2019-01-08 - Reviewing Game Reviews

Today we’re reviewing wargame reviews. Very meta, but very important. I can only speak for myself in this context, but it’s important that some body of work exists to set a baseline for wargame reviews.

There are three major rules for wargame reviews:

  1. Be Honest
  2. Go Deeper
  3. Have a clear opinion

That seems like a small bar to cross, but often enough reviews fail to meet these criteria. So, let’s take a look at each rule separately.

Being Honest

I would hope that the most literal interpretation fo this rule is well understood and followed. After all, reviewers are banking on their integrity to sustain readership and credibility. However, that’s not really what I want to talk about here.

Instead, let’s look below the surface of what makes up honesty in wargame reviews. The questions I try to ask myself with each review include:

  • What do I know about the game’s topic from a historical perspective?
  • Did I play this game enough to provide a review?
  • Do I have any bias that I need to consciously work against while considering the topic?

As a result, I am getting myself into the right headspace to write a review of the game and not just vague impressions of it. Too often, wargame reviews are an elaborate look at the components, the designer’s prior work, followed by a rules summary and an opinion. That’s not really a review. It’s a great PREview of a game though.

Reviews are critical works in the sense that they take a discerning look at the game and the ways in which it succeeds or fails.

That means some historical knowledge is required, or a lack of such knowledge should be disclosed. It’s OKAY to admit a gap in knowledge. As a result, the reader gains a perspective into why the reviewer may have liked or disliked a specific mechanic.

Know Thyself…

Playing the game sufficiently is absolutely necessary. It can be transparently obvious to readers, particularly fans of a game, when a reviewer hasn’t given the game enough table time. This is different for every reviewer and for every game, but the reviewer has to be honest with themselves about their comfort publishing a review. For series-based games, I often don’t need to play the game more than a few times to form an opinion! After all, I know the system and can apply a deeper understanding through transferred skills and expertise.

…but I LOVE this designer!

Understanding and reflecting on personal bias is also key to credibility. Nobody wants to give a designer a pass just because of who they are or because their prior games were some of the reviewer’s favorites.

If you had asked me in 2002 who my favorite director was, I would have told you M. Night Shyamalan. After all, the man had just produced three back-to-back-to-back smash hits. I STILL love Signs and the philosophical questions it raises as blunt force as they may be in retrospect. So, when I went to see The Village, I was certain that it would also be a smash hit. It was not, and no amount of me WANTING it to be awesome would make it so.

Reviewers must carry a sense of skepticism into games they paid a lot of money to play! That can be a tall order.

Going Deeper

The second rule for reviewers is that they must go deeper. As I alluded, reviews and previews are separated by their depth of analysis. There are far more previews on the Internet than there are reviews of wargames as a result.

There is unquestionably a place for both! Mislabelling the work, however, creates confusion and can limit credibility.

So, what does going deeper look like?

Inspect what you expect. If a game is trying to tell a story about logistics and maneuver. Then the review should spend the majority of the time focused on those two concepts. It should ask questions about how the game succeeds or fails on those merits.

Finding the central question posed by the designer is absolutely key to a meaningful review.

If you cannot determine what, if anything, the designer was trying to demonstrate with the game…that should be a major red flag! In fact, it should probably constitute a quick post to see if others are struggling with the same question.

Deeper means being able to draw a direct link between the design elements you liked in the game and how it affected the gameplay. Doing a rules overview of innovative movement or chit draw mechanics isn’t enough. It’s translating WHY those mechanics work and HOW players manipulate the game using the mechanics to achieve an outcome.

Often, this means repeated plays. It took me four games of Skies Above the Reich before I understood how to position my fighters to achieve the maximum combat bonuses in each pass at the bombers. The nuance of the rules is sometimes only apparent after these repeated plays. It’s central to writing a critical review that praises or chastises with authority.

Haters Gonna Hate!

It’s okay to criticize a wargame title, and it will be better received, if it goes deep enough. Some gamers will undoubtedly be displeased with negative reviews of games they loved. That’s okay too!

Reviews are, at the end of the day, one person’s opinion about a game. Being outside the consensus with a well reasoned review that goes deeper may actually help build credibility. In fact, you might say that it is the cornerstone of credibility.

Understanding Bias

We all have implicit and explicit bias. Though we rarely buy games we anticipate we won’t like and then review it negatively, the opposite is equally problematic.

Reviewers are, largely, doing reviews as a volunteer service to the broader wargaming community! As a result, the reviews are generally going to be positive. It’s human nature to want to share what we love.

How many conversations have you had with friends or family about shows you “should be watching” on Netflix? Now, how many conversations have you had where those same people tell you about the forgettable or bad shows to avoid? Overwhelmingly, people are recommendation machines! The same is true when reviewing wargames!

The problem is, of course, that our biases create impediments to going deeper. After all, we may take for granted that we love the games from a particular designer and as a result, any missteps are minimized. Further, we might not give that “innovative” new design from a beloved designer the appropriate time to poke holes in its systems.

The result is that designers and publishers are getting echo-chamber feedback about games that they’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars to produce. That doesn’t even get into the years of design and development time. Honest critique that reflects on bias is critical to honest and deep reviews.

Bias threatens, in every way, to undercut our honesty and depth of coverage.

The problem, of course, is that we rarely recognize implicit bias. These are deeply held personal beliefs that are core to who we are. They are insidious because they often are counter to what our declared biases may be! As a result, I’ve developed a few questions I like to ask myself prior to writing a review.

Questions to help uncover bias

  1. If I were to pick up and play a game right now, what would it be?
    • If the game is like this one, or is a relative (series, designer, publisher, topic, etc.) then I need to be wary of bias.
  2. Is the game I’m reviewing one that I would consider an automatic pre-order without even seeing the rules?
    • This demonstrates a lack of healthy skepticism and should be taken into account, particularly if the game was “pricey.”
  3. How comfortable am I with the designer of this game and did I buy it because of WHO the designer was and not WHAT the game was about?
    • In polls, designer often features prominently into the decision to buy a game. As a result, designer bias should be thoughtfully analyzed during the review process.
  4. How many games from this series, by this designer, or publisher are in my top 5 wargames?
    • People will naturally show an affinity for what makes them comfortable. The closer the game is to the wargaming equivalent of “comfort food” the more aware of potential bias the reviewer must be!
  5. When the last time I held an unpopular belief about this publisher, designer, topic, or style of game?
    • If you’re frequently arguing or discussing from the popular position, it may be a sign of potential bias.

What do READERS want from reviewers?

Ultimately, it’s the consumers of reviews that set the tone of what they want to see! I can only speak from my experience reviewing and what I want to see. The challenge, of course, is that wargames are often labors of love that would require thousands of hours to truly appreciate the same way their designers do!

Instead, reviewers have short timelines and maybe 2,000 words to condense their experiences. This is both a blessing and a curse, but bringing a framework to the review process can help ensure the review is meaningful.

Share what YOU love about reviews or wish more reviews did in the comments below!

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