Talking About Games: The Price Is Wrong

Wee Aquinas shall give his thoughts on the value of every game pictured in this essay.

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.

WORTH IT. But only because Wee Aquinas enjoys the scent of fresh PVC.

Radlands

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?

WORTH IT. Wee Aquinas believes that piracy in all its forms is wrong. Also, borrowing is piracy.

The Shores of Tripoli

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.

WORTH IT. Wee Aquinas supports any game about education.

Argent: The Consortium

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.

NOT WORTH IT. Wee Aquinas hopes to one day be entombed. Hosting a zoo of monsters in a catacomb? Never!

Catacombs

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.

WORTH IT. Wee Aquinas likes that the game is pre-colonial. Since he's also, y'know, pre-colonial.

Clash of Cultures

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.

WORTH IT. But only if you cheat and defeat evil.

Darkest Night

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.

(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 March 23, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.

  1. sliverofsalmon

    Or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we know the price of everything but the value of nothing. I almost fully agree with your view because the value proposition of purchasing a game is for the most part in the eye of the beholder. Buying a lucky find in a bargain bin which never gets played is poor value. Conversely, shelling out all of your disposable income for that month for a game that will be played daily might fully warrant the asking price since it creates value. In neither case, a reviewers opinion on the matter will be helpful. As gamers, the quality of the game should drive value perception. However, because we as hobbyists are exchanging currency for a tangible product, it is helpful to evaluate whether -by and large- this exchange does provide us with value in terms of production quality of the product itself (Oh Terraforming Mars, how you torture me). To use your analogy of Orwell’s 1984, shelling out 15 bucks for a disheveled coppy with its pages falling out because it was poorly glued would be a hard sell, no matter the quality of the words that are printed on those pages. Unless those words are aligned in such a way as to create 50 Shades of Grey. Then, one should buy torches, not books. Kidding. Or am I?

    • One of the things I find interesting about the discussion around this piece is how many people seem to be unaware of that proverbial bargain bin to begin with. It’s never been easier to play good games on a budget. PnP. TTS. Vassal. Math trades. Convention libraries. FLGS rentals. Game cafes. Holiday sales. Waiting a year after publication. A game isn’t its MSRP.

      As for the torches, I don’t mind the book existing, but I sat through the trailer for the film adaptation just enough times to turn myself into a censor.

  2. I do very largely agree with your points, particularly with respect to differing personal values of money, but I think there’s still room for price to be an occasional consideration in a review. It seems to me reasonable to mention that for the price of this game one might buy instead those other games, which the same people are likely to enjoy; in other words, is the game good relative value? (Is it, perhaps, available only as a high-production-value special edition?)

    • Comparisons and alternatives are definitely helpful! I’m just not convinced that they’re tied to a game’s price. If I’m writing about a game that’s not as good as another game, and say so, does my comparison become more useful when the other game goes on sale? Does it become useless if the compared game goes out of print? Does it paradoxically become less useful if a designer sees my comparison, checks it out, and designs a better game, but this new game is absent from my comparison by dint of getting published after I wrote the review?

      I suppose we could just say “yes.”

      But I’ve been rereading a lot of older critique lately, mostly for films and books, and they remain valuable expressions. In many cases, they’re insightful specifically because they explain why their subject is worthwhile within its proper time and place, as opposed to how many pennies it can be had for.

  3. This is an excellent argument for reviews as something other than, and indeed something greater than, buyers’ guides. At the same time, and while I know you’re not saying otherwise, price sneaks into the discussion in two ways.

    The first is one that you touch on: price is a factor in whether a person can acquire a game to play it. For broke college students or families on a tight budget, the difference between a $30 game and a $75 game is a big difference, maybe a week’s worth of groceries. I think your answer to this is a correct one: one doesn’t /need/ more games. Play the games you have to death!

    But I think this perception of the need to acquire stuff is fueled by The Hobby, and the not-at-all-subtle message that being a gamer means being excited about buying new games. That’s not a reviewer’s problem, but here’s the back-door issue: part of that excitement revolves around games’ production value. Games cost a lot of money because top-notch productions are expensive, but you need a top-notch productions exist for the consumer to deem your game worthy of attention. This creates a cycle where buyers are basically demanding that publishers charge them more so as to market their products to the customer!

    If we look at a game like Wingspan or Scythe or Everdell that is lavishly produced, would it sell as well without the lavish production? Maybe that’s beyond the scope of the reviewer’s brief. But asking whether it would /play/ as well, whether the /experience/ of the game would be different, surely is something a reviewer could tackle, if they wanted to. And that gets at the question of price, indirectly.

    • “…would [a game] sell as well without the lavish production?”

      The overall argument is valid, and it’s an important question to ask. For example, the reprint of Dune is rightly lauded for keeping its costs to a minimum while still being stylish. But it’s important to remember that games are experiential, and the choice of how the game is presented is heavily influential to the experience. Onitama and Mexica are examples that stand out in my mind, games that could easily replace their chunky components for cardboard but that would be greatly diminished without them.

      • That’s true, although as a game designer and playtester I’m pretty accustomed to unattractive games! But to the extent that a game’s presentation is part of its experience, I think that’s fair game for the reviewer to talk about…but then you’re indirectly talking about the price, or at least the cost.

  4. I am of two minds about this.

    On one hand, price is a force keeping this hobby from exploding into box after box of minis and useless fluff. And the recent push to make smaller, affordable, high quality games has been amazing. Price is an artistic constraint. And (controversially) I think art is meaningless without constraints. (And I think what Capstone has been able to do with a “price point” is art in itself and worthy of praise).

    But from a purely practical perspective, price is soooo irrelevant to me in reviews. Whether a game costs $30 or $50 doesn’t make that much difference in the grand scheme of things. Games can also be shared, borrowed, and resold in a way that a movie ticket cannot. I can make better practical decisions with my money than you.

    • Your point makes me think about a pair of games by Ryan Laukat, who of course has the talents to design, illustrate, write, *and* market his games, which is incredibly rare.

      On one end, we have Eight-Minute Empire, which is a fantastic small-format game. And then we have the lavish Sleeping Gods, also an exemplar, and extremely expensive to produce and sell.

      Now I’m leaning toward asking every designer about their artistic constraints.

  5. Thomas Romanelli

    I wanted to add my two cents to the discussion here, but was humbled by the fact that the esteemed readers of Dan’s Socratic School of Gaming Culture had preceded my planned ramblings.

    I’ll discuss the meaning of “value”- eh, no. Sliverofsalmon already hit that point.

    There’s a feedback loop centered on premium productions and player expectations- still no. That’s already been mentioned.

    The notion that price is an element of artistic constraint? Dammit! Someone literally wrote that! 🤨

    I think my only, minimal contribution to this discussion would be this- we are all consumers, and we are all players. However, each of those two roles is informed by different perspectives. The application of cost boundaries, quality of personal experiences and value will be always be subjective in nature, and I find myself fascinated when Player A, B & C agree that Title X is a proverbially “great game” but for different reasons (as price may occupy variable positions on any individual’s decision matrix). Price is beyond any reviewer’s direct control, and as a solitary metric remains a very blunt tool (I can’t afford Title X). However, included as a capstone to a thorough, objective evaluation of the same Title X, it allows the consumer-player to calibrate their own purchasing threshold.

    Content creators, like it or not, are already part of the commercial cycle (see the “Wheaton Effect”, or the “SUSD Effect”), and the “entertainment value” of their postings may also influence a player’s purchasing decisions (wait, no one said that yet. Boo-yah!). Content creators can distinguish themselves by self-identifying their own biases to minimize the potential for rubber-stamped endorsements. This approach also decreases the background noise of “hype” and FOMO, which hopefully clarifies individual purchasing decisions.

    It’s something that I believe Dan and some other reviewers do very well, which is why I find myself returning here on a fairly frequent basis.

    • Right, there’s no divorcing commercial considerations from board game criticism. Not entirely.

      But, man, we’ve got to swing that needle the other direction. Doubly so when you can play a breathtaking range of games for almost nothing. TTS and Vassal alone make the commercial focus of most reviews seem so painfully dated. You’d think that would go without saying after a year of lockdowns.

      If somebody wants to discuss a game’s monetary value, I have no problem with that. But when the entire discussion is framed principally around that question, we’ve built a serious hurdle to considering games as more than expensive frivolities.

  6. Skander Mabrouk

    Agree with what has been written above as price as an artistic constraint. More particularly, price directly determines the quality of the components, and in many cases, the artwork (when an artist is hired, not the rare where the game designer does everything themselves). So then if you want to do a review completely independent from price, you would look only at the gameplay/narrative and discard the visual and physical aspects, which are however important for a board game.

    Another point is that although I agree that a review that evaluates the artistic merits of something, is not supposed to be a buyer’s guide, there is also a consumer’s need for buyer’s guides. So then you would have to have two categories of reviews, the first artistic, and the second explicitly functioning as guidance for purchasing. And that seems a bit difficult, because most reviewers are trying to do both. What do you think?

    Finally, the reason why price is almost never mentioned in reviews of books and movies is that most books and movies cost roughly the same. If it were the case that a ticket to a movie with top-class production values (cinematography, editing, sound quality etc) could also cost 5 times as much as other movies (as it sometimes the case for board games), then that would certainly be a consideration in reviews.

    Meanwhile, one point we can all agree on here I think, is that it is bad and ignorant to give purchasing recommendations without mentioning or comparing price, as for instance The Dice Tower regularly does (“if you like the base game, you should definitely get this expansion”).

    • Good thoughts, Skander. I agree on nearly everything. As to your first point, it’s definitely hard for a review to cover a game’s artistic merits and function as a buyer’s guide at the same time. Is it possible? Certainly. Does that dual purpose diminish the usefulness of both halves? Usually.

      Okay, big response coming, but I promise it isn’t entirely directed at you!

      I’ve seen the price normalization argument repeated a few times today, and I really don’t buy it. The gist is that board games have a wider variance to their cost than movies or books. So talking about the price of a board game is more appropriate than discussing the price of those mediums.

      Except those examples are telling in what they omit. True, the price of books and films is (sort of) level. But you know what else has an enormous price differential? Video games and live performances. In the former case, you can often get a AAA video game a year later for a fraction of its original cost. Maybe even for free. In the latter, a theater production might cost anywhere between “nada” and “Hamilton.” Yet the best critics working in those mediums don’t reduce everything to commercial considerations. Oh, there are buyer’s guides aplenty. But there’s an understood delineation between one and the other.

      Further, price normalization isn’t quite as flat as the argument might have us believe. Hamilton didn’t become good the instant it became available on Disney+. Nor do we pan films because of their exclusivity. While ticket prices are (sort of) normalized, access is not. Not only is it easier to see the latest arthouse film in L.A. or New York than, well, anywhere else, but it’s often near-impossible to view films that are making the festival circuit and may not receive distribution. Meanwhile, popular novels will likely receive mass paperback printings, but there are plenty of books that will never garner more than an expensive hardback release. And that’s without considering exclusive items like historical monographs. Frankly, the argument presupposes a distressingly narrow perspective on what I want to read or view.

      Meanwhile, we’re forgetting that we can play a huge range of board games for very little. In a year marked by pandemic lockdowns, many people have discovered the ability to play via TTS, Vassal, Yucata, apps, and so forth. Nor does it account for the fact that many board game prices can be regarded as a shared and repeatable investment. If I go to a film with as many people as I play a regular board game with, the cost of our viewing would range from $30 on the cheap night to $75 for regular tickets. Before concessions!

      Anyway. This is a long way of saying that I don’t think certain commercial arguments are quite as compelling as their authors think they are.

  7. One huge issue with price being a super relevant portion of a critique is that price is always in flux – and can be effected by the critique/review itself, which can sort of force this self-unfulfilling prophecy. Shut Up and Sit Down, for example, might recommend a game as excellent at a price point – and then, because it was recommended, it sells out and the asking price becomes a much different animal. On the other end, a review might call out a game for generally being overpriced, and then no one buys it, and then it’s available for a song.

  8. Stellar article. These days, as your typical jaded middle-aged gamer, I find “is it worth my time?” much more salient than “is it worth my money?”. Money is, thankfully, not the limiting factor. But time — well, that’s a non-renewable resource.

    • Agreed. One point that’s come up a few times today is that a good review will say something like, “This game is good, but these other games provide the same experience for less cash.”

      Except I’m not sure why money is the principal factor here. If other games are providing the same experience, aren’t I going to mention them in the review anyway? It’s just that I’m going to consider the strength of the game rather than inventing some imaginary cost-to-play ratio that will apply only to my situation. The demands of a four-hour game versus a very similar game that does it in two hours is more reasonably assessed.

  9. I feel there is a very couple of important points that were not touched on fully:

    1. The price of a board game is variable. Even if one purchases a game at MSRP, this price will vary based on location. Games will cost more in Australia than Canada. Not to mention other variables such as the way a game is purchased (kickstarter, FLGS, Amazon, second hand, etc ). So let’s say one is inclined to recommend a potential purchase, there are so many variables that this recommendation cannot address an entire audience…

    2. Generally, boardgamers find joy in buying. There is a certain meta in getting a bargain. I expect those there is a high overlap in a Venn diagram of boardgamers who enjoy auctions, economics, and such, and boardgamers with a large collection. I know many that enjoy the buying and selling of games as if the game was a stock, and yes, some will play it and enjoy as well.

    I absolutely agree with you, that price should and cannot be addressed as it delves into the commercials and marketing area. Keep up the good work, I’m always a fan of your writing and perspective.

    • I was grateful when J from Three-Minute Board Games mentioned that first point earlier today! Should a US-based reviewer address the cost of a game in New Zealand? How would I even go about doing that?

      • I would think cost should continue to be outside of the scope of review/critique, you did mention that games can be enjoyed without purchasing directly through borrowing, playing someone else’s copy, board game cafe, app, and online avenues.

        If someone wanted to quickly address cost variables a link to a site like the now defunct boardgameprices .com would be a quick and dirty way to get the job done for a wider range of the english speaking audience.

        Guys like BoardGameCo spend substantial time addressing games, particularly kickstarter games, as investments as well as experiences. Which is fine and important for some gamers.

        I’ve got to hand it to you, as you have succeeded in generating valuable discussion on the topic.

  10. Well done. It’s rare to see someone write about the unique affordances of board games as artistic endeavors, but I always appreciate it. I like your insight about how all media embark as solely commercial products (to the appetites of their imbibers). And even though we may not remember every nickelodeon or pulp novel ever produced, we can still recognize in them the prevailing cultural milieu that saturated their creation. Board games are the same: always making arguments even when the components and rules themselves are ignorant of it.

  11. While I *agree*, I would push back slightly.

    I think its possible to think about and discuss price when making recommendations on similar boardgames experiences with a lower price tag.

    Of course, the reviewer should spend most of his/her time explaining what the experience is, and it should be beyond “they are all mechanism X (worker placement, etc)” observation.

    And once defined, the reviewer could look back at his/her knowledgebase and offer alternatives with a sufficiently similar experience that is cheaper and available.

    • When I mention being a “curator,” a big part of that is making good recommendations. A factor of that could be price. Another (and this is bigger for me than price, in part because it’s more universal to that game’s experience than cost) is play time. If a game is outdone by another game that provides a similar experience in less of a sitting, that’s definitely something I’ll want to recommend.

  12. Eh, I think it’s ok for reviewers to give as much information as possible.
    I ignore any discussions about the price of a game while reading a review because that isn’t applicable to me. I’m going to play the game at my game club, or I’m at a thrift store, or I’m checking an online version.
    Similarly, I ignore any comments about the art because it doesn’t matter to me. If it’s functional, I’m fine with it.

    But there are people reading reviews for whom this stuff matters. Shouldn’t reviewers include all information and let the reader decide for themself what is important to them and what is not?

  13. I like this point of view because of a couple of things. In video games, playing times and project scope (and the screwing-over of workers) have ballooned at least partly because of gamers’ love of comparing playing time to price. So getting away from that in writing about games has been good, at least for me as a writer who likes to just talk about the value of experiences you can keep talking about and sharing for years no matter how short or long the game.

    And in Magic: the Gathering I had to quit the hobby because the lion’s share of the player community is so obsessed with getting fair value for every buy that I couldn’t help but look at my cards as little dollar-bills-to-be. The speculative market aspect of CCGs is so bad it made me not even want to play. There is a place for buying guides, and though I wouldn’t call myself a critic anymore I would rather just talk about experience value than dollars as I get older.

  14. I’ve been thinking about this since I saw it in last months Patreon preview, and have thinking about what I have to say about it for a while.

    I like how you push out in new directions of critique, and would love to see more reviewers follow your lead in creating commentaries on games that go beyond the buy/don’t buy consumer advice bureau that a lot of board game media is. And part of that direction is talking about games without talking about price. But, I do take issue with this contention that talking about price is something that reviewers shouldn’t do.

    In my view price is an accessibility issue. And a reviewer saying no one should talk about price is equivalent, in my mind, to a reviewer saying no one should talk about whether a game is colourblind appropriate. In the sense that it’s a reviewer saying that something which is an impediment to many people being able to engage with the hobby the same as others do is something that should not be discussed.

    The damage of this isn’t to an individual. There’s places where the individual for whom this is a problem can find out the information that they need. The damage is to the community at large. Talking about price is not just about the reviewer making a value judgement for an individual reader, it’s about the effect of reviewers in aggregate on publishers. By talking about cost and relative value it makes those things part of the conversation, it means that ensuring games are financially accessible to people is a factor publisher will consider in the price and design of the game. If it’s not part of the conversation then price will be decided by a demand/supply curve alone.

    “This game if good, but you can get a similar experience from this game at half the price.” Might be a little grubby, but it adds an important warning to publishers. You can make a premium product, but you best dang justify that premium because if it can’t reviewers will direct people elsewhere. Incentivising publishers to ensure the games they make stay within people’s means.

    And this doesn’t mean ragging on indie publishers, or games that are making interesting arguments outside of the mainstream, and have to charge a premium to afford to make those kinds of games. Those are niches within niches within niches. They’ll survive anyway. It’s about the kind of game that’s on offer in the mainstream, that’s produced by mainstream publishers, more and more of whom answer not to the beating heart of a CEO in love with games, but the share owners of a private equity firm. If there’s no body of influential reviewers directing people towards good value and away from bad value, the players with more disposable income will be milked for what they’re worth, and the players with less disposable income will be left out in the cold.

    By all means avoid discussing cost in your reviews. But if no reviewer talks about price, you’ll have your higher art, but a lot of people will be denied the opportunity to experience a great deal of it.

    • Thank you for your thoughts! I greatly appreciate you being willing to voice them, especially since they run against the grain here. Contrary opinions are encouraged. And I agree with a lot of what you say.

      I should mention up front that my argument was largely approached from a position of impossibility. I felt comfortable speaking in absolute terms for two reasons.

      First, nearly every review in the tabletop hobby is foremost a commercial review. This has a cultural effect similar to what you’re describing: that we think about board games as commercial products and not much else. Going by some of the responses to this essay, some folks can’t even conceive of a “review” without a commercial component. They insist it should be called something else. I would describe this effect as deleterious. In attending prototyping conventions, it’s saddening to see the way games are treated as products only, with very little care beyond mass appeal. By speaking in absolutes, my hope was to spark some minor conversation about the overwhelming focus on commercial reviews — and in the process, maybe embolden somebody who wanted to do something different.

      Second, what you describe would be absolutely terrible — but it’s hard for me to imagine anything I say or do swinging the needle toward that outcome. I’ve been merrily writing about board games without considering their MSRP for quite a few years now. Very few people noticed until I pointed it out. The resulting conversation drew out a few unexpected commenters (W. Eric Martin springs to mind), but most have stated that they’ll continue doing what they were already doing. I doubt I will have persuaded very many reviewers (if any!) to alter trajectory.

      But I appreciate the approach to cost as a function of accessibility! If only more reviewers considered it that way. I know Meeple Like Us did. Too often, I hear costs discussed principally in the context of justifying why a game should be purchased despite its price of entry. That’s the direct opposite of “cost as accessibility,” and ignores how often we can play games for very little (or even for free).

      • Thank you for taking the time to respond, I did pick up that your article was an unreachable utopian vision, but I saw the dystopia lurking within!

        (I won’t get bogged down in qualifiers and clarifications, but I will say I wasn’t taking an absolutist stance of condemnation and disavow any agreement with the cesspit of thought that did!)

        I will admit to having a very narrow experience of reviewers. Other than yourself, I keep up with the output of just two other reviewers whose primary output would probably fall under the umbrella of what you describe as being “commercial reviews,” (although one of them is moving away from the focus). They focus their critique on the experience of the game but mention cost and value when it is reasonable to do so. In that small sample things seem reasonably balanced, but it is a very unrepresentative sample, so I’m less aware of the severity of the problems that your article rallies against.

        There are ways in which talking about price is not a commercial feature, but is tied up in the authors artistic intent as much as any other aspect of a game’s design. There are artistic choices which impact price, and price is an influence on audience. In that sense I think ignoring price entirely from consideration ignores as significant an aspect of the author’s intent as any other. So I think it’s a worthy question to put to creators, particularly those creators with a high degree of personal control over the full production, as to why they made their game the way they did. For example with Pax Pamir Second Edition, I think it’s a reasonable question to ask, “why did you prioritise making a luxurious production, at the expense of fewer people getting the opportunity to engage with the game’s argument?” (I say this not to make a point of, ‘you should ask these questions,’ but it’s just a thought about how we can think about price beyond the idea of being an aspect of a ‘commercial review.’)

        As in many things, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. And, as you say, articles like this, even if they are asking “whether,” spur on a discussion about the “why” and the “how” (amongst the reasonable middle ground), that can only push forward the medium as a whole.

  15. Thomas Romanelli

    Dan, I wanted to provide a counterpoint to your statement regarding the opportunity to play a host of games for little cost (TTS, etc.).

    I think these services are great, and I’m happy these options exist, but there not without occasional technical issues which can affect accessibility. There are times when the content pack for a particular game doesn’t quite load correctly or I’ve seen “floating resources” on the virtual tabletop that become a minor distraction. The price is very attractive – for now.

    My biggest issue is the potential for the platform to become swamped in DRM tools, and I’ve been down that road before with video games. It’s one of the ironic reasons I got back into the hobby- having a “hard copy” in hand prevents iTunes, EA, Facebook or Corp X from charging me (in terms of money and the data I’m required to surrender) for the privilege of a prior purchase.

    My gaming friends sometimes refer to me as Chicken Little, but then I remind them that Asmodee has a very active digital division and they continue to buy up publishers left & right. I have little doubt that some enterprising executive hasn’t already identified Tabletopia and TTS as acquisitions that can improve shareholder value.

    And as we all know, that story always has a happy ending…

  16. Benjamin Brewster

    Excellent article. One point I was sure you coming to, but didn’t actually see you touch on, is that a review in and of itself is art. Whether or not I ever buy the game, I’m having to make a similar commitment of time just to experience a lengthy review, whether video or text. This is why your reviews are so valuable: they are entertaining and don’t try to tell me what to do. 🙂

    The purpose of reviews for myself is two-fold: tell me enough about the game to enable me to make my own decision on it, and entertain me.

    I devour every SUSD video because I find them very entertaining, and because they wave shiny bits in front of my eyes, but I frequently disagree with them and go buy what they don’t like. The cost is more or less irrelevant in those two things because the decision as to whether an experience is worth it or not is up to me, and their opinion doesn’t matter to my own calibration scale.

    So, comments like, “this game is similar to games X, Y, and Z”, or “this game borrows mechanics from X, Y, and Z” are very relevant.

    But back to the main point: a review is art. The best ones float to the top, like yours, like SUSD etc., and the others get ignored. The worst sin of a review is that it’s unpleasant to experience. Some lesser ones can be boring (DT), way too preachy (SUSD, NPI), or too short (any of a number of text ones on BGG). Some times a review makes mistakes but is fun enough to experience that I still get through it.

    To sum up: thanks for writing reviews I enjoy! This is art all by itself, and it’s worth consuming because it keeps me informed and lets me make my own decision. 🙂

    • Good point, Benjamin! Many of the reviews I consume are also for the sake of the artistry the reviewer has poured into them. The commentary surrounding a thing can often be as enjoyable as the thing itself.

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