Talking About Games: Subjecting Subjectivity

Wee Aquinas thinks board games aren't art, but merely entertainment. But we all know Wee Aquinas is a dork, so don't listen to him.

You’ve heard the refrain before. “Stay objective.” “Keep politics out of it.” “I just want to hear how the game works.”

Fine, you caught me! Nothing gets past you. Those are three refrains, not one. Except… aren’t they the same thing? All three complaints ultimately come down to a single expectation, that game reviews should conform to some sort of master code, a Strunk & White’s Elements of Style to gather all forms of criticism, bring them together, and in the darkness bind them. Objectivity all over again.

I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t we been here before? True, a few installments back I talked about objectivity and subjectivity. But that was principally about defining those two terms and examining how they sometimes bleed into each other thanks to some complicated linguistic history. Today, I want to travel in a different direction by talking about some of the advantages of subjectivity. Namely, why is it better for everyone when our game critiques are as subjective as possible?

"I never fully get the rules—" Genuinely, thank you for saying so.

Thank you, dear reader.

I. Subjective Critique Makes for Better Recommendations

I’ve argued in the past that critiques shouldn’t be principally commercial. There are two reasons for this, one philosophical and the other more corporeal. In the intangible sense, critique is more a function of curating culture than curating what winds up on somebody’s shelf. Good critique not only hones what we purchase, but also clarifies everything it comes into contact with. It helps creators delineate between their triumphs and their stumbles. It shows aspirants what’s already been done and what remains to be accomplished. It calls attention to the slender margins between what works and what doesn’t. It gives us a voice where before our thoughts were halfway formed. And then there’s the other reason, which is more grounded: no game critic has any idea how much your dollar is worth to you. Unless you’ve also hired them as your personal accountant, they should probably refrain from telling you how to spend it. That decision belongs solely to you.

Still, there’s no escaping the fact that many people engage with reviews as buyer’s guides. When somebody complains that one of my write-ups didn’t help them decide whether to purchase a game, I understand where they’re coming from. Life would be breezy if our chances of picking up a dud were zero. Never mind that our complainant is offloading their personal responsibility onto somebody else’s shoulders. Advice duly rendered, any prospective dud will be perceived as the critic’s fault, a tangible harm inflicted on our hapless consumer. It’s a one-way street and I don’t recommend anybody walk into traffic.

The thing is, though, the expectation of subjectivity is helpful in this regard. When a review strives to present “just the facts, ma’am,” failure is inevitable. Even if a reviewer decides to only present a game’s rules without comment — setting aside how bland and uninteresting that would be — deciding how to order those rules still represents an editorial call. As anyone who’s taken a journalism class can tell you, the percentage of people who read to the end of an article is tiny. We tend to prioritize important information by placing it near the front, whether thesis statements, ledes, or the tone and conflict of fictional works. And yes, that means even game designers are editorializing when they format how their game’s rules will be presented! The simple truth is that it’s impossible to avoid expressing any priorities whatsoever. And that’s before we dive into topics like unconscious bias or cultural expectations.

Which is why it’s so useful when a critic expresses their priorities as clearly as possible. This doesn’t mean every review requires signposted statements like “I enjoy weird games with limited commercial appeal” or “I am not intimidated by difficult or even repugnant arguments.” Nothing so bland. Rather, by describing what a game accomplishes (or fails to accomplish) with an eye toward the critic’s own reactions, as opposed to the theoretical reactions of an imagined “broad” audience, the critic teaches us both about the game and about their own tastes.

That last part is key. Every truly useful review is not only telling us about the artifact in question, but also about the critic. Don’t mistake this for autobiography; it’s permission to follow tangents, explore snake’s hands, and get personal. It’s a chance to fully explain why the game didn’t work for that person, at that time, with their values and priorities. This makes for better purchasing advice for anything that isn’t limited to sheer utility. Since board games aren’t clothes dryers or furnace repair companies, they demand that radical degree of subjectivity.

His perspective is worth reading in its entirety.

A small portion of Chris Farrell’s take on Imperial Struggle.

II. Subjective Critique Helps Us Gauge Relative Tolerances

“Would you play 18xx with Hitler?”

Uh, absolutely I would. Just imagine the article such a meeting would produce!

Because playing “gotcha!” is fun, every so often someone asks whether I would play a particular hypothetical game, usually by proposing an abhorrent setting. Would I play a train game that featured indigenous removal? Yes. A WWII game that considered the Holocaust? Sure. A set collection game about nude eighteen-year-olds? No.

What’s the difference? I discussed the distinction between portrayal and endorsement in our last installment of Talking About Games, and I could probably spin some argument about how objectifying people barely over the border of the age of consent tacitly endorses some fairly troubling behavior. But the real reason I would avoid such a game is more personal: it’s beyond my comfort level. I know my own tolerances. My background is in historiography, and I’m willing to explore different models of history, even when those models clash with my education or beliefs. Someone else might find those same models too tangled or too frustrating to deal with. For example, I recently published a review of Imperial Struggle. From my perspective, the game models colonialism according to a period mindset, and does so without sacrificing either playability or accuracy. Yet another critic has used the term “whitewashing” to describe it. Who’s right? There’s room for discussion and disagreement, and opinion isn’t so sacred that it shouldn’t be disputed, but it’s possible for us to both be right for the same reason that one person might appreciate a game about subject matter I would find icky.

Emerson wrote that we boil at different degrees. This only captures part of the problem. In truth, the same person can boil at a dozen different temperatures. And sometimes those boiling points fluctuate over time. For most of my life, scenes of imperiled children in movies or books didn’t faze me any more than seeing an adult dangled over the pit. It was only after I became a father that I lost all stomach for such scenes. Something similar has gripped my local culture in light of recent events. Where police procedurals were formerly the default entertainment, the entrapments and interrogations of leading men and women have taken on a darker tone. It goes without saying that such a perspective has likely been the default for many people of color.

When it comes to games criticism, it’s useful to keep this in mind. My goal with any historical game is to evaluate its merits, including an investigation of its claims. Others might not have that same level of comfort. Or worse, they may have suffered because of poor representation or the generational scars of that history. While I have the privilege of regarding those questions from a distance, some are affected more directly. The same goes for issues such as nudity. I’m only a class-C prude, and I don’t mind some cheesecake now and then. But such images often strike me as pandering, manipulative, and disrespectful — and my opinion is muted compared to those of certain colleagues, many of them women, who feel more directly sexualized when they see a barbarian warrior clad in bikini chainmail and flexing her vertebrae like string cheese.

But that’s me! One of the values of subjective criticism is that it lets us assess such issues directly. I don’t have to pretend something didn’t bother me, or even pretend that it did. By embracing criticism as an act of expression, with the critic’s experiences grounded first and foremost, we can begin to talk about the reasons behind their comfort or discomfort rather than assuming everybody will always be on the same page about every topic.

"A game is only as good as the friends you play it with—" Correct.

Thank you, dear reader.

III. Objectivity Is Dorky

Here is my baldest complaint with the Objectivity Crowd:

What a bunch of clammy rags. What joyless buckets of kitchen-floor mop water. What unbuttered, unjammed, un-Nutella’d toast. What right-angled thought-monitoring bureaucrats. What quislings, trembling with anxiety now that their true nature has been spied out.

In all of human experience there has not been a great voice that was not amplified by opinion. Opinions brash, political, mild, caring, furious, moderate, whatever. If a critic has something to say, let them say it, and say it with the voice they know best. This isn’t to say we cannot disagree. Nor is this to say we shouldn’t discuss the opinions produced by those voices. Oh, no. Disagreement is the spice. Discussion is communion between sentiences. But without subjectivity, without voices loudly proclaiming what they believe and how they believe it, there cannot be disagreement or discussion, only the processing of technical data, as though board game reviews should have all the pulse of a five-language toaster manual.

What a drab vision, this goal of objectivity. Give me instead someone furious at Catan! A defender of Monopoly! Let us have schools of thought, and iconoclasts who spurn them, and moderating influences thought of very little by either side but held in high regard by everyone too confused by the speech of the radicals.

Or if the Wild West of board game criticism sounds a little too unkempt, let’s instead welcome broader formats and more distinctive voices, rather than insisting everybody fill out the same form letters. The hobby is broad enough. It’s time to embrace the possibilities.


In the next installment of Talking About Games, we’ll be talking about moral criticism. But no need to wait — supporters can already find it on Patreon.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on October 30, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Great post I really enjoyed it. Although I did think when you mentioned a defender of Monopoly you really did go into the realm of fiction… 🙂



  2. You’re aware of your own idiosyncrasies, at least try to be fair, and remember that reviews are supposed to be about the subject not the reviewer. That’s objective enough for me.

    I do find reviews that are entirely redundant with the publicly downloadable rules to be both pointless and rather confusing, but I can’t agree with your absolutist pro-subjectivity stance. I love hearing good arguments, but I do require they be made from somewhere other than up the reviewer’s butt. For an example, there’s this video game reviewer I read sometimes, and while he is often interesting, he has spent half of his review complaining the game doesn’t have achievements for playing on harder difficulties. Multiple times. I would hate to overcompensate from objectivity straight into ax grinding.

    • You should read Dan’s next piece (the one on Patreon), since he brings it back in the direction you suggest. Think “negotiated subjectivity” between many critics.

      Also, I think Dan would say that what you’re referring to isn’t objectivity so much as impartiality… he wrote about that a while back… but it’s hard when the word means different things that sometimes have little to do with each other.

    • I don’t think it’s necessary to equate “up the reviewer’s butt” with subjective. Or at least I hope not! But so far, I have yet to see a sturdy example of what objectivity is supposed to mean in an aesthetic critique.

  3. I initially read that as “a small portion of Chris Farley’s take on Imperial Struggle” and was very confused.

  4. Oh my that last paragraph in particular was a cathartic treat!

  5. Objectivity in a quantum universe is an impossibility. Objectivity in a review is both an impossibility and a tepid mug of curdled milk. Keep on masturbating man. Accusations of thesaurus fetish from the types who’d prefer to be reading a rulebook/press release are the most fetching epaulettes one can aspire to.

  6. This is a good article, and a good antidote to the customary behavior one sees at BGG anytime a critical review is posted. First comes the “you must have misunderstood a rule” commenter, then “you didn’t clearly state this was just your opinion” commenter, and on down the line.

    But I think the “buyer’s guide” thing really doesn’t reflect well on the members of what is supposed to be (or what at least one time thought of itself as) a fairly cerebral hobby. “I can’t possibly make a decision on your KS campaign unless you get some reviews from high profile reviewer up!” Geez people, think for yourselves for goodness’ sake.

    I’d go even further and say that not only do I like subjective reviews, I like reviews that are barely about the game at all, but rather about the ideas the game caused the reviewer to think about or the experiences the game led the reviewer into. I read a review of Northern Pacific that was almost entirely about this weird camouflage that British ships used in WW2 to confuse radar (or something). Or Ben’s review of my own Sands of Time, that’s all about the tyranny of the present and how games can cut through it. Or your own reviews of Sidereal or Root or Oath. If a good game makes you think, there’s no better evidence that it fulfills its goal then if its reviewer shows evidence of having been provoked to deep thought by it!

  7. Sounds like a fun game in this, we each suggest games with potentially offensive themes and you decide whether or not you would play them haha

    An 18xx game where you spend Chinese workers as a resource (and you know what I mean by spend)

    A game about wiping out the aborigine culture in Australia. Think Martin Wallace’s Auztralia if you replaced the minions of Cthulu with the natives of the island.

    A farming Euro but about battery farming, and using growth hormones to make the cows as freakishly massive as possible.

    Errr, a solo pandemic-style game in which you play as the pope trying to cover up cases of abuse in the Catholic Church as they pop up around the globe.

    To be honest, as much fun as I’m having trying to come up with ideas the answer would most likely be the same each time: it depends if the game is any good. By which I don’t mean that a game could be blatant propaganda but hey, that combat system is a work of brilliance. I mean that each of those themes and most of the ones I can think of, could be handled in an interesting way. The first one has more or less been done by the recent The Cost, which abstracts its theme a little to generic made-up countries of no discernable real world comparison, which is deliberate and makes sense with what the game is trying to achieve as a broad statement on worker welfare, but a lot of the successes of that game could easily be ported across to any historical setting of worker suffering in the name of progress, you keep the rules of an 18xx game, but you throw in the number of workers required to build a particular length of track, you add the option to speed things a long but a percentage will perish, and you leave the punitive nature of the game slight enough in the hope that the inner turmoil comes not from numerical prospecting but from a deeper sense of shame in the player, knowing that they put profits over welfare, etc. As for the Australia one, it would be fairly easy to simply retheme the Martin Wallace game and you can then guarantee you’ve got a good game, and as long as it carefully tows the line of historical context and not advertisement, it could also make sense as a game much like the use of slavery in Imperial Struggle, as you defined it, and again could be a potent educational tool that’s forcing players to do awful things and feel bad about doing them, but if they don’t they’ll lose the game, which is fascinating to a philosophical minded player, the idea of the game itself being something you shouldn’t want to play but will still inevitably want to win when pitted against other players with the same goals and ruleset (though it definitely wouldn’t sell very well and wouldn’t be worth the amount of effort required to constantly defend it from people that don’t look beyond “what a horrible theme” to see what the actual game is, but, I’d still play it if it existed and it was good). Even the last one could feasibly be done well, although it might be the hardest one to do and perhaps the most pointless, especially the fact it would be a solo game, in a way you don’t have to trick anyone else into playing it with you, but it also loses the all important round table discussion at the end where everyone reflects on the lessons of the game and its representation and instead has just you sat there thinking “well that was two hours of my life I hope no one asks me about” haha

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