My Gaming Reviews
Criteria, preferences and other considerations
By MARK WILSON
Knowing a reviewer’s tendencies and biases is important to gauge whether or not you should listen to them. For some of you, my reviews will be helpful. For others, you should ignore me entirely because we have different tastes. Most of the below applies to my board game reviews, but also to a lesser extent in RPGs.
I Don’t Get Paid For This
I don’t make any money or get any benefits in the board gaming or RPG hobbies from reviews. I have published various tabletop RPG products that are monetized, though, and retain the right to work as a freelancer or designer at a future time.
I Don’t Do Previews
Nothing I review is unpublished, and I have never received a review copy of a game, expansion or supplement from a publisher.
My Review Threshold
I’ll only review a game after I’ve played it at least a few times, and have talked to others I trust about their experiences to help frame my own.
Most of my reviews represent far more than three plays, but when they don’t, it’s because I felt like I had something meaningful to say after only a few. Some games age better than others after several plays, so if you think I’m missing some hidden depth due to low plays, you’re probably right. But there’s also only so much time in a life and first impressions matter in a saturated market, which gaming certainly is.
This doesn’t apply to my RPG reviews, where there’s less stigma around unplayed reviews due to the time constraints of play.
And I play mainly in a large gaming club with a rotating cast of players. No board game review I write is with the perspective of only a single group of friends.
I Try Not to Be Binary
Every game is someone’s favorite, just as someone hates the same game. I’m not here to convince you to like or dislike something. The review is to cover the game as it is. Usually that means I prefer talking about what elements of a game will excite or turn off certain gamers, and often it’s the same element that does both depending on a person’s preferences.
Positive & Negative Reviews
There’s a thing in reviewing where negative reviewers sometimes get harassed, which is unfortunate. I can handle anonymous internet stupidity, so I’m not above saying I hate something. That said, this is about 2% to promote my website, and 98% because I just happen to enjoy writing reviews. So it’s usually going to be stuff I think is awesome.
That said, I always try to think through who won’t like a game, and for what reasons. It’s present in some form in nearly all of my reviews. I also love negative reviews, and think they can be more informative than the positive ones. If I think I have something to add on a game, and it’s negative, it’ll be there.
II. Play Preferences:
- I play for the social experience. Most of my enjoyment stems from how a game’s mechanics enhance the social experience. I tend to stay away from the “multiplayer solitaire” types (though a couple have won me over!), and am not a huge solo gamer, but will note those biases as appropriate.
- I value games with meaningful player interaction. Similar to the above. This is not a synonym for Ameritrash or “Take That” games, since many fine Euros have significant, meaningful interaction. Interaction can happen in any genre of game. Again, there are exceptions, though they’re rare and tend to have some other exceptional element to sustain my interest.
- I Value Differentiation. There are a lot of games in the world, and a lot of good ones. So if a game comes out that doesn’t meaningfully separate itself somehow, that’s a problem. It’s often a tough sell for me when a game comes out that is obviously in the same lineage as an established, well-loved game if it doesn’t provide a significant iteration to improve the experience.
- My Genre Blindspots. For the most part, I’m genre agnostic, and can find games in nearly any genre that I enjoy. That said, I’m not a CCG fan, despite having played a few. My wargaming experience is largely tied to old-school classics like A&A and Castle Risk, so you won’t see many (or any) wargame reviews. Additionally, I’ve not played any of the 18xx games or their offshoots. On the RPG side, I mostly play D&D 5th edition, but have dabbled in one-shots and short arcs of several other RPGs, and often use reviews as a way to discover new ideas or systems I may like.
Despite frequent attempts to codify standards, I think reviewing is more art than science. That said, my approach is not without thought.
In general, I try to establish what a game is attempting to do, and in what context. A dopey, 5-minute filler that’s aimed at non-gamers is not trying to be a heavy Euro. I behooves a reviewer to tell more regular gamers, in this instance, to steer clear, just as I think that same reviewer should elaborate on who might enjoy this instead. This is not to say that every game has merit for some gamer type, but the fact that one person’s least favorite game is another’s favorite means that nuance must be applied to most instances of both praise and criticism.
Second, and just as importantly, I look at what a game is trying to do internally. It’s not enough to say there are mechanical systems interacting in a particular way. If a game is trying to create tense, horror-filled moments, and satisfying payoffs (or heart-wrenching tragedies) from those moments, THAT is the central conceit. Whether it uses deckbuilding to accomplish this, or worker placement, or hidden movement, or anything else, is somewhat secondary. Same with RPGs, where the mechanical system can be good or bad in and of itself, but is ideally not the end goal, but a gateway into the roleplaying, character interactions, tone and setting. The important part is: how do the mechanical systems support this? Do they at all? Or are there some that are extraneous to this purpose? This will logically start to include things like player count considerations, game length, complexity, whether or not the component quality enhances or detracts from this experience, etc.
Essentially, it boils down to two questions: What is the game trying to be, and for whom? And is it good at what it does? Obviously the conclusions are subjective, but they are not reached without thought or process.