Provisional Game Reviews


generic board game board and components

When we write a review, we like to think it’s definitive. “Here,” we seem to say, “this is what I think of this game.” Life is not so tidy, however.

I’ve changed my mind on games before, sometimes significantly so. None of us are infallible, even when it comes to our own opinions.

This is made even trickier by, well, modern gaming. I’ll give you some examples.

Cult of the New

I played around 350 game sessions last year, of around 150 board games and tabletop RPGs. I don’t play app-based games, so those ~350 are all in-person (or, back during the worst of COVID, on online platforms with friends). There are gamers who play far more than that, and those who play far less, but 300+ games with friends around a table is a significant total.

And yet, there are so, so many games that I only play once. Therein lies the problem.

My top 10-20 in yearly plays are invariably shorter fillers that everyone already knows, like Sushi Go, Codenames, 6 Nimnt, Spyfall, etc. They bump up the average plays per game, but obscure the fact that well over half of those plays are games that will only see a single play that year.

I have a policy of only writing reviews after three or more plays. And I stick to that rule. Ideally, it’s with far more than three plays. That makes it harder, though, when the next 150 sessions I play might not include that game I only got to play twice this year. So I either have to go out of my way to make a session happen, or it never gets reviewed.

Even in my quieter weekly game night at a friend’s house (many of my plays are in a large club with a rotating cast of attendees and games), each person has likely received multiple Kickstarter games in recent months, and has numerous unplayed games on their shelf. I keep a comparatively modest collection to avoid this, but I still have loads of games I want to play more.

Complaining about too many games feels like a quintessential first-world problem, so I take this all with a healthy sense of perspective. I love my gaming life. But it’s nevertheless a consideration.

Beyond reviewing, I prefer to sink deeply into my games. I’m not much interested in playing something once, then the next thing once, and so on. I know what I like. Better to give me 10 plays of 10 games I already love, instead of 100 new games. Sure, those 100 will have a handful of true gems, but will I ever discover the full extent of their depths without more plays?

My Top 100

And then I look at my “favorite” games. It’s almost laughable how many of them represent 10 or less plays. With some, only a handful of plays. With a few, only one or two.

Those one or two sessions were magical enough for me to know I love the game, but it’s still just one or two plays. How sure can I be? The only truthful answer is that I can’t.

Lists of favorites are entirely personal, so they’re not subject to the same scrutiny as a review, which needs to consider the audience as well. But I’d be lying if I said that my top 100 list is even approaching definitive. Even five plays of each game on the list would likely rearrange the list significantly, moving some much further up, while others would slide off the list entirely.

Sure, I know exactly where I stand with games I’ve played 10, 20, 50 or 100+ times (and plenty of those games are on the list too). But they’re also sharing real estate with games that seem awesome, but lack the rigor that comes with numerous plays.

Learning to Judge More Quickly

Long-time reviewers are reviewing a game as soon as they sit down to play. They don’t have the luxury of turning off their critical faculties for a session. They might not get another.

When you’re thinking critically about your gaming, you also become better over time at identifying what you do and don’t like, and why. These days, I can watch a how-to-play, review, or playthrough video and generally have a sense of whether or not I’ll like a game. Five years ago, my “hit rate” with such guesses was maybe 50%. Now, it’s more like 90%.

Every new game is a novelty, because it’s something we haven’t seen before, even if some of the mechanics are familiar. Novelty is interesting to us, though sometimes only temporarily. Being able to look past the newness to see the long-term value (or lack thereof) is a skill that takes time to develop.

This skill helps to develop, though. It means that I can glean insights after 3-5 plays for my reviews that previously might have taken 10-12 plays. It also helps me find games I enjoy more quickly. It doesn’t mean I’m catching everything, but I can feel confident about an assessment more quickly. This is a necessity, due to the aforementioned struggles.

Provisional Truths

So where does that lead us?

In science, there’s such a thing as a provisional conclusion or provisional truth. Scientific theories are like this. The “truth” is always subject to further evidence that could corroborate it or refute it. Such uncertainty is tough for many to swallow, but I believe it more accurately reflects the world we live in.

The act of revising an opinion is instructive in and of itself, though. It’s not a failure. It’s a refinement.

So for example, is my #1 game of all-time, actually my favorite game? Maybe. Is my top 50 accurate to my own tastes? On the whole, yes, undoubtedly. But is it precisely correct? Of course not.

Reviews are the same. I stand behind each of them, but I also look forward to revising some of my opinions in the years to come, to further refine both my own tastes and the information I’m delivering to my audience.

For more content, or just to chat, find me on Twitter @BTDungeons, or check out my other reviews and game musings!