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Critical Standards Critical Standards Hot

acidEver seen The Dead Poets Society? I bet most of you have. If not you should check it out sometime - it’s quite an emotionally manipulative film but it’s that rare thing: a really rather good emotionally manipulative film. But this shouldn’t concern us. What I want to highlight is that the film begins and ends with scenes based around an essay from an English Literature textbook. The essay suggests that if one were to draw a graph and make one axis “perfection” and the other “importance”, plotting the appropriate points for a given poem would yield an overall measure of its importance. The film ridicules this notion but it’s quite clear what the essay author was driving at: he was looking for some sort of scientific, quantifiable way of measuring artistic merit.

That even an artist should go seeking something like this is no surprise. Personally I have a very mixed relationship with modern art. It tends to elicit an extreme reaction from me one way or the other: most of it I really, really hate but sometimes I’ll come across a piece that just blows me away. For years I’ve been searching for some measure, some means, some sort of trend in the stuff I like that I can use to make an argument as to what makes good modern art good and allows me to dismiss the stuff I hate as being rubbish with impunity. But, frustratingly, I can’t find one. Even if, like me, you prefer classical art you must have wondered at some point whether or not the indefinable quality that makes a Michelangelo portrait a thing of astonishing beauty compared with the skilfully executed yet humdrum everyday portraiture of the Renaissance is something that could be distilled, bottled or otherwise isolated. But for the life of me I can’t see why one is genuis and the other is tedious. I just know that they are the way they are. It’s natural to want to have some yardstick by which to measure quality. Without one, criticism can be regarded as nothing more than a series of subjective fads, really no better than sticking your finger in the wind to gauge the weather: anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.

After about three years now of writing regular articles about board games, I find myself in a similar position when it comes to game criticism. I’ve looked, long and hard, for things about the design or the mechanics that unite favourite games, be they personal or popular favourites. But I’ve done better at coming up with things that you shouldn’t do: things that seem to unite weak games, such as meaningless design goals favouring money or play time rather than robust ones concerning theme or mechanics. The nearest I’ve come to finding a unifying thread was what I discussed in my last column about building on the shoulders of previous titles and making sure you add something better. And while I continue to support that argument, it’s hardly scientific.

And this is a problem, for two particular reasons. The obvious one is that as games become increasingly expensive in the aftermath of the global recession it becomes increasingly important for us, the consumer, to be able to make solid and informed choices about what we’re going to buy now that our gaming expenditure has been effectively squeezed. We need to make sure we buy games that we’re going to enjoy and that are going to see good table time to make sure we get a return on our investment. And obviously, since we can’t all have the luxury of trying out every game that we’ve ever considered buying, reading game reviews and informed criticism from people that have played them is a vital tool in our armoury. But if it’s finger-in-wind time when it comes to personal taste, who on earth can we trust?

The less obvious problem is that taste in games seems to be a divisive factor in board gaming more than almost any other corner of hobby gaming generally - perhaps even more than hobbies in general. If, like me, you enjoy video games then obviously you’ll have some favourite genres of game to play. Personally I like FPS and sports games best, and I don’t usually like platform games very much. But if I were to go to one of the many sites that collate game review scores and pick the top few platformers for my console I know for a fact - because I’ve done it - that I can buy with confidence and get a game I’m going to enjoy. Because people who like video games generally, it seems, like a good video game no matter what genre they favour: their preferences come in to play when filling in the gaps with slightly weaker games. There’s generally a solid agreement that the best games are, well, the best games, no matter what particularly you like to play. You can see a similar pattern in RPG’s and other areas of the hobby. But in board games, one man’s meat is very much another man’s poison. If you look at a list of the ten highest-rated video games for my Xbox, I’d agree that nearly all ten deserve to be there, or close. I’ve played most of the supposed ten best board games in the world, and I think perhaps just two of them deserve their prestige.

This great divide in personal taste amongst board gamers makes it all the more important that we can find some sort of standard against which we can judge and measure games. Yet it remains frustratingly elusive. And unfortunately that’s about the best we can hope for. Reviews, impartial or otherwise, can’t offer an awful lot of help. Advertising is obviously biased. Word of mouth and heresay through friends or through the internet isn’t at all reliable, especially considering how excited we all tend to get for the first couple of plays of a brand new game. It rather looks as though games have a bit more common with fine art than perhaps we thought after all.

But wait. Isn’t that a bit of a strange conclusion to have to draw, considering that most of us, including me, would readily admit that game design is built on mathematical fundamentals? Even highly random games have a rules framework and a probability curve. If we’re analysing something which is basically a maths exercise then surely there’s something we can latch on to to start to draw up an agreed and objective standard by which to judge things? The trouble is that as I’ve been arguing all along, the current state of affairs rather suggests that we can’t. After all, if this many hyper-intelligent geeks have had this long to look at the situation and have come up with zero answers, what hope is there of a late breakthrough now?

So we’re left in the exceptionally strange position of being involved in a scientifically-backed hobby without any sort of objective analysis. In fact I think that it’s precisely this odd no-man’s-land which makes games exciting and interesting. The maths is all very well but games like Ricochet Robot which are based on little except maths don’t half get dull quickly. What keeps a game exciting and interesting is all the non-mathematical stuff: the chrome, the excitement of the unknown and above all the human opponent(s) you’re playing the game with. Of course I’ve been arguing along these lines for years, but what I find interesting in this current article is the angle that the lack of agreed standards by which to judge games rather lends weight to this particular argument: if the game was all about the maths, surely something approximating an agreed standard would have emerged by now?

In fact I’m being a little unfair here because such a standard does exist, although it’s not widely recognised as such. I’m talking again about that old “meaningful choice” chestnut. Well, I tried to put a lie to that in a previous article but here’s another stick to beat that particular argument with: the fact is that whilst meaningful choice is an important standard for many gamers it doesn’t guarantee a solid game. Age of Conan, for example has bags of meaningful choice but hasn’t been widely celebrated as a game. Instead it was derided (unfairly in my opinion) for being unthematic and (rather more fairly) for being too slow and undramatic. In other words it lacked exactly those sorts of intangible qualities like chrome and excitement that I alluded to earlier. It’s precisely those sorts of non-quantifiable qualities that set games apart from the crowd, and since they’re non-quantifiable well, you can’t quantify them. There is no agreed standard. What is it that separates games like Puerto Rico and Agricola from worker-placement clone #1134? Not just slicker mechanics, to be sure, but a certain something that you can’t quite put your finger on.

So with regards to reviewing games it just looks as though we’re going to have to fall back on the same selection techniques that we already use when buying other products of intangible quality such as books and music. Reviews and popular opinion help but at the bottom line it’ll be one sentence, maybe even just one word, that swings us one way or the other and helps us decide which we’re going to buy and which stay on the wish-list. The trouble is of course that games are more expensive and, it seems, becoming more expensive by the minute. Not much we can do about that except budget more carefully, buy less games and perhaps read a few extra reviews before we buy. But there is one nice thing about making choices based on intangible criteria - instead of weighing and checking and balancing and making a decision based on a sound statistical argument, it means we’re making choices out of our own free will, like the responsible adults that we are and that, too often, overly-scripted and mathematically prescribed games stop us being when we’re at the gaming table.


Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.

Click here for more board game articles by Matt.

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Comments (17)
  • avatarShellhead

    Good analogy, between art and board games. Music would be another good comparison. You can measure the pitch and duration of a note, or series of notes, and define them with mathematical precision. But there is no sure-fire formula for an enjoyable song, and many listeners have divided themselves according to various genres.

  • avatarsgosaric

    I don't find your problem a real problem, but then again I'm a critic/theoretician/artist in contemporary performing arts field (if you're from Britain, you might know or have heard of Forced entertainment. ) and one of the main issue we deal there and I'm personally very interested in is the way each contemporary performance can forge a different relation to its audience. And we're not talking necessary about interactive performances, but even by just being spectator the performance can put onto you a great deal of autonomy in sense of making you an active reader who has to create the meaning of the performance in his/her head. But of course - you can have many, many associations and whatnot, but although such performance gives you autonomy of thought it still frames a field of what it expects from you to come up with on your own. In a sense it's a dialogue between the expectations of the performance of what it wants from its "ideal spectator" and each and every spectator, his or her preferences, expectations, etc. This terms are valid also in "normal"- classical theatre, when you go to see a stand-up you're not putting it up to the same merit as you would a Shakespeare or as you would a "device theatre" (a term from Britain describing theatre where the text is written through the course of making a performance and does not exist beforehand).

    Aside for enjoying my boardgames as social events I'm theoretically intrigued in terms of how do they deal with their "audience" which is by default an active audience (as in contemporary theatre, as opposed to classic theatre and mainstream films where you're just a passive recipient). In short, I'd like to think of games as (material) protocols. No to go to boardgamers and reviews. If boardgames are a medium which facilitates a specific social interaction specific gamers have preferences towards which kind of interaction or non-interaction sigh) they prefer. I enjoy contemporary theatre and contemporary dance, because I go there to think about art, society and a good performance should open a field of thought (basically I'll be sitting there analysing what I see for an hour or how much the whole thing lasts), however I know that most people are scared by this as they are not accustomed to the disciple of spectatorship so to say. And I get bored in the classical theatre as I understand it's protocols in 15 minutes and am usually left with watching some emotional outbursts of not-so-good actors. But some people prefer it that way (or don't know any better :P ). I put this comparison because it's not just a different genre (comedy/sci-fi/fantasy) a a whole different way each artistic paradigm defines the role of the spectator. You have classical art (narrative), modern art (enjoyment in pure visuals, think Pollock, Rothko. And enjoyment in emotion - expressionism) and contemporary art where each author and each piece can forge a specific one-of-kind relationship to the audience (including combination of modernistic, narrative and expressive practices). When I got to write a dance/theatre review I am always looking within a genre, so I would merit each performance as opposed to similar works and within it's paradigm. So in terms of games you would say make a different assessment when you would review an processual euro or where you would review a German family boardgame, or negation game, or ameritrash, etc - and you could say, this is original or derivative or clumsy within it's genre.

    However that's not exactly how I evaluate performances and how I look at the games. I have a strong (ethical) belief that the audience should be active, (partly) autonomous and therefore in more equal relationship to the authors. Similarly I like my games to offer an experience - either in terms of immersion or interactivity. I like freedom as a spectator and as a gamer. So aside of measuring each performance (or boardgame) within its field I would also analyse how open or closed it is, how much autonomy a spectator (or a gamer) has.

    So to sum it up. In boardgame reviews I would like to see:
    - In which genre does the game "belong" and how does it compare to similar games (original, innovative, derivative, interesting but flawed, ...). In this category I would also put Barnes's rules transparency and similar more objective criteria(the game can have a good theme, but it's just not visible beneath the rules, the game is fine but has terrible downtime,... )
    - What kind of player activity does it promote - what kind of gamer mentality suits this game the best? Settlers is perfect for people who like games low on rules and conflict, high on interactivity - social and family gamers. However it's no so good for people, who would like to build their own empire on their own, preferably not even looking at co-gamers, and who complain about the randomness of dice and the dreaded mechanic of trading which is just so oh unfair.
    - as subcategory of the latter: How much freedom does the game allow (which is tied to replayability, open games tend to be more replayable) or how much and in which way does it restrict it.

    As we're talking about analysing inter-personal protocols, there can on one hand be no objective reviews (this is indisputably a good or a bad game), but subjective reviews are also not helping anybody. However you can have reviews which analyse the way each game deals with players, you can analyse it's protocols and why are they there: what the designer(s) wanted to achieve with protocols (immersion in theme, economic simulation, short playing time...) and evaluate whether they actually succeeded (transparency).

    But yeah, review is still just a review. I think the value of reviews lies the most in the telling you what is better to avoid altogether even if you like this sort of stuff. ;D Review can only point you to further investigation on titles that might be of interest to you if you're interested in this sort of stuff.

  • avatarmikoyan

    I'm an engineer and as much as I would like a numerical value for why I like something over another, when it comes to art I really can't do that. My likes depend on too many variables to accurately portray with some sort of numerical value.

  • avatarJur

    All this enumerating and 'objective standards' is based on the presumption that people make rational choices. They don't.

    So the fact that you think a mechanism is just fine in Yspahan, but sucks in Caylus, may have something to do with the actual game, but might just as well be a result of group think, your monthly period or the group you're playing with.

    Your reaction to the price of a game may have something to do with the amount of plastic included and the quality of the stock, or even the amount of fun the game will give (or you hope it will give), but it might just as well result from arbitrary price limits ($60$80$100), socialisation and the prices you have come to expect of games.

    A well written review, by someone you like/trust will have a different result from a cripple rundown of the rules, even for the same game. Just take Barnes review of Android.

  • avatarWalterman

    Jur, Barnes's review of Android isn't a good example. He admitted in his review that he hadn't played different crimes, just the learning one. Having played multiple scenarios I would do my best not to play the basic one again, and any review based solely on it can't be a complete review.

  • avatarJur

    The point is not whether it was a 'complete' review, whatever that may be (I didn't have to play the full Heads of State to know that it sucks). The point is that even despite his overall negative assessment, it still tempted a lot of people to buy it. He could have said: pretentious, overdesigned crap; he said: the game that almost was.

  • avatarWalterman

    Jur, people don't need to play a full game to form an opinion, but surely a review should be more than just an opinion. A review that has no opinion is fairly useless, but a review that is only opinion is also less than ideal.

    I wasn't tempted by Barnes's review because I had already played Android when he wrote it. So I don't have your perspective on the review. It read like yet another critic on the internet writing a negative review of a game they hadn't played sufficiently to review.

    I still see that review like a review of Go which said it was a fairly dry abstract, but might have some depth or replayability if played more than twice.

    I don't think Barnes is the only reviewer to do this. The internet seems to create a demand for instant reviews. But boardgames with depth aren't easy to review after a few plays. Most internet reviews are fine if you are just looking for a game to play 4 or 5 times then pitch, but I value replayablility in game design.

    Maybe I am looking in the wrong places for game reviews or should look at reprints of older games that have stood the "test of time". Games like Aquire, Settlers, or even Successors 3rd edition.

  • avatarJur

    Walter, I'm sorry, but I don't seem to get my point across, even if you are confirming it all the time.

  • avatarStephen Avery

    Quote:
    I'm an engineer and as much as I would like a numerical value for why I like something over another, when it comes to art I really can't do that. My likes depend on too many variables to accurately portray with some sort of numerical value.

    I am a harbinger of chaos and worshiper of Slanesh, I would prefer a random word or group of syllables over a numerical rating or a subjective assessment.

    Android - phlegmatic
    Battlestations- vermillion
    Puerto Rico- Chinchilla
    Racer Knights of Falconus- Awesome

    Steve"Chaosbringer"Avery

  • avatarShellhead

    Liar! Android is more melancholic than phlegmatic.

    I do agree that Battlestations is quite vermillion.

  • avatarWalterman

    Jur, I think that your larger point wasn't about Barnes's review of Android. You just one wrote one sentence about Barnes and Android in your original post. Sorry if my frustration over that review derailed your point.

    I just thought another review would have better illustrated your point, but it would be hard to find a review that didn't frustrate anyone.

  • avatarmjl1783

    I'm not sure I get it, Matt. "One man's meat is another's poison" is just as true of every other creative medium. If the lion's share of criticism the film, music, or art criticism that everyone read was done by armchair critics with no formal training in the medium, you'd probably see a lot more divergent opinions there as well.

    It's true there's a much broader concensus out there as to what makes a good video game, but a good deal of what's universally considered the makings of a bad game goes to functionality. Nobody, nobody will argue that unresponsive controls are a good thing to have in a game, that the UI should be so clunky that you have to navigate 17 different menus just to save your game, that the framerate should drop to 15 FPS every time there are more than four units on the screen, or that avoiding some glitch where you can get stuck in walls is part of the fun.

    As long as a video game just works the way it's supposed to, it's pretty much guaranteed to score 5-7 out of 10 with most critics. So from there, yeah, it's a little easier to tell the games that work OK but aren't a whole lot of fun from the ones that are really impressive.

  • avatarMattDP

    @sgosaric

    Fascinating stuff. I'd love to discuss this some more, but this isn't the place for it - pm me if you want to carry on tallking about the arts.

    @mjl

    That's a fair point about technical standards, but otherwise I'm not sure what you're saying holds up. I'm not talking about 'the best of the rest' in terms of videogames, just the that the top games in each and every genre enjoy a wide consensus of favourable opinion. Most videogamers whov've played Halo, for example, thought it was great. That's simply not true of board games - otherwise we'd all be saying that Agricola and Puerto Rico are great, even if all other worker placement games are crap.

  • avatarNotahandle

    It used to be true of board games, and outside of TOS it still is. My impression is, that the players I meet who will only try Euros, tend to read reviews from just that site. Let's face it, TOS has always been pro-Euro, anti-other styles, and has been censoring their forums for many years.

  • avatarPhirax

    Matt,

    I applaud your effort to debunk one of the sacred cows of gaming, but in the end I think your analysis comes up a bit short. I hope you find this criticism useful, as it is offered with respect for the effort you put into your blog.

    You begin by describing how important "meaningful choice" is to good game design and then you offer a useful definition for the term by suggesting that it is comprised of, "some sizeable element of meaningful control by which the choices a player makes impact directly on his chances of winning the game." You then use three games as examples of how meaningful choice has no bearing in the quality of the design, finally coming to the conclusion that meaningful choice is in fact overrated.

    My criticism is based on your analysis of the three games that you use as examples. In Crazy Chefs, I believe it is precisely the meaningful choices that make the game so much fun for you and your daughter as compared to the choice-less caterpillar game. With Dune, you expected a "non-random" game to be rife with meaningful choices, and when it failed to deliver you blamed the promise of meaningful choice instead of the overabundance of choice, which as the title of your essay suggests, is the real culprit of why the game failed for you. Finally, you blame meaningful choice for not being able to save a fundamentally flawed game design in your Talisman example.

    In your Crazy Chefs example, you claim there is "[no] choice which is meaningful in any way, shape or form... we get to choose which tile to flip and even though the game is entirely random and the choice meaningless the act of making it alone involves us both in the game." The choices of which tiles to turn over that you make during the game are not random or meaningless. They are decisions based on information revealed during previous turns of the game, and to use your own definition, they create "some sizeable element of meaningful control by which the choices a player makes impact directly on his chances of winning the game." If you don't believe this, then try this experiment next time you play the game. Instead of laying the tiles on the playing surface, place them in a bag to draw from. In this version of the game, you are presented with the meaningless choice of whether to draw the first tile that your hand comes into contact with as it enters the bag, or whether to root down farther into the bag to select one of the bottom tiles. If the mere act of revealing tiles was the key to why the game is so enjoyable for your family - "Ooh, I picked a carrot!" - then you will find this version to be the same as the one you've been playing. But of course it won't be the same. You have denuded the game of the memory element that drives the meaningful choices which delivers so much enjoyment for your family. You have in essence created the caterpillar game. In the games of Crazy Chef that you have played with your daughter, you have seen the power of meaningful choice whenever she turned over a tile whose match was revealed two turns earlier somewhere on the board. As she pauses and suggests that she might know which tile to turn over to complete the set, it is the sense of individual accomplishment based on information stored in her memory, delivered through decisions with meaningful consequences that makes the game her favorite in the world. (Well, that and the fact that everyone loves games about food production. Agricola, anyone?)

    Your Dune example seems to reveal a failure of expectation. Dune is revered as a paradigm of dice-less game play, by which proponents mean to suggest that there are lots and lots of wonderful choices. Almost unlimited choices. And since there are so many choices, and so few random elements, the choices must be meaningful, right? The problem with Dune, or at least your experience with the game, was that the meaningfulness of the choices was diluted by the "sheer amount of hidden information in the game" which you found particularly frustrating. You mention, "There was no randomness in the mechanics but the paranoia-inducing manner in which the game feeds different tidbits of information about the game-state to individual players but allows no-one to know the whole story meant that none of the decisions I was making weren’t as meaningful as I’d hoped. I was guessing, operating in the dark." You were guessing. You were operating in the dark. That is the opposite of meaningful choice. You made the mistake of thinking that quantity would naturally beget quality. Dune offered you plenty of choices, but when you are pulling them blindly out of a bag like in my Crazy Chef variant above, the choices lost their meaning and the game design suffered accordingly.

    I saved your Talisman example for last because I'm not really familiar with those games, though I am familiar with the reactions that you described against that sort of game design. It seems from your description that Talisman is fundamentally flawed from a game design perspective. The reason you were willing to play it is that it tells a good story and you were willing to passively go along for the ride to see how the story played itself out. There is an old adage in cooking that the finished dish can never rise above the quality of the ingredients that you start with. If there were attempts to "fix" Talisman by adding more meaningful choices, it seems that those efforts would be doomed to fail as the narrative was the only redeeming ingredient of the original design. If the remakes were not able to replicate the quality of the original narrative, then the baby would have been thrown out while they tried to fix the fundamentally flawed bath water. And that is always a recipe for disaster. It is not, however, a valid argument against the idea that meaningful play is central to good modern game design. It won't turn gristle into filet mignon, but if your primary design is of good quality, a light seasoning of meaningful choice is almost always a welcome improvement.

    Okay, I must be getting hungry. I agree with you that meaningful choice is used subjectively by many people to mean "the kind of choices that I like to make" but that is simply because different people like different types of games, and sometimes they refuse to accept that there can be choices that are meaningful to others that they don't find compelling.

    Phirax

  • avatarubarose
    Quote:
    different people like different types of games, and sometimes they refuse to accept that there can be choices that are meaningful to others that they don't find compelling.

    That's brilliant. From now on I'm going to tell people, "I know that the choice between stone or wood is meaningful, but it just isn't as compelling to me as choosing between spraying the Zombies with a fire extinguisher, wacking them with an axe, or running the hell away."

  • avatarMattDP

    @Phirax

    Thanks for your comments - criticism is always welcome. Perhaps inevitably I agree with some of what you've said, but not most of it.

    With regards to Crazy Chefs, odd as it may seem, I think you're wrong. Whilst it's true that remembering the position of a randomly-grabbed tile is marginally more "meaningful" that simply grabbing a random tile the margin is so slim as to be non-existent. And in fact I think your bag variant would be just as much fun as the base game. Witness those other children's titles such as "go away monster" which in fact work in exactly the manner you've described, and which remain popular and fun to play. Drawing blind is still making a choice, and that choice makes all the difference in terms of the players' feeling involved.

    With Dune I think you're on firmer ground, but the basic point still stands: adding meaningful choice to a game does not necessarily make it good.

    I don't accept your argument about Talisman at all. If you start with a game which offers lots of fun narrative, then surely adding another fun element to it ought to make it *better*. To continue your cooking analogy it isn't a matter of the quality of the ingredients in this case, but the number. Yet meaningful choice plus narrative games aren't automatically better than the more random games they're supposed to supplant.

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