot more than I’ve won (which probably should be the case with many multi-player games) might be taken as a licence to read my thoughts as bitterness.

I can also conceive how the reverse might operate – that positive thoughts be seen by a reader as the fruit of pleasure in winning, rather than pleasure in a game itself. This seems a less likely reaction (and isn’t one I’ve seen expressed with respect to anything I’ve written), but doesn’t feel purely a hypothetical possibility. And, in truth, my experience is that a number of games do offer a dramatically better experience for the winner than for any other player.

In a bigger sense, however, the pretence of objectivity is a critical conceit which board game criticism has retained from more developed forms without necessarily recognising the particularity of the game as material for a review to address. In criticism at large, imitating objectivity, however false that imitation rings, is a necessary device to make critical comment valuable. The music reviewer or film critic brings a lifetime of experiences to bear in asserting his or her inclination towards or against a particular work, but must to a large extent mask this to comment usefully. A film reviewer might be disposed to like a particular film because he or she is especially fond of sci-fi. That reviewer fails to act as a critic if his or her comment is only ‘I like sci-fi, so I like this film.’ He or she must point to concrete facets of the film for his or her comment to be useful to the reader: praising an aspect of the plot or lauding the costume design act as points through which a reviewer grounds his or her expression of an opinion. Though knowledge of the reviewer’s tastes is a contextual help, the review cannot operate solely on the level of expressing like or dislike.

The reviewer as a person is biased, but does not act as a reviewer through the expression of these biases alone. The protest of the besotted Justin Bieber fan that the reviewer is biased fails to be cutting not because it is false, but because it happens to be entirely banal as an expression of the truth.

However, the board game – and indeed the video game – each offer a distinct challenge to the critic pretending objectivity: the experience these offer is largely generated by the players. Playing Agricola or Kakerlakenpoker with me is a different experience from playing with anyone else. My tells when playing Kakerlakenpoker are particular to me; my style of play, and of table talk is mine alone. The game reviewer therefore relies on his or her readers, viewers or listeners to exert a greater faculty of translation than does the critic reviewing media which do not offer user-generated experiences. If I praise Kakerlakenpoker for the laughter it generates, the reader has to recognise that this is a feature of the game as my play group and I play it, and not fundamentally a feature of the game in itself. The reader, in effect, has to deduce through the evidence the review offers whether he or she and his or her play group would be likely to gain the same experiences.

Nonetheless, throwing away the pretence of objectivity  does not seem to be an option. Even if qualitative assertions are grounded in play experiences not innate to a game, there still needs to be that grounding in evidence for a review to be more than an empty expression of favour or distaste.

Being good or bad at a game is probably important as part of this evidence. Whether I tend to win or lose is a valuable clue for a reader translating my thoughts. I declared Kakerlakenpoker Royal my favourite game of 2012 – it’s possible the fact I’m not that great at it (though improving), perversely contributes to my enjoyment of it (which I guess is why I felt it important to mention in my review that I’m less than a brilliant player). Structurally, the game is such that a bad player is active more often (failing to bluff successfully, or to call a bluff successfully makes a player active next turn), which does mean, unusually, a fuller game experience for a player who loses.

Winning or losing can, therefore, be seen both as experiences in themselves (and I don’t think anyone needs a reviewer to describe how winning or losing feels in itself), and as the triggers for other experiences (in which case a reviewer’s history of victory or defeat becomes pertinent). An economic game might be a game of wild gambles for a losing player risking all to get himself or herself back into contention, while for a winner, conservative play might be more fit. By contrast, a game with hidden victory points might not be substantially different whether one is heading for victory defeat (depending on how readable one’s current position relative to others might be). A nod to how successful a player the reviewer is therefore would probably constitute a useful tool for readers, viewers, or listeners, even if an objective statement of the reviewer’s ability is, more-or-less, impossible.

5 thoughts on “On Playing Well, and its Relationship to Reviewing Well

  1. Nice article. Thank you. So are there two issues? Firstly, how aptitude lends authority to an author of a strategy article and secondly, how aptitude influences a game review. I guess you’re talking mainly about the latter. After I win the Agricola championship I may go on an after dinner speaking tour. 🙂

  2. Pingback: News Bits: 9/16/2013 | iSlaytheDragon

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