It's a Great Game...I Don't Like It
By MARK WILSON
“Oh, Jimmy would love this game.”
“You know, I think I should mention this to Trina. She loves games like this.”
Play enough games, with enough people, and you’ll find yourself saying phrases like this.
Sometimes, granted, we have slightly self-interested intentions. “I think you’d really enjoy this one,” we might say to a friend. Maybe we genuinely believe that, but maybe we’re also hoping to find someone to play a neglected game with. By suggesting that they’ll like it, we may actually be priming them to anticipate and enjoy their experience more.
Most times, though, we simply recognize different types of games, and how those relate to play styles and preferences.
One level deeper, most will also start to recognize games that are excellent, but not for them, or flawed, but fun for them personally.
This also makes rating and reviewing games impossible.
Problem Games Tzolk’in as Case Study
Take a game like Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar. I think it’s an excellent game of its type. But “its type” isn’t my preferred type of game.
I do enjoy Tzolk’in. The fact that it isn’t “my type” doesn’t put much of a damper on the fact that it’s an excellently crafted game. But I’m also in the process of developing a personal top 100 board game list for my blog. Tzolk’in isn’t on it. Yet, on my Board Game Geek page, it’s rated higher than several that will appear on my top 50 list.
I recognize them as worse games of their type. But I like them better personally.
This is a source of at least mild amounts of cognitive dissonance for me. Do I rate based on personal enjoyment? Or how I think it compares within its own lane, so to speak? Is a “best in class” game in a genre I don’t much care for a 10, or an 8? Inevitably, the answer is a subjective mix of both.
A dual system might work better: one for a personal, subjective rank, and another for how fans of the designer/genre/etc. will enjoy it. On a 10-point scale I’d rate Tzolk’in a 10 for certain gamers, and a 5 for others. And probably a 7 for me personally. Does that make it a 7.5? A 9? It’s at this point that I stop trying to find great answers to such questions.
This is why I prefer long-form written reviews to rating systems. Nuance is much easier. Parsing out criteria is easier. The conclusions are rarely as concrete, though, which displeases some.
Parsing By Audience
Richard Ham, better known as “Rahdo,” is great at this. He has very specific tastes, and his viewers know this. He’ll praise a game left and right, but then say that it’s an easy decision to get rid of it, and both of these statements make sense.
This works because he understands who will like the game, and he’s speaking to them with his praise.
My tastes don’t align well with Rahdo’s, but I can still get useful information out of his run-throughs because I know his preferences from the start. So based on his reasons for liking and disliking a game, it informs my interest.
I try to do this in my reviews, and think I’m usually successful, but fear I’m not quite as adept at it as I believe myself to be. But the hope is that with well-defined preferences, gamers of all types can discern their interest from you reviews, even if their tastes don’t match yours. This is what I can do with Rahdo, and I aspire to the same in my writing.
Tying a Bow On It, Or Not
The other thing I am actively trying to do in recent and upcoming reviews is not to settle on a concrete opinion of a game where the truth is more nebulous. If I’m conflicted about a game, I want to write in such a way that conveys that. I don’t want to tie a neat bow on things at the end for the sake of providing closure for the reader. Maybe they should feel a bit conflicted too. Or curious for more.
Both are acceptable end goals, and I try to reward such reviews with my thanks and appreciation. We need more of them, to balance the occasionally polarized “love it or hate it” world of sponsored reviews, hype, hype backlash, hype backlash backlash, and so on. Ambiguity, unresolved questions, and indifference are all valid conclusions.