In which I consider the lot of the board game reviewer, and what a lot it is!
A confluence of recent postings scattered across the internet (board gaming division) prompted me to think again about the art (or otherwise) of the board game reviewer. Bruno Faidutti posted an editorial speculating whether, since literary criticism is seen as a legitimate literary form in its own right, could the same be said of board game reviews? Bruno named a single exemplar: that of Matt Drake, who posts his self-identified flames both on his own website and on BoardGameGeek (of which more later).
Matt’s writing is interesting (always a good start!) for its knowlingly quirky style and occasionally caustic sarcasm, and Bruno was perhaps suggesting we needed more of the same. (Well, I think he was; it’s possible this was an example of Gallic sarcasm at its most deadpan and Bruno was actually throwing Matt a trans-Atlantic slap-down.)
Anyway, very recently both Matt, in a post on Drake’s Flames, and W. Eric Martin, in an editorial on BoardgameNews, have tackled the business of being board game reviewers with two very different takes on the process, and I urge you to follow the links in this paragraph and go read them right away!
You can’t please everybody all the time
Let me say first, that I have the utmost respect for anyone who commits their own intellectual and emotional capital to creating and publishing anything. Anything at all. And within the board game community there are many individuals doing precisely that while at the same time committing their own financial security, and that of their loved ones and families. Good luck to them, I say!
And that sentiment applies just as much to the game designers and publishers as it does to the commentators, which only makes the thorny issue of board game reviews even thornier. Some people — and Matt mentions just one devilishly entertaining example (skip down to here and then read on) — get terribly exercised about them, which I would say is, on balance, probably a good thing, since it tells us the community is populated with passionate and extraordinary people. And better that than the opposite. As someone smart once observed:
‘I may disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.’
Now, I do not wish to paint myself as either a selfless libertarian or an agent provocateur, and so I would suggest that a moderate reading of Voltaire’s slightly histrionic proclamation is this: We’d all be better off most of the time, if we considered most of what other people said as — to borrow one of the headings in Eric’s post — nothing personal.
Drake and his flamin’ flames of fire
To be useful reviews need, of course, to present some of the facts about a game, but they also need to present an actual opinion, positive or negative; and this is exactly what Eric and Matt do, albeit with markedly different language! Eric writes honestly and even-handedly about the games he reviews, looking from his own particular viewpoint at the success or failure of the mechanisms and gameplay. Matt’s style is — how shall I put this? — a little different, but it is no less personal.
Now for me, as a Brit, sarcasm is bred in the bone. The lowest form of wit, you say? Hardly. But if you are one of those people who don’t quite get sarcasm, then perhaps you would indeed be happier if you stayed away from Matt’s writings (and maybe, on occasion, mine) but I’d much rather you didn’t.
And I trust that Matt never gives up his ‘no surrender, no retreat’ policy. To be effective, criticism, like comedy, has to be fearless. It mustn’t be wrapped in craven caveats such as ‘Only joking!’ or faux ‘<sarcasm>’ tags. That would simply be the worst of all possible worlds.
The last word
As usual, I find myself reminded of poetry. It’s a character flaw. But first I shall point out that all this nonsense, all this light-hearted banter, bristling back and forth, and moderate ego bruising, is all in the service of board games. That’s right people! We’re not discussing world peace, the dismantlement of scientific endeavour by zealots seeking to deny the progress of reason since the Enlightenment, or even something as monumentally important as the minutiae of the new iPhone. It’s all just about the games! Here’s the poetry:
So leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub couch’d
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee!
And as for Matt? Well, more power to him and his flamin’ elbow.