In Defense of Subjectivity in Game Critique


generic board game board and components

On a basic level, we all understand (or I hope we do) that gaming preferences are subjective. There’s an implied “in my opinion” behind every review that’s ever been written in the gaming sphere. And there’s also the silent acknowledgement that a review of an inherently subjective endeavor can’t be objective. Or can it?

In practice, the lines between the two become blurry.

First, though, let’s throw out the straw men: there’s no such thing as a purely objective review. When I talk in this article about objective criteria in reviews, I’m talking about elements that are less open to interpretation. “The blue and the green pieces are very similar, making it hard to differentiate them during play” is a more-or-less objective criticism. “The pace of the game didn’t match the kinetic nature of the theme” is subjective, even if it’s insightful or you agree with it.

So why is this a problem? Well, because interpretation exists around all of these terms, and our behavior toward criticism often doesn’t match what we say we believe.

Catch-Up Mechanics Are Good: A Case Study of False Objectivity

I play with a lot of gamers, but a particular subset of five of us play together a lot. We all have certain tendencies, and largely know each other’s preferences. But sometimes, a group-think develops.

So, for example, I introduced a new game to the group. It was a bit cutthroat, quite tactical, and had very little randomness affecting it. There was also no endgame scoring, so everyone could assess their current situation fairly accurately on the score tracker.

After the game, one player had lost badly and criticized the game for lacking a catchup mechanic. And while there are various strategies in the game that can lead to victory, he was right: there was no explicit catchup mechanic. Bad early play probably means you’re going to lose in this game.

The others seemed to follow suit, in varying degrees of agreement. I was the lone holdout who didn’t think this was an issue.

I don’t mind games where the “catchup mechanic” is simply to learn the depths of the game and play better next time. Context matters, of course. So like, this particular game was 45 minutes long. If it had been three hours, I’d be less forgiving of a player “losing” in the opening 30 minutes. Here, though, I thought it was fine.

So if the gameplay is interesting enough, I’ll take my lumps in early plays in order to achieve higher levels of mastery.

But here’s the larger issue: I had a problem of framing in the discussion that followed that session (we enjoy discussing our games). The frame, or perspective, in which the discussion was taking place was “catch-up mechanics are good.” The discussion assumed this as a premise, so the burden of proof was on me to prove otherwise. I distinctly felt the weight of defending a game style that, based on the discussion’s frame, was objectively bad.

When, in fact, this is an example of a subjective preference. But we let these preferences sneak into our collective internet or in-person group-think at times. In fact, this probably happens more often than we’d like to admit.

From Case Study to General Principle

Roll & Move is bad in board games, right? It’s a relic of a bygone era where they hadn’t developed more interactive ways of creating meaningful choices through the game’s mechanics. Nothing’s worse than playing well and losing to someone who simply rolls higher on a d6 to move forward faster.

That’s probably a defensible statement. Except I disagree with it. In fact, one of my favorite games (Magical Athlete) features this exact mechanism. We often joke in the game that despite all the zany character powers, “the best power is rolling 6s.”

I’m not defending roll & move as a whole. It’s generally sub-par as a mechanical decision compared to many more interesting ideas that have been put forth in recent years.

But that’s the point. There’s no good or bad. It’s only how it’s used in context. But someone out there—in fact, many someones—played Magical Athlete and couldn’t see past its roll & move mechanic to see that it’s a hilarious, goofy game that can be enjoyed immensely with the right mentality.

Or if it’s not Magical Athlete, it’s something else.

Embracing the Possibilities

One of my favorite gaming writers, Dan Thurot, penned a similar defense of the subjective. He ended this excellent article with the following:

What a drab vision, this goal of objectivity. Give me instead someone furious at Catan! A defender of Monopoly! Let us have schools of thought, and iconoclasts who spurn them, and moderating influences thought of very little by either side but held in high regard by everyone too confused by the speech of the radicals.

Or if the Wild West of board game criticism sounds a little too unkempt, let’s instead welcome broader formats and more distinctive voices, rather than insisting everybody fill out the same form letters. The hobby is broad enough. It’s time to embrace the possibilities.

The words speak for themselves, and actually inspired this blog post here on my site.

Even if I don’t agree with them, I love finding gamer profiles on Board Game Geek whose tastes make no sense to me, or who seem to love and hate similar games, or who take unpopular stances and shout them from the mountaintops.

They’re rare, but these people are fun to interact with, because they’re a reminder that there’s no standard for taste in gaming. There’s only what we allow ourselves to accept in regard to “common wisdom.”

And while my tastes are probably more definable and defined than some, I do occasionally come up against a game where, for example, the common wisdom is “it’s broken and insane, and bad for it” and my reaction is “it’s broken and insane, and awesome for it!” So I feel a kinship to those standing against the tide, even if most of my opinions are ultimately uncontroversial.

Identity Gaming as Anathema to Possibility

So here’s the problem. We self-select ourselves into groups. It’s how the entire damn internet works. You know what articles get the most clicks? Those that help us identify with a very particular subset of society. For real; this is a marketing tactic. There are entire websites devoted to pumping out content to help us feel “right” about our opinions, not because the site or author agrees with us, but because it generates traffic and they need the ad revenue.

So we self-identify, and then those identities (and those who identify as the same thing) start to influence our behavior and taste.

And these groups have preferences and expectations. So in board gaming and tabletop roleplaying, here are some examples:

  • I’m Cult of the Old, so anything that comes out on Kickstarter is dead to me.
  • 5th edition D&D isn’t exciting because it lacks the danger of earlier editions. Make mine old-school or nothing at all.
  • Old school RPGs were just about grindhouse dungeons for tactical play. Only recent games can build a convincing narrative through play.
  • Euro games are soulless math exercises.
  • Party games lack enough strategy to excite me.
  • Components and artwork are very important to me.
  • Components and artwork don’t matter at all to me.
  • Ameritrash games just encourage beating up on each other. They’re mean and usually not strategic.
  • Everything {X} publisher or {Y} designer does is great. Alternatively, everything they do is garbage.
  • I’m a social gamer. I’m a coop gamer. I’m a {insert label}.
  • I love/hate multiplayer solitaire. I love/hate bash the leader mechanics. I love/hate {X}.

Those are the extremes of some positions I’ve seen, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t encountered them in these exact forms.

And these are the “objective” truths that we adopt about our own preferences, much like my group did in the earlier discussion about catchup mechanics. True, if pressed, we’d admit they’re subjective. But in practice, we treat them as Truth. Or the online or in-person groups and gamers we interact with treat them as Truth, so we do the same by proxy.

Again, though, let’s swat away a potential straw man: having and defining your preferences is a good thing, and for some gamers, a particular genre of games will generally not be a good match for them, just as others will be better on average. It’s good to identify these patterns, to improve our gaming experiences.

There’s also nothing wrong with identifying with well-meaning groups, either explicitly or implicitly. I’d never suggest otherwise.

But we fall into patterns, and it can hurt us occasionally.

One of the hardest things to do as a reviewer is to set aside past trends to look at what’s in front of me. Yes, a lot of complicated, modern, Euro-style games bore me, for example. But a few have cut through that rule to become exceptions, but only because I didn’t discount them based on the premise. And if I’m being honest, I’ve probably panned a few games that didn’t deserve it because I didn’t open my mind enough beforehand.

Finding a Middle Ground

So where does that leave us? I can leave you with a few platitudes that may work to wrap this up:

  • Trust your initial reaction, even if everyone around you is pointing out evidence of the opposite.
  • Celebrate contrarian opinions. Feel free to explain your differing opinion if it clashes, but don’t try to convince them that their take is wrong.
  • Preferences and general rules always have exceptions, however rare those may be. If they don’t, in a hobby as diverse as board gaming, you’re probably slipping into rigid thinking that is limiting your enjoyment.
  • Support and encourage people leaving respectful but negative reviews for beloved games. Seriously, it’s not always easy. Devoted fans are, well, devoted, and not always in ways that foster open discussion.

And if you disagree with any of those takeaways…awesome! No, seriously, let me know about it. There should be a marketplace of ideas in the gaming space. Not all ideas are equal, or equally supported, but in something as fun and low-stakes as gaming, we should be working toward fostering environments where passionate discussion leads to new ways of thinking about games.

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