Board Game Reviewers are Too Nice, But It’s Not Their Fault
By MARK WILSON
Reviewers have a tough job. What they do is largely thankless, and many, many people lose perspective when a review is about their favorite toy. So any reviewer with any level of influence has been through metric tons of shit in their reviewing career.
As such, I see reviewers as providing a valuable service in the hobby, even the ones I don’t normally jive with.
Here’s my problem, though: Reviewers aren’t critical enough. Like, ever. But the actual problem is industry-wide, not with the reviewers themselves.
For clarity, I’m not talking about previews, which have begun to creep into the reviewing space. These are paid endorsements, generally timed to coincide with Kickstarter releases. They are what they are, and I’m not here to judge them, but it’s a different form of media.
Also for clarity, the reason why reviewers aren’t critical enough is both understandable and obvious: People are shit. Not all people. Not even most. But enough that it’s simply far easier to play nice than to say what you really think about a game.
Ah, but what about the critics that are above such concerns? Those who have carved out their niche audience and can speak to them freely? Or those to whom the critique is more important than maintaining industry ties? My response is that no one with any hobby notoriety is above such concerns.
As I write this, Dan Thurot of Space-Biff rates 3.9% of his rated games 4 or less.
Quinns from Shut Up & Sit Down (SU&SD) rates 4.4% a 4 or less.
They’ve both played thousands of games, so the ratings aren’t comprehensive. But both update their ratings semi-regularly. For reference, I’m at 19% by the same metric. A buddy of mine, and unfiltered-rating posterchild (Board Game Geek user sgosaric) is right around 58%.
Call me skeptical, but I think that any anonymous grading of so many games will result in more than 4% being bad games for a particular person. Do people like that exist, with nary a bad rating simply because they enjoy every game they play? Yes, of course. But is that what we’re seeing here? Probably not.
To blunt that criticism: These are two reviewers I adore for what they do and how they do it, and they also seem like genuinely cool people from my admittedly limited online interactions with them. Thurot is about as removed from the hype cycle as you can get while still being able to cultivate an audience, and he’s a great writer and thinker in the hobby. And SU&SD has a fanbase that’s large enough that Quinns could legitimately dump on some games without major consequence.
But it’s easier to play nice. And so we get reviewers who pull punches. Thurot in particular is good at couching his harsher reviews in language that still paints an evocative picture. You forget that it’s a bad game because you’re lost in the story being told.
Again, though, this isn’t a judgment. Why? I do it too. My Board Game Geek game comments are largely unfiltered, but my reviews are casting a wider net. If I don’t want to ruin my experience online, I have to think through, and then write about, who will enjoy a game and why, and what the other side of certain criticisms could be. These are valid approaches, and it also forces you to think more deeply about games at times. But it’s also a form of hedging the brutality of your unfiltered thoughts.
It’s also easy to say that you just shouldn’t care about what others say or think. But it’s not about taking backlash personally. Most have few issues there. Rather, it’s the exhaustion of dealing with it in a hobby that you want to be fun. I still get pings for my scathing reviews, and have to recall what I said, why I said it, and then defend it…years after the fact. Sometimes after I’ve forgotten the particulars of a game.
And I’m a nobody, a far cry from legitimate reviewer personalities with Twitter followings and podcasts and media networks and such. The pressures on them in this regard are far, far greater.
Thurot actually wrote similarly about this once, in this excellent article:
…this is the criteria for writing a positive review:
– Enjoy a game and write about it.
The criteria for a negative review, on the other hand, looks more like this:
– Play a game (which you don’t enjoy) a whole bunch so you don’t come off as an ignoramus.
– Accept that you’ll still be accused of not playing the game enough.
– Consider couching your critiques to ease the hardness of the blow.
– Try to come up with something positive to say, just so the fanboys won’t hunt you down at a convention.
– Waffle over your biases both conscious and unconscious.
– Come to terms with maybe burning a bridge with a publisher or designer.
– Have multiple people who’ve played the game take a look at your draft so you can be sure you didn’t miss some incredibly minor rule that will be used to discredit your broader points.
– Be ready to defend your statements long after you’ve forgotten the specific details.
– Linger over the publish button, its rectangularity encompassing the seething hatred of the entire internet, about to descend upon you like a mob of breakers.
So can you blame him for 3.9%? I certainly can’t. And an article like that exists because he’s been living that reality for years.
If you think this is overblown, I’m writing the first draft of this article in 2022, mere weeks after an internet mob descended on Thurot with threats and curses for a less-than-glowing review (not even a negative review imo!) for a game that had just started its crowdfunding campaign, by a designer (Cole Wehrle) Dan has done more to popularize and endorse than pretty much any other designer he’s written about. This was no hit piece. It was honesty.
And it got destroyed.
Vultures, the lot of them.
And every reviewer has, at some point, done a defense of negative reviews. Because it needs to be repeated, and even though their truly negative reviews might be <5% of their output, they’re still inundated with backlash for that <5% to the point where they feel compelled to defend some negativity. Tom Vasel’s video on negative reviews was well done in this regard, for instance.
So what’s the takeaway? The takeaway, to me, is that because the industry is what it is, and can’t handle unfiltered criticism in its media, it behooves us to take this into account as consumers of board game media. Because it’s easy to juxtapose a reviewer with an occasional negative review against crowdfunding previewers, and convince yourself that you’re getting an opinion free from consumerist influence.
You’re not. That doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile opinion. But too many lose this perspective, and for example the legions of Youtube comments declaring that a review convinced them to buy is a stark example of this.
I’m not saying find a muse like my buddy, linked earlier, who rates more than half his games less than a 5 (although he’s a solid source for game analysis for me). But, I mean, maybe I am saying that in a manner of speaking.
Keep yourself grounded, even if you disagree with such an approach. I hope to enjoy far more games than I dislike. But I also hope to find clarity in my research and in my creative output. I maintain that a well-curated list of Board Game Geeky GeekBuddies (the site’s equivalent of a “Friend” system) is the best way to get unbiased opinions. But I still read Space-Biff, and watch SU&SD (and other excellent outlets). Just not as buyer’s guides. They’re excellent for thinkpieces and perspective and entertainment, but represent a skewed reality. One not of their own making, but in which they exist, one that has bullied amazing creators into softening their harder stances, and bullied many others right out of media creation entirely.
And if you read my reviews, the same caveats apply. I have the luxury of being more honest than some since I often only post to my website and don’t allow comments on the site. But this toxic environment still informs my writing.
My other takeaway and wish for people reading this is more proactive: defend negative reviews. Even ones you disagree strongly with (try it sometime; it’s hard). Watch how often the comments turn sour with subtle questions about how many times the reviewer played a game, or if they got such-and-such rule correct. These are the gatekeepers and peddlers of toxic positivity, even if they are unaware of their role in this industry-wide trend, or deny their place in it. Maybe the reviewer really did get a rule wrong, for example, but this rarely invalidates their opinion.
So thank people who release these, because even for amateur reviewers, they are feeling the pang of nervousness as they post a negative review. Many need validation of some sort if they’re to continue posting such takes. Because they know. They know how crappy the environment can be that they’re wading into. We all know, even those who aren’t hardcore hobbyists. We’ve all been on the internet enough.
It won’t change things systemically, of course, but imo you’ll be doing something sincere and good.
Enjoy my writing and want to find more? Check out my other reviews and game musings!