The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - August, 2003

Walter Ries: Regarding Mr. Markley's article on a game rating system, he makes the same fatal error many people do when talking about rating games. He created several different scales with numbers, and then just because they are numbers, he feels he needs to add them up. The overall totals he created for the games are not that meaningful. We could take the totals, divide by 12, and get back to the 5-star rating which he dreads so much.

It reminds me of the old joke:

Welcome to the Town of Mathopolis
Founded 1923
Population 25000
Elevation 3600
Total 30523

In Mr. Markley's system, a heavy game with a poor system could score the same as a light game with a great system. A quality abstract game could score the same as a poor-quality themed game. Yet which is the better game? You cannot create a sum-total rating based upon preferences. Let's keep separate scales that people can actually use to make informed decisions. Of course, the quest to find a better and more informative scale is ever-ongoing (Mr. Markley has some good ideas for scales). But to try to get to a single number to represent a game's net worth is the same quandary we have with movie reviews. The reviews only mean something when the movie-goer has the same ideals of quality that the reviewer does. And those ideals of quality only come out in the text of the review itself. The Games Journal has had a few good articles on game rating that try to inform without trying to sum up to an overall score. For those who have not read them, I'd recommend reading the following articles:

The Science Of Subjectivity

Game Alignment

Alfredo Lorente: I find amusing the amount of electronic ink devoted to the issue of game ratings. As a semi-professional writer with reviews published in Games Unplugged, The Gaming Herald, Scrye, and the upcoming Undefeated, the reviewer has to follow the rating guidelines provided by the magazine—be they one to five, A+ to F, stars, or the cosine of a square root. If you don't like the scale a publication uses, simply stop writing for them.

Even the topic of how often a game has to be played before a reviewer can speak forcefully on a game is a big waste of time. Let me let your readers in on a little secret—it depends. There are games that you can tell will get better as you play them more, and you can tell those right away. There are games that you can tell needed more playtesting, and you can tell those right away too. Why bother playing a bad game five, eight, or twelve times if after one game you can tell the card distribution is all wrong, there are few choices to be made on a turn, or the mechanics make for an interaction-less game?

The goal of a rating system is to make the reader stop and read the review. The goal of some of these rating systems is to do away with actual reviews—take a peek at the numbers and figure out the game. That is closer to a substitute language, something akin to C++ or Java, than a rating system.

Dan Becker: I congratulate The Games Journal on the article The Finer Points of Teaching Rules. I love teaching game rules, and I tend to follow the incremental approach as well, starting with objectives and overviews and progressing to details and mechanics. I can't tell you how many times I've heard teachers immediately start covering special situations and strategies long before the newbies have learned the basics. Another point to consider is that students often learn by different methods. Some people learn best aurally, so verbal instruction might be most effective. Others may learn best visually, so showing a victory point chart or having a "cheat sheet" summary might be best for them. Others learn by experience, so having a quick practice round might be best. The point is to find what works best for your students and try to tailor the learning experience to them.

Tom McClelland: I enjoyed Mario's article about explaining rules to new players. I was pleased to recognize some techniques that I use but less pleased to recognize that on occasion I have been "Frank", the game killer. Oh well, self-recognition is the first step to improvement.

I like using the "trial round". Before you begin you say, "There was a lot to take in there, I suggest that we play for a couple of rounds (or whatever the mechanism is), then we can restart if anyone wants to." Very often a lot becomes clear once people start playing and its more fun if they realize some of their tactical errors themselves than having everything pointed out to them.

The "fair warning" technique should be used with care because fair warning and groupthink may be close allies; "Always buy the hospice if you can, everyone knows it is the best building!" is an example of this kind of thing. I guess what I am saying here is that you should be prepared to learn from your students. On the other hand I agree that there is a clear duty to point out gross error on the part of a newbie as Mario suggests.

Scott Russell: While (except for chess tournaments years ago) I've not played for money in the fashion described by Dave Shapiro [Gotta Buck?], some groups have played for cash in a different manner.

If one divides all values in a Monopoly game by 100 so that Boardwalk is $4, you can play the whole game with real cash. (Some of us might be able to play without the division, but that's too rich for me.) Each player brings $20, puts $5 in the bank and starts with the other $15. With five the winner walks away with $100. I've only played this with friends and we used the honor system to prevent outside deals. I.E., give me $10 outside the game and I'll give you the rest of my property.

Another set of friends and I used to play Daytona 500 with real cash. In this case $3 was the entry fee as starting capital, I think. If people bid too low on the cars, we kicked in another buck to keep the bank solvent. In this case everyone walked away with whatever they had and the winner got the rest of the bank.

Playing with real dollars and coins on the table adds a new dimension to these games and, I suspect, others could also benefit from this treatment.

Jack Kovach: Many years ago, while in the USAF, we would play Liars Dice using one leather cup containing five dice that would be passed around the table. The first player would look under the cup and announce what he had rolled (or what he wanted people to think he had rolled. The cup would then be passed to the next player who had the option of lifting the cup to show that he didn't believe the other's claim or peek under it and declare a better hand and pass it on, etc. I can't remember the rules, etc. Can you enlighten me?

GGA - There's not much more to this version of Liars Dice (not to be confused with the Richard Borg/Perudo game of the same name) but formal rules can be seen at the following page:

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