June 18, 2012

An Armature for Critique

Since writing this article (originally posted July 18, 2012) I've since written a few longer reviews of my own over at BGG, and we've also held the second Voice of Experience contest, again making the call for more thoughtful and critical reviews.  I continue to stand-by my thinking described in this post - although a Ludology GameTek podcast on the topic of Criticism did provide another frame of reference.  Geoff made a distinction between a "Review," which is oriented more towards directing potential buyers towards a buy / no-buy decision, and "Critical Analysis," which takes a more scholarly approach to discussing a game in-depth irrespective of any purchasing considerations.  It's a worthwhile distinction to keep in mind - and the post below is perhaps providing more of a framework for Critical Analysis (as is Voice of Experience) than Reviews.  Although I'd be happy to see more critical thought brought into all reviews as well! (June, 24, 2014)

I was fortunate to be asked to participate on the Voice of Experience (VoE) Review Contest by none other than Martin G (who organized the whole shindig). The VoE contest, among other things, generated some excellent reviews and follow up discussion, in keeping with the Cult of the Critical’s goals to raise the bar on game critique and discussion.

The VoE contest also provided me with a lot of reflection time. I’ve been wanting to write more reviews of my own, as the only official review I’ve written thus far is my tongue-in-cheek review of Antke and perhaps my designers “preview” of Hegemonic’s Decision Space. In addition to those deviations, I have been thinking a lot over the past year how I would want to write reviews, what the focus would be on, what elements would be discussed, etc. This blog post will present a coalescing of many of these thoughts.

One for all and all for one?

I’m going to state, as a basic hypothesis, that any particular review isn’t going to be useful or appealing to every person who sits down to read it. This of course shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Be it the style, the depth of the coverage, or most importantly the review’s perspectives and biases, different types of reviews are going to click with different people. The question is whether there can be a happy middle ground, where the review is insightful on a basic level for most of the readers while providing a deeper backbone of critical analysis as well.

Review approaches + elements

The VoE contest highlighted the spectrum of review formats, styles, and elements being written on the geek. I’ll attempt to summarize many of these below:

(1) First impressions
Often these reviews end up sounding more like a session report. The reviewer generally provides their first impression on the game. Such reviews are typically short, provide a very barebones description of the mechanics at work, and are generally positive and enthusiastic about the game. Comments describing how “fun” the game is/was are usually widespread.

(2) Detailed rule/component summaries
This format tends to describe the game rules and components in great detail and often with many pictures. I find it particularly interesting when reviews in this format have a longer rules explanation than the game’s rules itself! But often these rule summaries are injected with a basic level of analysis or elaboration that adds to understanding the character and feel of the game.

(3) Checklists
This format generally identifies a number of discrete categories or silos of information and diligently works through them. Checklist reviews often focus on some higher levels of analysis/critique, such as level of conflict, role of luck/chaos, variability/replay ability, etc. But of course, this format varies quite a bit depending on which checklist items are included or omitted.

(4) Pro’s and Con’s
These reviews often build on any of the above approaches by including a subjective “here’s what I think” about the game section. Such reviews generally go beyond the question of whether the game was fun or not for the author to explain in more detail what they do and don’t like about the game. Often this approach relies on Pro- and Con- lists to summarize the reviewer’s reactions. What become a “pro” versus a “con” is often a matter of the author’s preferences.

(5) Who’s it for?
These reviews are often an extension or variation of a pro’s and con’s approach, but is focused principally on determining for what type of audience the game is best suited. In the interest of aiding purchasing decisions, such reviews often do have a modest amount of critique, providing articulated reasons why a game would be good for some groups but a poor fit for others.

(6) Metric-based evaluation
This format generally uses and presents a set of standard metrics developed by the reviewer to evaluate a particular game. There are lots of variables that reviewers tend to concentrate on. Such an approach provides an effective at-a-glance benchmark for understanding the feel of the game. Including further analysis or explanation of the metrics is possible (and welcomed) but not always present.

(7) The negative response
A negative review can take on any of the formats above, but such reviews tend to standout in BGG as the vast majority of reviews are overall quite positive. I actively seek out negative reviews because, to be honest, I find that they often provide the best actual critique of the game with well-articulated reasoning. Nonetheless, these anomalies tend to stick out, hence I’m giving them their own category.

(8) Contextual placement
Reviews in this vein (or with this element) spend a signficiant amount of time discussing the reviewers personal experience with the game, the game’s design and position within the gaming hobby overall, or both. I find such reviews insightful for providing the “backstory” for how a game came to be, why its significant to the hobby (or not), and why it is memorable to the reviewer (or not).

(9) Meta-Critique
Like a good literature review in a research field, a meta-review spends a great deal of its energy examining what has already been said about a game. Such a review endeavors to condense the various perspectives, critiques, or other information about a game in a way that can provide new insight and put the game within a broader critical context, potentially transcending personal perspectives and biases.

(10) The essay
The last example takes an essay format. Generally, these reviews tend to emphasize more in-depth critique by stating some hypothesis or other claim about the game in question and going on to provide (presumably) well-articulated evidence to support the claim. The structure of such reviews tend to be more narrative and flowing in the discourse rather than segmented into bit-sized chunks of information.

Addendum: (11) The Session Report
This format structures the review around a session report, and often flips between describing the session and describing the gameplay elements surrounding a particular in game situation. The session report format can add a compelling narrative structure to the review.

Addendum: (12) The Comparison Shopper
This review format tends to heavily rely on comparisons with other games to highlight unique (or not so unique) features of the game being reviewed. These reviews can spread the gamut from fairly trivial and surface level comparisons to highly detailed comparisons between games. Often, the end result is towards the “should you buy it” question, i.e. “Game A is like game X, Y, Z in these ways, but in these ways it is different and unique. You’ll probably like it if you like X, Y, and Z.”

I should say that any of the above formats (and there are likely many I’ve missed) are not mutually exclusive. Reviewers can and do mix elements across formats and approaches to create what is ultimately their own preferred style. And as of yet, this approach and format doesn’t fundamentally mean anything specific to the level of critique evident in the review.

What makes a “critical” review?

I feel that any of the above approaches and elements can provide a well-reasoned critical analysis of the game at hand. But then, what do I mean by “critical analysis?” I think that a critical analysis of a game must include one or more of the following elements; and obviously the more of elements that are woven into the review the more comprehensive the review is in critiquing the game:

(A) Putting the game in context.
This includes a discussion of the game’s design process, inspirations/influences, what the impact of the game has been, general reception of the game, and what the game has subsequently inspired/influenced (if anything). It may also include a more in-depth examination and self-reflection on the part of the reviewer, discussing how the game has impacted their outlook, what their assumptions and expectations for the game were, etc.

(B) Dissection of the “decision space” in the game.
This principally builds off a discussion of the game’s mechanics and explores how the mechanics create interesting (or not) decision points in the game. Emphasis is placed on exploring the breadth of the decision space - i.e. how many options do you effectively have at a given decision point - and the factors that inform your chosen direction - i.e. what is driving you to make one choice over another. I find the decision space element in a review to be really insightful (and unfortunately most often absent) in explaining what the game is like.

(C) Discussion of the game’s dynamics.
I use the term “dynamics” to refer to the emergent properties of a game as an outgrowth of the raw mechanics and that have a direct impact on the feel and “experience” of playing the game. There are many potential dynamics in-play to be considered:
- Level of conflict, types of player interaction (direct conflict, blocking, race style, etc.)
- Pacing, flow, and the “arc” of the game’s narrative
- Tension points and scoring systems
- Timing and evolution of the game/board state
- Role of luck/chaos/randomness
By explaining how these dynamics play out over the course of the game, the reader is able to get a much richer understanding of what a game feels like to play and the kinds of thinking that are required to play well.

(D) Depth and Strategic Opportunity.
This level of assessment relates to the opportunity for skill growth that comes with repeat plays and/or the potential longevity and variability within the game’s system. As a basic selling point for the game, I want to know how deep the game is from a strategic standpoint AND how well aligned it is from complexity standpoint. Is the game something that’s only going to provide new learning over a handful of players or can it be studied for a lifetime? Is the game setup up the same form game to game or are there elements that make the session unique each time? Does the game layer on complexity without really adding genuine depth?

The “strategic opportunity” elements relates to how diverse and varied the strategic pathways are in the game. While I don’t expect a critical review to explain in detail “how to execute” a particular strategy, it is insightful to examine what the major strategic options or directions are, whether there are dominant strategies, and how important tactical considerations are in executing these strategies. I often see comments that people don’t want strategic discussions in their “reviews” and would prefer to learn the strategy on their own. That’s a fair point. I think the challenge to reviewers is in finding the right balance of providing a strategic overview without giving away the discoveries. There is also, in my mind, a big difference between having a strategic opportunity highlighted in general comment versus actually knowing when to apply that strategy in the game as you play it. There is a big difference.

(D) Thematic assessment.
In general, I’d argue that theme matters to games (yes even to abstracts). It is wonderful when reviews spend some time discussing the theme of the game and whether it reinforces the gameplay and mechanics. Is the game’s theme “really” pasted on or is that just what someone would say on a first impression? In what specific ways does the theme reinforce or conflict with the mechanics?

(E) Functional/Ergonomic assessment.
This critique relates to the physical properties and elements of the game. The principal question is whether the game is elegant and fluid or clunky and fiddly (or some combination). What works well from a legibility and graphics standpoint? What causes problems? Sometimes great games are dealt a death-blow by just not working well at a physical level. Other times the physical aspects of a game make it tactile bliss to play. Knowing how a game performs in this regard can be a great venue of critique.

(F) Extrapolations + Generalizations.
Critique aimed in this direction tends to look at a game’s mechanics and inner workings at a very fine scale. Often this involves uncovering and discussing the mathematical or conceptual underpinnings of the design. In other cases, this approach might take a concept or dynamic in the game and extrapolate it or relate it back out to the real-world to dynamics found in other media or fields of study. I find this type of criticism, while very cerebral, to be quite engaging and helps me understand the game not just as a game but as a comment on the broader society, the human condition, or nature itself. These tend to be the types of critique that highlight a game’s importance as a work of art and artifact within the realm of human culture.

(G) Pitfalls + Improvements.
This last category of criticism can tie into any of the above elements, but is important so I will call it out specifically. There is a fundamental difference in my mind between a “review” and a “critique.” A review can say what a game does or doesn’t do and how it stacks up to a pre-determined set of criteria. A critique does this as well, but takes it a step further and points out specifically where an element in the game causes a pitfall and proposes alternatives for how such a situation could be improved in the future. Obviously most published games are not going to be re-made, but providing the proactive, constructive feedback on how an in-game element could be improved can nonetheless provide a source of inspiration and improvement for future games.

In the broadest sense, the critical examination of games is intended to raise the bar and push for innovations and improvements in future games. For this reason, providing a genuine “critique” is essential for advancing the quality of design.

A Challenge to Reviewers

The Voice of Experience Review is over, but its impact should carry on. So I’m issuing a challenge to all reviewers, which is to endeavor to incorporate at least one (preferably many) of the above critical analysis points into each of your reviews. Even a “first impressions” style review can include a critical analysis on some level. Any review can at least spend a few moments highlighting the reviews perspective and expectations going into the game. So go for it!

For my part, I’m going to start walking the walk and write more reviews. I’ll be pushing myself to tackle as much as I can muster from the list of critical assessment points.

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