Talking About Games: The Price Is Wrong
Is a game worth its asking price? The question comes up so often that I’d be surprised to hear that this isn’t also true for other reviewers and critics. Most recently, two reviews in particular drew a lot of attention: Radlands from Roxley Games and The Shores of Tripoli from Fort Circle Games. Both are beautiful titles with noteworthy production values. Both are also shorter games, which understandably raises questions about their longevity. And of course, both are priced toward the high end. Hence the questions.
I get it. When I’m curious about a new game, what do I do? I check to see if anybody’s reviewed it. That’s why I spent years happily fielding these types of questions. Isn’t that what a review is for?
More recently, my policy has shifted. Now I refuse to answer questions about price. For today’s Talking About Games, I want to discuss why that is — and why other reviewers and critics might consider the same.
I. You Know What They Say About Assumptions
The first board game I purchased as an adult was Philippe Keyaerts’ Small World. I’d read about it in a review that had no connection to the “official” sphere of the hobby. As a history undergrad who’d recently switched from ethical philosophy, the notion fascinated me. Here was a game that charted the rise, decline, and eventual disappearance of civilizations, but wouldn’t fry the circuitry of someone trying to juggle a college degree, a so-called career, and a new marriage. I devoured that game. It was the first time I learned that board games, like their digital counterparts, could be expanded. I bought a few of those, too. I even picked up an almanac of factions on a lark. For a long time, it was the only game I owned.
But not because I was singularly obsessed. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Small World. I still like Small World. But the reason I played it so much was because I couldn’t afford to take a risk on anything else. Even games that caught my attention, those introduced to me at the game nights of friends or family, were better borrowed than bought. Don’t mistake this for frivolity. A year after getting married to Somerset, I got sick. That sickness grew to a constant nausea, then pain, then depression. My career and college degree faltered. Our marriage struggled. Eventually things started fitting back together. I got a diagnosis, followed by three surgeries over six months. The recovery was long. Money, unsurprisingly, continued to be tight. It was easier (not to mention more responsible) to play the same game over and over, occasionally remixed by an expansion, than to explore everything that caught my eye. That phase came later.
When I began writing about board games, I sometimes employed commercial phrases. “Must-buy!” “Don’t miss out.” “This is something everyone should purchase.” “Not worth the money.”
Of course, I didn’t mean anything harmful by these phrases, even if I recalled the feeling of missing out whenever I saw a game declared a bargain. All artistry begins as emulation, and that’s how everybody was discussing board games. They were products first and foremost. Reading about a game and not getting some sense for its monetary value was like going to buy a new dishwasher except all the price tags were hidden from view. Isn’t that what reviews are for?
Except games are not dishwashers. They’re cultural artifacts. More even than that, they’re social events that can be experienced under a wide range of circumstances. It isn’t uncommon to hear somebody say that board games are a luxury hobby with a pricey buy-in. That’s often true.
But it’s only one way of thinking about board games, and one that focuses principally on hobby games sold in shrink. Most of my early board gaming memories have nothing to do with expensive games. Playing UNO while camping because it was cheap and portable. Trying to decode the rules of a cousin’s 4X spaceship game and never succeeding. Sitting on the floor at a friend’s house with the tattered copy of HeroQuest he’d rescued from the thrift store. Playing Settlers of Zarahemla with that one friend who was always more religious than everyone else. Being a missionary in Montana and being so insanely bored that we took solace in a recovered copy of Axis & Allies missing half of its Japanese navy.
Two points stand out. First, prospective reviewers and critics should be aware that not everybody is approaching the hobby from the same place. One person’s dollar is precious while another person’s dollar burns a hole in their pocket. This isn’t to say that readers or viewers are so weak-willed that they’ll buy anything on our say-so. Rather, it’s a call for us to regard games as more than products to peddle to prospective buyers. A game isn’t just something that sells. It’s something that’s played, traded, lost, found, donated, loaned, duplicated, or even stolen. To regard a game as nothing but a potential sale is achingly reductive of how we experience games. And what does such a thing become once we elevate it from the realm of the commercial? That’s my second point: that a good review or critique should be useful regardless of whether we’re talking about a game when it’s brand new, before it’s been produced, or long after it’s dropped in price, because a game is more than a product — it’s art and culture.
Let’s expand on both points.
II. Critique as Marketing
The kindest email I received last year came from a designer hoping I would write about his game. Now, I adore writing about less-known titles. I’m never happier than when I get the opportunity to talk up a game from an independent designer. In the same vein, it’s always a punch in the gut to write about an independent game that doesn’t cut it. This time, the game in question didn’t look like my cup of tea. Which is why I replied to this designer’s request by saying I would play his game if he liked, but with the usual warnings — I’ll require a finished review copy, my queue is a little overloaded at the moment (as though it’s ever not), and I will write about your game with total honesty according to my experiences. For better and for worse.
This designer’s response caught me off guard. “I want you to review it,” he wrote. “If it’s negative, then at least I’ll have a negative review on Space-Biff! That’s a rite of passage.”
Holy smokes, I thought, look at this guy’s confidence! Good thing it was warranted. His game acquitted itself quite well. And no, I won’t tell you which one it was. I have no desire for anybody to think less of somebody because he thinks a write-up on Space-Biff! somehow qualifies as good press. (Also, don’t tell him this, but I don’t write that many negative reviews. Right?)
Okay, so this one guy had a great attitude about criticism. To him, a review held value regardless of whether it was positive or negative. That’s fantastic!
It’s also an enormous exception to the rule.
The harsh reality is that every review copy is listed as a marketing expense. We can talk all we want about curating culture and supporting art and yadda yadda yadda. I’ll talk about those very things in just a minute. But that’s not where publishers are coming from. They don’t want their game to show up in a museum in four thousand years. Oh, I’m sure they wouldn’t complain about designing the next Senet. But here and now, they want it to sell.
I’ve already written about negativity, both how it’s hard to persuade a hobbyist reviewer to bother to play and review something they don’t like and why it would be healthier for the hobby to be less sensitive about sharper critique in general, so I won’t belabor those points here. Instead, I want to add to that earlier statement with a more philosophical argument. In every transaction, multiple interests are represented. This is true of all transactions, whether social or commercial or legal or whatever else. In the case of a review, the publisher’s interest is that the review help them sell as many copies as possible. This is why we encourage good ethical practices: disclosure of review copies and personal relationships, avoidance of paid promotion and other entanglements that might prove too excessive for personal integrity to overcome, and an audience-facing attitude. That last point isn’t always straightforward because the audience’s interest is as varied as the audience itself. Some people are looking for recommendations, in which case their interests and the publisher’s interests may align or diverge depending on how well the reviewer liked the game. Others are looking to have their opinions affirmed. Some may be seeking outrage in a contrasting perspective. And others are looking to engage in the hobby without necessarily playing the game in question. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; in fact, this is often how we interface with our hobbies. In sports, for example, the vast majority of engagement has nothing to do with personally playing the sport. We talk about games, we read design diaries, we look at unboxings or images, we debate the merits of what we’ve played, we noodle over design experiments, we harass or counter-harass content creators and their detractors, or we join forums that eventually fall into schism over game-related topics.
And what about the reviewer? I can only speak personally, but my interests are usually either expressive or persuasive. In the first case, my goal is to describe my experience with a game. In the second, I’m trying to make a point about a game because I hope to sway someone to my view.
Note that neither of these goals are commercial. It isn’t hard to imagine a reviewer having commercial goals, especially as the line between reviewer and content creator (here defined as someone who produces playthrough videos, rules explanations, consultations, or other marketing projects) becomes blurry. Such goals could include increasing one’s appeal to publishers, signing sponsorships, or simply getting paid for producing content. These are inevitable as marketing, and ethically acceptable when disclaimed by those who produce said marketing. As reviews, however, such things would make me suspicious of anybody’s output. If a reviewer’s goal isn’t to be expressive or persuasive, isn’t commercial all that remains? And doesn’t that mean we’ve ranked the broad and complex needs of our audience and our self as secondary to that of publishers? And doesn’t that also mean, by extension, that by acting as agents of commerce, we step away from the very role we play in the tangled transaction that is a review?
Put another way, when we as reviewers and critics discuss something as “worth money” or “not worth money,” we restrict the wide spectrum of the experience of playing board games to a much narrower band. We acquiesce to the view that any given title should be worth x dollars but not x+y dollars. This foregrounds the commercial experience over all other experiences. True, it’s possible for a review to serve multiple purposes. But the commercial experience looms so large in our minds that it eclipses all others; thinking of reviews and critiques as buyer’s guides first and foremost is but one example of this phenomenon. Although talking about money may serve the needs of some audience members — in a rather limited fashion — it degrades our own voice as one that should ideally be founded upon the expressive and the didactic. Rather than curators, appreciators of art, or even artists in our own limited right, we permit ourselves to become little more than extensions of a publisher’s marketing apparatus.
What’s the alternative? As I mentioned above, I’m as guilty as anybody of speaking about games as commercial artifacts. The cure, I think, is one of substitution. Rather than considering games via the language of the commercial, it behooves us to center games as artifacts of culture and play, to speak about games in those terms first and foremost. Instead of thinking about games as something we can sell to somebody, games are experiences we can share through description.
III. Critique as Curation
One of the most influential things I’ve ever read was a review.
I don’t remember the author. It came from one of those tomes found way back in the university stacks, with curly golden letters on its spine and a layer of dust on the top edge. It spoke of the author’s experiences with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not in the usual way, in which the critic boasts about how everybody else is subject to doublethink, but not them, oh no, not them. Instead, the critic pointed out that Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t just talk about doublethink; old George snuck it into his readers’ thoughts. The book tells you up front that its heroes Winston and Julia will be caught and broken. It repeats this fact so many times that it adopts the familiarity of a picture on the wall of your childhood home. You could identify it on sight, but possibly couldn’t say where it was hung exactly. Familiarity becomes foreign. So familiar and foreign, in this case, and so bound up in the expectations of the genre and how heroes ought to behave and how good stories should conclude, that Orwell’s readers often persuaded themselves that Winston and Julia could escape their fate. We knew they would not. But we also knew they would. That is doublethink. If we suffer from it reading a book, surely we all suffer from it in our real lives, especially when we’re convinced we don’t.
Here’s the thing: I read that review so long ago that I don’t remember where its author ends and I begin. I don’t know if its central argument was expressed outright or only hinted at. Either way, it has informed not only my reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four, not only my reading of Orwell’s broader corpus, not only my reading of dystopian literature, but also my thinking about nearly everything I think.
Regardless of the specifics, it had nothing to do with whether I should go out and purchase Nineteen Eighty-Four, or whether the book was worth $19.80 in hardback or $13.69 mass paperback or if I should wait for banned books week to grab it for free on the Kindle. Its author wasn’t attempting to speak to me about Orwell’s opus in commercial terms. Instead, the book was treated as a serious thing that had sparked serious thoughts, that operated in only limited fashion as entertainment while speaking plainly about cognitive dissonances and how those could be weaponized against a population’s best interests.
Whenever we begin discussing board games as art, the usual rejoinder is to ask which game is our Brothers Karamazov or Citizen Kane. This is a huge discussion and we’ll likely investigate it in detail another time. For now, it misses the mark on two levels.
First, it misunderstands what board games are capable of presenting. We may as well ask why Brothers Karamazov doesn’t give us an operational understanding of the Battle of Antietam. Board games are only now coming into their adolescence, but already their capacity for expressing, simplifying, and leveraging complex models and model-based arguments is clear. Second, it dismisses the sequence of events and counter-events that permitted Dostoevsky to pen his work in the first place. Influences, criticisms of other works, life events, narrative styles, approaches to dialogue. Nothing emerges from a vacuum, and critique is one of many elements that helps its host medium hone itself over time.
With that in mind, board games have reached a point where even fairly pedestrian titles often conceal unexpected depths. This isn’t to argue that every review need adopt the tone of a scholarly journal. Just that we investigate these things as worthwhile subjects of investigation for more than their commercial value. It’s helpful to think of a reviewer or critic as a curator. The task of curation, whether the curator tends to a library or a museum or anything else, has always been difficult not because everything is obviously important, but because importance isn’t easily evaluated. A good critique, then, will seek to uncover what’s important or relevant about a board game, how it transforms or iterates upon or elevates its mechanical genre, where it falls within its designer’s corpus, and how it comments on or models its subject matter. When regarded this way, board games cease to be inert. They become directions of thought, tangents, arguments, diversions or diversionary tactics. Anything other than objects that are worthwhile until they break past a $39.99 price tag.
And that’s why we shouldn’t talk about price. Y’know, IMO.
In the next installment of Talking About Games, we’re discussing narratives, why board games often don’t “get” them, and the games that do a better job of crafting them. Oh, and good news: it’s already up on Patreon.