The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Biting the Hand that Feeds Me

Ray Smith

January, 2001

As lemmings follow each other into the sea, here I follow my brethren, with more foot in mouth than tongue in cheek, as I make my contribution to reviewing the reviewers. The great risk here is that I generally have the same opinion as Groucho Marx when he said, "I wouldn't join any club that would want me as a member." Let's face it, reviewers are discussing the things they love, and have strong opinions as such, myself included. So, invariably, someone may become a tad defensive as a result. How many times have we seen a clarifying rebuttal: "If you read it more carefully, that's not what I said!" (Right Stuart?) But, as Greg Aleknevicus has previously discussed with aplomb, reviewing is the struggle to relate the "feel" of a game without too much bias. Or, for most folks, is the game worthy of parting of your hard earned guilders?

With the ever increasing plethora of game pontification on the web, the very fact that Counter remains viable in printed form is a standing tribute to its esteemed editorial board, the Tenacious Trio of Stuart Dagger (editor), Mike Clifford, and Alan How. So, after ten issues to reflect upon, how does Counter magazine rank among the multitudes for games and gaming information, what makes it different, and how can it be improved?

First, the accolades. Counter is the only non mass market magazine I have ever received on the advertised dates of release. Timeliness eliminates the frustration factor when you are eagerly counting the days between each issue (yes, I'm addicted). But, of course, it is the quality and the diversity of the writing that keeps the addiction aflame. With the growing list of available very good games, discerning the keepers from the "I'll pass" has become a science. The early reactions in Counter provide the needed appetizer for the new releases. The actual review is the main course for details and game play. And the letters are the dessert to sweeten the ensemble. With this large menu of insightful contributions by a multitude of apt reviewers, the "feel" of a game is genuinely portrayed from the all important initial reaction to in-depth analysis.

Along with the twenty-plus reviews per issue, Counter's editorial/news column, game awards report, convention reports, letters section, "old favorite" review, and other related articles, provide an exceptional cover to cover read. However, as my previous boss always used to say to our department, "You're doing a great job, . . . but you can do better." Talk about raising your self-esteem and tearing it down in one fell swoop. (We always wanted to kill him.) Well, here I will probably hurt any chance I have of associating with the illustrious Gathering of Friends. C'est la vie.

Nothing bugs me more than finding typos in an article (Ooo, another hit on Stuart). For some reason they just seem to fly out at me. Even though they are averaging only about one per page, it is an annoyance nonetheless.

Eliminate the reviews that state, "I normally don't like this type of game, but now that you're warned, I'm going to review it anyway." How can this person make a subjective comparison to other similar games if they already don't like them? Of course, the reverse also holds true. "I love all of Reiner's games! It's a must buy!" This dichotomy sometimes leads to the point of choosing opposites. For example, I am the anti-How. So far, I can fairly accurately predict that if Alan loves a game, I will hate it.

My chief concern, however, is what do the reviewers really like. Even with the variety of input, unless we readers have studied which reviewer has done which review, and cataloged whether we agreed or disagreed with their findings, how can we make an accurate judgment of their assessment? After reading several issues of Counter you do get an inkling of a reviewer's gaming tastes, but what is a first time subscriber supposed to do? At Mik Svellov's old Brett & Board web site, I found it very valuable to peruse his game rating lists. Not so much for his actual ratings, but it gives an overview of what he likes. Therefore, any comments he makes on a new game, I can adjust according to his documented preferences/biases. Just as most products have micro print disclaimers, I would be very interested in seeing some sort of top ten list from reviewers, just to give me a basis from which the reviewer is coming from. (So as not to be hypocritical, here are my top ten family/strategy games in no particular order: El Grande, Tal der Konige, Silverton, Advanced Civilization, Die Handler, Minos, Manitou, Union Pacific, Seafarers of Catan, Tikal.)

After being weaned by Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers in the 60s, and adopting grognard status with SPI in the 70s, my current fanaticism with "German" games is being very vigorously fanned by many wonderful sources. But, I regard Counter as the premier magazine forum of gaming information and friendly debate, which I will continue to wholeheartedly support and enjoy (if Stuart will let me).

- Ray Smith

Subscriptions to Counter magazine are 12 UK pounds per year (4 issues).

Counter
c/o Alan How
3 Lynsted Close
Bromley
Kent BR1 3UE
Alan.How@which.net

Subscriptions in North America can be obtained ($25 US) via:

Counter
c/o David Kuznick
41 Lewis Ave.
Arlington, MA 02474

(Cheques should be made out to David Kuznick not Counter and an e-mail should also be sent to Alan How.)

GGA - Timeliness: I've stated officially that I feel a great pressure to put out The Games Journal on time every month. Part of my inspiration comes from the record that Counter has recorded. Still, I find it amusing that you can always tell when the next issue is about to come out as posts to the net increase all asking "has anyone got the latest issue yet". I hope that they keep it up as to me it's one of the surest signs of health. As much as I can see the intent of putting quality before schedule it seems to me that publishing delays usually indicate the approaching death of a magazine not an improvement in its quality.

I, too, am greatly annoyed by typos. However, until one actually takes it upon themselves to publish you'll never really know how hard it is to eliminate them. I know from personal experience writing articles that the editing process can seem endless at times. While writing an article I'll be revising and correcting errors constantly. Once I'm done I'll usually leave it for a few days and then re-read it again catching still more errors. Despite this I'm often appalled at the fact that something will slip by and appear on the printed page.

I don't know that I can agree with Ray's opinion of reviews. If a review is well written I can still find value in it despite the fact that the writer doesn't care for that type of game. Similarly if an aficionado of a particular genre is fair in his assessments that can be useful also.

The final point, that of reviewers overall opinions, is a pragmatic problem. I think listing the reviewers top ten might be awkward in practice. The best method is to know your reviewer (such as Ray has done with Alan How). Makes it hard to evaluate a new or unknown reviewer though. A clever system has been implemented in Games, Games, Games magazine in their "Buyer's Guide" column. Every issue several games are given (very) short reviews, sometimes by more than one writer. A list of 10 or 20 games will be shown with a 1-5 rating by eight or so reviewers. At a glance this shows you a) what a particular game is thought of by several reviewers and b) what ratings any particular reviewer gave other games. Simple, clever and useful.

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