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
If this changes, I’ll update this page. I have published various tabletop RPG products that are monetized, but don’t review my own work.
I Don’t Do Previews
Nothing I review is unpublished, and I have never received a preview copy of a game, expansion or supplement from a publisher.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 probably 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.
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’m Here to Review, Not Sell
Most games with any level of popularity have both obsessive fans and detractors. I’m not here to convince you to like or dislike something, or change your mind if you’re in one of those two groups. The review is to cover the game as it is, and how it lands for me and the groups I play with.
Usually this 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.
This is also why I’ll rarely talk about price. My reviews are attempts to critique and analyze. They’re not buyer’s guides, and I’m usually hesitant to assume the financial situation of my audience. Whether or not a game is “worth the price” is a purchaser’s decision that is impossible for a reviewer to assess for anyone else.
Positive & Negative Reviews
There’s a thing in reviewing where negative reviewers sometimes get harassed, and are frequently accosted by fans of a game who disagree with their words. Both of these are 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.
However, 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:
- A social group. Hardcore gamers are my people, but if the focus is on the game instead of the shared experience, it’s not my ideal.
- Interactive. I play to engage with awesome people. I want games that facilitate and enhance those interactions. This doesn’t imply certain genres, though, and I can find meaningful player interaction in a lot of different game styles.
- Chaos. Which I differentiate from randomness. Chaos is often surprising (and funny) but rarely unpredictable. Strategically maneuvering around and within chaos in games is a magnificent feeling.
- Big ol’ good-looking map. Goes double for RPGs, where battle maps, city maps, region maps and world maps are all awesome.
- Makes me laugh organically through play, rather than by trying to bake humor into the premise.
- Strategic emergence and creative freedom in open or sandbox systems. This is particularly true in RPGs, but is true of board games as well.
- A game that tells a story, which doesn’t necessarily imply a strong theme as we generally think of the term. Chess often tells a great story, for instance, despite being a quintessential abstract.
- Streamlined. I don’t mind complexity, but I shouldn’t be made to feel there are a lot of extraneous or superfluous rules (or rules systems) on top of the core experience. This isn’t the same as saying a game has few rules.
- Games that elicit strong emotions. “Good” games are easy to find; games that move your emotional meter consistently are not, and I try to seek them out.
Things like theme, complexity, length and components matter, but generally aren’t central to my enjoyment.
Due to constraints on my time and play groups, you won’t see many (or any) heavy wargames or collectible card games, which require a level of investment that is hard to maintain. On the RPG side, I mostly play D&D, but dabble in numerous other systems.
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. It 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.
Games are designed to be played by a particular group at a particular time (a great line I stole from noted designer Dominic Crapuchettes). And one person’s least favorite game might be another’s favorite. This is not to say that every game has merit for some gamer type and always deserves the benefit of the doubt, but it means that nuance must be applied to most instances of both praise and criticism, and the context of a game’s appeal must be considered.
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.