The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Review Musings

Greg Aleknevicus

September, 2004

We don't receive a huge number of letters here at The Games Journal but the ones we do get tend to be very interesting. Such was the case with the following e-mail from Gilad Yarnitzky:

Gilad Yarnitzky: I've read the Memoir '44 review in the last month and it bothered me. It took me a while until I realized what it was. It was not the review itself or the game it discussed but rather a trend that I noticed in the last few months.

The same games keep appearing in reviews at different sites and at about the same time. Ticket to Ride (even before it was selected Spiel des Jahres), Oasis, now Memoir '44 and others. There are so many new games out there every year, (just look at the Essen new games list) but the same games appear in so many reviews.

Is it because those games are so much better than the rest? Is it by chance because the reviewers are a very close community? If that is the reason it is acceptable, but it might be that the reason is that online stores are trying to push different games for one reason or the other, which is also acceptable. However, if that is the case I was hoping to find reviews of less known games not in commercial places, and I think that The Games Journal is one of the best places for this.

I cannot speak for the reasons why others write reviews. Personally, it's a somewhat complicated issue. I did not intend The Games Journal to be primarily a venue for reviews—there are many other sites that already do that. Of the reviews we do run, it was my intention to feature older, lesser known games but in this regard, we've failed. This is partially due to the fact that response to such reviews was extremely limited, if people enjoyed them, they generally didn't write in to acknowledge it. However, I suspect that it's due mostly to a certain ambivalence on the part of review writers for older games—people are less excited about something they've played for years than a new discovery. Still, I do hope that we can increase the number of older games we review.

As to the question of why so many reviews of the same game appear—I suspect it has something to do with the policy of publishers. I receive many enquiries asking if I want a review copy of a game. My response is always the same: I'll do my best to review any game received but there's no way I can guarantee to even play it, there are simply too many games and too few hours in the day. Still, I feel at least some sense of obligation to a company that has taken the time to send their product. In practice this means that I'm much more likely to write a review for a game that has been sent to me than for one I've purchased myself. Over-reviewed? For the most part, writing is not an easy process for me and so it becomes something of a chore. I may have a very clear idea in my head of what I want to say but it can be difficult translating this to the written word. For this reason (among others), I often find that I need to force myself to complete a review. With this in mind, it's easier to understand why I'm more likely to review a game in which I feel some obligation to do so rather than one for which I'm under no obligation at all. You mention Ticket to Ride and Oasis as specific examples. The respective publishers, Days of Wonder and Uberplay, have been very generous in sending review copies and so I suspect that this is one of the reasons that so many reviews of those games have appeared.

I do happen to be friends with many of the more prolific reviewers but this has no influence on what I review. Certainly I don't discuss the topic of what to review with anyone, it's a decision I make on my own. Well, sort of. The community of internet reviewers does not influence me but other groups do, namely, those I game with. I need to try the games many times before I can effectively comment and since I don't have the authority to dictate what we play, most candidates will be games which these groups enjoy playing. I suspect the same holds true for other reviewers and since our tastes are often similar, the same games hit the table and appear in reviews.

Shiny, Happy Writers?

The accusation of writing only positive reviews has been leveled at many writers, perhaps not without some justification. There are multiple reasons why this might be so but it is at least partially due to two anomalies that distinguish reviewing games from reviewing other art forms:

  1. They require multiple sessions. (See below for a distinction between review and criticism.) It's sufficient to see a film but a single time before being "qualified" to offer an opinion. The same holds true for books, plays, art exhibits or any number of other artistic forms. This is not always the case for games however which must often be attempted many times before you can really claim to understand it.
  2. They require multiple participants. Again, with films, books, plays, etc., a potential reviewer requires only his own dedication and interest to experience it. Not so with (most) games as you will require opponents to play against.

These two requirements make it much more difficult for a reviewer to actually play the games he wishes to review. Therefore, the games a writer is most capable of reviewing are those which he (and his group) enjoys playing. It should not be surprising then that game reviews tend to be more positive than might otherwise be the case.

Review vs. Criticism

It's a bit of a side point to the main thrust of this article but I feel it's important to distinguish between the concepts of "review" and "criticism". Your local newspaper undoubtedly runs reviews of current films and probably has an assortment of book reviews in the Sunday edition. Various websites (such as the one you're reading now) offer similar reviews for games. For the most part, the purpose behind all of these is the same: should you see this movie/read this book/play this game? In short, they're a "buyer's guide"—is it worth your time or money? This further implies that the intended audience are those unfamiliar with the item being reviewed. (Obviously this is not entirely restrictive—many people will read such reviews even though they've already seen the movie, etc.)

True criticism on the other hand attempts to analyze or evaluate an item strictly on its own merits as a work of art. How does The Godfather compare to Goodfellas? Is Ulysses the greatest achievement in modern English literature? What's the impact of Picasso's Guernica? Such criticism is not concerned with whether you, the reader, should experience the work of art. In fact, such criticism is likely lost on anyone who doesn't already have some familiarity with the work in question. Whereas such criticism is available for most artforms, the same cannot be said for games. To date, I have found no one writing about games from this perspective and with this intention. I'd like to think that this will change one day.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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