Seems like a stupid question…but an interesting one that can help us decide when it’s worth our time (or money) to play. One tool that we often use to answer the question ‘why’ when we are looking to purchase a game, is a board game review. My reason for writing this is to analyze game reviews, why they exist, and what makes them useful to readers?
Most reviews discuss games in terms of ‘building blocks’ that make up the game. This would normally include – theme, components, mechanisms, ‘fun’, strategy, luck, etc. These CAN be useful measurements but in my experience are not useful in determining, as a reader, if a game will be one that I – and others I play with – will enjoy.
All of these building blocks are not-so-much ‘pieces of a puzzle’, but rather ‘ingredients in a recipe’. That is, they all influence each other and not one of them can be taken out without impacting the rest of it. Flour tastes horrible on it’s own but does that mean we should dismiss it as an ingredient? That horrible tasting flour is one of the main ingredients in a delicious chocolate chip cookie…
In a game, if the components are objectively great on their own, that may have no bearing (or a lot of bearing) on whether it impacts my experience. For this reason, it seems almost unnecessary to talk about the components on their own but rather as a part of how the game uses them. Objectively ‘bad’ components may sometimes be a better option in a game because they communicate more clearly what you need to know. Or it could simply be that it keeps the price of the game down to something you can afford to even purchase and/or play (or if it had much nicer components the game may not be ‘worth’ buying).
A better way to analyze a game is boiling it down to the core reason that keeps you coming back to it. Why do I like to play a particular game? What makes it interesting or fun? Who else also enjoys it? Considering this question, I have developed 5 categories that I think cover most of reasons why someone might play a particular game:
The 5 Categories of Why
APPEAL – can you get people to play with you? Is the game too long? Is the game too short? You may want to play it all the time but you can’t find people to play it with you. This category is less important if you have a consistent gaming group or you mainly play solo.
VARIABILITY – How different does it feel every time you play it? Does it offer something new each time? This can include the initial setup of a game or the game play itself.
AGENCY – Does the game offer interesting decisions to the players that can impact the game to a significant degree? Luck can be present (and is sometimes a great addition) but should not be a determining factor in who wins or loses. You will likely lose interest in a game that doesn’t offer interesting decisions. If you feel like the ‘game is playing you’ then why should you play? If every action in the game is determined by the roll of a die or the draw of a card, then there is no reason for you to waste your time.
ESCAPISM – how much can you immerse yourself in the game. This includes theme, mechanisms, and some level of complexity. There has to be enough ‘meat on the bones’ of the game to hold your attention and not get distracted. The artwork can also impact this.
SPECTACLE – How often does something happen that makes everybody experience a collective emotion (joy, awe, horror, etc)? This could be simply laughing or it could be opportunities for the players to do something amazing that other players react to. These moments could also be more subtle where you don’t notice them as much. We are all human, and [most of us] like to experience emotions (not negative ones – but unfortunately you can’t have the good without the bad :/).
Bringing it all together
I think these categories do a good job of breaking down why we like the games we do. Most importantly, we can apply this to newer games – that we may have only played once or twice – to see whether it may be something that we’ll be playing well into the future.
It should also be noted that the game is only half of the equation. The other half of the equation is not just you, but all of the people who happen to be playing with you. Gaming comes down to the ‘experience’ of each session when you sit down to play or even after the game ends which is influenced by the people you play with just as much as the game itself. Ultimately, a review can only do so much in helping you decide if it’s right for you – you won’t know for sure until you play it yourself.
In short, for the overall format of my reviews, I am planning to use the following structure:
- Introduction – introduce the game and the basic information about it including designer, publisher, player count, and setting/theme, etc
- What does the game have to offer? – evaluate the game in each of the 5 categories above based on my own experience with it.
- My thoughts? – based on the previous section, what do I think of the game as a whole? Is it worth the price to pay for it?
- Recommendation – Which of the 6 ‘gamer types’ will like or dislike the game? Considering yourself and those you may be playing with, who will want to play? Will you be able to get it to the table?
With these categories and structure, I am hoping that my reviews can maximize how much information readers can gain on the front end before purchasing a game to determine if it is right for them and those they play with.